SEO FAQ: Your Most Common Search Engine Optimization Questions Answered

This SEO FAQ is a quick reference to help answer the most frequent questions marketers ask about search engine optimization.
Article Outline

Search engine optimization, or SEO for short, has become one of the most important elements of a modern marketing strategy. But as search engines continually update their algorithms, and AI moves quickly to the forefront of new developments in search, it’s normal for even the most seasoned marketers to have questions. We put together this SEO FAQ to help answer the most frequent questions we hear from customers about search engine marketing. Whether you’re an SEO whiz or still learning the ropes, use this as a quick reference to answer those burning SEO questions.

A young woman with a pen looks at a laptop and ponders her SEO FAQs
Stumped on SEO topics? Staring at the screen won’t help. Reading these SEO FAQs will.

SEO FAQ: What does SEO stand for?

SEO is an acronym for search engine optimization. It refers to the manipulation of online content and website code in ways that align with the expectations and behavior of search engines and online searchers alike.

SEO is often described as “organic search” because it supports businesses and brands’ ability to rank naturally within search engines based on their relevance and authority, as it pertains to the online user’s search intentions, and on the level of visitor engagement, without payment of any kind.

SEO FAQ: What is SEM?

SEM stands for search engine marketing. Generally, it refers to the paid side of search engine marketing. SEM primarily involves gaining website traffic by placing advertising on search engines. It’s often referred to as paid search. This often takes the form of text ads that look much like organic search results.

SEO FAQ: What is PPC?

PPC is short for pay per click. It’s a payment method for paid search advertising and other types of online ads. Pay per click ads are one way to pursue SEM, or search engine marketing. It’s common to use PPC and SEM in conjunction with SEO, especially to drive traffic from keywords that would be too difficult (or expensive) to rank for organically.

SEO FAQ: What is on-page SEO? What is technical SEO? What’s the difference?

On-page SEO refers, unsurprisingly, to the content you put on your webpages. On-page SEO includes techniques like keyword strategy and optimization, readability analysis, internal and external linking, and creating helpful content that will rank well on search engines.

Technical SEO refers to all the elements on the back end of your website that contribute to SEO. Technical SEO encompasses everything from how your pages and URLs are structured, elements like page speed and overall web performance, the metadata you include on each page, how images and video are crawled by search engines, and the list goes on.

We’ll get into elements that contribute to both technical and on-page SEO in this SEO FAQ. We won’t always identify them as such, but a quick rule of thumb: If you would assign something to a creative or content person, it’s probably on-page. If you need a web developer or coder to get it done, it’s most likely technical SEO.

SEO FAQ: What are the most effective on-page SEO techniques for better visibility?

On-page SEO forms the foundation of your search visibility. Ensure your website’s title tags, meta descriptions, and header tags are well-optimized with relevant keywords. Create valuable, informative, and engaging content that keeps users on your site longer. Don’t forget to include internal links to improve user navigation and crawlability for search engines.

SEO FAQ: What is a SERP?

SERP stands for search engine results page. When you enter a search query into Google or other search engines, the list of results you get is the SERP. You might also see the term “SERP features” used in your SEO tools to refer to parts of the SERP that aren’t part of the ranked search results, such as image carousels, “people also asked” queries, and knowledge panel features.

SEO FAQ: How do search engines make money?

Search engines make money by getting searchers to click on ads. These ads are displayed both on the search engine results pages (SERPs) and on ad networks they are associated with. Just as with any other medium, the more people that use a specific search engine, the more advertisers are willing to pay for their ad to run. Search engines are extremely vested in providing the best, most relevant organic search results – every single time. It’s the only quality that makes them sticky, and the only competitive edge that matters in their business model.

SEO FAQ: What are search crawlers?

Search engines use automated programs called bots or spiders to scan websites in their entirety, including the copy itself, the code, and the sitemap. These “crawlers” are how the search engines evaluate and index all the content on the internet to make it available to anyone who wants to search. You might see the word “crawl” used in your SEO tools to describe a single scan by a search engine’s bots. (For example, you can request a new crawl of your site from Google after you make important updates or fixes that will better reflect your website’s structure).

Any time someone searches online, search engines interpret the terms they use and pull indexed content from various crawled websites. The search algorithm determines what content to display on the SERP (search engine results page). What content ultimately gets displayed depends on all the factors we’re discussing in this SEO FAQ.

SEO FAQ: What’s a keyword? What’s a key phrase?

A keyword is a word that gets typed into the search bar on a search engine. Marketers spend a lot of time, money, and resources researching what keywords their prospects and customers are using when they look for products and services. SEO tools such as SEMRush, Ahrefs and Moz house massive lists of keywords that marketers can access to make this research easier.

A key phrase is a keyword that contains one or more words. The terms keyword and key phrase are more or less interchangeable, at least in B2B marketing, where it’s uncommon that any product can be searched using just a single word.

A keyword can be broken down into three parts: the head, modifier and tail. The head is what the search is about; the modifier adds detail and narrows the search, without changing the intent of the search. The tail adds clarity and further narrows the search. In the example below, Apple is the keyword, tablet is the modifier, and white is the tail.:

Apple | Apple iPad | Apple iPad black refurbished

When marketers or other content creators write SEO content for the web, they start with a primary keyword and a few secondary keywords. Based on their research, they identify the keywords most likely to be input by the buyers they want. For example, the primary key phrase for this blog is SEO FAQ. And just there, we managed to fit it into our copy one more time in hopes that the search engine gods will smile upon us.

SEO FAQ: What’s a long tail keyword?

A long tail keyword is a keyword that contains multiple words. People looking for something specific tend to use long tail keywords. For instance, “What is the best marketing automation platform?” is a long tail keyword for the keyword “marketing automation.” (Pro tip: No need to search this particular question on your own; the answer is Act-On).

SEO FAQ: How do I conduct keyword research to target the right audience?

Keyword research is a critical step in SEO. Use keyword research tools to discover relevant keywords with a good search volume and low competition. Consider user intent and long-tail keywords to better understand what your audience is looking for. Tailor your content and optimize your pages based on these insights to increase your chances of ranking higher in search results.

SEO FAQ: How does page speed contribute to SEO? What about page experience?

Google uses factors like page speed and overall page experience to evaluate a website’s overall crawlability, which can promote or demote that site’s search results. This is an aspect of technical SEO that marketers ignore at their peril. You can use Google tools like Search Console to see which pages are delivering a good experience for users, and which need improvements to factors like load times and plugin speeds. The thinking behind these factors contributing to SEO is simple: Google wants its search to be a good experience for its users. If you search something on Google, but it takes too long for the page to load, you might bounce from the page and abandon Google Search in favor of another provider.

If your speed and page experience needs work, there are things you can do to improve it. Compress images, leverage browser caching, and minify CSS and JavaScript files to reduce page load times. Choose a reliable hosting provider and consider a Content Delivery Network (CDN) to distribute content efficiently across the globe.

Close up of brown hands using a laptop to enter a SEO FAQ into a search engine
Any time someone searches on the internet, they’re a potential audience for your SEO content.

SEO FAQ: What are 404 errors?

Usually when you see some version of “Sorry you’re seeing this, but it appears the information you’re looking for no longer exists,” it’s a 404 error.

The HTTP 404 Not Found error indicates that the server could not find the page you tried to reach. This indicates that a specific page may have been removed, or it may have been relocated, but its URL was not changed accordingly. This type of error can also appear if you accidently type in a wrong URL.

This can happen when you replace a product or service with something else, information is repurposed, and/or content is relocated to other sections of your website. It’s not a great experience for your user, but you can control the formatting of the 404 pagers, so you can soften the effect. You can add attractive graphics, for example, and provide links to pages the visitor might like to see.

SEO FAQ: What are 301 redirects?

301 redirects are communications between your website and search crawlers, which indicate that content has been moved but can still be found in another location of your website. You set them up when you have a reason to redirect the visitor to a certain page.

Redirects preserve the equity of your content so that you can maintain the type of online visibility you’re used to. And since the redirect is not obvious, most visitors will have an uninterrupted user experience and continue to engage with your brand.

SEO FAQ: What is an XML sitemap?

The best way to think of XML sitemaps is to view them as blueprints of your website that search engines can use to locate specific forms of information, as soon as possible.

While search engines are able to crawl any website on their own, being able to connect with an XML Sitemap allows them to quickly, completely understand:

  • What your website represents
    • What specific forms and categories of content you have
    • Where your content is located
    • What level of priority each category of content represents in terms of:
      • How often they should be crawled
      • What type of visibility they should have
      • Which landing pages should be accessible to online users

When websites do not have this type of sitemap to reference, search engines essentially are left to make their own decisions about your site.

SEO FAQ: What is a Robots.txt file?

Webmasters and site owners create robots.txt (robots) files in order to offer specific instructions to search engines as to what areas of their website should be crawled and indexed, or accessible to online users.

Basically, when search crawlers want to pull content from your website, they refer to the robots file to see whether or not you, as the site owner, want users to be exposed to particular forms of information.

Depending on the purpose of your website, these files can vary in the types of information they protect and preserve. Most of the time, areas of a website that require users to submit a username and password are included in the robots file in order to prevent this specific type of information from being indexed or engaged by general online users.

SEO FAQ: What does “search authority” mean? Domain authority? Page authority?

“Authority” is how trustworthy and expert your domain or page is considered to be, as evaluated by a search engine’s algorithm. Many factors, such as the use of language, richness of syntax, links from high-ranking sites, etc., factor into perceived authority to a greater or lesser degree.

Link building (or link earning) refers to the act of attracting or acquiring external links from other websites. These links signal to search engines that the content on your site is unique, meaningful to online users, and is authoritative within the digital space you occupy. The higher the authority of the sites that link to you, the more value these incoming links have. They are also known as backlinks or inbound links.

Building authoritative backlinks takes time and effort. Focus on creating exceptional content that naturally attracts links from reputable websites in your industry. Engage in outreach to relevant influencers, partners, and websites to build mutually beneficial relationships. Remember, quality matters more than quantity when it comes to backlinks.

SEO FAQ: What is “duplicate content”?

Duplicate content is material that appears on the web in multiple locations or URLs. This could be on your own site, or it could be duplicate content across two or more disparate sites.

Duplicate content can confuse search engines, leading to potential ranking issues. Implement canonical tags to indicate the preferred version of a page and consolidate duplicate content under a single URL. This ensures that search engines attribute the content properly.

SEO FAQ: How often should I use keywords in my content? What should I know about keyword density?

Keyword density (SEO) is the number of times a keyword or key phrase appears on a web page as a percentage of the total number of words on the page. There’s really no optimal keyword density for your content, but if it’s so dense as to look like you’re stuffing keywords into your copy for the sake of optimization, you might draw a penalty. Some experts peg between 0.5% and 2.5% as good percentages to strive for and something as high as 4% as likely to draw a penalty, but that’s not what really matters.

What does matter is that you write for your reader, not for the search engine. It’s good if your keyword is in your headline and SEO title, and a few of your subheads, but never distort natural copy to accommodate a keyword. If you’re writing naturally, you’ll tend to use synonyms and vary your phrasing, and Google (among other search engines) has begun to look for this. They’re getting better at understanding context – and you can help them by using well-written, informative content that includes words they would expect to find in that context.

SEO FAQ: How can I monitor my website’s success or understand how well my SEO campaign is performing?

There are literally hundreds of paid programs that offer various details around your website’s performance, as well as the extent of your SEO success. However, it is important to know that each paid platform gathers data slightly differently. Google Analytics is a baseline tool. The platform is free, as long as you have a Gmail account, and can be easily installed by even the most casual of marketers. With Google Analytics, you can gain critical insight in real time, as well as over historical periods, about

  • Total traffic
  • Organic traffic
  • Direct traffic
  • Referral traffic
  • Mobile traffic
  • Top landing pages
  • Conversions

You will also want to set up Google Search Console, and Bing Webmaster Tools in order to stay up-to-date with the technical health of your business’s website. With these free platforms, you can review the following details that relate to your website’s overall performance:

  • Broken links – 404 errors, soft 404 errors, 500 server errors
  • XML Sitemap status and ability to submit new ones
  • Landing page appearance within search listings
  • Rich snippet implementation and appearance within search listings
  • Warning messages that relate to hacked servers, duplicate content, and other possible penalties related to manipulative SEO tactics

SEO FAQ: How long does it take for search engines to recognize when content is published or when edits are applied to my website?

It depends on what actions you take. If you were to publish a new landing page or blog article today, and take no other action, search engines would probably take about three days to a week to find and index your content. If you want search engines to recognize new content and understand how it relates to your overall website, as well as how it supports your overall SEO efforts, you should create and implement a new XML Sitemap and submit it to your Search Console and Webmaster Tools profiles.

SEO FAQ: How many links should I have on each landing page or blog article?

A general rule of thumb is to have no more than one link for every 400–450 words. Use external links only when citing an external source, such as for a statistic. if you’re offering multiple citations within a small amount of text, forego a few of the external links and just name the source.

Too many links may lead Google and other search engines to conclude that you’re creating an excessive amount of links as a means of increasing your keyword rankings. Worse, they can be distracting to the reader. Make sure the links are relevant, and add value.

A magnifying glass rests on a keyboard to communicate the idea of SEO FAQs
It takes a lot of research and critical thinking to devise SEO strategy.

SEO FAQ: How does word count affect SEO?

Google and other search engines do not require websites to have a tremendous amount of text in order to achieve superior visibility. However, there are plenty of studies that show a direct correlation between lengthier content (content that has 1,500 words or more) and increased engagement and visibility.

This doesn’t mean you have to make sure that every page on your website has that much content. But when you have relevant information your target audience is looking for, in rich detail, that will go a long way in supporting your website’s overall SEO goals – partly because it’s more likely to satisfy your readers.

SEO FAQ: How does mobile usability impact my SEO?

“Mobile SEO” or “mobile optimization” describes the effort of applying search engine optimization elements that help increase your website’s visibility in mobile search queries.

Consider that search is the leading web-based activity performed on mobile devices. Mobile SEO can have a profound impact on your retail business by attracting on-the-go consumers. For B2B, remember that people looking for business information are also increasingly using smart phones

and tablets to get it. Make sure that their questions can be answered by your website –however they choose to access it.

Google recently finished its transition to mobile-first indexing, meaning it will index sites according to their mobile version, not the desktop version. The most effective way to ensure that your entire website can be found and engaged by mobile searchers is to have a responsive website.

SEO FAQ: What is responsive design?

This is a fluid-grid design that determines what type of device is accessing it, and responds by displaying the most appropriate layout for that device. This results in high-quality, interactive experiences, and allows readers to:

  • Easily read copy
  • Immediately navigate to the most desired web page
  • Easily scroll without having to adjust screen settings
  • Easily pan in and out

The page layout does not shrink; it changes, leaving out many elements that would display on a larger screen. Responsive websites align with the parameters of each and every single type of smartphone, tablet, and desktop device, ensuring that your website will display as your prefer in each instance.

SEO FAQ: How can I tell if my website is mobile-friendly?

Mobile-friendliness is crucial, considering the increasing number of users accessing the web from mobile devices. Employ responsive design to ensure your website adapts seamlessly to different screen sizes. Optimize images for faster loading and minimize server response time. Conduct mobile usability tests to identify and fix any issues that could hinder the mobile user experience.

You can enter your website into Google’s mobile-friendly testing platform to see how well it displays on mobile devices and how search crawlers view your website. Use Google Search Console for more in-depth results on each of your individual pages.

SEO FAQ: How can I improve my website’s organic search rankings?

To boost your website’s organic rankings, focus on producing high-quality, relevant content that resonates with your target audience and aligns with their search intent. Conduct thorough keyword research to identify valuable opportunities, optimize your meta tags and on-page elements, and build authoritative backlinks from reputable sources. Remember, patience and consistency are key in the ever-evolving world of SEO.

A closeup of a white hand holding a smartphone in front of a laptop, both screens show data graphics
Using the right tools to pull your SEO metrics and KPIs is crucial to mastering search engine marketing.

SEO FAQ: What are some common mistakes to avoid in SEO that could harm my website’s rankings?

Avoid black-hat SEO tactics such as keyword stuffing, cloaking, or buying links. Duplicate content can also negatively impact your rankings, so ensure proper canonicalization. Focus on creating user-centric content and providing an excellent experience for your visitors.

SEO FAQ: What are the implications of AI and machine learning on SEO strategies?

The search providers are going all in on upgrading their platforms for AI. Earlier in 2023, Microsoft integrated ChatGPT into Bing search. Soon after, Google rolled out a beta of Bard AI for Google Search. Search engine optimization and search engine marketing tools are quickly following suit, with a variety of tools now available to leverage AI for keyword research and content composition, among other functions.

It’s still early days, and even the experts haven’t fully wrapped their minds around the transformative potential of AI for SEO. Here’s a way to test it. Use the AI results for Google or Bing to search “SEO FAQ” on Google. Was this page the first result? If it wasn’t, we at Act-On still aren’t sure about the full implications of AI on SEO.

SEO FAQ: What are the SEO implications of moving to a new domain or redesigning a website?

Migrating to a new domain or redesigning a website requires careful planning to maintain SEO equity. Implement proper 301 redirects, update sitemaps and robots.txt, and monitor search console for errors. Communicate the changes to search engines to avoid significant ranking fluctuations.

What's New?