SEO… or search engine optimization
A confusing concept for folks who’ve never took the time to learn it…
…but an endless stream of passive traffic to your website for those who dare to master it.
In this article, I’m going to break down what SEO is at a high level to help you conceptually understand it, then go into its two main facets which are “on-page” SEO and “off-page” SEO, and then wrap things up by going into SEO’s role in helping you make money online with niche content sites.
If this all sounds technical or confusing, don’t worry, I’ll break everything down into easy to understand terms (pictures included).
Ready to get started?
What is SEO?
SEO or search engine optimization is the practice of taking a website and making it easy for search engines to crawl and quickly understand.
It is the job of Google, Yahoo, and Bing to crawl (aka “index”) the internet and organize it so people can find what they are looking for.
People who practice SEO are called, “SEOs” in the industry.
It is the job of an SEO, to optimize a website around a certain topic or topics with the goal of ranking a website on page 1 of the search results, preferably #1 overall for a given search query.
And when I say “crawl”, I mean, search engines have “bots”, to scan/download websites, click through links to actually log what exists around the internet.
When one of these bots comes with a page on a website, it will download all of the content (text, images, html, etc) as if it were a real person using a web browser like Chrome or Firefox, then log it in a database.
Based on a set of pre-defined rules (on-page and off-page factors as I’ll talk about later), search engines then rank pages for specific queries it THINKS are related to the search.
When someone goes to Google and types in, “how to make meatloaf”, Google wants to show the user the best pages on the internet related to making meatloaf.
In the context of meatloaf, the best pages should include…
The most detailed recipes, the highest quality images, videos, etc.
Thanks to the work done by its crawling robot Google should have LOTS of pages to pick from and to show a user about that query.
But again… how does Google to decide WHICH page to show to the users and which to ignore.
That’s where Google’s algorithm kicks in to sort and rank the pages in its index.
If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, well, all I need to do is game/trick their algorithm and i’ll rank #1…
…you’d be sorely mistaken.
Right now, there are at least 200+ ranking signals Google has baked into its algorithm to filter out the crap websites and yield only the best results.
Some of those factors are links from other websites pointing to your website (off-page SEO). Others signals might include some obvious stuff like the actual text on the page (duh) but some other not so obvious stuff like your title tag, your h1 tag, internal links from other places on your site pointing to a specific page, keyword density, and schema markup and more…
There are SO MANY things to consider when it comes to SEO, it can feel overwhelming.
And at first it is, but with time it’ll start to “click” and make sense.
When you get right down to it SEO is intuitive.
It starts with research to find the most popular queries/phrases/words that are related to your website or business.
Then creating content around those words to then share it with folks who might be interested to know you created it.
Just title it something descriptive and then link to it where appropriate on other parts of your site (again on-page SEO).
When Google and the rest of the search engines find your newly created piece of content, they’ll index it and rank it accordingly.
Of course there are some nuances to the process, but that’s it, that’s about 80% of what SEO is.
Now that I’ve gotten some of the basics out of the way, let’s dive a bit more into on-page SEO.
What Is On-Page SEO?
On-page SEO is SEO related to the content YOU can control on YOUR website.
- The text, video, or images on the post or page (including the header, footer, and sidebar)
- Outbound links
- The alt-text of images
- Internal link structure
- Site architecture
- Your title tag, h1, h2, h3, etc
Let’s take a closer look at each.
Text, Video, Or Images
This stuff should be pretty straight forward.
The text, videos, and images will make up the bulk of your on-page SEO efforts.
When search engines crawl websites, they’re reading text and downloading images.
Based on the text, search engines begin to understand what a page is talking about and trying to convey. For example, if you write an article about “cars” Google needs to know if you’re talking about Cars the movie or vehicle cars. The text you physically write on the page will help with this.
Tools exist today to specifically help you uncover the words Google associates with other words (or semantically related keywords). A popular one that I use is called LSI Graph.
Again if this sounds complicated it definitely isn’t.
LSI keywords are just words that relate to other words and they typically come about naturally without even thinking when writing content.
In a nutshell, they help Google and the other search engines understand our content better.
A couple years ago when search engines were first becoming popular, they weren’t that smart and they didn’t have the same technology to help them understand semantically related keywords…
Most SEOs out there would just load up pages full of same keywords that they were trying to rank for. They would sometimes type the word 100’s of times and color the words white so that the user browsing the site wouldn’t see the weird text and leave the page.
But Google could see…
For example, an SEO for a website about cat products might type the word “cat toys” 100’s of times and hide the text (aka keyword stuffing). When Google’s crawler gets through the page and looks through the HTML, it would see keywords and begin to associate “cat toys” with this website.
As a result, Google might list that page in its rankings when a user types in the word “cat toys”. Success!
But this is how it USED to work.
Google wasn’t always so sophisticated.
Today things are different…
Google knows when you are trying to game its system and will be very quick to penalize you if it identifies anything like keyword stuffing on your site.
So what does this mean for you?
Don’t try any funny business and just create good content 🙂
Seriously that’s it.
These penalties and filters are only there to stop/deter spammers. People who play by the rules and keep things white hat have nothing to worry about.
Moving on to outbound links…
This is another piece of information Google uses when trying to understand your page.
If you’re writing an article about cars and link out to popular auto magazines, that tells Google that this content is probably about cars (vehicles) and to rank the page for terms related to cars (e.g., how to fix cars, how cars work, etc).
When I create content, I typically link to authoritative websites that continue the conversation about the topic and add something valuable I didn’t fully address.
This piece is pretty straightforward, so I won’t get into it any further.
Alt-Text Of Images
The next bit of on-page SEO is the alt-text used in images on your website.
This is important because search engines can’t see your images (yet).
Good alt-text can help your images rank in the image search of Google, Bing, etc.
Thankfully, most content management systems (CMSs) like WordPress and SquareSpace make it super easy to add in alt-text on any images you upload.
For example on my post about wearing bow ties with suits, I have lots of images like the one below…
When I made this post I added alt-text to help Google crawl and index the image.
If you look at the HTML of this page and then find the image, you can see the exact alt-text I used…
Admittedly “good suit fit and bad suit fit” isn’t very good alt-text, but I just wanted to put something.
Something better would’ve been more descriptive like, “example of baggy suit with a bow tie and an example of a fitted suit with a bow tie”.
The words “suit with bow tie” in the alt-text will trigger it to appear in the image search results when.
Despite my fail, the image still appears when you type in “bow tie with suit” in the search results… as seen below.
Internal Link Structure
Next I want to cover internally linking as it relates to On-page SEO.
Similar to outbound links, internal links to other pages can help Google understand what your page is about.
But… internal links do a bit more than just informing Google about what’s on the page, it also help Google understand what the most important content is on the entire website.
Logically speaking, if you create a piece of content and forget about it, never linking to it anywhere else on your site, what do you think Google will think?
These are actually called “orphan pages” in the SEO world.
Orphan pages are perceived to be low importance… therefore they will rank lower in the search results.
At the same time, you don’t want to link to every page on your site from every post and page you create.
Instead just approach it naturally and think, what would benefit the user the most.
At the end of the day, Google just wants to serve high quality, relevant content to meet the needs of its users.
If you create content with the goal of making your users happy, then you should be fine!
Going hand-in-hand with your internal link structure, your site architecture is also incredibly important in further helping Google understand what websites are about, communicating page importance, and providing a pleasurable user experience.
The homepage would link off to the category pages, the category pages would then link off to the content, and the content should link between other pieces of content within the same category.
This setup keeps things organized enhancing the user experience (i.e., the people browsing your site) and keeping related posts tightly knit allowing Google to easily understand what each piece of content is about.
Another common name for this in the SEO industry is “siloing”, and I build all of my sites with the above architecture.
Thanks to WordPress, creating a site like this is super easy.
The hard part comes when its time to create the actual content!
Title Tags, H1, H2, H3, Etc
Another consideration SEOs need to make are title tags.
If you’re not all that familiar with HTML, then these terms might be a little confusing, but stick with me.
And just as an FYI, I am TERRIBLE at coding or HTML, platforms like WordPress create all this code for you.
When a page is created in a platform like WordPress, certain bits of text are be wrapped in pieces of HTML code.
One of these bits is the title of the post. In WordPress there’s a field you can literally write into that will generate the title tag HTML for you. Here’s a quick screencap from one of my posts on my bow tie site.
When you check the actual HTML of the page, you then see it come through, which is what we want Google crawl and then index.
When Google crawls it it will look something like this in the search results…
Notice how it looks exactly as what is written in the HTML.
In addition to the title tag, another tag (the H1 tag) is critical to optimizing your site for search engines. Take a look at the below for a snippet of HTML showing you how it looks under the hood.
Think of the H1 tag as a second title tag.
Both are critical to proper SEO, should only have exist once per page, and they help Google quickly understand what a page is trying to tell its users.
The h2, h3, h4, etc tags are all useful in giving specific important to key words of phrases.
The logic is… if you wrapped a keyword in an h2 tag it must be LESS important than the h1 and MORE important than the h3.
At the end of the day, I use h2’s to break off sections on a page and h3’s as sub-sections. I rarely use h4s.
What Is Off-Page SEO?
Now that I’ve covered the basics of on-page SEO, let’s dive into off-page SEO.
The fun stuff…
Off-page SEO is SEO related to stuff not on your website, which is usually out of your control.
The main pieces include…
- Links from other websites pointing to your website (backlinks)
- The actual text of the link pointing to your website (anchor text)
- Shares and mentions on social media platforms like Facebook/Twitter
- Citations in databases (more to do with local SEO)
Let’s take a closer look at each.
Backlinks To Your Website
When another website somewhere else on the internet links to your website it is called a backlink.
A backlink represents a virtual “vote” for your website and can pass what’s known as “link equity”, which builds your website’s authority and status with the search engines. The more backlinks you have the more strength your domain will carry and greater chance your website will rank content on page 1 of the search results.
There are two types of backlinks to be aware of…
- Dofollow Backlinks: A link to the website where the owner tells Google that yes, this is a valid backlink and “vote” for this website
- Nofollow Backlinks: A link where the owner tells Google that yes this is a link, but I do not want to “vote” for this website or pass any link equity
Most links are dofollow links, but some website owners will specifically make certain links nofollow. For example, links that are easily obtained on Facebook or Twitter are automatically given a “nofollow” tag. Links left in forums are also almost always “nofollow” because anyone can put them there.
This practice helps stop spammers and uphold the value of a backlink across the internet.
Now just as there are dofollow and nofollow backlinks sending different signals to Google, various dofollow links can also send a range of different signals as well.
A dofollow link from an authoritative website like Forbes.com is MUCH stronger than say a dofollow link from some no-name website.
Here’s a couple of examples of both types of links out in the wild pointing to my bow tie site.
Here’s a dofollow link pointing to my suspenders guide…
The anchor text here is “suspenders”, which is good because that tells Google that the page being linked to is about suspenders. If we look under the hood at the HTML you can see a bit more about what is going on.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that it says “rel=”noopener”, which is totally fine. If it said, “rel=nofollow” then it would tell Google not to follow this link and the link would pass no equity to my website.
Here is an example of a nofollow link I received from Crate and Barrel. I did an event with them a while back and they linked to me on their blog (yes!) but didn’t make it a dofollow link (no!).
And here’s the HTML…
So now you can see what a nofollow link looks like vs a dofollow link.
Just as an FYI you’ll also notice that a dofollow link doesn’t actually say “dofollow”. Links are dofollow unless speified otherwise.
I briefly covered anchor text in the previous section, but it is worth reiterating that the text of the link pointing to your site sends signals to Google about what the page is all about.
A couple years back this used to be an even MORE significant ranking factor on a page level (as opposed to domain-wide), but these days it isn’t as important given how smart Google has become.
Aside from the text of the link, Google also uses the words AROUND the link to help understand what the page is referring to.
Going back to my suspenders link, you’ll notice that the words in front of the link, “…unsung hero of formal wear” and the word after the link “…These stretchy adjustable straps” help give additional meaning to the link.
All of these factors help drive rankings for a given website!
Share & Mentions On Social Media
Another off-page piece of SEO is the shares and mentions on popular social media platforms.
Although links posted on Facebook or twitter are given nofollow tags, they are still recognized by Google.
For example, in 2015, Google established an agreement with Twitter to have direct access to all tweets posted on the platform allowing for instant indexing and posting within the search results.
Although not nearly as powerful as links, Google and the rest of the search engines can see when links from a website are being shared across social platforms, which may affect how well your websites rank.
What does this mean for you?
I look at social shares and mentions as gravy and not something I actively seek out from an SEO perspective.
The last off-page SEO factor i’ll mention is more to do with local SEO.
These are citations.
A local citation is the mention of the name, address, and phone number for a local business (aka the “NAP”).
Local businesses that want to increase their local presence will want to establish a consistent NAP that they can submit to local business directors, websites, etc. These submissions help drive awareness of the business but also help with local SEO rankings.
Here’s an example of citation listings with the YellowPages.com
The most important part of citations are keeping them consistent across directories.
This might seem super easy when you’re dealing with 1 or 2 directories, but there are hundreds of places you can submit your NAP to as a local business.
Some businesses do nothing else except help build citations for other local businesses.
An example of one of those business is Whitespark…
Overall, citations don’t have much use outside of local SEO.
Since citations can be built by anyone, they aren’t good for general websites (e.g., a website about dogs, health, etc).
Using SEO to Make Money Online(Plus a Case Study)
Okay… so now that i’ve gone over the basics
Let’s tie SEO into how to actually make money from it via niche content sites.
Quickly recapping… SEO or search engine optimization is the practice of taking a website and making it easy for search engines to crawl and quickly understand.
The better you are at doing this through on-page SEO and off-page SEO the more traffic (people) you can drive through search engines to your website.
The more traffic you can get from the search results to your niche website the more earning potential your website will have.
SEO is just a means to get traffic to your website and increase the awareness of your brand.
Putting offers in front of that traffic is where the money comes from.
Those offers can be for anything and everything.
It can be as simple as displaying advertisements through programs like Google Adsense, or including an affiliate link from Amazon that will yield commissions up to 10% when someone buys a product you recommended.
For local businesses, the offer is usually the service (e.g., cleaning companies, electricians, etc).
For internet businesses, the offer could be a digital information product (e.g., e-book, membership course, etc).
But a good offer is worthless without a traffic source, which is where SEO comes back.
To help illustrate how to leverage SEO to make money online with niche content sites, let’s take money bow tie business.
Using SEO To Sell Bow Ties Online (Case Study)
One of my old (now sold) websites was bethebowtieguy.com where I used to sell bow ties.
In order to sell bow ties, I need to drive awareness of my brand and let people know I exist.
So what did I do?
I researched what keywords related to bow ties people were typing into Google.
This is called keyword research, and is extremely important in a sound SEO strategy.
So I took to a keyword research tool (I like AHREFs) to see what people were typing into Google.
Here’s what I found…
For reference, the “KD” means keyword difficulty and is an indicator of how difficult it might be to rank for that given phrase/keyword. On the surface, high numbers = more difficult, low numbers = less difficult. The number represents the amount of backlinks needed to get on the first page of Google.
In this case, “how to tie a bow tie” is an extremely popular term (volume is 86,000 searches per month) I might want to create some content around.
All the other stuff looks irrelevant to me… and stuff related to “bow tie cinemas” which has nothing to do with bow ties a guy might wear.
Still, a KD of 24 seems pretty challenging, and I want more immediate results.
Let’s see if I can find something less challenging by adding some keyword modifiers (e.g., what, how, is, etc) in the search and look for specific intent behind a query.
Here’s what I found…
Okay… now we got something here.
People who search, “how to wear a bow tie with a suit” are definitely people that might be interested in also buying my bow ties.
Now you may be looking at the monthly search volume (60 search per month) and be thinking it’s very low, and it is.
By creating this piece of content I would also be ranking for variants of the same keyword like, “how to wear bow ties with blue suit” and “how to wear bow ties with green suits”.
Individually, its all small peanuts but collectively its A LOT of search volume.
This is known as targeting the “long tail” of the keyword.
Without getting into too much detail, there’s three main parts to a keyword… those are…
- The Fat Head: 1 word searches (e.g., shoes) that can generate incredible traffic, but represent a very small part of existing keywords people search for and are extremely competitive with only the most authoritative websites ranking for them
- The Chunky Middle: 2-3 word searches (e.g., white shoes, cool shoes, etc) that generate significant traffic, but are still extremely competitive
- The Long Tail: 3+ word searches that are more specific and represent the vast majority of the searches on the internet. Given how descriptive they are, there are much fewer searches on average per month.
Here’s a good infographic pulled from Moz.com, illustrating this concept.
As you can see, the long tail makes up the vast majority of the searches on the internet
This provides smaller websites with LOTS of opportunity to swipe those less competitive terms with better content.
And that’s exactly what I did with my bow tie site…
When someone searches, “how to wear a bow tie with a suit” I want to the be the #1 result in Google.
How do I do that?
Create some bad ass content, which is exactly what I did.
Take a look below…
And now I rank #1 for the exact phrase I wanted…
See below for a snippet from the search results.
And variants of that keyword… as expected.
See below for an example.
and many many more… check out a screenshot from my Google Search Console dashboard from the last 28 days.
As you can see this post now ranks for lots of variants people are typing into Google.
Why did the content rank?
Because it was targeted, well written, provided lots of helpful resources for the user, and completely answered the query.
How long did it take to create a post like this?
Eh, maybe a day or so.
But the great thing about SEO, and why I love it so much is that once you create the content, it continues to work for you over time PASSIVELY.
That single post is now on autopilot generating lots of targeted visitors that might be interested in buying a bow tie from my site.
That’s the power of SEO, when done right!
My Final Thoughts On SEO…
So… I love SEO as a means to drive traffic to my niche websites and make money online.
It’s a completely passive way to drive traffic to your website (perfect for busy people).
As opposed to a more active approach to traffic by paying for Facebook ads/Google ads…
SEO makes it possible to create a “snowball effect” where you create one piece of content and it starts to rank, and then you create another piece of content, and THAT starts to rank, and all your efforts start to compound.
This is the snowball.
And this is why I LOVE SEO.
It’s perfect for people who are working full-time.
You create SEO optimized content at night after work then let Google do its thing, ranking everything accordingly.
Once you have a good base of traffic (10,000 visitors/month) you can start collecting emails and playing with different offers.