Essential guide to search engine optimisation

Reviewed by Michelle Symonds, managing director of Ditto Digital

Search engine optimisation (SEO) and getting to the top of Google results

Search engine optimisation (SEO) helps improve the performance of your website in search engines like Google, making it more likely that people will find and visit your website.

Effective search optimisation needs a clear focus on which search terms you want to target. You need to optimise your website for these search terms, and look at ways to encourage other websites to link to yours.

Search engine optimisation explained


On your site

Link building

Take care

Getting help

1. Search engine optimisation explained

Search engine optimisation improves the search engine performance of your website

  • SEO aims to improve the ranking of your website when users search for relevant things. For instance, a wedding planning company might use SEO to appear top of the results when people search on Google for "wedding planner".
  • Websites which are ranked highly on search engine results pages get more clicks and more traffic.
  • The top three results get most clicks. After that, the number of clicks falls rapidly.
  • The main search engines include Google, Yahoo! and Bing. They rank sites in slightly different ways, but the basic rules are the same for all of them.

SEO is complex, but the basics are easy to learn

  • Many websites implement the fundamental elements of SEO badly.
  • By following some simple guidelines on your site you can usually see improvements in your search rankings.
  • Once the foundations are laid, you can keep tweaking your site to see improvements. The best approach to this detailed work is often getting help from an SEO specialist. 

The best SEO strategies are highly targeted

  • Your aim is to rank highly when people enter search terms which are relevant to your business.
  • This makes it more likely that the people who visit your site will be interested in what you have to offer.
  • To succeed, you should target very specific search terms with your website.

Your SEO strategy will take time to show results

  • Your site should climb the rankings gradually as search engines update the information they have about your website (known as a search engine index).
  • Three months is a reasonable period to measure results over, though new sites with poor rankings will take much longer to show significant improvement.

2. Targeting

The first stage of an SEO campaign is to decide which search terms to target.

Pick words and phrases which are highly relevant to what your business offers

  • The aim of SEO is to drive relevant traffic to your site.
  • You need to target the search terms you think people interested in your business would use.

Brainstorm a list of relevant search terms

  • Think about what your business sells, and the types of customer you target.
  • Do not restrict yourself at this stage. Make a list of any words or phrases you think might be relevant.
  • The list might include product types and names or words which relate to your target audience.
  • This exercise is best done in a group. Try word association, writing down the first things that come to mind.

Narrow your list of terms

  • You need to assign a priority to each search term you have generated.
  • Your aim is to identify search terms which have high search volumes (lots of people searching using these words and phrases).
  • You are also looking for terms which few websites rank well for. It is easier to rank highly for these low competition terms.

Use online tools to identify the search terms with highest volumes

  • Useful tools include Keyword Discovery, Wordtracker and the Google Ad Keyword Planner.
  • Each of these tools allows you to input search terms. They will then display the number of times those search terms were entered into various search engines.
  • The figures supplied by these tools are indicative, but generally reflect the way people use search engines.
  • These tools will also supply a list of suggested search terms. This may give you further ideas about which terms to target.
  • As you work through your list of search terms, record the volume of searches next to each one. If you do this using a spreadsheet, you can sort the terms by volume.
  • Try typing the first part of your search term into Google and it will display the most commonly searched-for terms. It is best to do this in incognito mode, otherwise Google will also display previous searches that you have made.

Get a feel for the amount of competition for each search term

  • High volume search terms often have many websites competing for the top rankings.
  • When competition is high, it may be impossible for smaller, newer websites to appear near the top.
  • You should check competition levels for the highest volume search terms on your list. Some online tools like the free Google Keyword Planner give you a score which indicates the level of competition.

Build a final list of target search terms, ordered by priority

  • Low competition, high volume search terms are the ideal, but be aware that none may exist in your industry so you may have to strike a balance between competition levels and search traffic.
  • Prioritise relevant search terms with low competition over less relevant terms with large search volumes. Your aim is to attract relevant visitors. Having a lower number of visitors is fine, as long as more of them buy from you.
  • Do not disregard search terms just because they have a low volume of searches. If the terms are very relevant to what you offer, keep them on your list because they could have high conversion rates.
  • Equally, do not disregard search terms just because the competition is high. If your SEO campaign is better than competitors, it is still possible to rank well.

3. On your site

Once you have a list of target search terms, you should optimise the pages on your website for these terms.

Match pages on your website to search terms in your list

  • The more specific your targeting, the more likely you are to see results.
  • Aim to target at least two or three search terms with each page on your website.

Incorporate your target search terms into page metadata

  • Metadata includes the page title and description.
  • Page titles have a significant influence on search rankings and are usually displayed as the clickable link in the search results.
  • The meta description does not directly affect ranking, but controls what information is displayed in Google results under the clickable link so can impact clickthrough rate (CTR) and drive more people your website.
  • Make sure to include your most important keywords as close to the beginning of the meta tags as possible.

Ensure the URL of each page includes a target search term

  • Search engines check words in the URL for relevance.
  • For instance, if your page is about men's trousers, you might name the page mens-trousers.

Work the target search terms into the text on your pages

  • Use the search terms in a natural way, so text remains readable and be sure to include synonyms and other related words, phrases and topics.
  • Search engines give extra weight to text in headings. The most important keywords should be used in the first heading at the top of a page.
  • Search terms included in JavaScript and Flash navigation are less likely to be interpreted correctly than those in HTML.
  • Use alt tags on your images and include your keywords here combined with an accurate description of the image.

Use your target search terms in links within your site

  • Search engines look at links between different pages on your website to determine what the website is about.
  • For instance, if the linked text says "how to play golf", the search engine will rank the page higher for that phrase.
  • Try and build lots of links between pages on your site to help visitors navigate easily but also to help search engines better understand your site.
  • Pay close attention to the linked text. You can use keywords within internal links but do not overdo this, as search engines may interpret this as manipulation. Make sure the text appears natural and not forced.

Create an XML sitemap

  • An XML sitemap is a useful way to make sure that search engines can find and index all of the pages on your site.
  • You can submit the sitemap yourself to the major search engines via their webmaster tools such as Google’s Search Console.

4. Link building

Other websites play a huge part in determining your own website's ranking in search engines.

Other than on-page SEO, the single biggest factor determining your search ranking is links from other sites

  • Search engines like Google regard most links to your website as a vote of confidence in your site.
  • Links from websites which have a high ranking are worth most.
  • Unlike with internal links, you want to avoid too many keywords in external links to your site. If Google sees too many keyword-rich links it may assume that these links are unnatural or paid for, and may penalise your site.

Approach sites you already have a relationship with

  • Ask loyal customers, partners and suppliers if they would be willing to link to you.
  • Approach other contacts to see if they would be happy to include you on their website.

Offer to contribute to other sites in return for links

  • For instance, offer articles on relevant subjects to high-profile websites in your industry.
  • Ensure that articles are credited to your website, with a link back to the site.

Give people a reason to link to you

  • The best links are usually the ones that come naturally.
  • Try and add something to your site which will encourage other websites to link to you, simply because what you offer is of value.
  • Run a company blog which contains interesting insights and debates.

5. Take care

SEO will increase traffic to your website, and help you build your business. But take care when optimising your site - above all your website must be user-friendly.

Always remember your users

  • Ultimately, your website has to be designed for people, not search engines.
  • If visitors to your site cannot understand it, they will go elsewhere.
  • Keep your visitors in mind when writing text and optimising pages. Always check the content makes sense.

Do not go over the top

  • Search engines use very sophisticated methods to identify sites which are trying to play the system.
  • If a search term appears too often, this may actually count against you.

Make sure reputable sites link to you

  • In the same way that links from recognised sites count in your favour, links from blacklisted sites count against you.
  • Only approach sites you are familiar with and which are well established online.
  • Avoid "easy to achieve" links from directories and forums. If a link can be achieved with no real effort, search engines will discount them or even penalise your site if it has many of these types of links. This should not stop you submitting to relevant, specific directories that are restricted to niche professions or locations.

Keep it in perspective

  • SEO should be only one element of your online marketing strategy.
  • Be careful not to spend too much time tweaking your site for little gain.
  • Getting the basics right should be your main priority. If you have an interesting site with good content then much SEO will happen naturally.

6. Getting help

SEO is a complex subject. There are many ways to get assistance.

Use an SEO agency

  • There are many specialist SEO companies who can help optimise your website.
  • Choose an SEO agency with care. Try and get personal recommendations and check references.
  • Be wary of agencies promising instant results or guaranteeing top placements. Such companies are likely to use dubious techniques which could damage your site's ranking over the long term.

Ask your web designer

  • Many web designers and design agencies can recommend SEO specialists.
  • They may be able to improve your site's rankings for a small additional cost.

Look online

  • There are many websites offering SEO advice.
  • Again, be careful of who you believe. Many so-called experts offer incorrect or conflicting advice.
  • Good places to start include Moz and SearchEngineWatch.
  • As SEO practices change quickly, ensure that any advice you follow was posted recently. Best practices from a few years ago may have changed since the article was written.


Expert quotes

"Research has shown that running natural and paid search campaigns can help to improve both purchase consideration and brand recall. The more real estate your business occupies on a search results page, the greater the chance of capturing quality, targeted traffic." - Kulraj Singh Salh, Steak

"SEO rewards a long term approach. Don't try to short cut or cheat the search engines or they'll boot you out of the rankings." - Sean McPheat, MTD Sales Training

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.