Search engine optimization, or SEO, has become a well known phrase, yet very few people understand the scope of it, how important it is, how difficult it is, and how many potential pitfalls there are. Most companies that claim to do SEO for you will do nothing more than rip you off with techniques that worked 10 years ago, if even then. The basic concepts of SEO aren't so difficult, it's the application, keeping up with the competition, and staying aware of algorithmic changes and penalties that's a real challenge. We'll cover the basics below, but if you're really serious about making money on the web you should join this SEO training community (This is not an affiliate link. It's a recommendation based on experience, and we're not getting compensated by recommending it.). The $300/month price filters out anyone who isn't serious, and the information and advice is worth literally thousands of dollars each month. If you have the money to invest, it will be the best investment you make for your online business.
Note: In the material below we'll primarily be writing about Google, since Google provides the vast majority of search based traffic to websites. However, SEO is similar for all search engines.
Contrary to what many people believe, webmasters do not pay to rank in the natural results (at least not yet!). The order of ranking is determined by an algorithm, and Google's algorithm is reportedly based on more than 200 factors. These include both on-site (text content, title tags, internal linking, etc.) and off site (links from other sites, brand mentions, etc.) factors, and no one knows exactly how the algorithm works, exactly what the factors are, or how they're weighted. However, some factors are obviously weighted more heavily than others, and you can get a good idea of the direction you should be going in based on an analysis of search results and competition.
Your rank in the search engines obviously requires a search phrase, and choosing the phrases you wish to rank for is the first step in any SEO project. There are a variety of traffic volume tools on the market, but the most comprehensive is Google's Adwords Search Tool. You can use this tool to find the monthly search volume for any given phrase. The tool defaults to broad match results, which is the number of searches that include the words you entered, but not necessarily in the order you entered them. You can also select phrase match, which tells you the number of searches that include your phrase exactly (but with additional terms). Or you can select exact match, which shows the exact number of searches per month for exactly the phrase you typed. But keep in mind, the results are often incorrect. Google is well known for misleading SEOs with downright incorrect data. Use a combination of Google's Adwords tool and Google Trends to come up with an estimated volume and look at proportionality, but don't accept that the results are correct. A better way to come up with actual search volume for a given phrase is to run an Adwords campaign where you advertise for a term, and count the number of daily impressions you receive. Be aware that this can get expensive very quickly.
Don't just consider the the volume of one particular exact match phrase. Ideally your site should pull in search volume for a variety of terms related to your head term. ("Head terms" are considered the most general, high traffic terms and "long tail terms" are the more specific but lower traffic terms. Here is a good article on the long tail of search.) You'll want to structure your site with your home page targeting your primary head term, and other categories or pages targeting your mid tail or long tail terms.
On-site SEO refers to optimizing all components of your site to get the maximum algorithmic benefit, thus ranking higher for targeted terms. It includes elements of your HTML code such as your title and H1 tags, the content and language of your site, the internal architecture of links and folders, and the way you handle things like page redirects when pages have been removed from your site.
Your page titles will appear at the top of a visitor's browser, and many visitors won't notice it's there. More importantly, it will generally be the text in the link in the search engine results. The page title element is the single greatest small element you can control that has a significant affect on ranking. Your page titles should include the main keyword your page is targeting, and be written with search engine users in mind, to attract them to click through to your website.
Note: Sometimes if your page is too well optimized you can inadvertently have your website filtered out of the search results due to an over-optimization filter. Although it's generally a good practice to have your targeted keyword at the beginning of your title tag, if you think you've come up against an over-optimization filter you may be better off putting a modifier or your company name in front of your targeted keyword. Often such a simple change can have you escape the filter.
It's unlikely that your meta description will provide you with a direct ranking benefit. Most search engines claim it does not factor into their algorithms. A visitor to your site will not see your meta description on your page, but it will generally be the text below the link on the search engine results page (SERP). Like your title, your description should be written with a search engine user in mind. Write your description to attract a user to click on your site.
H1 tags are top level heading tags, and are usually in a larger font than your paragraphs. Most sites use H1 tags for headings, and you should too. While their benefit used to be greater than it currently is, they help both users and search engines to figure out exactly what your page is about. It's a good idea to use keyword synonyms or variations of your keyword phrase in your H1 tags in order to rank for a larger variety of terms and so your website doesn't appear to be over-optimized. Use your H1 header in a way that makes sense to your visitors.
The search engines have gotten increasingly better at semantic indexing and understanding the content on your pages. Higher quality text on a page is more likely to rank better than machine generated garbage. While there definitely are exceptions, we know search engines would prefer to rank the highest quality sites, so you're better off in the long run writing quality content that's useful for visitors. These days, repeating your main keywords over and over again isn't going to help, and will likely hurt. Forget about things like "keyword density optimization". Those are things of the past.
Links to pages within your site should be descriptive and should include your targeted keywords. There are different types of site structures from deep (where you have categories, sub categories, sub-sub categories, etc., and users must make several clicks to access deeper pages) to flat (where every page can be accessed with a single click). Your site structure should be determined largely by the number of pages you plan to have and considering maximum usability for your visitors.
One of the most important aspects of Google's algorithm is "page rank". This is not the PageRank bar you can get in many web browser add-ons. We're referring to Google's actual page rank assessment for any given page. Page rank flows through links, from site to site and from page to page. If 100 sites are linking to your home page, you have page rank flowing in to your page from 100 sites. When you link to pages inside your website you're flowing page rank into them and giving them the value or "link juice" they need to rank for terms you target on those pages. Therefore, you may be better off creating a smaller number of pages with more content on each one rather than a huge number of pages with less content on each one. With a smaller number of pages you have more link juice flowing into each one, making it stronger, whereas with a large number of pages you have less link juice flowing into each page. However, you should consider both usability and page rank when determining how you want to structure your pages, as you can't make money though search engine ranking alone.
An additional factor to keep in mind regarding page rank sculpting, or attempting to control the flow of page rank on your websites, is that Google values links on different parts of your website differently. Standard navigational links, especially footer links, are not going to pass the same amount of link juice as links in the center content of your pages. You should be sure to link to the most important pages of your site in the center content and not only in the main navigational areas.
Off-site SEO is exactly what it sounds like, elements that impact your ranking which exist on other site on the internet rather than on your own. The primary off site issue you should be concerned with is link building.
In order to have people visiting your site from other sites, and as an extremely important quality indicator for search engines, you need other websites to link to your site. Without external links, your site is never going to rank or get traffic (unless you do lots of paid advertising).
All links are not equal. A link from a high quality, high page rank site is better than a link from a low quality, low page rank site. And there is another component to every link besides the quality of the linking site, and that's the anchor text. Anchor text is the text used in the link (or if the link is an image it's the text used in the alt tag for the image). If Google sees 100 links to your site and 25 use the text "click here" and the other 75 use the text "dog food", Google is going to think your site is about dog food. You want to get a good bit of descriptive anchor text links to help you rank for your targeted terms. But there is a caveat. Too many anchor text links for a targeted term can cause you to trip an over-optimization filter and lose your ranking. To avoid tripping such a filter you should get a diversity of anchor text links using modifiers, synonyms, site name/business name, and completely non-optimized links using terms like "here" and "click here". Another factor that influences the value of a link is the placement on a page. Like with internal links, a link in the center content of a page is more valuable than a link in a sidebar or footer.
There is a difference between total links and unique linking domains. If a website has 100 pages and links to your site on every page, you'll have 100 links but only from 1 unique linking domain. When you look at the number of links a website has (using a tool like OpenSiteExplorer or MajesticSeo for example), you'll want to pay more attention to the number of linking domains and the anchor text than the number of total links.
So how do you get links? There are countless ways, from purchasing quality directory links such as from the Yahoo Directory and others like Business.com to guest posting and developing relationships with other websites in your industry and asking them to link to valuable content on your site. The higher quality your site is, the more people will be willing to link to it. As a beginner, a good place to start in your search for links is with a backlink analysis of your competition. Take the top ranking 3 or 4 sites for your targeted terms and look at their links in a tool like OpenSiteExplorer. You should be able to find a number of sites that link to your competition that will also link to your site. SEOBook also has a great selection of link analysis tools.
In your search for link building opportunities you'll no doubt come across methods that go against Google's Webmaster Guidelines. It is against Google's guidelines to purchase links, for example. With that said, in competitive markets there very well may be no way to rank without breaking Google's guidelines. As nice as it would be to follow them 100%, if all your competitors are getting links by breaking the rules, and ranking well because of them, it may be impossible for you to rank without doing so yourself. Consider that sometimes the risk of getting penalized by Google is less than the risk of not being found in the search results at all. However, with the release of algorithm updates like Penguin, you're more likely than ever to get penalized for low quality links. They should be used as an absolute last resort.
Notice that we've spent the most amount of space discussing link building. This is because link building is the most important component of ranking. It doesn't matter how good your on-page SEO is. Without links it's never going to rank. And even with very poor on page SEO your site can rank well with enough link building. Make sure you've got all of your on-site ducks in a row, and then focus on building as many quality links as you can. Only resort to links of lower quality if you've exhausted the quality resources and have no other choice.