The basics of search engine optimization.

For many small businesses and startups, the process of getting your website listed in search engines is likely to be as big of a mystery as Kanye West’s success. Where do you begin? Should you pay an expert, and if so, how much? Is it something you can do by yourself? And unfortunately, the many myths surrounding Search Engine Optimization (SEO) often lead the do-it-yourself types down paths that end in disappointment.

Search optimization and marketing is a $65 billion-a-year industry and it’s estimated to surpass $79 billion by 2020. There’s a reason for this: Quality SEO takes work, time, and most importantly, it requires an intimate knowledge of how search engines work.

While there are many factors that determine how well a site ranks in any given search engine, there are a few basics that most anyone can understand and implement into their website.

But first, a little primer on what search engines are and how they work.

Search engines use software — sometimes called crawlers, bots, or spiders — to go from one website to another through hyperlinks. They take the results from each of those websites they’ve crawled and catalog it into their databases which later, can be recalled to serve up the appropriate result in response to the search query of a user.

One of the main signals for search engines is link popularity, which is to say, the number of other websites that link to a particular website. A website with many inbound links from quality websites is one of the key metrics search engines value.

But link popularity is just one factor. And because search engines don’t publicly reveal their algorithm’s secret sauce, we listen to their advice on best practices. But for everything else, it’s mostly trial and error as we attempt to discern what other factors boost a site’s ranking.

Consider that it’s in the best interest of search providers to develop algorithms that deliver the most relevant information to their users. This is no small task; it’s estimated that there are over a billion websites on the Internet today. The capacity to index all that data and serve it up intelligently and quickly is an expensive proposition. And while there are a number of search engines, Google and Bing garner roughly ninety-eight percent of all search traffic. Ironically, the first major search engine, Yahoo, now uses Bing to provide its search results.

Now, let’s look at a few ways to up your SEO game.

1. Begin with Good Design and Content

The way in which a website is designed, from its navigation, usability, content, and accessibility all play a role in how well a site is ranked. These factors provide an indirect, but measurable influence on a site’s external popularity, which both Google and Bing interpret as a mark of a quality website. Would you link to a crummy looking website? Probably not. Moreover, advanced artificial intelligence now allows search engines the ability to accurately predict what the humans would judge as a low or high-quality site.

While design matters, great content is the core of a quality website. Search engine users come with an intent to find useful content. And search engines attempt to rank and place that content in their results pages the best way possible to satisfy that intent.

2. Get Some Links

For a search engine to find and properly catalog the pages on your website, there first must be a link to it from a site already in its database. So, the next time its “spiders” crawl that site, it will find the link to yours and add it accordingly. There are a couple of methods for making this happen. Creating links back to your website through an established site like social media, guest blogging, and online press releases are popular methods.

But most experts recommend going straight to the source and submitting your sitemap to Google and Bing through their webmaster tools. This not only all but guarantees your site gets added quickly, but it provides a direct link to your site’s content without having to wait for search engine spiders to return and crawl your site. This means that new content gets added to the databases of search engines much quicker.

3. Give Each Page Some SEO Love

Keywords are perhaps the most misunderstood phrase in search engine parlance, but there’s nothing magic or mystical about them. Keywords are simply the words that you hope search users will use to find your website, product, or blog article. At one point, “bad actors” used keywords nefariously by stuffing them into the keyword tags of websites to fool search engines into providing top rankings. Today’s search engines completely ignore those tags.

But keyword usage is still part of any search engine’s algorithm. And the best method to utilize keywords is to write good content that will be read and understood by humans. Most experts advise keyword use of .5 to 2.5 percent of your page’s content.

But beyond what your visitor sees on the page, there are a couple of areas outside the main content of a web page that deserve attention. Meta tags, for example, are a type of web code that appears in the top section of each page. At one time, it required some HTML knowledge to find and modify these tags. Today, most modern web management systems are equipped to allow people with even minimal technical skills the ability to easily update their SEO information.

Title Tag

The information you enter in a title tag is displayed as the page title on a search engine results page. This is the first item a search user will read and needs to be descriptive, and if possible, include at least one or two keywords. But keep it brief; most search engines allow only fifty-five characters, including spaces.

Description

Almost as important, the description displays under the title on the search results. While it’s good to have some keywords here, it’s arguably more important to provide an accurate and compelling description of the page so that it encourages the search user to click through to your site. Brevity is important here as well. You’ll need to describe your page in less than 160 characters. Keep in mind that if your page description tag is empty, the search engine will display the first text it finds on the page. And in many cases, that’s not likely to be the ideal solution.

URLs

The web address of each page of your site also displays in the search results. And while they can impact the click-through rate, proper keyword usage is widely believed to affect rankings. While there are no particular character limitations, it’s good practice to keep URLs as short as possible and avoid spaces and non-characters, except hyphens.

Beyond The Basics

It’s important to understand that this article covers just the basics of search engine optimization — and it’s constantly changing. Search engines are continually refining their algorithms to provide better results for their customers. At one time, it was easy to fool search engines by simply manipulating the keywords meta tag or stuffing keywords onto pages in hyperlinks.

Today, variables such as intent and the geographic location of a user can vary the results between a person in California and that of someone in New York — even using identical keyword queries! Moreover, all search traffic is not equal. Your site could be getting a million visitors a day, but when that traffic doesn’t convert into leads or sales, how valuable is it?

Getting the SEO basics right will put you light years ahead of the large portion of website owners, many of which still have “Home” as the title tag for their home page.

If you’re interested in traveling further down the SEO rabbit hole, I’ve included a few resources below to help facilitate your journey.

Resources:

The Beginners Guide to SEO

One of the most comprehensive (and viewed), SEO guides on the web.

Search Engine Starter Guide

Google’s 32-page guide on best practices.

SEO is Not Hard

A step-by-step SEO Tutorial for beginners that will get you ranked every single time.

Originally published on Startup Grind, the global startup community.