Whether you are a business or a blogger, good SEO is important if you want to attract visitors to your website. A website can exist to serve any of several intents. A business website wants to earn customers and revenue; and to create brand awareness. A personal website aspires to create personal brand awareness and legitimacy or create engagement in a subject or cause. For either use — business or personal — a website needs a steady stream of visitors in order to fulfill any intent. The more visitors that a website earns, the more value that the website will create for its owner and its intended audience. It’s for this reason that every website owner should invest in their SEO.
SEO can be expensive, both for tools and consultative expertise. However, there are tools available to you for free, and there are actions you can take to improve your website’s SEO for only the cost of your time. In this guide, you’ll learn about some tools that you can use to improve your SEO for free, and you’ll gain an understanding of how you can apply them.
What is SEO?
SEO is short for Search Engine Optimization. That’s a technical term to describe the work of making a website friendly to search engines, so that the website appears more frequently as a search result for relevant queries. When a website appears more in search results, more people see it and visit the website. This definition of SEO is flawed though. It reflects the perspective of the website that wants to attract visitors. It says nothing about the needs of users that the website wants to attract.
A better definition of SEO is; SEO connects user needs with websites that do the best job of fulfilling them. In that, the work of SEO requires some ongoing operational focus. For SEO work to be effective, you must:
- Develop a deep understanding of the needs of your target audience.
- Structure content so it answers audience needs using the same terminology that audience members use to describe their needs.
- Deliver content to audience members with the greatest possible efficiency through the continuous removal of friction from the audience experience.
- Measure changes and act in response to the measurements.
Before getting to the work of actually doing SEO, it’s important to understand the concept of search intent. When a person performs a Google search, they have an intent to locate something. Google’s understanding of the person’s intent is critical to its ability to deliver meaningful search results. Since intent is important to Google, it’s important to you. Your SEO goals must align to the intents of your target audience members.
A person wants to learn about something or someone. They may or may not phrase their search query in the form of a question:
- “How do I change a kitchen faucet?”
- “What is the capitol of Thailand?”
- “Directions to the Space Needle.”
- “2004 World Series.”
A person wants to buy something specific and is looking for a website where they can make the purchase:
- “Buy iPhone.”
- “Wired magazine discount code.”
- “Refurbished MacBook Pro.”
- “LG OLED TV.”
- “XBOX sale.”
A navigational search isn’t literal. A person isn’t looking for driving directions. Instead, they don’t know the URL of something or don’t want to type it, so they search for it instead:
- “Best Buy.”
- “Google login.”
A person is researching a product or service and is looking for some comparative information before they make a purchase:
- “Best budget TV 2020.”
- “iPhone 12 vs Galaxy S20.”
- “Best pizza near me.”
- “Vitamix review.”
A person is searching for something that is specific to a certain region. Location is not a search intent, but it is an important intent modifier. For example, if a person is looking for an insurance agent, the individual will likely want to reach expertise near them. Other examples include:
- Construction and repair.
- Plumbers and electricians.
- Restaurants and grocery.
- Brick and mortar and retail.
When considering your own SEO, if your physical location is relevant to your audience, you will need to make sure that Google knows where you are located. Said another way, if customers visit you or you visit your customers, local search is important to you. This is especially true because Google prioritizes local search results above global results. When you don’t appear in local search results, you may not be seen at all.
Free SEO tools
Good or bad, analysis is a big part of SEO. To perform any sort of analysis, you’ll need two things: software and access to data. Fortunately, there are several free tools that will provide you with both. Don’t let the word “analysis” scare you. “Analysis” is simply the act of looking at something and developing and understanding of it. The free tools used in this guide do the work of organizing your data for you.
Google Page Speed
The speed at which your website loads matters a lot. When visitors are made to wait, they’ll go elsewhere. This is more true every day. Broadband and mobile internet providers regularly remind consumers how fast their internet connections are. Those same consumers will expect your website to be fast when they visit it.
Users want to find answers to their questions quickly and data shows that people really care about how quickly their pages load. The Search team announced speed would be a ranking signal for desktop searches in 2010 and as of this month (July 2018), page speed will be a ranking factor for mobile searches too. — Google
Google Page Speed will show you how quickly your website loads for visitors. In doing so, it will give you separate desktop and mobile scores. Use the information that Google Page Speed provides to make your website load faster. You will find recommendations in the results.
Google only penalizes the slowest of websites in search results, so a low score isn’t a reason to panic; that Google will blacklist your website. However, consider it encouragement to take action, because visitors may be less forgiving.
GTmetrix is another free tool you can use to measure the performance of your website. Enter your URL, submit the test, and wait for your results.
Tip: The most frequent cause of slow-loading websites is images. They’re often too big or are uncompressed. Using smaller images and compressing all your images will make your website faster. The difference can be noticeable.
GTmetrix’s waterfall chart is very useful. It shows you what’s loading on your website, the order in which different resources are loading, and how long each resource takes to load. This includes bloated images. You might be surprised. You may have a logo that looks small on your screen, but your website could actually be loading a giant image. Your eyes can deceive you. The waterfall char will show you what’s actually happening.
When you find large images on your website, you will likely receive a recommendation to compress them. There are few tools better than Squoosh, especially since Squoosh is free. You’ll be shocked by the savings in the file size of your images.
Google Search Console
The Google Search Console will provide you with a lot of data to inform your SEO strategy. It tells you how Google sees your site along with any problems it finds, like broken pages. The Search Console also shows how often your website appears in search results, for what search queries, how often a user clicks on a link to a page on your website, and your top performing pages.
Use Google Search Console to understand how users are finding your site. The Search Results report under the Performance heading will show you all the terms for which your website appears in search results. That can reveal visitor intents and interests — the content that is engaging the most users — and it can uncover problems. For example, if you run an insurance agency and the top reported search query is “Viagra,” that strongly suggests your website has been hacked. Alternatively, if you operate a business that services heating and air conditioning units and the top query that directs visitors to your website is, “Air conditioning service near me,” you have strong alignment to searchers’ intent. That’s good.
A second way to use the Search Console is the Coverage report under the heading of Index. It will show you broken pages. You should fix the pages or redirect visitors to a working page.
Google Analytics reports actual traffic on your website. The Google Search Console and Google Analytics both report traffic statistics. They are always different, which can be confusing.
The Google Search Console reports data from Google Search; what users are asking Google through search and what visitors are clicking on in the search results. Google Analytics reports what is actually happening on your website. You install a snippet on your website, and Google Analytics records what users do on your website. Where the Search Console is Google’s perspective, Google Analytics is your website’s perspective.
The Google Search Console and Google Analytics can have different results because people may come to your website from Bing. In that case, the Search Console won’t know about them. When a person reaches your website, Google Analytics will not capture information about the session if the visitor is using a content blocker. Neither the Search Console nor Google Analytics are exact. Both provide valuable insights.
Among other things, Google Analytics will show you the number of people visiting your website in real-time. While that’s flashy and occasionally helpful, there are more useful metrics with which you should be familiar. One such example is the Landing Pages report under Behavior and Site Content. It shows your top performing pages sorted by the number of people that visit them. It also shows how long people are spending on those pages and if they’re continuing to visit other pages. If your top performing pages are blog posts and your blog posts don’t have lead capture forms, that’s a missed opportunity.
A second useful set of metrics is found in the Channels report under Acquisition and All Traffic. It shows the sources from which your website is earning traffic. Your website might be earning more traffic from social networks than any other source, and of those networks, Instagram could be the top referrer of visitors to your site. That’s good information to have, because it is evidence of where you should invest effort.
Ahrefs Site Explorer
Ahrefs Site Explorer provides a wealth of data to improve your SEO. One feature that’s great about it is that Ahrefs lets you export a lot of it. So, if you want to format or analyze your data in another tool, Site Explorer is a winner.
Site Explorer shares some features in common with Google’s Search Console. Where there is overlap, its presentation of information can be more straightforward than Google’s, though that might just be a matter of personal preference. Site Explorer’s Overview dashboard presents data in a very clear way. Navigate to the Errors section and you will find problems for you to fix. Common errors include broken URLs. Blog posts like this one will frequently link to external content. When an external URL changes, the link on your website will be reported as broken. Website visitors do not like clicking on broken links.
Site Explorer’s All Issues report details all the errors that Ahrefs finds after it crawls your website. Depending on the amount of housekeeping you’ve done in the past, the volume of errors might be intimidating. Luckily, Ahrefs lets you prioritize them. Filter first to the important issues. Make it part of your workflow to resolve some issues each month. Your visitors will thank you.
Answer the Public
For many business and personal websites, attracting visitors means creating content that’s useful for your audience. Writing about any random topic won’t earn traffic to your site. Instead, you have to write about subjects that answer user needs. One great source for content ideas is Answer the Public. Enter a term and you’ll receive a list of questions that people are asking. You’ll also see the words people are using to preface their questions, “How,” “What,” “When,” etc. You can even download the list in a spreadsheet.
In a way that is similar to Answer the Public, Also Asked lets you supply a term or topic and get a list of related questions that people are asking. It delivers a branched view, so you can see multiple layers of questions, and you can interact with the data by clicking on any of the results. Doing so will initiate another topic query. Like Answer the Public, Also Asked lets you download your results in a spreadsheet. Using a tool like Also Asked can save your from a lot of effort researching blog topics.
Another free tool you can use to learn the types of questions that people are asking is Google Trends. Unlike the previous tools, Google Trends doesn’t deliver your results in the form of questions. That’s okay though, Google excels in other areas. You can drill into the results my region and date. If you need to maximize your content’s effectiveness in a given niche, Google Trends will be a valuable tool to you.
SEO requires continuous iteration
SEO is not an event. It requires long-term discipline, and there is a lot more to SEO than the concepts identified in this article. Not every business or individual will have hours each month to invest in SEO, but you should protect some time for SEO each month.
Your website must return value to you, whether that value is measured strictly in dollars or not. Maximizing the return your website pays to you requires SEO. The good news is, SEO doesn’t mean you have to spend money. You can earn gains for free. As you experience revenue growth, you can start adding financial investments to your SEO strategy and magnify your discoverability and conversion rate.