SEO Basics and Free Tools

Feb, 11 2021
4 Minutes

I knew almost nothing about SEO before starting this website.

I still know very little about SEO, but I finally have a couple pages that are bringing in traffic from Google. Additionally, I've helped a friend get started with SEO and they're seeing some traffic from Google too.

This post is about how to go from zero to one with SEO.

First, I'll discuss SEO at a conceptual level. Then, I'll discuss some technical gotchas that took me a long time to learn. Finally, I share a list of tools and tips that have gotten me started.

SEO 101

In this section, I'll cover 3 topics that will give you a conceptual understanding of SEO:

  • Ending the User's Search Journey
  • Backlinks
  • Domain Authority

Ending the User's Search Journey

Search Engines are trying to answer a user's query as quickly as possible. They do this by detecting if a search result "ends the user's journey".

This means that your content should be so relevant that the user doesn't hit the back button and go to another result.

Backlinks are links from other websites that link to you. These are viewed as endorsements for quality. They are some of the most important signals that search engines use in their rankings.

Backlinks come in two flavors:

  • Regular backlinks, sometimes called "do follow" links
  • No follow backlinks

Regular backlinks are strong signals. No follow backlinks are weak signals.

Websites with user generated content like Reddit and Twitter generally mark all links as "no follow" because a user could spam those platforms with links to create more backlinks for their content.

Because backlinks can be gamed, Search Engines have heuristics to detect manipulation and have gotten quite good at this. If you have millions of regular backlinks but zero "no follow" backlinks - that's suspicious because good content will likely get shared on social media from time to time.

Domain Equity

As a website does better and better over time, it will start gaining backlinks across its various pages. All of these backlinks vouch not just for that page, but also the entire domain.

Basically, this means that if you rank well for one page, you build up equity across all of your pages. All of your future content will start off with a small boost. This is like developing a reputation for good content, which Google will reward in the future.

Technical Basics

I built this website with vanilla Next.js and ran into a few technical gotchas that limited my initial SEO success. Next.js is very fast, which helps SEO, but here's what I learned the hard way:

  • Meta tags - You will rank better if you have your meta tags in good order. Here's a good guide on how to use meta tags for SEO. Meta tags are also where you set the social media preview image, which is important for doing well on social. And they're different between Twitter and OpenGraph! (Here's a good guide on social media meta tags)
  • Sitemap.xml - Google Search Console allows you to submit a registry of all pages on your website. This is especially useful for new websites that Google may not even know exists. There are lots of libraries that will generate this for you (i.e. sitemap via npm)

Tools and Tips

Use these free tools:

  • Google Search Console - a must have for new websites. This is where you register your sitemap.xml
  • Google Analytics - or any analytics alternative. You'll want to have some sense for how your pages are doing. Supposedly, Google doesn't use this data to influence rankings, but who knows if some mashed up/data sausage version of this info finds its way indirectly back into the indexing process somehow. Most likely not, but this is a conspiracy story that doesn't hurt you to believe in
  • Ahrefs Keyword Generator - this tool has been absolutely essential for me. Instead of targeting random terms, plug in a relevant term and see what similar terms might have greater search volume!
  • Ahrefs Webmaster Tools - this is like Google Search Console on steroids. Remember, this tool is free. Ahrefs primary tools are paid, but this is an excellent product that is free

Pro tip: if you use the free Ahrefs Webmaster Tools, and then try to use their free Keyword Generator while you're logged in, you'll get redirected to sign up for a paid tier. To get around this, open the Keyword Generator in another browser, and scroll to the bottom and click on the term "Keyword Generator" again.

I don't have a ton of tips, but here are some of my lessons:

  • Use images/graphics to supplement your content. All my articles that do well tend to have some graphics
  • "How to" articles are a solid category for content
  • Use keyword research to help you write your title. Content wise, go ahead and write about whatever you want, but at the very end, you can optimize your title for something people are actually searching for. You might even "pivot" some of your content after the fact
  • Look for ways to create "formulaic" pages. I haven't used this personally, but I've seen a bunch of people see some success with this. At a high level, the idea is to create pages that are all similar to each other. For example, if one page ranks well for basketball, maybe create another one for football. Doesn't always apply, but I think it applies more often than you might think. Maybe you can repeat content by flavor, city, country, color, etc.


There are millions of articles that will be able to take it from here, but I hope this one helps you get started.

Getting your first page to rank in the top 10 on Google can take a while, and it can be frustrating if you're not getting any results (assuming that you're somewhat trying).

But if you write articles that can help end someone's search journey, and keep in mind all of the technical gotchas outlined above, then you're actually on your way to ranking.

Best of luck!