What are the basics of SEO and the best DIY SEO Tools?
If you have a website you’ve at least heard the term SEO.
You know you should be doing it. You’ve heard it will help you rank better on Google. But what is it exactly? Does it cost a lot? Will it really work?
What do the terms white hat or black hat mean? And how do you know the difference? Are there DIY SEO tools available?
The best DIY SEO tools include the free Chrome browser extensions Keywords Everywhere and the Moz Bar which show you estimated search volume for a keyword phrase and the domain authority of the pages ranking for them. But you should also be using free SEO tools like Google Analytics and Google Seach Console to see what’s working well (so you can do more of it) and what’s not.
Honestly, as someone who has had my website for over 2 years now as of this writing, it can be very confusing.
My post is designed to walk you through the basics, navigating the pitfalls and showing you how you can do it yourself for free!
What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization.
Basically making your blog posts and/or website easy for people to find on Google. Of course, Google isn’t the only search engine, but it is the most widely used by far, so that’s what we’ll focus on.
You’ll also hear terms like on-page SEO which refers to things like your title, meta-description (the little blurb that comes up in the Google search results) and making sure to include relevant keywords in the text and sub-headings of your articles.
Beyond that, many people do SEO outreach where they:
- Request to write guest posts on other websites to get a link back to their own site
- Reach out to other sites and simply ask them to link to their site
- Create a cool infographic and offer to let others use it in exchange for a link back to their own site
External SEO or SEO outreach is all about generating what they call backlinks or links back to your site from another (ideally high domain authority site).
Some experts recommend getting a lot of backlinks and other experts feel like other than people naturally linking to your site because they like it, that creating backlinks is too risky in the eyes of Google and could lead to Google penalizing your site.
More on that below.
What are keywords?
When you write a blog post or have content on your website, you will naturally have words and phrases that are central to your post or business. These are the words and phrases that people searching on Google for websites like yours will be typing in the search bar.
These are called keywords and keyword phrases.
Sometimes you hear the term long-tail keyword phrase. That simply means a longer phrase of maybe 5 or more words as opposed to 1-3.
So you know what those words and phrases are for your blog post or website. If you don’t, coming up with those is where to start in your DIY SEO tools quest.
Search for your keyword phrase(s)
Bear in mind it will be very different for a local window tinting business than it will be for a parenting blogger publishing 1-2 blog posts per week.
Once you know the ideal keywords, start by just searching for them in Google. As an example, I’ll use the term Austin window tint. I live in Austin and if I was looking for a tint shop, that’s what I’d search for.
I also happen to have a brother-in-law who owns a window tint shop called Austin Window Tint.
When I search, I see his Yelp review at the top of the page. Then I see 3 more pages before I get to his website.
So my first observation is that since his business is called the exact same thing I searched for since he didn’t come up #1, that means he could improve his SEO. It also suggests that the competitors are focused on that keyword phrase on their website.
So he really could benefit from some DIY SEO tools.
Crucial steps to boost Google rankings
When I look at his website the first thing that’s apparent is his site isn’t mobile responsive. In this day and age, well over 50% of people will be searching Google on a mobile device.
When your website isn’t mobile friendly or what they call “responsive” that means it looks exactly the same on the phone as it does on a desktop; print shows up small and often requires moving the site with your fingers to see everything and enlarging text to be able to read it – not good!
The other thing I notice is that aside from mentioning his company name 5 times, the keyword phrase “Austin window tint”, or variations of that, aren’t listed anywhere else. The gallery page also didn’t work on my phone so I saw almost no images or video.
I know from his Instagram page that he does a lot of photos and videos, so it would be great to get some of that on his site.
Your site MUST be mobile-friendly!
Ultimately though it’s the lack of mobile-responsiveness that is likely holding him down in the rankings.
So make sure your website theme is mobile responsive.
If you built your site using WordPress.org, chances are it is. But if it isn’t, that should be your 1st step.
There are many free WordPress website themes out there that work great (like the one I use). Check out all the themes (some free and some paid) at aThemes.
Confused about the basics of websites? I break that in a very in-depth post about how to Build a Website from Scratch.
(Update: as of May 2018, I re-did my Brother-in-Law’s website to eliminate the issues listed above. While his Yelp pages do rank above him, he is the next in the rankings now)
What does SEO tools mean?
DIY SEO tools can refer to any software you can use to assist you in your SEO.
There are a great number of websites that offer SEO tools; most for a fee. If money was no object, the favorite tool I would probably use would be Jaaxy (not an affiliate link) or SEM Rush.
But on my (non-existent) budget, I need DIY SEO tools that are free or really low cost.
Is SEO free?
The short answer is yes. The way I do SEO is free.
Of course, you can pay for tools as well and you may get great results from that.
You can try Jaaxy for free and do 30 searches, but after that, you’ll have to sign up. At $49/month, that’s just not in the cards for me on my current budget.
There are many others and I’ve tried several. I’ve done free trials with SEM Rush and I’ve checked out Moz. SEM Rush is even pricier at $99/month. Also not in the cards even though SEO geniuses like Brandon Gaille swear by them!
I have also used the free Google Keyword planner with mixed (albeit free) results.
But ultimately I’ve found other DIY SEO tools that work for me at my current level, and yes; they are free.
Want to know all my secrets for building a great website with almost no money or budget?
Check out my Cheap Website Builder Tips post where I walk you through everything I’ve done to build my website up to tens of thousands of monthly visitors on a rock bottom budget.
The perils of using black hat DIY SEO tools & techniques!
I used the terms white hat and black hat above.
Those are terms to describe ethical (white hat) and non-ethical (black hat) techniques. You may also hear the term gray hat to describe techniques that are in between. I’ve never intentionally done anything unethical, but in my ignorance, I can tell you I’ve at least strayed into the gray area early on.
A decade ago there were a lot of things people did to game the system.
And they worked. But as Google’s algorithm has advanced, most of those techniques simply don’t work anymore or soon won’t. So I want to strongly encourage you to take the slow and steady pace of doing things the right way.
Blogging isn’t a get rich quick scheme and anyone who says otherwise is probably selling something.
Plus you don’t want Google to penalize you for doing unethical strategies.
These are just a few of the biggies to avoid on your website:
- Keyword Stuffing (using your keywords too many times in a way that sounds un-natural)
- Buying spammy backlinks (even if their ad says “white hat only” or “manually created links from top sites” I would avoid paying money for backlinks)
- Creating pages, subdomains, or domains with duplicate content (not sharing or linking but actually having the same post on more than 1 site)
- Creating other websites and linking within that network of sites
Note, to avoid confusion, I do want to point out that doing a guest post on someone’s blog and having that post link back to your site is just fine. It’s where sites that have no relevance to you are linking to you in posts that have nothing to do with your content that’s bad.
Check out more in this great post by Wordstream.
The importance of keyword searches and low competition
Once you’ve searched for your keyword phrases the next step is to see how competitive that is. Going back to my brother-in-law, I see 940,000 pages come up with that phrase “Austin window tint”.
That means that almost a million other websites and pages are competing against him for that phrase.
Now to be fair, some of those pages might be his. Or they might be his various social media pages. But it’s still a lot, and thus in his best interest to be better optimized. As those other pages continue to optimize, he might see his rankings go down even further; not good!
Once you know how many competing pages there are, the next step is to see how many people, on average, search for your keyword phrase each month.
After all, the best-optimized post or site in the world means nothing if no one is actually searching for your phrase.
In my brother-in-law’s case, I see that an average of 1,600 people per month search for that term. That’s almost 20,000 people a year. As a small business owner, it’s crucial that he gets a good chunk of those people going to his site.
What amazing free DIY SEO tools did I use to find that number of searches?
I use a free tool which is a Firefox and Chrome extension called Keywords Everywhere (also not an affiliate link).
Yes, there are tools you can use that go a lot further, but for me and my (non-existent) budget, this works. As I grow I may eventually switch, as I know in-depth SEO techniques can really bump up my Google rankings, but for now, this works.
So in my blog, I look for a low number of existing pages and a high number of searches for my keyword phrases. I know that’s an over-simplification, but that’s essentially the trick.
A phrase like vanilla ice cream has 34,800,000 existing pages. While over 40,000 people a month do search for it, there’s almost no chance of me getting anywhere near page 1 of Google for that phrase. But switch it to “vanilla gelato” and the competition goes down to 12 million. “Best vanilla gelato” goes down to 10 million.
My point is to keep trying slight variations to hit the sweet spot!
What is the sweet spot?
For bloggers, I would look for over 100 searches a month and fewer than 1,000,000 competing pages for each post. For brick and mortar business owners, I would look for 500 to 1000 or more searches per month since you won’t (theoretically) be churning out new content regularly.
You also have to realize that not everyone who searches for that phrase will be local to your business.
Get the Moz Bar Free Chrome Extension!
Moz has a free Chrome extension that is a goldmine for DIY SEO tools too. It’s called Moz Bar and it shows you the domain authority of every post that shows up in Google.
What is domain authority?
It’s a number between 0-100 that Moz assigns all websites based on a variety of criteria designed to show you the viability of a website at a glance. By viability, I mean how Moz thinks the site will look in the eyes of Google (they are not affiliated).
You can check your (or anyone’s) domain authority for free using their free tool called Link Explorer (formerly called Open Site Explorer).
Why is knowing domain authority useful?
Imagine you find a keyword phrase with 200 searches a month and only 25,000 existing posts showing in Google. For most of us that would be a goldmine of opportunity.
But what if the top 10 posts that showed up were from places like Oprah.com, HuffPost and Forbes? Those are all websites with incredibly high domain authority. You and I might never have the power to outrank them.
Thus no matter how great our post we might forever languish on page 2. But if the sites in the top 10 are all unknowns, how would you know if you can compete?
That’s right! Domain authority tells you and now with Moz Bar, you can see it all at a glance when you Google. Easy money!
Check out all the free browser extensions I recommend in my DIY SEO tips below in my listing.
Do SEO tools show accurate search volumes?
The short answer is no.
Only Google (and Bing, Yahoo, etc) actually know how many people each month are actually searching for any given keyword phrase.
Thus, whether you’re talking about free tools like the ones I use or high-end paid tools like SEM Rush, they are essentially guessing at search volume. They are likely using complicated algorithms to arrive at the results.
But like any guess, sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it dead wrong, and (more likely most of the time), they are somewhere in the middle.
Thus, I want you to use them as a GUIDE and not the be all end all.
In other words, don’t pass up writing what you otherwise think could be a great article because the tool said no one searches for it, but don’t write an article strictly because it says it has high volume; use your intuition and judgment.
The YouTube channel Income School really nails this concept (and many others), so Jim and Ricky over there are well worth following and in fact, are quickly becoming my favorite go-to blogging experts.
Finding good keyword phrases without a tool
Jim and Ricky that I mentioned immediately above use what they call the Google Alphabet Soup method of finding good keyword phrases. And they have been incredibly successful at it.
Essentially think of a category and type those 1-3 words into a Google search.
Then hit the space bar and see what Google auto-suggest for additional words. The theory here is that Google wouldn’t suggest those things if lots of people weren’t actively searching those terms.
You can also just step through the alphabet following the main word(s).
For example, if my topic was “pet goldfish” after I type that phrase in the Google search bar, I hit a space, and then the letter “a”. Doing that I see “at Walmart” and “at home” as some of the results. Then I try it with the letter “b” instead and so on.
Keep walking through the alphabet until you find a phrase (or phrases) you think work. Then check out the competition for those phrases.
Many won’t pass the comp check, but some will, and could be great future articles.
What does Google think is most important?
In short, Google wants to please its users.
When Google searchers are happy and get the answer to their searches quickly and easily, they will be more apt to keep using Google.
The more they use Google, the more the other brands of search browsers (Yahoo, Bing, etc) will fall by the wayside and go out of business (anyone remember Ask Jeeves or Alta Vista?)
Also, the more people use Google, the more ad revenue they make.
So user intent and the ability of the user to find the info they want quickly is the ONLY thing that really matters to Google.
So make sure your posts:
- Answer the actual question(s) being asked – ideally have a brief answer paragraph at the top and then dive in deeper
- Also, answer all the top related questions to the main question – ideally use the “people also ask” section in Google to find those related questions and use those as sub-headings
- Aren’t filled with too many ads, too many pop-ups, and load quickly
But if you really want to rank, there’s no better place to go then Google themselves.
They have a 200-page document which they wrote for their staff and is now available to the public. It details EVERYTHING they look for, dispels myths and basically tells you EXACTLY how to rank on Google.
Check out Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.
Keep reading by clicking the page number below!