Learning SEO can seem overwhelming. It’s a complex topic, and the industry is rife with misinformation. But with a bit of time, effort, and the right roadmap, it’s something that anyone can learn.
Here’s the roadmap we’ll cover in this guide:
Let’s get to it.
- Learn SEO fundamentals
- Put your knowledge into practice
- Deepen your SEO knowledge
- Keep your finger on the pulse
- Teach others what you know
If you’re not already familiar with the basics of SEO, this is where you should start. Specifically, you need to understand how search engines work and the four main facets of SEO. Let’s go through these real quick.
How search engines work
Search engines work by finding content and storing it in a big index. They then use complex processes, also known as search algorithms, to rank content from the index when a user performs a search. In other words, when you search for something on Google, you’re not searching the entire web—you’re searching Google’s index.
This means that if Google can’t find and index your content, you can’t rank because you won’t be indexed.
Google builds its index from two main sources:
- Sitemaps – A sitemap is a file listing all the important pages on your website that you want search engines to index. You can submit your sitemap to Google to tell it that your pages exist.
- Links from known webpages – Google already has billions of pages in its index. If you get a link from one of those pages, Google can “follow” the link to discover your page.
Note that Google can discover new pages on your website by “following” links from known pages on your website too.
For example, if Google already has your blog homepage in its index, you can link internally to newly published blog posts from there. Google would be able to “follow” these links to discover newly published posts on your blog.
Keyword research is the process of finding what your customers are searching for. It’s important because you won’t get discovered if people aren’t searching for the keywords you target.
Because Google doesn’t exactly make this information accessible, the best way to find keywords is with a keyword research tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. To use it, enter one or a few broad topics related to your industry, hit search, then go to one of the keyword ideas reports. You’ll see the keywords’ monthly search volumes and a few other SEO metrics.
In Keywords Explorer, we also show the “Traffic Potential” metric for each keyword. This estimates how much traffic the current top-ranking page for the keyword gets, which is usually a good indicator of how much traffic you can get by ranking #1.
As pages tend to rank for more than one keyword, “Traffic Potential” usually gives a more accurate estimate of a keyword’s potential than its search volume.
Learn more: How to Do Keyword Research for SEO
On-page SEO is where you optimize the content on your page to rank higher on search engines. It revolves heavily around understanding what searchers want and giving it to them—a process known as optimizing for search intent.
For example, if we look at the top results for the keyword “best protein powder,” we see that they’re all blog posts comparing top picks:
This tells us that although searchers are in the market for a protein powder, they’re still weighing up their options and aren’t quite ready to buy. As a result, it would be tough to rank an e‑commerce product page for this query. That’s not what searchers want.
Learn more: On-Page SEO: Complete Beginner’s Guide
Link building is the process of acquiring backlinks from other websites to your site. It’s important because backlinks are one of Google’s top three ranking factors.
This is probably why there’s a clear correlation between linking websites and organic traffic:
Not all links are created equal, however. Links from relevant and high-quality websites usually move the needle more than links from irrelevant and low-quality websites. In other words, if your site is about Bitcoin, a link from a website about cryptocurrencies will likely positively impact rankings more than one from a website about travel.
Building high-quality links to your website is arguably one of the most challenging aspects of SEO and one of the most in-demand SEO skills.
Learn more: The Beginner’s Guide to Link Building
Technical SEO ensures that search engines like Google can find, crawl, and index your content. Unless they can do all three of these things, it’s unlikely that your pages will show up in the search results.
Let’s take a look at these three things in more detail.
- Find – Google first needs to know that your page exists and where to find it.
- Crawl – Google now needs permission to crawl the page. That’s where a computer program downloads the page’s content.
- Index – Google now needs permission to add your page to its index.
You can solve the first part of the process by ensuring that your page has links from other known pages on your website and is in a sitemap that you’ve submitted to Google.
As for crawling and indexing, you need to ensure that you’re not blocking Google from doing either of these things. This is done using a file called robots.txt (crawling) and a meta tag called meta robots (indexing).
Learn more: The Beginner’s Guide to Technical SEO
Here’s an apt quote:
Knowing SEO theory is one thing; applying that knowledge to rank a website is another thing entirely. You’ll learn more about SEO in the trenches than any other way.
For example, when I was getting started in SEO, I created a bodybuilding website, as I was interested in the topic at the time. First, I made sure my technical SEO was on point and that Google could find, crawl, and index any content I published. I then did some keyword research to find topics to cover. After that, I began publishing optimized content.
Here’s the first post I published in August 2012:
Finally, I built some links.
Here’s one of the links I built with a guest post (it’s still live today… 10 years later!):
This website ended up doing quite well, which validated that the SEO theory I’d learned made sense. However, I made some mistakes too. For example, I distinctly recall the rankings for a page tanking after randomly deciding to rewrite the copy. This taught me a valuable lesson that I didn’t learn elsewhere: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
It’s impossible to learn absolutely everything about every facet of SEO. The topic is just too broad. So now that you’ve spent some time in the trenches and learned which aspects of SEO you enjoy, it’s time to niche down and deepen your knowledge in one area.
This is known as becoming a t‑shaped SEO.
Being a t‑shaped SEO means that you have a broad knowledge of all things SEO but excel in one particular area. The area you choose to specialize in should be one that you’re best at and most enjoy.
For me, this is link building—which is why I’ve written much of our content about this topic.
Here are a few more examples of t‑shaped SEOs:
Notice how Marie Haynes’ specialty is hyperspecific? Instead of choosing one broad facet of SEO (e.g., keyword research or link building), she decided to specialize in the niche area of Google penalty recovery. As a result, there’s probably no SEO on the planet that knows more about this topic than Marie.
Going hyperspecific like this is a good idea if you’re learning SEO to become an in-demand SEO expert. But if you’re looking to rank websites, it’s probably better to keep things slightly broader and stick with one of the four main facets of SEO.
Either way, you should always test what you learn on your website. This is where true learning happens.
Despite what many people say, the fundamentals of SEO barely change. But small things are constantly changing. There are Google updates multiple times a year, changes to how search engines handle aspects of technical SEO, smart folks coming up with new tactics, etc.
With this in mind, while you shouldn’t spend all day every day reading SEO news, it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse.
Here are a few ways to do that:
Attend SEO conferences and meetups
SEO is a big industry with big conferences. For example, BrightonSEO attracts more than 4,000 attendees. There are numerous smaller meetups too, which you can find on meetup.com, such as this one in my hometown. These are all places where like-minded people doing SEO share insights and tactics, so there’s a lot to learn from getting involved.
Learn more: 7 SEO Conferences (Online and Offline) to Attend
Listen to SEO podcasts
Podcasters often interview smart SEOs about their successes, failures, and experiences, making podcasts a great way to keep your finger on the pulse while on the go. For example, in this episode of the Authority Hacker podcast, link building extraordinaire Bibi shares her creative approach to link outreach emails.
Learn more: 15 Podcasts to Boost Your SEO Game
Join SEO Facebook groups
Facebook has an active community of SEOs who are always willing to answer questions and offer advice should you need it. In fact, our Facebook group, Ahrefs Insider, has almost 17K members and is very active.
Learn more: 4 Best Facebook Groups for SEOs (Most Voted For)
Join SEO Slack communities
If you’d prefer not to be distracted by Facebook, consider joining an SEO Slack community. Some are free, whereas others charge a monthly subscription. Traffic Think Tank (TTT) is a good choice if you’re open to paid communities.
Read SEO blogs
… Like the one you’re reading, where we often publish unique ideas, processes, and studies. For example, when Google switched to relying less on title tags to generate SERP titles, we studied almost a million pages and published the results for the community.
Watch SEO YouTube videos
… Like our YouTube channel, where we publish similar content to our blog.
Google publishes official algorithm updates and announcements on the Search Console Blog and hosts weekly “office hours” hangouts on its YouTube channel. You can also follow Google search representatives like John Mueller and Gary Illyes on Twitter.
Read SEO news
Look back at the roadmap, and you’ll see a recommendation to share what you learn with others.
This may seem counterintuitive, given that you want to learn more about SEO, but I find that teaching others helps me retain and assimilate knowledge. I think it’s because it forces me to articulate things, which often leads me to conclude that I don’t know as much as I thought I knew.
While you can do this publicly on a blog or YouTube channel, you can also do it semi-privately (in groups and communities) or privately (direct messages, face-to-face).
If you’re thick-skinned enough, doing it publicly often provides an extra line of defense against misinformation because people are usually kind enough to call you out when you get things wrong.
For example, here’s Bill Slawski pointing out an inaccurate claim in one of my articles on Twitter:
This leads me to an important point…
Don’t try to teach others SEO unless one of these things is true:
- You’ve thoroughly researched and understood what you’re teaching.
- You’re teaching something based on personal experience and testing (and you’ve made that fact clear).
The last thing you want to do is contribute more misinformation to an industry already rife with it.
The famous psychologist, K. Anders Ericsson, theorized that learning a new skill takes 10,000 hours of practice. You’ll certainly gain a good understanding of SEO in that time, but the truth is that you never stop learning. I’ve been involved in SEO for 11+ years, and I learn new things all the time.
But remember, learning isn’t only about reading and retaining information. It’s also about putting what you read into practice, testing things for yourself, and finding ways to improve on conventional wisdom over time.
Got questions? Ping me on Twitter.
A Complete Google Search Console Guide For SEO Pros
Google search console provides data necessary to monitor website performance in search and improve search rankings, information that is exclusively available through Search Console.
This makes it indispensable for online business and publishers that are keen to maximize success.
Taking control of your search presence is easier to do when using the free tools and reports.
What Is Google Search Console?
Google Search Console is a free web service hosted by Google that provides a way for publishers and search marketing professionals to monitor their overall site health and performance relative to Google search.
It offers an overview of metrics related to search performance and user experience to help publishers improve their sites and generate more traffic.
Search Console also provides a way for Google to communicate when it discovers security issues (like hacking vulnerabilities) and if the search quality team has imposed a manual action penalty.
- Monitor indexing and crawling.
- Identify and fix errors.
- Overview of search performance.
- Request indexing of updated pages.
- Review internal and external links.
It’s not necessary to use Search Console to rank better nor is it a ranking factor.
However, the usefulness of the Search Console makes it indispensable for helping improve search performance and bringing more traffic to a website.
How To Get Started
The first step to using Search Console is to verify site ownership.
Google provides several different ways to accomplish site verification, depending on if you’re verifying a website, a domain, a Google site, or a Blogger-hosted site.
Domains registered with Google domains are automatically verified by adding them to Search Console.
The majority of users will verify their sites using one of four methods:
- HTML file upload.
- Meta tag
- Google Analytics tracking code.
- Google Tag Manager.
Some site hosting platforms limit what can be uploaded and require a specific way to verify site owners.
But, that’s becoming less of an issue as many hosted site services have an easy-to-follow verification process, which will be covered below.
How To Verify Site Ownership
There are two standard ways to verify site ownership with a regular website, like a standard WordPress site.
- HTML file upload.
- Meta tag.
When verifying a site using either of these two methods, you’ll be choosing the URL-prefix properties process.
Let’s stop here and acknowledge that the phrase “URL-prefix properties” means absolutely nothing to anyone but the Googler who came up with that phrase.
Don’t let that make you feel like you’re about to enter a labyrinth blindfolded. Verifying a site with Google is easy.
HTML File Upload Method
Step 1: Go to the Search Console and open the Property Selector dropdown that’s visible in the top left-hand corner on any Search Console page.
Step 2: In the pop-up labeled Select Property Type, enter the URL of the site then click the Continue button.
Step 3: Select the HTML file upload method and download the HTML file.
Step 4: Upload the HTML file to the root of your website.
Root means https://example.com/. So, if the downloaded file is called verification.html, then the uploaded file should be located at https://example.com/verification.html.
Step 5: Finish the verification process by clicking Verify back in the Search Console.
Duda has a simple approach that uses a Search Console App that easily verifies the site and gets its users started.
Troubleshooting With GSC
Ranking in search results depends on Google’s ability to crawl and index webpages.
The Search Console URL Inspection Tool warns of any issues with crawling and indexing before it becomes a major problem and pages start dropping from the search results.
URL Inspection Tool
The URL inspection tool shows whether a URL is indexed and is eligible to be shown in a search result.
For each submitted URL a user can:
- Request indexing for a recently updated webpage.
- View how Google discovered the webpage (sitemaps and referring internal pages).
- View the last crawl date for a URL.
- Check if Google is using a declared canonical URL or is using another one.
- Check mobile usability status.
- Check enhancements like breadcrumbs.
The coverage section shows Discovery (how Google discovered the URL), Crawl (shows whether Google successfully crawled the URL and if not, provides a reason why), and Enhancements (provides the status of structured data).
The coverage section can be reached from the left-hand menu:
Coverage Error Reports
While these reports are labeled as errors, it doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong. Sometimes it just means that indexing can be improved.
For example, in the following screenshot, Google is showing a 403 Forbidden server response to nearly 6,000 URLs.
The 403 error response means that the server is telling Googlebot that it is forbidden from crawling these URLs.
The above errors are happening because Googlebot is blocked from crawling the member pages of a web forum.
Every member of the forum has a member page that has a list of their latest posts and other statistics.
The report provides a list of URLs that are generating the error.
Clicking on one of the listed URLs reveals a menu on the right that provides the option to inspect the affected URL.
There’s also a contextual menu to the right of the URL itself in the form of a magnifying glass icon that also provides the option to Inspect URL.
Clicking on the Inspect URL reveals how the page was discovered.
It also shows the following data points:
- Last crawl.
- Crawled as.
- Crawl allowed?
- Page fetch (if failed, provides the server error code).
- Indexing allowed?
There is also information about the canonical used by Google:
- User-declared canonical.
- Google-selected canonical.
For the forum website in the above example, the important diagnostic information is located in the Discovery section.
This section tells us which pages are the ones that are showing links to member profiles to Googlebot.
With this information, the publisher can now code a PHP statement that will make the links to the member pages disappear when a search engine bot comes crawling.
Another way to fix the problem is to write a new entry to the robots.txt to stop Google from attempting to crawl these pages.
By making this 403 error go away, we free up crawling resources for Googlebot to index the rest of the website.
Google Search Console’s coverage report makes it possible to diagnose Googlebot crawling issues and fix them.
Fixing 404 Errors
The coverage report can also alert a publisher to 404 and 500 series error responses, as well as communicate that everything is just fine.
A 404 server response is called an error only because the browser or crawler’s request for a webpage was made in error because the page does not exist.
It doesn’t mean that your site is in error.
If another site (or an internal link) links to a page that doesn’t exist, the coverage report will show a 404 response.
Clicking on one of the affected URLs and selecting the Inspect URL tool will reveal what pages (or sitemaps) are referring to the non-existent page.
From there you can decide if the link is broken and needs to be fixed (in the case of an internal link) or redirected to the correct page (in the case of an external link from another website).
Or, it could be that the webpage never existed and whoever is linking to that page made a mistake.
If the page doesn’t exist anymore or it never existed at all, then it’s fine to show a 404 response.
Taking Advantage Of GSC Features
The Performance Report
The top part of the Search Console Performance Report provides multiple insights on how a site performs in search, including in search features like featured snippets.
There are four search types that can be explored in the Performance Report:
Search Console shows the web search type by default.
Change which search type is displayed by clicking the Search Type button:
A menu pop-up will display allowing you to change which kind of search type to view:
A useful feature is the ability to compare the performance of two search types within the graph.
Four metrics are prominently displayed at the top of the Performance Report:
- Total Clicks.
- Total Impressions.
- Average CTR (click-through rate).
- Average position.
By default, the Total Clicks and Total Impressions metrics are selected.
By clicking within the tabs dedicated to each metric, one can choose to see those metrics displayed on the bar chart.
Impressions are the number of times a website appeared in the search results. As long as a user doesn’t have to click a link to see the URL, it counts as an impression.
Additionally, if a URL is ranked at the bottom of the page and the user doesn’t scroll to that section of the search results, it still counts as an impression.
High impressions are great because it means that Google is showing the site in the search results.
But, the meaning of the impressions metric is made meaningful by the Clicks and the Average Position metrics.
The clicks metric shows how often users clicked from the search results to the website. A high number of clicks in addition to a high number of impressions is good.
A low number of clicks and a high number of impressions is less good but not bad. It means that the site may need improvements to gain more traffic.
The clicks metric is more meaningful when considered with the Average CTR and Average Position metrics.
The average CTR is a percentage representing how often users clicked from the search results to the website.
A low CTR means that something needs improvement in order to increase visits from the search results.
A higher CTR means the site is performing well.
This metric gains more meaning when considered together with the Average Position metric.
Average Position shows the average position in search results the website tends to appear in.
An average in positions one to 10 is great.
An average position in the twenties (20 – 29) means that the site is appearing on page two or three of the search results. This isn’t too bad. It simply means that the site needs additional work to give it that extra boost into the top 10.
Average positions lower than 30 could (in general) mean that the site may benefit from significant improvements.
Or, it could be that the site ranks for a large number of keyword phrases that rank low and a few very good keywords that rank exceptionally high.
In either case, it may mean taking a closer look at the content. It may be an indication of a content gap on the website, where the content that ranks for certain keywords isn’t strong enough and may need a dedicated page devoted to that keyword phrase to rank better.
All four metrics (Impressions, Clicks, Average CTR, and Average Position), when viewed together, present a meaningful overview of how the website is performing.
The big takeaway about the Performance Report is that it is a starting point for quickly understanding website performance in search.
It’s like a mirror that reflects back how well or poorly the site is doing.
Performance Report Dimensions
Scrolling down to the second part of the Performance page reveals several of what’s called Dimensions of a website’s performance data.
There are six dimensions:
1. Queries: Shows the top search queries and the number of clicks and impressions associated with each keyword phrase.
2. Pages: Shows the top-performing web pages (plus clicks and impressions).
3. Countries: Top countries (plus clicks and impressions).
4. Devices: Shows the top devices, segmented into mobile, desktop, and tablet.
5. Search Appearance: This shows the different kinds of rich results that the site was displayed in. It also tells if Google displayed the site using Web Light results and video results, plus the associated clicks and impressions data. Web Light results are results that are optimized for very slow devices.
6. Dates: The dates tab organizes the clicks and impressions by date. The clicks and impressions can be sorted in descending or ascending order.
The keywords are displayed in the Queries as one of the dimensions of the Performance Report (as noted above). The queries report shows the top 1,000 search queries that resulted in traffic.
Of particular interest are the low-performing queries.
Some of those queries display low quantities of traffic because they are rare, what is known as long-tail traffic.
But, others are search queries that result from webpages that could need improvement, perhaps it could be in need of more internal links, or it could be a sign that the keyword phrase deserves its own webpage.
It’s always a good idea to review the low-performing keywords because some of them may be quick wins that, when the issue is addressed, can result in significantly increased traffic.
Search Console offers a list of all links pointing to the website.
However, it’s important to point out that the links report does not represent links that are helping the site rank.
It simply reports all links pointing to the website.
This means that the list includes links that are not helping the site rank. That explains why the report may show links that have a nofollow link attribute on them.
The Links report is accessible from the bottom of the left-hand menu:
The Links report has two columns: External Links and Internal Links.
External Links are the links from outside the website that points to the website.
Internal Links are links that originate within the website and link to somewhere else within the website.
The External links column has three reports:
- Top linked pages.
- Top linking sites.
- Top linking text.
The Internal Links report lists the Top Linked Pages.
Each report (top linked pages, top linking sites, etc.) has a link to more results that can be clicked to view and expand the report for each type.
For example, the expanded report for Top Linked Pages shows Top Target pages, which are the pages from the site that are linked to the most.
Clicking a URL will change the report to display all the external domains that link to that one page.
The report shows the domain of the external site but not the exact page that links to the site.
A sitemap is generally an XML file that is a list of URLs that helps search engines discover the webpages and other forms of content on a website.
Sitemaps are especially helpful for large sites, sites that are difficult to crawl if the site has new content added on a frequent basis.
Crawling and indexing are not guaranteed. Things like page quality, overall site quality, and links can have an impact on whether a site is crawled and pages indexed.
Sitemaps simply make it easy for search engines to discover those pages and that’s all.
Creating a sitemap is easy because more are automatically generated by the CMS, plugins, or the website platform where the site is hosted.
Some hosted website platforms generate a sitemap for every site hosted on its service and automatically update the sitemap when the website changes.
Search Console offers a sitemap report and provides a way for publishers to upload a sitemap.
To access this function click on the link located on the left-side menu.
The sitemap section will report on any errors with the sitemap.
Search Console can be used to remove a sitemap from the reports. It’s important to actually remove the sitemap however from the website itself otherwise Google may remember it and visit it again.
Once submitted and processed, the Coverage report will populate a sitemap section that will help troubleshoot any problems associated with URLs submitted through the sitemaps.
Search Console Page Experience Report
The page experience report offers data related to the user experience on the website relative to site speed.
This is a good starting place for getting an overall summary of site speed performance.
Rich Result Status Reports
Search Console offers feedback on rich results through the Performance Report. It’s one of the six dimensions listed below the graph that’s displayed at the top of the page, listed as Search Appearance.
Selecting the Search Appearance tabs reveals clicks and impressions data for the different kinds of rich results shown in the search results.
This report communicates how important rich results traffic is to the website and can help pinpoint the reason for specific website traffic trends.
The Search Appearance report can help diagnose issues related to structured data.
For example, a downturn in rich results traffic could be a signal that Google changed structured data requirements and that the structured data needs to be updated.
It’s a starting point for diagnosing a change in rich results traffic patterns.
Search Console Is Good For SEO
In addition to the above benefits of Search Console, publishers and SEOs can also upload link disavow reports, resolve penalties (manual actions), and security events like site hackings, all of which contribute to a better search presence.
It is a valuable service that every web publisher concerned about search visibility should take advantage of.
Featured Image: bunny pixar/Shutterstock
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