SEO 101: Five basics of search engine optimisation

Do you know your meta descriptions from your alt tags or is search engine optimisation (SEO) still something of a mystery to you? Several of my clients have mentioned recently that SEO leaves them bothered, bewildered and confused. So, this week, we’re going back to basics for SEO 101.

SEO 101 #1. What is a title tag?

Some would argue that the title tag (sometimes called a ‘meta title’) of each web page is the single most important on-page SEO element. It’s a short line of text (6-12 words and no more than 70 characters) that describes the content of your web page.

According to Moz, the optimal format for a title tag is:

Primary Keyword – Secondary Keyword | Brand Name


Brand Name | Primary Keyword and Secondary Keyword

You can see the title tag of a web page in several ways. When you’re on a web page, you’ll notice a grey tab at the top of the screen (see below). If you hover your mouse over this tab, the full title tag should be visible.

SEO 101: Where to find a title tag





Your title tag also shows up in the search engine listings as that handy underlined piece of copy that tells you what the web page is about.

SEO 101: Title tag in search engine listings


Your title tag should feature your focus keyword or phrase for each page as near to the beginning of the tag as possible. Each page should also have its own unique title.


SEO 101 #2. What is a meta description?

A meta description (also known as a ‘description tag’ or ‘SEO description’) is approximately 140 characters of text that appears under your title tag in search engine listings (see the image above). In fact, in the image above, my meta description is a few characters too long, so I’ve tweaked it now!

Meta descriptions are not used to determine search rankings but they are still a valuable tool for communicating key facts and a call to action at a glance. Your meta description needs to entice people to your site with an accurate reflection of what customers can expect to find on the page.

In a recent YouTube video from GoogleWebmasterHelp, Matt Cutts explained that it is better to have no meta description than duplicate meta descriptions on every page of your website. If you leave your meta description blank, Google will create its own snippet, usually from the first 140 characters on your web page. Therefore, writing your own meta description means that you keep control of what customers are reading when they find you in the search engines.

You should still try to include your focus keyword or phrase in your meta description.


SEO 101 #3. What are keywords?

When a person uses a search engine, they start their search by typing a word or phrase into the search bar. We can safely assume that someone looking for a copywriter, for example, might type in ‘freelance copywriter’ or simply ‘copywriter’. They may add a location too, such as ‘copywriter Nottingham’ or, if they’re using a mobile device, they might speak their query, ‘Where can I find a freelance copywriter?’ This is what people mean when they talk about keywords.

SEO 101 keyword search


Several years ago, keywords were the lifeblood of SEO strategies. Unfortunately, this saw a massive increase in keyword-stuffed, unreadable websites that worked for search engines but not for people.

Google’s various algorithm updates, including Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird, have been about getting rid of spammy, keyword-littered content in favour of reader-friendly, value-packed content.

I’ve mentioned before that I still think keyword research has its place (the Google Adwords Keyword Planner is a good starting place), simply because it encourages you to think about the words your customers are using to find you instead of the words that might be used within your profession (for example, far more people search for the term ‘braces’ than ‘orthodontics’).  However, the search engines also look for and understand natural language that relates to your chosen keywords, so things aren’t nearly as prescriptive as they once were.

You might hear people talking about long-tail keywords or phrases, which are likely to attract lower search volumes but significantly higher click through (CTR) and conversion rates. Here’s an example.

Imagine someone is looking for a house to rent. They type ‘house’ into Google and are met with more than a billion search results. Eek! They have no idea where to start, so they decide to narrow down the search a bit to ‘house Nottingham’. They are now faced with 45 million results. They change their search to ‘3 bed house Nottingham’ and narrow their search further to 3 million results, so they decide to clarify things by looking for houses in a specific area of the city. By typing ‘3 bed house west bridgford nottingham’, the results come down to 227,000. Of course, they want to rent, not buy, so they add that to their search too by typing ‘3 bed house to rent in west bridgford nottingham’ – 93,000 listings come back. Now, this person doesn’t want to give up their beloved cat, so they change their search to ‘3 bed house to rent in west bridgford nottingham pets allowed’. The search that started at more than a billion results is now down to 74,000 and all of the listings on page one of Google are highly relevant.

When you focus on long-tail keywords, the chances are that you will attract people to your website who are much more likely to buy from you because you meet their specific needs. It’s also much easier to achieve a high ranking for the long-tail keywords above than for a single word like ‘house’.


SEO 101 #4. What are heading tags?

Heading tags are a way of telling the search engines what the headings and subheadings are on each web page. If you think about a typical article, whether it’s in print or online, the main heading is typically the most important, telling the reader what they can expect from the article. The subheadings help to signpost further key points in the copy.

Giving your main heading an H1 tag simply tells the search engines that this is the main title of your article – the point of focus and the content that’s most relevant to your readers. H2, H3, H4 and H5 tags indicate subheadings and sub-subheadings.

Try to use your focus keywords (as long as you can do so naturally) in your main heading and one or more of your subheadings.


SEO 101 #5. What are alt tags?

Alt tags (also called ‘alt attributes’ or ‘alt text’) are essentially labels that describe the images on your page; they provide a text alternative to non-text elements of your web page. This is important for visually impaired people who may be using a screen reader to view your website or if someone has chosen not to view images. It also provides a meaning and description to images that can be read by the search engines.

There is lots of conflicting advice about what makes the perfect alt tag but I think this excellent article on the WebAIM website about writing good Alt tags is as good a starting point as any.

I have seen websites cramming their alt tags with every possible keyword imaginable. This is a black hat (bad) SEO practise that can see your site being penalised by Google. Just imagine using a screen reader and suddenly happening upon a list of keywords. How frustrating for the user!

I would also caution against writing something like ‘This is an image showing someone typing keywords into a search engine’. The screen reader knows it’s looking at an image, so to say ‘This is an image’ is redundant.

The WebAIM article mentioned above advises us to consider two things when writing an alt tag – content and function. If, for example, an image contains a link to your Services page, it’s important to let people know the function of that image. You could perhaps make your alt tag say, ‘Continue to Services page’. If your image is a headshot on your About page, the alt tag should simply be your name.


Although there is much more to search engine optimisation, these are the five on-page components that I am asked to explain a lot. I really hope this article helps as a starting point. Feel free to ask me questions on my Facebook page or leave a comment below.

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