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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
- Patrick Stox: Technical SEO
- Nick Eubanks: Keyword research
- Jon Cooper: Link building
- Marie Haynes: Google penalty recovery
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:
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.