People often turn to search engines (like Google or Bing) when they have a question, or to do research before making a purchase. The higher your business shows up in search results, the better the chance that people will click on your website and learn more about your brand.
Paid advertising campaigns on search engines could help, but the costs can also quickly add up. Investing in search engine optimization (SEO) is another option that can lead to a steady stream of organic traffic (i.e., free) to your website. Here’s what SEO means and how to optimize your website.
What is SEO?
SEO is a type of digital marketing that aims to make your website appear higher in search engine results pages (SERPs). Because Google has the vast majority of search engine market share, SEO efforts are often aimed at helping your website rank higher on Google’s SERPs. But SEO work can also help with ranking on other search engines, such as Bing.
A lot of factors can impact your search engine rankings, and these can broadly be broken into four types of SEO that you can focus on.
The four types of search engine optimization
1. On-page SEO
On-page SEO refers to what visitors see on a web page. For example, the page’s URL, headings, and whether the content aligns with a visitor’s search query.
Consider the blog post you’re reading right now: The page has a URL, a title (H1, which designates the size of a headline or subheadline) that describes what the page is about, sections with H2s, and subsections with H3s and H4s. This structure is meant to help you better understand the content and quickly find the sections most relevant to you.
Keywords and keyphrases help search engine spiders (also called crawlers or bots) understand your website and specific pages. You might already know some of your target keywords—if you sell t-shirts, you might want your product pages to rank for phrases like “fun t-shirts” or “best shirts for mom."
Although using keywords is an SEO tactic, you don’t want to simply repeat the same keywords over and over on a page. Today’s search engine algorithms better understand words and phrases in context, and actually penalize sites that “stuff” their pages full of keywords.
For instance, if you’re working on a t-shirt product page that has a short description, you might put your target keyword in the page’s URL, in the title of the description, and once or twice in the body of the description text, but you don’t need to repeat it every sentence.
2. Technical SEO
Technical SEO refers to what’s going on behind the scenes—that is, everything you don’t see on a website.
How long it takes for a page to load, how long people stay on it, whether the page is secure, and whether you designed your website with a mobile experience in mind can all affect your page’s rank. You can also use your target keyword as the alternative (alt) text for your product images.
If you have a lot of product pages and don’t have the resources to create unique product descriptions for each page, you want to make sure you don’t get penalized for having too much repetition. You can do this by adding a “no index” tag to the product pages that you don’t want the search engines to index (yet). Although technical, you also may be able to figure out how to address this issue even if you don’t have a lot of technical expertise.
Many platforms and tools, including Shopify, automatically incorporate or make it easy to implement SEO best practices. However, you may need to hire a developer or SEO expert if you have a custom website or specific tasks, such as creating an SEO-optimized structure for your website.
3. Off-page SEO
Off-page SEO, or external SEO, refers to everything that can help your website rank but isn’t part of the page. For example, your brand’s authority can affect your website’s ability to rank. One way that Google assesses authority is by looking at the number and quality of other websites that link to you. These are called backlinks.
Some businesses contact journalists, writers, and other business owners to get new links to their websites. There’s an overlap between PR and link building.
You might also receive offers to buy links from other websites, and some businesses have gone to the extremes of building networks of websites that link to one another. However, low-quality links and trying to game the system can backfire and wind up hurting your website.
4. Local SEO
Local SEO refers to getting your website to rank higher in location-specific searches (e.g., “fun t-shirts near me”) and in map apps. It can be vital if you run a retail store or sell services locally, but it isn’t crucial if you only sell products or services online.
How to optimize your website for SEO—a guide for entrepreneurs
In practice, helping your website rank higher can involve every type of SEO—and there’s no silver bullet here. You might have great on-page SEO but still have trouble ranking if your website is technically inadequate.
Free tools and resources to help with SEO optimization
Search engines and SEO-focused companies offer many free tools to analyze your website’s SEO and track how you’re performing against your competition. Many tools have paid tiers with additional features, but free plans can offer you good insights.
- Google’s tools. Use Google Search Console to analyze your website’s performance with different SEO ranking factors and Google Business Profile to create a profile for local SEO. Google Analytics, Keyword Planner, and PageSpeed Insights are also helpful free tools.
- Bing Webmaster Tools. Although people don’t use Bing as much as Google, you may still want to create a free account to better understand and manage your site’s rankings on Bing. You can also use Bing Places for Business for local SEO.
- Keyword research and backlink checkers. You can use keyword research tools to figure out what potential customers are searching for, how your competitors rank for those keywords, and whether there might be opportunities for you to outrank your rivals. Backlink tools also help you analyze which websites link to your site (or the competition) and the linking site’s authority. Ahrefs, Moz, and Semrush are three well-known SEO tools.
- Image resizers. Use tools such as Squoosh, Adobe Express, Avada, and TinyIMG to shrink your image file sizes, which can improve page loading times and the time it takes for the first byte of information to go from your website to a browser—two search-engine ranking factors.
A lot of work goes into improving a website’s rank and maintaining its top positions in the SERPs. At a minimum, here are some things you can do to help.
On-page SEO checklist
- Use keywords in your H1. Your H1 headline is what greets readers at the top of your page. Incorporate your target keyword in the H1 and organize other sections into H2s, with H3 and H4 headlines. You can use your primary or related keywords in these headings as well.
- Use keywords in your title tags. Your title tag is the title of the page, such as “top funny t-shirts” for a collections page. It’s generally what shows up in the search results. You should format your title tag as an H1 and include your target keywords, but try to keep it to less than 60 characters to ensure the tag isn’t cut short on the SERP.
- Create enticing meta descriptions. The meta description appears under your title tag in SERPs and can help people understand what they might find on your page. Meta descriptions don’t typically appear on the page (they’re usually added in the back end of the page), but they help describe the page to draw users to it.
- Keywords in the body content. You also want to include your target keywords in the body content of your page, which might consist of the main sections of a blog post, a brief introduction at the top of a collection, or your product descriptions.
- Add internal links to your content. Linking to other pages on your website, such as relevant collections pages, product pages, or blog posts, can help keep visitors on your site. Similarly, it can help search engine spiders find new pages and understand which pages on your website are related and important.
- Use various types of media. Adding images, videos, and audio to your pages can also help them rank because these files may appear in search results, such as Google Images.
- Optimize content that’s above the fold. Be especially mindful of the information on your page’s first screen, such as images or videos, because the loading time can affect your ranking and user experience. For product pages, try to have the product's image and list its key benefits within this area.
Off-page SEO checklist
- Research competitors’ backlinks. Try to figure out which websites link to your competitors, because these sites might be open to linking to your website too.
- Implement a link-building strategy. Think about how you can get mentions and links from other businesses and the media. You might send samples to well-known freelancers or journalists, connect with fellow business owners through your local chamber of commerce, or appear as a guest on a podcast.
Technical SEO checklist
- Create and submit your sitemap. A sitemap (which Shopify automatically creates for you) can help search engines find and index your website. You may need to submit a new sitemap if you migrate or make significant changes to your site.
- Review your site in Google Search Console. Ensure your website and the pages you want to appear in search results are being indexed, and fix errors that exclude pages from search results. Sections in Google Search Console let you check your website’s mobile version and your pages’ performance based on several core statistics.
- Compress and add descriptive alt text to your images. Smaller image files can help with loading speeds. Alt text can help your images appear in search results and makes your pages more accessible for visually impaired visitors.
- Check your site speed and mobile friendliness. You can do this with the Google PageSpeed Insights and Mobile-Friendly Test tools. Website themes from the Shopify theme store are all mobile-friendly by design.
- Secure your site. Using security protocols (i.e., HTTPS or the lock icon in your URL) is a ranking factor, and a best practice if you’re asking customers to share information. It’s also been standard for Shopify stores for years.
Website SEO FAQ
Does FAQ schema help website SEO?
You can use schema markup—a programming language that you can use to explain how you’re structuring information on a page—to tell search engines that you’re creating a FAQ section. These questions and answers might appear near the top of the SERPs, which can help you attract new website visitors.
What are the different types of SEO?
You can categorize SEO as on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO. Components of each can be important for making your website overall and specific pages rank in the search engine results. Local SEO is another type of SEO that’s important for physical shops and companies that focus on local services, and SEO content marketing is a type of SEO in which a site publishes article-style content to rank for a broader set of keywords.
Is SEO easy to learn?
Anyone can learn the basics of SEO; many free blogs and courses are available online. However, there are frequent changes, so you want to stay on top of algorithm updates and best practices to maintain your website ranking.
Can I do SEO by myself?
You can do SEO yourself, but it might not be the best use of your time if you have a business to run. Implementing the technical aspects can take expertise or a lot of time. Many companies work with an SEO consultant if they want their website to rank.
What are keywords for SEO?
Keywords are the main words or phrases people use when searching for information about a topic. Using keywords and their synonyms on your website can help search engines understand what the page is about and when it should show your page in the search results. If you have a blog, you might focus each blog post on a specific keyword.