Search Engine Optimisation (SEO): the Definitive Guide

a picture of Tom Donohoe
Written by: Tom Donohoe
Last updated: July 1, 2018

If you’re serious about digital marketing, you NEED to understand SEO.


Searches engines, think Google, process 6,586,013,574 searches each day worldwide. Six billion searches a day! You’d be crazy not to want a piece of that.

Want to know the best part?

The traffic you get from SEO is free (you don’t pay for clicks).

In this guide, you’re going to learn everything you need to know about search engine optimisation. Let’s do this.

Chapter 1

What is SEO?

Search engine optimisation (SEO), is a discipline of digital marketing.

It’s the process of growing traffic from the non-paid search listings on search engines (eg. Google, Yahoo and Bing) through a mixture of strategic techniques and external factors.

I put emphasis on the word process because SEO isn’t a set and forget tactic it requires ongoing work.

In this chapter, I’ll cover key definitions that you must understand to get started with SEO.

Key SEO Definitions

This list of SEO definitions is not extensive. But it covers the main industry jargon you’ll see in this guide.

Ranking: the position your website appears at in a search result. Rank 1 being the best.

Keywords: are words and phrases that people use in search engines to find your website.

Keyword research: is using tools to identify potential keywords to target. This involves looking at search volume (how many times people search), competition and more. To make informed decisions on the traffic you send to your website.

Backlinks: are when external website links to yours.

Organic search: is what people in the industry refer to as the non-paid results in search engines.

User/search intent: it’s more than the keyword a person searches. It’s the meaning and understanding exactly what they are asking.

Conversion: an action completed on your website that has business value. For example, a contact form completion or sale.

Search volume: the number of times a keyword is typed into search engines each month.

Search Engine Result Page (SERPs): the page that appears after you do a search. These pages often are made up of ads and 10 organic results.

Click through rate (CTR): The number of times your website is clicked divided by the times it appears in SERPs.

Ranking factors: influence how websites rank in search engines. Whether they are confirmed, proven by data or theories there are over 200.

SEO Audit: an SEO audit is an analysis that should give you better insight into the current state of your website.

A dead simple explanation of search engines

How search engines work is complicated. And we don’t need to know the full details for SEO.

But we do need to understand the basics. Here’s how search engines work in 3 steps:

Step 1 – Crawling: search engines send their bots (known as spiders) to look at different websites all around the web. They record details of everything on the website.

Step 2 – Indexing: The data that crawlers gather is processed. Then it’s stored in data centers across the world. Indexing is as it sounds, it’s like keeping a record in a book.

Step 3 – Retrieval: the query engine, Google, will interpret the person’s search. Then do its best to present the most trustworthy results from the index.

Creating a Google Adwords account

My simple explanation likely offended the people at Google. But I hope it was easy to follow.

You might be wondering:

“Why do I need to understand this?”

Sometimes a website may not be ranking in Google and you can’t figure out why. It could be that search engines are unable to crawl and index your website.

You’ll need to identify the problem and fix it.

4 ways people use search engines

People use search engines for billions of reasons. But we can categorise searches into 4 main types.

Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines refer to these search categories as understanding user intent:

  • Know Query (informational): the searcher is seeking information, such as how many people live in Australia?
  • Do Query (transactional): the searcher is seeking to achieve something, such as sign up to Facebook.
  • Website Query (navigational): the searcher is seeking a particular website, such as YouTube or Daily Telegraph.
  • Visit in person query (navigational): the searcher is seeking a location to visit, such as coffee shop or petrol station.

When building your SEO strategy keep in mind these search categories. And how you can create content to meet user intent.

If you can master this you’re ahead of 90% of people doing SEO.

Chapter 4

Key Benefits of SEO

There are hundreds, if not thousand of ways to market your business.

You might be wondering:

“Why should I bother with SEO?”

There are many benefits but I’ve narrowed it down to my top 4.

Benefit #1: It’s Very Cost Effective

Unlike most digital marketing channels, you only need to invest your time or the time of an SEO consultant. This makes SEO very cost-effective in the long-term.

Here’s the deal:

You will get results quicker with paid advertising in Google or Facebook. But over time you’ll see a very strong ROI on search engine optimisation.

Other than your labour cost the traffic you get is FREE because you’re not paying per click.

Benefit #2: Measurable results

Sometimes marketing is hard to measure, but with SEO there’s no question about ROI.

We can track everything:

  • How rankings increase for a particular keyword
  • How much traffic seo brings to your website
  • How many sales or conversion that traffic brings
  • For business owners this is a massive win. When every dollar counts you want to know you’re getting a return on investment.

It gets better:

If SEO doesn’t work for your business you can make the decision to stop based on numbers, not gut feelings.

Benefits #3: You can scale SEO

SEO lets you can scale return on investment with ease.

Once you rank for your top keywords you can look to start expanding your pages and try to rank for new keywords.

Want to know the best part?

There are many ways to do this. But a good place to start is with informational query pages.

For example, you’re ranking on the first page for your product page “SEO services”. You might want to have an informational page, such as “what is SEO”.

This is a more generic term and people have less intent to buy but the search volume is much higher.

Benefit #4: Build Brand Trust

Get to the top result on Google and your brand trust skyrockets.


People trust Google. If your business is in the top stop they will remember your brand.

A study into SEO found that the top three results in Google get almost 60% of the clicks.

You might be wondering:

“how much does number 1 get?”

You can expect a juicy 32% of the clicks. That would have a game-changing impact on most small businesses. And it’s not out of reach.

Chapter 5

Keyword research in SEO

Keyword research is fundamental to any SEO Campaign.

Here’s the deal:

If you want to rank on page one of Google, you need to do keyword research.

In this chapter, I’ll discuss exactly how to do it and reveal my favourite tools.

Keyword research 101

It’s one thing to research keywords, and it’s another to do it well.

Most people will look only at keyword search volumes. This is not going to do the job.

It’s important to answer some key questions:

  • Will the keyword result in a conversion for our business?
  • Is this keyword too competitive?
  • What content is currently ranking well for this keyword?
  • What is the keyword’s topics potential search volume?

The answers give us the insight we need to make informed decisions about our website.

Build your keyword list

Before research begins you need to build your seed keyword list.

You might be wondering:

“What is a seed keyword list?”

Seed keywords are very short and related to broad topic areas in your business. For example, in my case my “seed” keywords are:

  • Digital marketing consultant
  • SEO consultant
  • Google AdWords consultant
  • Google Analytics consultant

These four keywords describe what my business does on a high level. Your list should range from 3-100 seed keywords depending on your size and offerings.

Once you complete the list you can move onto beginning your keyword research.

Choosing keywords that get results

Not all keywords are created equal. And the ones with the most searches will not always be the best.

It’s important to understand keyword intent. And ask the question, “will this search lead to conversions for my business?”

Here’s a pro tip:

Look at what other pages are ranking for your prospective keywords. If they are lead generation or product pages you can assume that keyword has high intent. And will drive conversions.

But, if they are blog pages or informational pages the keyword likely has low-intent. And will not convert as well.

Tools for Keyword Research

There are hundreds of tools available for keyword research, some paid and others free.

Keyword data from these sources helps you understand the value of different keywords.

Below are my favourite tools for conducting keyword research:

Google Keyword Planner: a free tool that Google offers. You can get data on keyword search volumes, competition levels and expected cost per click (if you’re using Google Adwords). It will also suggest related keywords that will help you expand your seed keyword list.

Moz Pro Keyword Explorer: is a paid tool within the Moz Pro package. It’s like Google Keyword Planner, but it provides more detail from an SEO perspective. You get metrics like how difficult a keyword is to rank for, the percentage of clicks that go to organic results and the top ranking pages.

Ahrefs Keyword Explorer: is a paid tool and gives you similar metrics to Moz. My favourite insight you gain from Ahrefs is the parent topic of your keyword. This helps you identify total traffic volume in a keyword group. The “also rank for” feature is pretty cool for expanding your list.

In an ideal situation, I tend to combine data from all three sources to make keyword decisions.

But whichever you choose will do the job.

Chapter 6

On-page optimisation

On-page SEO is the entry level strategy that most people start with.

You might be wondering:

“What is on-page optimisation?”

Well, it’s the process of implementing strategies on individual web pages to improve their organic rankings in search engines.

In this chapter, you’ll learn common best practices used in on-page SEO.

Page title

Page title or title tag is the HTML element that names a page on your website.

You’ve seen it before in search engine results pages (SERPs) as the clickable headline:

An example of page titles in on page SEO

Page titles are a ranking factor that search engines use to determine what the page is about. There are two other crucial reasons they are important:

Reason #1: catchy page titles get more social media shares.

Reason #2: compelling titles get higher click through rates leading to better rankings.

To write an effective page title there a several best practices you need to follow:

  • Every page on your website must have a unique page title
  • Include relevant keywords where it feels “natural”. Don’t force in keywords, that is spam.
  • Keep it below 65 character or else search engines will cut off some of your title.

Meta Description

Meta descriptions appear below the page title in search results. They provide a description of the content on the web page.

An example of meta descriptions in on page SEO

They are not a direct ranking factor in search engines. But they play a big role in getting high click-through-rates (CTR) in the SERPs.

You might be wondering:

“Why bother with meta descriptions?”

Here’s why: high click-through rate sends good signals to Google algorithm Rank Brain. Google has stated that Rank Brain is their third most important ranking factor.

Also if you don’t specify your meta description, search engines will use random text from the page.

Best practices to follow with meta descriptions include:

  • Compelling, unique text.
  • Avoid getting cut off and keep them under 160 characters.
  • Make sure they include your focus keyword (Google will bold it in searches)
  • Include a call to action or value proposition to encourage clicks.

Heading Tags

Heading tags are another HTML element, like title tags, but they are visible in the page content. They communicate importance to search engines and you should try to use them.

An example of heading tags in on page SEO

Headings help structure the page and have a hierarchy from 1 to 6. The first three tags carry the highest SEO value.

Heading tags help Google and users understand the main content of the page. They will help you rank, improve user experience but aren’t a major ranking factor.

Best practices to follow:

  • Only use one heading 1 tag per page.
  • Avoid duplication of heading 1 tags.
  • Include your focus keyword.
  • Use heading 2 or heading 3 to break up content.

Pro tip: never use heading tags for styling purposes, if you want to make headings bigger or smaller you CSS.

URL Structure

URL structure is an important indicator to Google of relevancy.

Pro tip: define your own URL structure. Don’t let CMS, such as WordPress, create them for you.

It’s best practice to use a breadcrumb structure, this helps people and search engines. For example:

An example of url structure in on page SEO

In this example, the URL helps users understand where we are on the website. It will also help search engines understand the relevance of the page.

You want to keep URLs short, concise and descriptive. They want to logical describe to the user and search engines where they are on the website. And contain keywords where natural.

There are a few best practices to follow with URL structure:

  • Contain the target keyword, where possible.
  • Be short. Short URLs get a much higher CTR.
  • Use hyphens (-) between words to make it easy to read.
  • Image Tags or Alt Text

Image alt text

Search engines can’t understand images on your website.

They need image alt text. Image alt text is a short description of what the image is.

Alt test is great to improve the user experience. In a case where people have accessibility problems and computers that can’t load images.

Best practice for image alt tags include:

  • Store images on your website in one place.
  • Give images a relevant filename.
  • Include the images and locations in XML sitemap
  • Use descriptive short sentences. Contain keywords if possible.

Internal Links and Anchor text

Internal links are a type of hyperlink that connects one page of a website to another page on the same website.

An example of internal links in on page SEO

So search engines find your pages internal links need to be well thought out and structure.

For example, this guide to SEO is a high-level topic that covers a lot. I should link to other related SEO guides on my site I write in the future. This will help search engines find them faster and to pass authority.

Anchor Text

Anchor text is the clickable text of a link.

The text should be succinct and relevant to the target page. Anchor text can enhance your internal links SEO value if you include keywords.

But be sure that you don’t over optimise anchor text. It should be natural and descriptive of the target page.

You should avoid using phrases like “click here” and don’t have too many on one page.

Page content

Page content is what your visitors are there for, and it’s very important to search engines.

For SEO page content you should focus on two things.:

Thing #1: it must meet user intent, and be super useful to the visitor.

Thing #2: it so useful that people want to link to the content and share it online.

Ask yourself, is this content so amazing that I’m questioning whether I should give it away for free?

If you answer yes, then it’s great content. If the answer is no, don’t bother publishing it.

Best practices to follow:

  • Quality content over quantity
  • Longer form content ranks better (aim for at least 800 words).
  • Content must be unique, search engines don’t rank duplicate content.
  • Contain target keywords. But don’t keyword stuff. Search engines can interpret what your content is about.

Chapter 7

Technical SEO

Technical SEO sounds scary.

And you’re probably thinking:

“I’m not very tech savvy”.

Not to worry it’s easy than you think. In some case, you may need help from a developer to put in place technical SEO fixes.

In this chapter, you’ll learn what to look for to make your website technically sound.

Site Speed

More people search on mobile devices than on desktops. So the importance of website speed has increased.

Faster websites provide better user experiences on mobile devices and desktops.

Google has stated that they look at site speed as a ranking factor.

You might be wondering:

“How fast does my site need to be?”

You should be aiming to be in the range of 2-5 seconds. Free tools exist to test your current speed with and find optimisation opportunities. Here’s my favourites:

Common mistakes that lead to slower site speed include:

  • Unoptimised image file size
  • Not minifying HTML, JS and CSS files
  • Not leveraging browser caching
  • Poor website design in general

Mobile Responsive Design

In 2018, Google will shift to a mobile-first index.

You might be wondering:

“What the hell is a mobile-first index?”

Google will now look at the mobile version of your website to determine your rankings. And if there are differences between your desktop and mobile sites you could run into problems.

You’ll have even bigger problems if your site isn’t mobile responsive. This means that your website resizes with the screen size of the device.

If you haven’t got a mobile responsive website now is the time to upgrade.

HTML and XML Sitemaps

Sitemaps make it easier for people and search engines to navigate the pages on your website.

HTML sitemaps are for human use. They are usually more visually appealing and help users find what they want faster.

XML sitemaps are for search bots to extract the important information about a site.

You can use plugins or tools to create a XML sitemap for your website:

Secure website (HTTPS)

Search engines have been pushing hard to make the web more secure.

Google confirmed that HTTPs, which means your website is secure, is a ranking factor.

Their latest version of chrome has started showing pages to be “Not secure” in the url bar. This happens if the page includes a form or personal information like credit cards.

An example of heading tags in on page SEO

I expect that soon this message will display on all websites that are not secure. Research shows that HTTPs correlates with higher rankings on Google’s first page.

An example of heading tags in on page SEO

I’ll conclude with your crazy not to use HTTPs in 2018 and beyond.

Fixing Broken Links

Websites aren’t perfect and sometimes web pages break or get removed.

When this occurs the server will return a 404 error, which means “page not found”.

This provides a terrible user experience. You’ll want to ensure you have a custom 404 page.

But also make sure the you are 301 redirecting these pages to the new page or a relevant page.

301 means to permanently redirect one page to another. It will pass through any SEO value that the previous page had (eg. links).

Indexing and crawlability

Just because you have 100 pages on your website doesn’t mean Google has indexed them.

You should regularly check your index status. You can do this a few ways:

  • Enter into your target search engine
  • Use your favorite SEO crawling software
  • Log in to Google Search Console and click Google Index > Index Status to see your report.

You want to be looking to compare your total number of pages vs your total indexed pages. If you see big discrepancies, you likely have an indexing and/or crawlability issue.

The cause could be many things but I’d start here:

  • Look for pages blocked by robots.txt instructions
  • That have noindex metatags
  • Check X-Robot-Tag headers.

Chapter 8

Off-page optimisation

Once you’ve optimised your website’s technical SEO and on-page SEO you can move off-page.

This is know as off-page SEO. In general, you don’t have a lot of control over what happens off your website.

But you can leverage a few techniques to help gain rankings.

In this chapter, you’ll learn how off-page strategies can help your business.

Link Building

Link Building from other websites to your own is one of search engine’s top ranking factors in SEO.

I like to explain it to be like the Facebook Like Button. When another website links to yours they are saying this is an awesome website (or “liking” it).

Here’s the deal:

If you don’t have links to your website, you’re never going to get lots of traffic. And here’s a graph to prove it based on an analysis of 1 Million Google Search Results.

graph showing backlinks correlate with google rankings

Not all links are created equal

Google is smart. People tried to beat the system and get as many links as possible from spammy websites.

And it used to work! But Google fixed that and link quality is much more important than quantity.

For example, a link from the Sydney Morning Herald would be more valuable than a link from your cousin’s blog.

Links from a website in your niche holds higher value than something unrelated.

It’s simple make links natural and if it doesn’t feel right it isn’t a good link.

Guest Blogging

Everyone says, “Guest posting is dead in SEO”! This is Not true.

Google made a statement saying guest posting for links is against their guidelines. But this doesn’t mean you can’t guest post for exposure and awareness. If you get a natural link that’s an added bonus.

Some other benefits of guest posting:

  • Brand mentions
  • Qualified referral traffic
  • Build your personal brand

A lot of blogs will accept guest contributors and opportunities are easy to find. Try these Google searches:

“Your industry/niche” + “guest post”

“Your industry/niche” + “write for us”

“Your industry/niche” + “guest post guidelines”

You should be able to find a few websites to start reaching out to. But make sure you’re not blatantly asking for a link and try to provide value.

Citations, NAP, Reviews

If you’re a local business you’ll want to adopt a Local SEO strategy. This involves getting citations, reviews and mentions of your business name, address and phone (NAP) across the web.

These techniques implemented “off-page”. And help local businesses rank higher for localised search results.

Engaging with your audience online

Your target market is everywhere online. And if you know them well enough you should be finding them and engaging with them.

Whether it’s on forums, social media or industry websites or anywhere else on the web. Help them by answering questions and sharing your knowledge. This can lead to them visiting your website.

In the long term, the might share your content or even better link to it!

Sometimes doing things with no short term gain will help you down the track.

Relationships via Outreach

There are people in your industry, target market or network that have a wider reach than you.

Pro tip:

With some crafty outreach and relationship building you can leverage their audience too!

Step 1: Find common ground

If you know their interested in something or you share common friends leverage that. Mention it in an email or via social media.

Focus your outreach on that so it’s not blatant spam.

Step 2: Mention your content

Mention some content they’d be interested in or it’s like what they already share on their social media.

Ask them to take a look and if they like it please share it!

Step 3: Follow up

If they do share your content follow up and thank them.

Even if they don’t share your content you should keep the conversation going.

You never know when that relationship might come in handy.

Chapter 9

User Experience Impact on SEO

Google continues to strive to enhance the user experience. Your website’s usability and experience is a ranking factor in Google’s algorithm.

It seems like a no-brainer but many websites don’t take into consideration their users! And focus on optimising their website for search engines.

In this chapter, I’ll cover the key considerations for SEO purposes.

Key user experience success factors

Easy of use: making your website easy to use, navigate and understand is crucial. You can optimise this experience further by A/B and multi-variant testing.

Professioanl Design: you get what you pay for. Ensure that your website is professionally designed and acessible to search engines. To achieve this you should pre-plan your website structure for SEO.

Quality over Quantity: provide useful, high quality and unique content that is aligned with search intent.

These factors will play a large role in how your website engagement performs.

Getting on the first page of Google is a great achievement. But if your engagement metrics aren’t strong you won’t last very long.

Imagine if you’re in position 1 but a majority of visitors click your page then exit and try a different result.

This will show search engines that your content is not meeting the need of the visitor. And they will push your content down the page.

graph showing backlinks correlate with google rankings

You want to aim for:

  • A high click through rate in search engine results
  • A low bounce rate on key pages (below 40%)
  • Visitors spending a long time on your site (3 minutes or more)

Chapter 10

Social Media Signals Impact On SEO

Google has stressed many times that social media is not a ranking factor in their algorithm.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t play its role.

In this chapter, I’ll look at what we know about social indirect SEO impact.

How social media indirectly impacts SEO

Social media is an indirect ranking factor in the SEO world. Social sharing is like link building in a way.

When something is shared that person is recommending the content to their friends.

Content that is shared on social, inevitable will pick up links from other website. And we know that links are a major ranking factor.

Social media amplifies your brand’s content building brand awareness. This could lead to more branded searches.

So it’s safe to safe that it can indirectly have a positive impact your SEO efforts.

As social media continues to grow becoming more popular it would be stupid to ignore. It is likely that one day it will become a ranking factor.

Chapter 10

Measuring SEO Success

If you don’t measure your seo efforts, how will you know if it’s worth your time? Or better yet how can you improve it.

Measuring any marketing activity is critical to success and SEO is no different.

In this chapter, you’ll learn what to measure in SEO.

SEO metrics to measure

There are many metrics that you can track and it’s impossible to cover them all. But there are core metrics that every SEO project should measure:

Contribution to overall site traffic

How much of your website traffic is coming from organic search? Your analytics package will reveal this information. You should try to grow the percentage of website traffic that comes from organic search overtime.

Keyword Rankings

What position are you ranking for your targeted keywords? Take your top 20-50 keywords that you want to rank for and measure their rankings month on month. Watch if they are trending towards a higher position.


Track how many links you have to your website. You want to increase the number of quality links to your site.

Search engine Referrals

Google isn’t the only search engine. You should check how much traffic your receiving from different search engines.

What pages and keywords drive Conversions

Conversions, leads and sales are the most important metrics to measure. You want to know what pages and keywords are getting you a return on investment. In my opinion, all other metrics are irrelevant to some degree.

Desktop vs mobile traffic

With mobile traffic now accounting for over half of searches on the internet. Understanding what device your visitors are coming from is important. You want to measure how you ranking and what for on both desktop, mobile and tablet.

Number of pages receiving organic traffic

You want to identify what pages are getting you at least one organic visitor. Understanding how many pages are being indexed and bringing you traffic is important.

Chapter 11

Violations and Penalties

What makes search engine optimisation exciting is that it’s always evolving. Techniques that work now may not work in a few years time.

Search engines want to improve the user experience. To help website owners keep up they release guidelines they want us to follow.

Let’s go through the what they don’t want you to do on your website.

Violations and Penalties Explained

Violations and penalties are a key part of SEO that you should be aware of.

Here’s the deal:

If you don’t abide by the rules you could find yourself in a sticky situation and lose a lot of website traffic.

Thin or shallow content

In 2011, Google released a major algorithm update that targeted websites with low quality content. This was in an attempt to make the search engine result pages much more valuable.

This penalty can hit you at the domain level if a large amount of your content is low-quality.


Cloaking is when you show search engines different content than humans. This can give you a harsh penalty and it’s one of the worst offences.

Keyword stuffing

The days of jamming your key phrase you want to rank for on a page 50+ times are over.

This is spam and provides an awful users experience. You want your web pages to read naturally to humans and search engines will rank them. If you are stuffing your pages with keywords you can get a penalty.

There is no “correct” amount of times to include your keyword in a page. But a good rule to follow is if it feels unnatural you’re probably keyword stuffing.

Hidden text

Don’t ever hide text from search engines – it’s like a bad game of hide and seek that you won’t win. You’ll get smacked with a penalty for this one.

For example, you might think you’re pretty crafty and stuff your keyword on the page 50 times but make the text white. This won’t work.

Ad heavy pages

There’s nothing worse than landing on a page only to see a lot of ads. Search engines agree and you’ll get penalties if your website is top heavy with ads above the fold.

“Intrusive interstitials”, or popups, have been targeted by Google in recent updates. While you can still use pop-ups you must be sure they don’t ruin the user experience.

Read Google’s guide to interstitials for advice on this.

Paid links

Building links are crucial for ranking in the top of search engines. You might get the urge to go out and buy lots of links pointing back to your website.

First think. It’s against Google’s guidelines to pay for links and you will be penalised if you are caught. Bing doesn’t penalise for this but it is against their best practices.

Link spam

Another bad link technique is using forums and commenting to get links back to your site.

Getting links from low-quality websites will not help your SEO either. Google has cracked down hard on link quality and if you’re seen to be link spamming you can receive a harsh penalty.

It’s best to audit your links and use webmaster tools to disavow any spammy links. This will keep you safe.

Over to you my friend

Jeez over 5k words! I put a ton of work into this guide. I hope you liked it.

I’d like to hear what you learned?

Or what you’re going to try out on your website?

Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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