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The Practical SEO Guide You Can Actually Use – Aka. SEO for People Who Don’t Like SEO

Why you need a practical SEO guide? Optimizing content for search engines is big business. Being able to identify the correct keywords relevant to your business, create content which can rank well for those keywords, and then optimizing the content to take the top spots for those keywords can make or break an online business.

As search engine optimization (SEO for short) is so important, a huge industry has evolved over the last two+ decades to help businesses of all sizes succeed with search engines. In recent years, as content marketing has become an important growth channel for many online businesses, writing about SEO has thus become an obvious target.

The product of all this is a huge quantity of information about SEO. As someone trying to achieve the outcomes one can nominally derive from “good SEO”, how do you navigate this sea of information? Where should you focus your time? Which “tips and tricks” are actually useful?

Whether you use WordPress, or a WordPress alternative, this post is your practical SEO guide – one you can actually use.

SEO is deliberately complicated

We’ll use a number of useful heuristics for thinking about SEO throughout this post. Here’s the first one:

  •  The SEO industry is incentivized to make SEO as complicated as possible. 

If it’s complicated, you either need to spend a lot of money on fancy SEO tools (which, no doubt, pour out a ton of data), or you need to leave it to the experts. Plus, because the search engines’ algorithms are tightly guarded secrets, it’s very difficult to verify who is actually right. This just leads to more and more complication.

It’s hard to know who to trust: nobody is doing simple SEO. Indeed, if you search “simple SEO”, there’s great irony (for me, at least) that the first result is promising you “32 simple SEO tips”. Thirty two! A thirty-two step process is not a simple process.

Not a simple SEO guide

None of this is to say “SEO is useless”; SEO is very valuable, but for most people it doesn’t need to be as complicated as it appears. Amongst all of this noise around SEO, it’s easy for the very simple basics to get lost.

It’s important to press the reset button on how you think about SEO before proceeding, so, with you hopefully on the same page, we can get stuck in properly to the SEO guide and best practices you can actually use.

Understanding search results

Let’s first talk about search results, or SERPs, as the industry calls them. The search results themselves are where the magic happens: this is where a search engine user is going to type in a search term, and then click the result which they think is going to be most relevant.

The search engine itself wants to make life easy for its users, so it’s going to try to display the most relevant result first on the page. Search engines have gotten very good at doing this over recent years, so users now generally trust that the first search result is going to be the most relevant result.

Thus, users trust the results that search engines bring them more, and they have a higher propensity to click on the top results! This is hardly surprising, and indeed, the focus of a lot of SEO is “rank higher”, but what is surprising is the extent to which users click on the very top results.


The data on this is not wholly clear, but most studies agree: roughly three-quarters of clicks go to the top three results. Putting it all together, we can estimate that one third to half of all search clicks go to the single top result.

(Charts by Visualizer Lite.)

Your content which is doing well, is it ranking on the first page? If it’s outside of the top three, it’s going to be seriously out-clicked by the results above it. Thus, the focus of a lot of SEO on “rank higher”, or “get on the first page” is wrong. Your focus should be on getting to the very top of the first page. Anything else and you’re wildly missing out.

Think about this again from the search engine’s point of view: how does it choose the top three results? It picks the most relevant, and the very best results. Your task with SEO, therefore, is to get to that number one spot. This forces you to radically readjust your thinking around content: you have to be the very best; being amongst the top ten just doesn’t cut it.

We can thus introduce two more heuristics:

  •  Think about search results from the search engine’s point of view. 
  •  Target the very first spot, not just the very first page. 

If you’re targeting a search term (we’ll talk about how to do this next), just do a search! Click on the top three results: can you honestly say that your content is definitely better than what is currently ranking? This has to be your test, and this has to be how you think about search results.

How to do keyword research

Keyword research is an incredibly important part of the SEO process, and should be the first practical thing you take away from this SEO guide as something to be done every time you set out to optimize a web page for search engines.

Keyword research is pretty much what it sounds: the process of selecting which keyword or keywords your given page should target. This allows you to optimize your page for keywords which people are actually searching for, and keywords where it’s actually possible to rank in the very top spots for.


You’ll need a keyword research tool to do your keyword research. The most popular of these is Google’s Keyword Planner.

Designed to be used for Google’s paid ad platform AdWords, this gives you three pieces of really useful information about any search term:

  1. The number of average monthly searches for the search term.
  2. The competition for ads targeted against the search term (note this is for ads, and you’re not making ads, but this is a good general indicator of competitiveness).
  3. Keywords related to the search term.
Screenshot of the Google Keyword Planner

Armed with these three pieces of information, you can very quickly make decisions about which keywords you want to target.

For this post, for example, I would start my keyword research by heading to the Keyword Planner, clicking “Search for new keywords using a phrase, website or category”, and entering, say, “SEO demystified” as my target keyword in the “Your product or service” box. Then, click “Get ideas”.

This would show me that “SEO demystified” only has around 100 monthly searches, so probably isn’t a good name for the article.

Looking through the list of ideas, however, I can see “SEO guide” has up to 10,000 monthly searches, but low competition.

I now know I should change the target keyword for my content, and I can potentially reach 100x as many people through search every month as a direct result.

Results from the Google Keyword Planner

For bonus-level keyword research, I like to use the (paid) tool KWFinder, which is a lot friendlier to use, and includes a lot more detail, pulling extra information about the results (such as how many people have linked to, or tweeted a page; an overall “how hard to rank” score; and estimated visits for each position).

Screenshot of the KWFinder tool in action.

Screenshot of the KWFinder tool in action.

This tool also makes it easy to search related autocompletes, and questions people are searching related to your term. This is all incredibly useful as it gives you a very clear picture of what you’re up against.

I like KWFinder because it does one thing very well, doesn’t unnecessarily throw a lot of data at you (as a lot of SEO tools do), and it’s comparatively very affordable, starting around $30/month.

You can absolutely get by with Google’s Keyword Planner, but if you’re doing keyword research at any scale, you’ll find a tool such as KWFinder extremely useful (it’s worth noting that in our guide to growing a blog, using an SEO tool for keyword research took the #1 spot).

Good SEO starts with good keyword research. Once you know how and what you’re competing against, you can move on to the next stage: optimizing your content.

Mastering on-page optimization

On-page optimization is the art of making your target page as attractive as possible to search engines. It’s much easier if you start with an SEO-friendly theme, but you’ll still need to make sure that when Google comes to your page, it likes as much as possible? This is exactly what this SEO guide is going to help you with.

The very first point to make here is you must have the best possible content. You should consider making sure your content is excellent the key tenet of this process. Everything else is secondary: you can do all the optimization in the world, but if your content is not good, you will not get anywhere.

The key test to ask yourself is: “is my content better than everything else currently on Google for my target keyword?”

Once you’ve satisfied the demands of the content, we can turn the tactical strategies that make up most on-page optimization articles. If Google is faced with two excellent pieces of content, it will almost certainly favor the one which does these on-page optimizations better. What’s more, just doing these optimizations to existing content can deliver a rankings boost almost immediately. This stuff is really valuable, and well worth doing.

WordPress users are blessed with a number of excellent SEO plugins, which do some of the hard work of on-page optimization for you. By far the most popular of these for WordPress is Yoast SEO. If you’re not already using Yoast SEO, now is the time to install it! It’s free, and can be installed right from the WordPress Dashboard. You’ll then want to head to the plugin’s settings, and follow the setup prompts.

With this basic setup covered, we can head to look at optimizing an individual article in WordPress, using Yoast SEO. Head to the post or page you want to optimize, and scroll down to the bottom of the page. Here you’ll find Yoast’s traffic-light system for telling you how you’re doing with your on-page optimizations. You should treat this as your checklist, make the lights as green as possible, and do this without fail for every single post you publish.

This works as a system because it’s simple, very accessible, and the traffic light system forces you to think about on-page optimization in a systematic way. It’s not the most complete system, but it does an excellent job of covering the basics, and will be fine for the vast majority of sites.

Okay, so here’s how you want to use each section of Yoast SEO:

Set a focus keyword. This should be the primary keyword that you’re targeting (the one you chose using data earlier on).

This is perhaps the most crucial Yoast setting that you need to check off, and we want to emphasize that in this SEO guide.

Make sure the focus keyword is included in:
  • The post’s title. | The post’s URL. | The post’s meta description.
  • The first paragraph of the post, if possible. I personally don’t like to be too strict on this as it sometimes just doesn’t work, but follow this rule the vast majority of the time.
  • One or two subheads used in the post.
  • Several times throughout the post. Yoast’s Analysis section will tell you the keyword density; make sure this section is green.

Edit the SEO title and meta description again. Is the length of the title good? How does it look on mobile? Is the description enticing? Would you click it? Ask these questions, and make any changes necessary.

Make sure any images included in the post have ALT text, with the focus keyword included in one or two of these. ALT text is important for accessibility, so you must treat this as an accessibility tool, rather than an SEO tool.

Link to a couple of other posts on your site, using the other posts’ focus keyword as the link text. This won’t boost this post now, but if you do it every time you publish, eventually it will.

That five-step process is all you need to do! This is a very easy way of getting 95% of the benefits of on-page optimization, in a process that only takes you a couple of minutes. For the vast majority of WordPress sites, this is the best option: it’s easy-to-do, this means that you’ll do it every time, and this alone makes it a winner.

You’ll find a convenient checklist at the bottom of this post. Keep it wherever you’ll look at it, and refer back every single time you publish a post.

Off-page optimization

Search engines obviously don’t just look at your post or page when deciding how to rank it against a search term. They look at a lot of other information too, and these are your “off-page” ranking factors. You can’t impact all of these, but you can impact some, and that’s where the off-page optimization comes. There are two big topics for this SEO guide to discuss here that are appropriate for most posts on most sites: social sharing, and outreach.

An increasingly important signal for search engines is how many people are talking about a post on social media. I’ve had posts “go viral” and immediately reach the first page for extremely competitive keywords, ahead of a whole host of more authoritative sites. Of course, you don’t get to dictate if or when your posts go viral, but you can try to increase the likelihood of it happening by submitting your posts to social sharing sites every time you publish. This is the key off-page optimization: increase the likelihood of your post being wildly successful on social media.

As with on-page optimization, the best way of approaching this is to make a checklist. Find around five social networks you can submit your posts to, and then just run through them.


You’ll want to look for relevant subreddits, Facebook groups, and “reddit for x” sites such as Hacker News or It’s important to take the time to understand the culture of the site before posting; just posting a link rarely does well, but posting an appropriate short summary or a link with additional context will typically be received much better.

You won’t get lucky with going viral every time, but you can increase the chance of it happening by being proactive. In the long-term, give your posts a second wind of sharing by using a plugin such as Revive Old Post to automate social sharing in the long-term.

Hacker News is a popular "reddit for technology" sharing site.

Hacker News is a popular “reddit for technology” sharing site.


You should also make sure your WordPress theme makes it easy for readers to share the post using whichever medium they’re comfortable with. You can use the free Jetpack plugin in order to add these buttons. This is a simple one-off change which can bring long-term benefits so we simply needed to feature it in this SEO guide.

Screenshot of Jetpack's sharing options

Jetpack’s social sharing options.

The second part of this off-page optimization puzzle is outreach. Outreach gets a bad press, so let me elaborate: by this, I mean send your posts to people with influence, who have a track record of regularly sharing new content. This is an easy way of getting links, extra clicks, and extra shares on your content. All of these are good off-page signals to Google that you’re doing a good job and your content should be ranked higher.

The second clause in the elaboration above is especially important: you must be talking to people with a track record of regularly sharing content. You can make this process much more efficient by targeting people who you know are going to be on the lookout for fresh content. And, indeed, this is what makes this highly effective off-page optimization – rather than spam. People regularly sharing content might have an especially active Twitter feed and pride themselves as a gatekeeper to the industry, or do post a weekly roundup on a specific day each week, or curate a list of links in their newsletter. Any or all of these are fine. is a popular weekly WordPress newsletter. is a popular weekly WordPress newsletter.

With a couple of minutes of searching you should be able to find the five obvious outlets for new stories in your industry. For WordPress, for example, you’d be able to find the three biggest newsletters which hold influence are wpMail, MasterWP, and Post Status. Subscribe to each of these, and when you have a post to share, reply to the last email sent and explain why your post would be a good fit, with an accompanying link. For bonus points, send in your post the day before the newsletter is published, as this will be when it’s being compiled.


You’ll want to put together a list of around five influencers who you send content. As these influencers are regularly sharing new content, they’ll always be on the lookout for high quality content, so only send them highly relevant and very good links. Over time, you’ll build a relationship and they’ll come to trust a link from you as high quality. This works for both of you: the influencer gets quality content to share, and you get the good off-page signals.

There are plenty of other types of outreach such as emailing post authors to target specific articles, but these require a much higher level of effort, and have a much lower success rate. This type of outreach strikes a good compromise between its ease, success rate, and effectiveness as an off-page ranking signal.

 The main focus with on-page optimization is getting really good content. The main focus with off-page optimization is giving your post the best possible chance of being seen by people, and noticed by search engines.  None of this is especially difficult; you’ve just got to do it every time.

Make use of this SEO guide


We’ve argued that SEO isn’t hard, and this has aimed to be a practical SEO guide that you can actually use.

The key part here is over to you: you need to actually use this SEO guide.

To make things easy for you, here’s a convenient recap of the heuristics we discussed:

  • The SEO industry is incentivized to make SEO as complicated as possible.
  • Think about search results from the search engine’s point of view.
  • Target the very first spot, not just the very first page.

Doing the SEO work is just a case of following a checklist. Here’s a recap of the key points covered in this SEO guide:

  • Do keyword research using Google’s Keyword Planner to find the most effective keywords for your posts.
  • On-page optimization is, at its heart, just making really good content. You must have really good content before you attempt any technical optimization.
  • Yoast SEO is excellent for guiding you through the technical on-page optimization process. Set your focus keyword, then make all of the plugin’s traffic lights green.
  • Off-page optimization is about doing the legwork to get your article in front of more people. Use two checklists: one for submitting to social sharing sites, and another for influencers or sharing gatekeepers to contact.

This is your SEO guide; SEO demystified, and all the practical tactics you need. After you put it to use and you want to see how well your posts are doing, then consider using some rank tracking tools to gauge your results. Now, it’s over to you. Is there anything that needs clarifying?

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Layout, presentation and editing by Karol K.

Yay! 🎉 You made it to the end of the article!
Alex Denning

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Shanora Networks
August 14, 2018 9:38 pm

Well explained! Excellent content is the key. A note on Yoast- I have had clients that contact me wanting WordPress training, but they’ve read somewhere that they need SEO. They have no idea what it is. They don’t even have a functional website. That doesn’t matter to them. I can tell them all about the need for great content, but they will ignore me and actually adjust their writing to “green” on Yoast, even if the result doesn’t make sense to the reader. They’ve been told SEO is so important that it actually blocks them from learning to create functional content. Use your better judgement with Yoast and other plugins – if your content doesn’t make sense, nobody will want to read it, no matter how high you rank.

Muhammed Moeez
October 17, 2017 6:23 pm

“SEO is deliberately complicated” I don’t think I have agreed more to anything than this in the past week or so. SEO is simple. And it can be simplified even more. Well done Alex!

Steve Hemmer
October 6, 2017 3:19 pm

Most excellent article. Really did a great job of simplifying SEO and taking a lot of the “mystery” out of it. Thanks so much for the great info.

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