How to Teach Yourself SEO

Written by: Jason Bayless | June 03, 2015

What’s SEO?

So you want to teach yourself how to SEO? Where there’s a will there’s a way: but learning the fine art of SEO requires two things above all: lots and lots of reading and lots and lots of practice. First off, for all of you who are completely new to the wonderful world of search engine optimization, what is SEO? SEO is the art of increasing a site’s natural, or “organic,” ranking in search results. Ultimately, the goal of good SEO is to get a site ranked first in search results for a particular set of keywords, or at least on the first page.

The basic principle of good SEO is clarity. Search engines are powered by algorithms, complicated mathematical equations that sort and rank pages based on a range of factors and attributes. Good SEO aims to format and structure sites so that search algorithms can easily determine what the site is about and how to properly present information about a page. A search engine can’t tell that your site sells, say, tricycles, unless your site tells the search engine in a way that it can understand. Title tags, robot files, meta descriptions—the bread-and-butter of SEO—help search engines crawl, index and display your site more easily, which boosts its ranking.

Readers, Start Your (Search) Engines

Moz offers a comprehensive resource for SEO beginners: its Beginner’s Guide to SEO. Literally hundreds of thousands of SEO professionals have gotten their start with Moz’s handy guide. Moz also operates a trust-ranking system, so learning the basics of SEO from them is a good start to getting a high trust ranking for your site.

Google’s Search Engine Optimization Guide is a good place to start, if only because the information comes straight from the horse’s mouth, and keeps up-to-date with all the latest changes to Google’s search algorithm.

Another great resource is Search Engine Land’s Periodic Table of SEO: this is a detailed breakdown of all the different elements that contribute to higher organic search results, from trust and authority rankings to link building and the best site architecture for search engine success. Search Engine Land takes SEO a step further, getting into all the nitty-gritty that can affect a site’s ranking.

Practice Makes Perfect SEO

Learning SEO from a textbook or a conference is not the same as putting it into practice on an actual website. Mastering the many tricks of SEO requires that you experiment and try out what you’ve learned in a real setting. It’s one thing to read about how to optimize title tags and meta descriptions, but applying these lessons to a real website and watching the results will help you to understand the reality behind the lessons.

SEO Padawans, Find Your Yoda

Finding a mentor can mean the difference between developing just basic proficiency with SEO and true mastery. Having someone to learn from can accelerate your learning process. How do you find a mentor? Attend conferences, seminars, participate in online forums and simply be open to the possibility of finding someone to learn from: it will happen. Who knows? You might find your next online business partner! Fortunately, there are plenty of SEO study groups in most major cities, and local hackerspaces often hold conferences to help beginners and advanced students alike.

Watch Out for New Animals in the SEO Jungle

The biggest news story for an SEO professional usually comes with a cute and cuddly name like Panda, Penguin or Hummingbird. These aren’t endangered species: they’re updates to Google’s main searching algorithm. Google is the undisputed leader of search engines, so when someone says they want an article, page or website “search engine optimized,” chances are they mean they want it optimized for Google. Like many tech companies, Google uses cool codewords to refer to its latest releases. Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird are all versions of Google’s underlying search algorithm, which are periodically modified to cut down on spam, phishing, untrustworthy content and other nasty things that make the Internet a less-than perfect place. At the advanced level of SEO, exploiting small changes in the underlying algorithm can mean the difference between appearing on the first page or further down the search results. True SEO professional study these algorithms and learn to exploit their weaknesses to get higher rankings for their sites.