I have a love/hate relationship with SEO, short for Search Engine Optimization — techniques that help you get ranked higher on search engine result pages (SERP) for Google or Bing and the likes. I have said in this blog and elsewhere that bloggers, especially beginner bloggers shouldn’t worry about SEO too much, and I stick by my conclusion. But at the same time, I feel obligated to share with you some SEO practices none the less because not acknowledging the power of SEO is foolish.
What do I mean by that?
Well, I’ll tackle the good and the bad of SEO in this post along with some basic (and necessary) practices that every blogger, new and veteran, should adhere to.
Fair caution: this is going to be an intense post with loads of why’s and how-to’s. I said “basic”, but with SEO even the basics are mind-boggling at times. I’ll be covering a lot. Bookmark this page if you cannot go through all of it today, or need to come back later for reference. You may also want to jot down some notes to help you remember important pointers.
Let’s get started then!
What Is SEO, Why It Matters, and Why It Doesn’t!
SEO is short for Search Engine Optimization. Meaning, you apply some techniques to your blog or website, overall and also for individual pages and posts, with the intention to get search engines like Google and Bing and others to show your website (or a specific page or a post) on their very first SERP a.k.a. Search Engine Result Page, towards the top, possibly at the number-one spot if you’re overly ambitious.
Seeing that most people use search engines like Google on a daily basis, and practically for EVERYTHING, it only makes sense for bloggers to SEO their blogs and individual posts. After all, you want people to be able to find your awesome content! And nothing, no social media platform, no word of mouth, no amount of guest posts, NOTHING quite helps drive traffic to a blog as much as search engines do.
And if that’s the case, you may be wondering why it is that I advise newbie bloggers to stay away from focusing too much on SEO.
The Downsides of Focusing Too Much on the Wrong Kind of SEO
SEO is an evolving technology. And with emerging technologies like AI and voice searches, SEO practices that could help you rank on SERP just a couple of years ago would now be useless.
What you learn today, may not apply tomorrow. And that is precisely why I discourage people from worrying too much about it. If you’re a professional marketer, learning SEO and constantly being on the know may help. But if you’re just a part-time, side-blogger, which is the case for most bloggers, then getting a headache trying to master SEO is only going to leave you with that — a headache.
And there’s another thing that makes worrying about SEO for new bloggers basically a waste of time and energy.
You see, Google tends to rank content with high domain score. And the conditions for that (which I’ll talk about shortly) are so ridiculously demanding that it is almost impossible for new bloggers with blogs less than 2/3 years old to start ranking. Unless your blog is a niche within a niche, but then again, if you niche down that much, chances are you won’t have that many readers in the first place.
If you’re ambitious, and you have the time to write stellar content and publish daily AND implement the latest SEO techniques, then maybe, you’ll start ranking within the first year. But that’s still just a “maybe” and likely depends on a whole bunch of other factors.
In short, let’s just say that the question that comes to mind often when tackling SEO is this: did the chicken come first or the egg?
In other words, it’s a nightmare!
To top it off, often new bloggers hear about things like “keywords”, and they focus so much on trying to stuff keywords in blog posts that they end up compromising quality.
Oh, and I need to mention one other thing here. You may have heard about a plugin called Yoast SEO and how it helps with SEO. Let me clarify it once and for all, Yoast, by itself, does NOTHING for your SEO. Yoast has some advantages, like, they automatically generate a sitemap for you, you can use this plugin to add customized titles and meta descriptions, you can also use it to add (certain) platform specific metadata, and that’s about it! So, please do not think that just by installing Yoast you’re somehow boosting your SEO.
Quality Is Key to Proper SEO
Here’s the thing: when you focus on creating great content, and you have your readers’ experience in mind, you automatically end up writing posts that Google would (eventually) love.
A great blog post has certain qualities. For example, your titles should be such that they help your potential readers know right away whether or not the post is right for them. Good formatting techniques implemented to make it easy for your readers to go through the entire post will also require you to do certain things that will automatically improve the SEO of a post. For example, dividing up content in sections under headers and sub-headers will not only make your post more readable but the use of properly crafted headers and sub-headers will improve your SEO as well.
And that is precisely why I suggest that new bloggers spend time learning how to write effective blog post titles, and how to format posts in ways that make reading a breeze, and how to write well in general.
So, Should You Focus on SEO or Not?
Yes. You should.
Am I contradicting myself? It sure does sound like it!
Hold on a second there, let me explain!
It all comes down to priorities. When it comes to blogging, you must remember that there’s no end to all that one can do with their blog. Good advice is a dime a dozen. So, at the end of the day, you have to decide where you’ll focus your time and energy.
SEO is up there, no doubt about it. But again, if you focus on providing value and quality, that automatically takes care of a big portion of SEO.
Now, let’s say that you have the value and quality parts down pat, and you have started to drive some traffic to your blog already, with social media and Pinterest (please do check out how to drive traffic to your blog with Pinterest if you’re a new logger). If so, then maybe it’s a good time to look at a few other things that you can do to your blog posts that’ll be beneficial to your blog in the long run.
In the next few sections, I’ll tackle SEO techniques starting from the very basics, leading up to some more advanced stuff. Start with the basics, and then go up from there.
Your Blog Should Be Set Up Properly
I would argue that this is by far THE MOST important part of SEO.
Better user experience is key to ranking with Google. No matter how much you stuff your posts with keywords, if you have a slow website that takes forever to load, and if it’s not user-friendly, Google won’t rank your page. So, before anything else, pay attention to how you set up your blog.
Setting up your blog starts with choosing the right platform and base. As you already know, I personally prefer WordPress. And for self-hosted WordPress blogs, your hosting company plays a significant role. A good hosting company (with a good plan) will be fast and secure.
Here are some of the important factors when it comes to setting up your blog:
- Choose the right hosting and plan. I suggest SiteGround [affiliate] and at least their GrowBig or higher plans. I have written about how to properly set up your blog with SiteGround, in case you need some help.
- While you’re setting up WordPress, make sure to also change your permalink structure. Get rid of any numbers in your URL structure, and set it to post-name on WordPress. So, your URL structure should look like this: https://www.yourblogurl.com/post-title/
Refer to the blog post above to see how to change permalink structure on WordPress.
- While you’re setting up WordPress, make sure to also change your permalink structure. Get rid of any numbers in your URL structure, and set it to post-name on WordPress. So, your URL structure should look like this: https://www.yourblogurl.com/post-title/
- Choose a well-coded template. I prefer the Astra theme paired with the Elementor [affiliate] visual page builder.
- Make sure your website is mobile-friendly. A good template will take care of that, so, again, make sure to choose a well-coded template. Use this tool by Google to see if your blog is mobile-friendly.
- Make sure you have SSL. SSL is what makes your site https as opposed to http. Many hosting companies make you pay for SSL, but if you sign up with SiteGround [affiliate], they offer SSL for free! Yet another reason I love SiteGround.
- Further optimize your blog with a performance-enhancing plugin. I use WP Rocket [affiliate] to increase performance and Optimole to optimize images. These two plugins together with good hosting (GoGeek plan with SiteGround) has cut down my website loading time by half! Read this blog post to see what I did to shorten my load time and increase site performance: How to Improve WordPress Website Speed and Performance
- Submit your sitemap (The plugin “Yoast” automatically creates a sitemap for you) to Google’s Search Console.
- Make sure you have all necessary meta descriptions and meta tags on all of your posts and pages, as well as the main header file of your website. Use the plugin “Yoast SEO” to add these values. Simply install the plugin, and then use it’s configuration wizard to configure the main meta tags that would be added to the header of your blog. As for page and post specific meta tags, you’ll be able to edit those in the specific post and page editors in the WordPress dashboard.
Basic SEO Practices That Should be Your Second Nature
Think about the importance of SEO. Why do we care about it? Because we want search engines, let’s say Google, to show it on the very first SERP, preferably among the top five results.
But why do we want that?
That’s because we want people to click on our blog posts.
So, essentially, it comes down to people thinking you have the right answer to their queries, and then clicking, and then, hopefully staying on and reading your post. If you’re lucky, some of them will convert–they’ll sign up for your email list, and then become repeat readers.
Now, imagine what a Google’s SERP looks like. It shows the title, and then a short description of the content. If you’re lucky and you end up at the number-1 spot, Google may choose to show more than just an intro, and show some of your main points as well.
For example, one of my blog posts — Start Your Blog with This Massive, 52-Point Blog Launch Checklist — is currently in #1 for the search term “blog launch checklist”. Here’s what the SERP looks like:
As you can see, Google is not only showing my page on that precious #1 spot, but it’s also pulling some of the headers, or checklist items, along with the post title.
Here’s the thing. Every time you write a blog post, I want you to imagine your post in that #1 spot. Try to envision what it would look like. And then, start writing.
Your Blog Post Title is Important
Write a title that explains what your post is about. Certain kinds of titles do better with readers. For example, how-to posts and list posts tend to do better than other, generic titles. But that is not to say that you can only ever have how-to and list type titles (or posts for that matter).
The goal is to write something that people will be inclined to click on. Something descriptive, but not super long, because Google tends to trim long titles. Try to fit no more than 60 characters in your title.
Use CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer to see how your chosen title fares. Do keep in mind that at the end of the day, these are generally good practices and not iron-clad rules that you can never break or bend.
Again, ask yourself what would resonate with your readers. As a blogger, you should be writing for your readers, and not for Google.
But the nice thing is, Google also cares about your readers. So, if you write for your readers, Google will eventually pick up on it too.
For tips on writing killer titles, read the post: How to Write Epic Blog Post Titles That Are Irresistibly Clickable
Formatting is not only important for SEO, but for your readers too. Nobody likes to read long paragraphs after long paragraphs on the screen. You need to give your readers periodic breaks.
- Break up posts into sections and use headers and sub-headers to properly describe what the section is about. See how Google pulled my headers for the blog launch checklist? That shows that Google likes it when you break things up.
- Write shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Typically, you’d want to mix up paragraph lengths, so as not to visually bore your readers. But even the longer paragraphs shouldn’t be too long.
- Use meaningful images, videos, and gifs to add breaks.
For more formatting tips, read the post: Blog Post Formatting Techniques to Make them Extra Readable
Add a Meta Description to Your Blog
It used to be that Google always showed your meta description along with the title. You would add a nifty little plugin called Yoast, and then easily add a meta description to every post and page.
These days, however, there’s no knowing what Google will show. Sometimes it may show the meta description you’ve written, sometimes it may show the excerpt, or, other times, it may show something completely different. I’m assuming it shows what it thinks is most relevant depending on the search terms used.
As for ranking, back in the good old days, Google cared about meta descriptions in the way pages were ranked. But more and more, Google is getting away from traditional SEO tactics that people tend to abuse in order to rank higher on SERP.
So, technically speaking, there’s no way of knowing exactly how Google ranks pages these days. A meta description may or may not play a part. So, I’d suggest you add a meta description, just in case. Also, in theory, a meta description still plays a part. Maybe not in SEO, but in general how a page is shown in some social media platforms. You will still see meta descriptions being pulled by Facebook and Pinterest. So, I say, go ahead and add this description. for the sake of your potential readers.
Adding a meta description is simple in WordPress. When you install the popular SEO plugin “Yoast”, you’ll see a section in all WordPress pages and posts (in the dashboard) where you will be able to tweak the post/page title, slug (the URL extension), and the meta description. Click on “Edit Snippet” (shown in the image below) to edit these.
As I pointed out earlier, you should use an image optimizer plugin to compress and optimize images on your site. But aside from that, also make sure to add a descriptive alt-tag for all of your images. If possible, consider changing the image file name to something relevant, if it isn’t already.
Use Internal Linking
A great way to improve user experience as well as keep your readers on your blog longer is by use of internal linking. Whenever you think your readers will benefit from another post on your site that is relevant to the current post, link it! For example, I have sprinkled a few of my other posts in this one because they are relevant to this post and will help my readers understand a point I’m making.
Long Term SEO Practices That Will Actually Help
You may have noticed that I still haven’t touched on the subject of keywords. Now hold your horses, I will talk about them in a bit. But let me touch on a few other, more important factors (in my opinion at least) before I talk about keywords.
SEO, as I said, isn’t likely to show the results of your efforts unless you’ve had your blog for a couple of years. TSB is a little over 1-year old and it only ranks in the first SERP for just a couple of keywords. I still have a long way to go. But I can already see my efforts working! That post — the one with launch checklist — I put some work in that post and the result is now the prestigious #1 spot on Google for a specific long-tail keyword (keywords with two or more words in them) — “blog launch checklist”. That’s how I know that my methods work!
So, let me tell you what I think works and what you should do too.
Be Relevant. Think of the Big Picture When It Comes to Content.
There’s merit to niching down. Google likes it when your website is relevant. For example, if you blog about motherhood, it will be to your benefit to post as much as possible about motherhood.
Now, I’m not saying you cannot post anything else. Just make sure that the majority of your content is about motherhood. There is no hard-set rule for how much is considered a majority. I’d say as long as 60% or more of your content tackles a certain niche, you should be good.
Basically, Google looks for authority.
And it’s mighty hard for most bloggers to be an authority in multiple topics.
Try to frame your content around one specific niche, and then branch out from there.
For example, I blog about blogging. But I also like to blog about design. But my primary topic or niche is blogging. So, I frame my design posts in the context of blogging. How can bloggers design a logo? Or, how can bloggers design social media graphics? Or, how can bloggers design eBooks… etc. I always make sure to tie my content in with my main niche — which is blogging.
So, to get back to our example of a blog about “motherhood”, you can definitely add content that’s not strictly about motherhood. You just have to tie it in somehow to motherhood.
Want to write about fashion? How about toddler-friendly fashion for mothers? Or, where can new mothers shop for budget clothes? Or, relationship advice for new mothers, or single mothers, etc.
Post Quality Posts Consistently
Google doesn’t like it when you do not post consistently. Now, consistency is a relative term. For some people, consistency means one every fortnight, for others, it’s once a week, and yet, for some others, it may be every day!
Pick a schedule and try to stick to it.
Now, Google’s ranking aside, posting more often can be beneficial. For example, every time I publish a new blog post, I see a little spike on my traffic. Now, I only publish once a week. Imagine if I published every other day or every single day!
SEO genius Neil Patel says that for new bloggers to start driving significant traffic, they should publish quality blog posts at least twice a week and preferably three times a week. Personally, I would say that you need to figure out how much you can handle given your unique circumstances. But I do suggest that you aim for at least once a week, and no less, especially when you’re brand new at this.
Be Better Than Your Competitors (Use Skyscraper Technique)
Do you know how I started ranking #1 for the post above about blog launch checklist?
Well, in the beginning, I had a blog post with less than 20 points. One day, I was checking to see if I was raking for any keywords on Google. (You can use Spyfu or Ubersuggest to check if your blog is ranking for any keywords.)
Chances are, if you’ve had your blog for a few months and you’ve set up your site properly, submitted your sitemap to Google, you’re already starting to rank for some long-tail keywords.
I used the tools mentioned above to realize that I was ranking for the keyword “blog launch checklist”. And by ranking, I mean, the post was being shown towards the bottom of the first SERP or towards the top of the second SERP, or something like that.
But none the less, I saw potential.
So, I did a little research. I checked out all the other posts that were on the first SERP for that long-tail keyword. And then, I re-wrote my post. This time around, I added more to my post. Instead of 20, I now had 52 points. However, I didn’t add all of the 52 points on my post. I did something else. I created a content upgrade. That blog post was already getting a little too long, so, I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone. I added 30 points on the post, and then I offered a content upgrade in exchange for an email list subscription, and this content upgrade had the entire checklist of 52-items.
Within a manner of a couple of weeks since re-publishing my new and improved blog launch checklist, my post shot up to the top of Google’s SERP. These days, the blog launch checklist post fluctuates among the top three positions of Google’s SERP for the keywords “blog launch” and “blog launch checklist”.
And because I was offering a content upgrade, my email list also started to grow. This post remains one of my top performing posts, not only in terms of Google ranking but also in terms of how much newsletter subscription it drives each day.
The technique above is called the Skyscraper Technique, some I’ve learned from Neil Patel, wherein you spy on your competitors to create better content, and go for their spot on Google (and other search engines).
The trick is to create such awesome content that no one even dares to compete with you. Of course, there will always be competition, but you should, at the very least, write posts with the mindset to top all of your competitors if you’re really serious about ranking on Google.
Revamp and Recycle Your Content Often
A good practice is to revamp and/or recycle your content periodically. Once you’ve had your blog for a few months, you’ll notice that sometimes a post gets a lot of traffic, and then, after a few weeks, traffic shifts.
You should make a habit of periodically (every 2-4 months) going back to some of your most popular posts, and see if you can edit them to make them better. Maybe re-write some paragraphs to better explain a point, or add a content upgrade (this also helps with increasing your email list signup).
I, almost invariably, see a spike in my blog traffic whenever I republish an old gem. Not only that, but my email list signups also increase when I do this.
Keep in mind the skyscraper technique I described above when you revamp an older post. Always aim to create better and better content.
Ask Others for Backlinks
The best way to get something is by asking, yes? The same goes for getting backlinks (when other sites link to your blog).
Now, there are a few factors to consider when asking for backlinks. Consider the quality of the site you want a backlink from. Imagine these two scenarios:
In the first scenario, you get 20 backlinks from 20 shady websites that are either not relevant to your niche or they’re shady. Period. No domain authority to speak of, no quality whatsoever.
In the second scenario, you get a backlink from an authority in your niche or someone whose niche is relevant to yours. For example, imagine if I got Jon Morrow or Neil Patel to link back to my content!
Obviously, Google will pay more attention to that one link back from a reputable source, than 20 shady backlinks.
So, ask wisely!
And if you’re wondering who to ask, here’s a starting point:
Go to ahrefs backlink checker. Insert your competitor’s URL (preferably the specific URL of a blog post), and see who is linking back to it. Spend some time checking out these sources. And then, contact 5-10 of these sources and ask if they’ll link back to your content.
This helps when you’re utilizing the skyscraper technique. Since you know who is linking to your competitor’s post, you can reach out to the same sources and tell them why linking to your content instead will help their audience! Because they have already linked back to your competitor, you know now that they’re more than likely to want to link to your content too if you can prove that yours is better.
And if you’re using the skyscraper technique properly, then yours will be!
Draft a no-fluff email. Tell them why your post is better than the one they’re linking to and how your post can be more beneficial to their audience. Then, add a link to your post. And that’s it.
The Proper Usage of Keywords
The landscape of keywords is fast changing.
With more and more voice searches, the traditional ways of searching for keywords, or optimizing your content for keywords are changing drastically.
A couple of years ago, if you asked me about keywords, I would’ve given you a long-ass lecture about looking for low-competition, high-search-volume, long-tail keywords, and their many variants, using tools like Google’s Keyword Planner and Ubersuggest, and targeting them for ranking.
These days though, I don’t care too much.
Google (and other search engines) are working continuously to bring the best possible solution to people’s queries. They are focused on the user experience. So, unless you’re purchasing keywords and paying for Ads (which most bloggers never do), or doing shady, underhanded things (which will likely give you the spotlight for a very short period of time before Google bans your ass for good and makes sure you never ever rank again), you’ll be better off paying attention to writing stellar content and not worrying about finding the perfect keywords.
Here’s the thing.
When you write an in-depth post about a certain topic, chances are, you already have enough keywords in your post.
So, I’ll only say this about “keywords”: make sure your post title describes properly what your blog post is about. Also, make sure your section headers and sub-headers describe what the section is about. If you take care of these two things, and then write quality content for each of your sections, then it is safe to say that your post will be sufficiently keyword optimized by default.
That said, if you’ve had your blog for some time and if you’re up for newer challenges, there are a couple of exercises you can do so that will help your ranking over time.
- I always suggest doing your research before writing a post. A big part of blogging success depends on keeping tabs on your competitors. Use Ubersuggest to see which keywords your competitors are ranking for, and then target those keywords. Also, use the same tool to see what their top performing blog posts are. And then, structure your own content based on your research of your competitors. Just make sure that whatever content you create should be better than that of your competitors (skyscraper technique, anyone?)
- The second exercise is on your own posts. Once you’ve had your blog for a few months and you’ve started to gain traction, chances are, you’re already ranking on Google for certain keywords. Use Ubersuggest to find out which keywords you’re ranking for. Jot them down, or export these keywords. And then, go to “Keyword Ideas” within the same tool, and type each of the keywords you’re ranking for, one at a time, in the search bar, to get keyword variant suggestions. You see, if you rank for a keyword, Google likes to show your content for similar keywords (another trick I learned from Neil Patel). So, you should be targeting a variety of keywords in the same topic. Ubersuggest can help you find which these keywords are. After you have a list of keywords, re-write your posts to implement these keywords in your post. (Do keep in mind that you shouldn’t stuff your posts with keywords. If adding more keywords will take away from the quality of your posts, then stick to one or two sets of keywords at best, and be smart about using them. Remember, quality comes first!)
A Short Tutorial on Using Ubersuggest & the Skyscraper Technique
– Go to Ubersuggest, and type your URL.
– The results page has a bunch of information. The ones you should be concerned about are “Top SEO Pages” and “SEO Keywords”. Scroll the page until you find those two sections.
– First, under the “SEO keywords” section, find your highest ranking keywords. The way to tell is by looking at the number in the “Position” column. The smaller the number, the higher you rank. (For example, 1 means your post is shown at the very top.)
– Click the arrow next to the keyword, and that will show you all the relevant keywords. In this page, you should also see the post that you’re ranking for (if you’re ranking high enough), along with others who may be ranking for the same keywords.
– Check out these competitors’ posts. Then rewrite your own (using skyscraper technique which means your post must be way better than all of your competitors combined). Rewrite to utilize the keyword you’re already ranking for, as well as target the other suggested keywords.
The instructions above assume you already have some pages that are ranking, as in, you likely have had your blog for at least a few months.
But what if you have a brand new blog?
In that case, repeat the same process, but for your competitor’s blog(s). Go after the keywords your competitors are ranking for from the get go!
Common Places to Insert Your Keywords
Again, I honestly feel that what you should be really focusing on is your user experience. That said, here are some common places that could use some keywords:
- Post/page title.
- Post URL slug (the post/page URL extension to your universal URL. For example, the URL of this post is https://www.thesideblogger.com/seo-for-beginners, and the last part “seo-for-beginners” is the slug.)
- Meta description.
- Image (if you have any), alt tags and file names.
- Headers/Subheaders (you don’t need to force keywords into every single one of these, use common sense to figure out where some of these could use keywords; keep things conversational, useful, and relevant.)
- At least a few times within the body of your post. Spread them out so that the post doesn’t read all weird. Your keywords should be properly blended in with the rest of the content.
Domain Authority is VERY Important
Domain authority is basically what tells a search engine whether or not your website is trustworthy. And if your website is an authority in a specific field(s). So, naturally, if your domain authority is high (a number between 1 and 100, the higher this number the higher your domain authority), it tells search engines that they can safely show your content on their SERP.
It’s not the only decisive factor for ranking of course. For example, even though a couple of my posts rank on Google’s SERP, TSB has a domain authority of… get ready for it… ONE. Yes, 1. So, practically no authority. This is to be expected as I’ve only been blogging for a year. It takes a bit of time to increase domain authority. But your goal should be to increase it over time, and the only way to do so is by adhering to everything else I have written up until now. (See all the pointers above.)
The good news is that if you pay attention to everything I have written above and practice them on your blog, then over time your domain authority will improve for sure!
A Summary of SEO for Your Blog
- SEO starts with your website. Pick a great hosting company to host your WordPress blog. Choose a hosting plan that is secure and fast. Make sure you have SSL (https://). (I suggest SiteGround’s GrowBig plan for beginner bloggers.)
- Use a high-quality template for your blog.
- Use proper meta tags on your site’s header file as well as on individual blog posts (the plugin “Yoast SEO” can help).
- Submit your sitemap to Google’s search console.
- Use a performance-enhancing (with caching capabilities) plugin as well as an image optimization plugin. (I suggest WP Rocket and Optimole)
- Devote enough time to craft a great post title, and then format your posts. Use headers and sub-headers to break up your content into manageable, bite-sized sections.
- It’s good practice to have image alt tags that properly describes what the image is about. Having the image file name something relevant helps as well.
- Utilize internal linking to improve user experience.
- Revamp your old posts periodically to add more relevant and up-to-date content.
- Use the skyscraper technique to write better content than your competitors.
- Use ahrefs backlink checker to see who is linking to your competitors, and then reach out to them asking if they’d like to link to your content instead. Do mention why your post is better than your competitor’s.
And that’s it! Thoughts on SEO? Feel free to let me know in the comments.