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The SEO Process in a Nutshell (4 Steps)

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The SEO Process in a Nutshell (4 Steps)

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of growing a website’s traffic from organic search results. Everyone can do it, and it offers virtually free traffic. But similar to many things in life, success lies in understanding the correct process and sticking with it.

In this short article, I’ll try to distill the process of SEO into its essence: the four steps. To prove this process works, I’ll use our own example, i.e., the SEO process we’ve been using to grow a $100M+ annual recurring revenue SaaS company.

Here are the four steps of the SEO process:

Infographic showing four steps of the SEO process; each steps leads to a higher point of a mountain

1. Get your technicals right

Technical factors can impact your rankings or even prevent your site from appearing on Google’s search result pages.

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To rank your content, Google needs to:

  1. Find and crawl your content – You won’t rank if your content is inaccessible to Google (this may be because of a disallowed Googlebot).
  2. Index your content – We’re talking about the master list of all pages that Google keeps in order to display them for relevant search queries. First off, you may choose not to appear in that index by leaving certain instructions for search bots. Also, Google may decide not to show certain pages if it thinks those pages are not the main version of the content (see canonicalization for more info). 

In most cases, unless you’ve specifically instructed Googlebot not to crawl and/or index your site, your pages are ready to show up on the search engine results pages (SERPs). Keep in mind that it may take some time before Google indexes your content. 

But that’s not the end of the technical SEO story. Multiple technical factors can negatively impact your rankings if they are broken but will work in your favor if they are set right. 

The easiest solution to technical SEO issues is to get SEO auditing tools and fix any problems they report back to you. Two tools we recommend are Google Search Console and Ahrefs Webmaster Tools. You can also set up Bing Webmaster Tools if you want to monitor your performance on Bing. 

Overview report in Ahrefs' Site Audit
Ahrefs’ Site Audit automatically checks for over a hundred SEO issues so that you don’t have to.

2. Find a keyword to target

To get traffic from search engines, you need to create content about something people search for. This is where keyword research tools, such as Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, come in.

Overview of Ahrefs' blog in Ahrefs' Site Explorer
The content on our blog alone brings us an estimated 256.9K organic visits every month. That’s because we create SEO content on topics people search for.

With the help of keyword research tools, you’ll easily find hundreds or even thousands of keyword ideas. 

Matching terms report for "seo" in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer
Entering the main focus of our blog in Keywords Explorer reveals over 395K keyword ideas. Being able to choose the right ones to target is crucial in SEO. After all, our audience wants to read about SEO, not Park Seo-Joon.

But you also need to know how to choose the ones worth going after. So here’s what to consider when prioritizing keywords:

  • Considerable search traffic potential – Search traffic potential (not to be confused with search volume) tells you how much traffic you can potentially get from a keyword.
  • High business potential – Topics with high business potential can convert a good portion of your visitors to customers. Topics with low business potential will make it tough for you to feature your product/service. And topics with no business potential are usually only good for bringing more people through your door. But there are no guarantees people will actually be interested in what you offer. 
  • Low ranking difficulty – The more backlinks the top-ranking pages have and the more renowned the competing brands are, the harder it will be for you to rank. 
  • Clear search intent – The reason behind the search. Usually, it’s one of three things: finding a specific website, learning something, or buying something.
Matching terms report for "seo" in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer; the word "for" added in Include filter
One of the keyword research methods we use is to look for search demand for specific niches or industries in our area of business. For this, we filter for keywords that include the word “for.” For example, the ones highlighted display considerable Traffic Potential (TP), have no extreme ranking difficulty (KD), and have high business potential for us.

Keywords that tick all of the four things above are an ideal situation, but that doesn’t happen all of the time. Mostly, SEOs and content marketers need to go for compromises, e.g., targeting a keyword with high business potential but lower traffic potential. 

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3. Create an optimized page

The content of a page is something that allows Google to “connect you” with the searchers. The more interesting and useful your content is, the better. And that’s because quality content is something users expect and search engines need to provide. In fact, Google admits that content is the most important ranking signal. 

List of results in SERP overview showing Google prefers articles listing free SEO tools
First and foremost, a search engine optimized page is a page that fits the search intent. In this case, Google seems to “prefer” articles listing free tools rather than actual free SEO tools. Because of that, we have little chance of ranking with a landing page listing our free tools. So we decided to create an article featuring our tools. It now ranks #1 and brings about 1.3K organic visits each month.

Creating content designed to rank (so-called SEO content) is a nuanced topic. It has a process of its own, and there are lots of details to take care of. 

To make things even harder, how Google ranks content is kept a secret. But Google actually provides a hint on the five things that determine which results will be shown for a given search query:

  • Meaning – How well a page matches searchers’ expectations. The highest-ranking content on the SERPs is usually the best place to check that. 
  • Relevance – Does a page contain relevant information, e.g., words, phrases, and even pictures and videos relevant to what the searchers are looking for. 
  • Quality – Content also needs to be helpful. To determine content quality, Google will take into account both factors occurring on the page (e.g., E-A-T, clear and organized form, freshness) and those occurring outside the page (backlinks, which we’ll talk more about later). 
  • Usability – If your pages and your competitors’ are equal in every other way, Google may allocate a higher ranking to pages that it finds more accessible (e.g., mobile-friendly, secured with an SSL, fast loading). 
  • Context and settings – Google may customize search results based on users’ search history and their current whereabouts. This is why local business owners may want to prioritize keywords with local search intent.

Now, there are techniques SEOs and content marketers use to adhere to these guidelines. But there are too many to explain in this short article. If you want to take a moment to learn about those techniques, see the video below. Otherwise, let’s move on to the next point: building links. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWiNz-7gZ24

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Sidenote.

Not all SEO efforts are used for ranking higher in the search results. Some of them optimize elements that are not ranking factors but are visible to the user and can increase the chances of the site getting a click. Examples are the meta description, schema markup, etc.

Recommended reading: What Is SEO Content? How to Write Content That Ranks 

You’ll need two types of links: internal links and backlinks. Both are ranking signals, with backlinks being one of the major signals in SEO. 

Internal links

Internal links are links from other pages on the same website, e.g., a link from one article to another on our blog. Their main roles in SEO are to help search bots crawl pages more efficiently and pass link equity from linking pages. 

Because of the above reasons, you probably won’t find an article on our blog without at least one internal link pointing to another article or a product landing page. 

By having internal links, we can create a situation where a page with a lot of backlinks can give a much-needed boost to newer pages (see the middleman method for more details). 

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Link to SEO guide in our blog's navigation
Apart from linking inside the content, here’s an interesting interlinking tactic. Including a link to our guide on SEO in the blog’s navigation automatically creates an internal link from every blog post to that guide, helping it to rank higher.
Internal Backlinks report for Ahrefs' guide to SEO in Ahrefs' Site Explorer
The Internal Backlinks report in Site Explorer clearly shows different articles linking to the SEO guide, although the internal links don’t necessarily come from the copy but from the navigation.

Backlinks

Backlinks are links from external websites. They act as votes. The more “votes” you get, the higher your chance of outranking the competition. 

The difficulty here is that you can’t fully control backlinks. You can either earn them organically (wait for people to discover you and link to you) or build them (ask people to link to you). Let’s look at that in more detail. 

In the picture below, you can see examples of our case studies that continue to earn backlinks organically. 

The first article about the time needed to rank on Google provides a data-backed answer to a common question about SEO. 

The second one offers an intriguing and unique insight into the effectiveness of SEO. In this article, we focus on the fact that if you write about SEO, it’s hard to ignore that most content doesn’t get any traffic from Google. 

Best by links' growth report for Ahrefs' blog in Ahrefs' Site Explorer
The Best by links’ growth report in Site Explorer allows you to see content that people like to link to and/or is a current target of a link building campaign (useful for competitive research).

And here’s an example of a content piece, 63 SEO Statistics. The piece was created because we wanted to specifically run an outreach campaign about it. Unlike the previous examples, it doesn’t need any original studies. Our process was:

  1. Researching most cited SEO statistics among the top-ranking articles.
  2. Finding and including their more up-to-date versions in our article.
  3. Asking people who linked to websites with outdated statistics to link to our article instead (that’s the outreach part). 
Backlinks report for Ahrefs' blog article on SEO statistics in Ahrefs' Site Explorer
This article got so many backlinks mainly due to an outreach campaign.

Regarding backlinks, it’s important to know that not all links will carry the same weight. 

Generally speaking, the best links you can get are “followed” links placed within the main content and those that come from relevant, authoritative websites. 

Head on to the guides listed below if you want to learn more about backlinks and link building. 

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Final thoughts

SEO is a long-term process that sometimes needs to be revisited. So it’s always a good idea to know exactly what you want to achieve before you invest your resources. For this, you can use this tried and tested method called the goal pyramid.

Lastly, it’s important to monitor results on a regular basis because search engine rankings tend to change. For this, it’s best to use a tool that tracks your ranking history and shows how you stack up against competitors (see our Rank Tracker, for example). 

Got questions or comments? Ping me on Twitter.



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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

Understanding the impact of your content at every touchpoint of the customer journey is essential – but that’s easier said than done. From attracting potential leads to nurturing them into loyal customers, there are many touchpoints to look into.

So how do you identify and take advantage of these opportunities for growth?

Watch this on-demand webinar and learn a comprehensive approach for measuring the value of your content initiatives, so you can optimize resource allocation for maximum impact.

You’ll learn:

  • Fresh methods for measuring your content’s impact.
  • Fascinating insights using first-touch attribution, and how it differs from the usual last-touch perspective.
  • Ways to persuade decision-makers to invest in more content by showcasing its value convincingly.

With Bill Franklin and Oliver Tani of DAC Group, we unravel the nuances of attribution modeling, emphasizing the significance of layering first-touch and last-touch attribution within your measurement strategy. 

Check out these insights to help you craft compelling content tailored to each stage, using an approach rooted in first-hand experience to ensure your content resonates.

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Whether you’re a seasoned marketer or new to content measurement, this webinar promises valuable insights and actionable tactics to elevate your SEO game and optimize your content initiatives for success. 

View the slides below or check out the full webinar for all the details.

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

Competitor keywords are the keywords your rivals rank for in Google’s search results. They may rank organically or pay for Google Ads to rank in the paid results.

Knowing your competitors’ keywords is the easiest form of keyword research. If your competitors rank for or target particular keywords, it might be worth it for you to target them, too.

There is no way to see your competitors’ keywords without a tool like Ahrefs, which has a database of keywords and the sites that rank for them. As far as we know, Ahrefs has the biggest database of these keywords.

How to find all the keywords your competitor ranks for

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Organic keywords report

The report is sorted by traffic to show you the keywords sending your competitor the most visits. For example, Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword “mailchimp.”

Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.

Since you’re unlikely to rank for your competitor’s brand, you might want to exclude branded keywords from the report. You can do this by adding a Keyword > Doesn’t contain filter. In this example, we’ll filter out keywords containing “mailchimp” or any potential misspellings:

Filtering out branded keywords in Organic keywords reportFiltering out branded keywords in Organic keywords report

If you’re a new brand competing with one that’s established, you might also want to look for popular low-difficulty keywords. You can do this by setting the Volume filter to a minimum of 500 and the KD filter to a maximum of 10.

Finding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywordsFinding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywords

How to find keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter your competitor’s domain in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis reportCompetitive analysis report

Hit “Show keyword opportunities,” and you’ll see all the keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap reportContent gap report

You can also add a Volume and KD filter to find popular, low-difficulty keywords in this report.

Volume and KD filter in Content gapVolume and KD filter in Content gap

How to find keywords multiple competitors rank for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter the domains of multiple competitors in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis report with multiple competitorsCompetitive analysis report with multiple competitors

You’ll see all the keywords that at least one of these competitors ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap report with multiple competitorsContent gap report with multiple competitors

You can also narrow the list down to keywords that all competitors rank for. Click on the Competitors’ positions filter and choose All 3 competitors:

Selecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank forSelecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank for
  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Paid keywords report
Paid keywords reportPaid keywords report

This report shows you the keywords your competitors are targeting via Google Ads.

Since your competitor is paying for traffic from these keywords, it may indicate that they’re profitable for them—and could be for you, too.

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You know what keywords your competitors are ranking for or bidding on. But what do you do with them? There are basically three options.

1. Create pages to target these keywords

You can only rank for keywords if you have content about them. So, the most straightforward thing you can do for competitors’ keywords you want to rank for is to create pages to target them.

However, before you do this, it’s worth clustering your competitor’s keywords by Parent Topic. This will group keywords that mean the same or similar things so you can target them all with one page.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Export your competitor’s keywords, either from the Organic Keywords or Content Gap report
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
Clustering keywords by Parent TopicClustering keywords by Parent Topic

For example, MailChimp ranks for keywords like “what is digital marketing” and “digital marketing definition.” These and many others get clustered under the Parent Topic of “digital marketing” because people searching for them are all looking for the same thing: a definition of digital marketing. You only need to create one page to potentially rank for all these keywords.

Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"

2. Optimize existing content by filling subtopics

You don’t always need to create new content to rank for competitors’ keywords. Sometimes, you can optimize the content you already have to rank for them.

How do you know which keywords you can do this for? Try this:

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  1. Export your competitor’s keywords
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
  4. Look for Parent Topics you already have content about

For example, if we analyze our competitor, we can see that seven keywords they rank for fall under the Parent Topic of “press release template.”

Our competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" clusterOur competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" cluster

If we search our site, we see that we already have a page about this topic.

Site search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templatesSite search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templates

If we click the caret and check the keywords in the cluster, we see keywords like “press release example” and “press release format.”

Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"

To rank for the keywords in the cluster, we can probably optimize the page we already have by adding sections about the subtopics of “press release examples” and “press release format.”

3. Target these keywords with Google Ads

Paid keywords are the simplest—look through the report and see if there are any relevant keywords you might want to target, too.

For example, Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter.”

Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

If you’re ConvertKit, you may also want to target this keyword since it’s relevant.

If you decide to target the same keyword via Google Ads, you can hover over the magnifying glass to see the ads your competitor is using.

Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

You can also see the landing page your competitor directs ad traffic to under the URL column.

The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”

Learn more

Check out more tutorials on how to do competitor keyword analysis:

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Google Confirms Links Are Not That Important

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Google confirms that links are not that important anymore

Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed at a recent search marketing conference that Google needs very few links, adding to the growing body of evidence that publishers need to focus on other factors. Gary tweeted confirmation that he indeed say those words.

Background Of Links For Ranking

Links were discovered in the late 1990’s to be a good signal for search engines to use for validating how authoritative a website is and then Google discovered soon after that anchor text could be used to provide semantic signals about what a webpage was about.

One of the most important research papers was Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment by Jon M. Kleinberg, published around 1998 (link to research paper at the end of the article). The main discovery of this research paper is that there is too many web pages and there was no objective way to filter search results for quality in order to rank web pages for a subjective idea of relevance.

The author of the research paper discovered that links could be used as an objective filter for authoritativeness.

Kleinberg wrote:

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“To provide effective search methods under these conditions, one needs a way to filter, from among a huge collection of relevant pages, a small set of the most “authoritative” or ‘definitive’ ones.”

This is the most influential research paper on links because it kick-started more research on ways to use links beyond as an authority metric but as a subjective metric for relevance.

Objective is something factual. Subjective is something that’s closer to an opinion. The founders of Google discovered how to use the subjective opinions of the Internet as a relevance metric for what to rank in the search results.

What Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered and shared in their research paper (The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine – link at end of this article) was that it was possible to harness the power of anchor text to determine the subjective opinion of relevance from actual humans. It was essentially crowdsourcing the opinions of millions of website expressed through the link structure between each webpage.

What Did Gary Illyes Say About Links In 2024?

At a recent search conference in Bulgaria, Google’s Gary Illyes made a comment about how Google doesn’t really need that many links and how Google has made links less important.

Patrick Stox tweeted about what he heard at the search conference:

” ‘We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years we’ve made links less important.’ @methode #serpconf2024″

Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted a confirmation of that statement:

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“I shouldn’t have said that… I definitely shouldn’t have said that”

Why Links Matter Less

The initial state of anchor text when Google first used links for ranking purposes was absolutely non-spammy, which is why it was so useful. Hyperlinks were primarily used as a way to send traffic from one website to another website.

But by 2004 or 2005 Google was using statistical analysis to detect manipulated links, then around 2004 “powered-by” links in website footers stopped passing anchor text value, and by 2006 links close to the words “advertising” stopped passing link value, links from directories stopped passing ranking value and by 2012 Google deployed a massive link algorithm called Penguin that destroyed the rankings of likely millions of websites, many of which were using guest posting.

The link signal eventually became so bad that Google decided in 2019 to selectively use nofollow links for ranking purposes. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed that the change to nofollow was made because of the link signal.

Google Explicitly Confirms That Links Matter Less

In 2023 Google’s Gary Illyes shared at a PubCon Austin that links were not even in the top 3 of ranking factors. Then in March 2024, coinciding with the March 2024 Core Algorithm Update, Google updated their spam policies documentation to downplay the importance of links for ranking purposes.

Google March 2024 Core Update: 4 Changes To Link Signal

The documentation previously said:

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“Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

The update to the documentation that mentioned links was updated to remove the word important.

Links are not just listed as just another factor:

“Google uses links as a factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

At the beginning of April Google’s John Mueller advised that there are more useful SEO activities to engage on than links.

Mueller explained:

“There are more important things for websites nowadays, and over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time doing things that don’t make your website better overall”

Finally, Gary Illyes explicitly said that Google needs very few links to rank webpages and confirmed it.

Why Google Doesn’t Need Links

The reason why Google doesn’t need many links is likely because of the extent of AI and natural language undertanding that Google uses in their algorithms. Google must be highly confident in its algorithm to be able to explicitly say that they don’t need it.

Way back when Google implemented the nofollow into the algorithm there were many link builders who sold comment spam links who continued to lie that comment spam still worked. As someone who started link building at the very beginning of modern SEO (I was the moderator of the link building forum at the #1 SEO forum of that time), I can say with confidence that links have stopped playing much of a role in rankings beginning several years ago, which is why I stopped about five or six years ago.

Read the research papers

Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment – Jon M. Kleinberg (PDF)

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

Featured Image by Shutterstock/RYO Alexandre

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