This article is a follow-up to my last entry about search engine optimization (or SEO), which you can also find on EzineArticles. While the first article provided a broad overview of what SEO is and how it can help you market your business, this one is meant to provide a more detailed outline of how the process works and some of the tasks you should perform in order to optimize a site. My intended audience for this article is web design firms and marketing companies who are looking to break into the world of SEO, but need a primer to help them get started.
There is one key piece of information to keep in mind throughout the entire optimization process, and it can be said like this: Search engines have one goal, and that is to return the most relevant results for any given search query. SEO is essentially the process of ensuring that those search engines understand that your site or your client’s site is, in fact, a good, relevant result for certain queries. For example, if you or your client owns a coffee shop in Philadelphia, then their website is absolutely a relevant result for the query “Philadelphia coffee shops”. However, the search engine algorithms can’t determine the relevance of a given page on their own if the site isn’t properly optimized. Let’s take a look at the key steps that are involved in optimizing a site, thus allowing the search engines to realize, “oh! This is a very relevant result for the query I was given”.
Choosing Your Primary Keywords and Phrases
Choosing the primary keywords and phrases which you will be optimizing for is one of the most important pieces of SEO. You need to find what I call a “middleground” keyword – something that’s not so broad that it’s useless to optimize for, but not so specific that no one is searching for it.
Consider a client who asks you to optimize for the phrase “real estate”. With very few exceptions, this is a perfect example of a keyword that is simply too broad to be worthwhile. Anyone searching for “real estate” will immediately realize that they need to refine their search beyond such a broad term. For example – are they looking to buy real estate, sell it, invest in it, or find a real estate agent? And are they looking for commercial properties or residential properties? To buy or to rent?
It should be immediately clear that optimizing for such a broad term is almost always a wasted effort. Not only because the optimization process itself will be excessively difficult, but because, more than likely, the traffic generated will not result in any sales ( “conversions”).
Now, let’s assume your client is ABC Real Estate in Bala Cynwd, PA, and they are residential real estate agents specializing in the Philadelphia market. They might ask you to optimize for “ABC Real Estate Bala Cynwd”. This is an example of a keyword that’s incredibly simple to optimize for (I probably wouldn’t even call it “optimization” since there is only one ABC Real Estate in Bala Cynwd, pretty much guaranteeing you the #1 result), but this keyword is almost useless for driving new traffic to the site. People searching for the company name already know about the company and probably know what the company does. You want to drive traffic from people who are searching for a product or service the company offers, even when the potential customer doesn’t know about the company yet.
“Homes for sale in Philadelphia” is a keyword to think about in this instance. We know from this query that the person performing the search is looking for homes for sale in Philadelphia. Our client is prepared to provide not only home search capability, but real estate agents who are willing to help the searcher in their quest for a new home. This is the kind of traffic you want to drive to the site. You should choose 2-3 similar keyword phrases to serve as the primary search goals. It’s important to note that your site will not be locked into appearing for only those phrases, if you perform the optimization correctly. Now, let’s take a look at how you actually go about doing that.
The first thing to look at when tasked with optimizing a site is the structure of the site itself – the HTML code, the URL/link structure, and the title and meta tags. If the site doesn’t exist yet, but you will need it to be optimized once it’s built, this section still very much applies, so read on.
A Note about flash based sites
If your site is done completely in flash, you may want to re-think your design, instead using flash for a header, footer, and/or borders, but leaving the main content as HTML and CSS. Otherwise, I recommend essentially building two full versions of the site – one in HTML and one in Flash. As I mentioned above, search engines are becoming much more effective at indexing flash pages, but you are still doing yourself a disservice in terms of SEO if your site is 100% flash based. Also, completely flash driven sites can often degrade user experience, but that’s a topic for another article.
Now let’s talk about URLs. Search engines like very clean URLs, the kind you see at the top of this (or any WordPress-based) blog. Even if your site is driven by dynamic content, you will want to rewrite your URLs to look like static pages. For example, rather than having /product-view.php?fromcat=5&id=32, you will want a url that looks more like /products/32/this-is-the-product-name.html. Not only is the actual URL part of what search engines look at when determine what a page might be about (which is why we include the product name), they also have a much easier time indexing static URLs as opposed to complicated dynamic URLs with a string of variables at the end. There are many ways to accomplish the rewriting, and it’s usually not very difficult. The easiest way is to use Apache’s mod_rewrite module, which lets you transparently redirect one URL to another, while the visitor only sees the original. If you are using ASP.net on IIS, there is an excellent rewrite module for IIS6, and IIS7 has built-in rewriting capabilities. Finally, development frameworks such as Fuse for PHP or Ruby on Rails have extensive “routing” functionality which allows very fine grained control over the URL structure.
Title and Meta Tags
The “title” and “meta” description tags are very important in SEO. These tags are your first chance to explain to a search engine what your site is all about, and you should follow some guidelines when generating these tags:
- The title and meta description tags should include your primary keywords and phrases, but only once. Don’t repeat “Philadelphia coffee shop” five times in the title tag, because the search engines will penalize the site for keyword stuffing.
- While there are no strict rules on length, the title tag should be no longer 60-80 characters, the meta tag around 200 maximum.
- The title and meta tags need to be different for every page. Even if the title or meta description tags for some pages don’t actually include your primary search phrases (and they don’t have to), they should be clear and relevant to every individual page.
It is a common SEO adage that “content is king”, and although the SEO process has gotten a bit more complex over the years, it is still largely true.
Your site should contain as much useful, unique content as possible. Simply plastering bits of text all over the site won’t do you much good, but the best thing you can do to optimize a site is to provide high quality content that people actually want to see or read. Developing such content can be tricky, but here are some basic guidelines:
- Every page should have at least two paragraphs of relevant content. There are some exceptions here because some pages simply don’t require any text, but you should try to work in as much high quality, relevant (remember: HIGH QUALITY and RELEVANT) textual content as possible.
- Don’t rely exclusively on bulleted lists. Bulleted lists are fine and won’t hurt your positioning, but they should be augmented by rich prose, since larger bodies of text will net you the most gains in terms of SEO.
- Include your targeted search keywords and phrases in the content, but don’t “stuff” keywords by repeating them more times than is reasonable. There is a balancing act to be performed here, but as a general rule, I try not to include the same keyword or phrase more than once per two paragraphs. There are plenty of exceptions, however, so it’s something that you have to develop a knack for after some trial and error.
- Your home page is the holy grail of content for your site. Every single website only gets one home page, so the content there is weighed very heavily by search engines. Make sure your home page content is of a decent length (at least 2 paragraphs), contains your primary keywords and phrases (gracefully – don’t keyword stuff), and is well written and relevant.
- Include as much content on as many different pages as you can. Remember, though: high quality and relevant. Don’t create pages for the sake of having more pages – think about information that will be relevant to your potential customers and provide it through your website. For example, if you are optimizing for a coffee shop in Philadelphia, a page dedicated to how to identify & choose the best coffee beans might be a great resource. Oftentimes, you will be surprised and unable to predict some of the keywords and phrases that drive people to your site, but these relevant “landing pages” ensure that you can pick up good traffic that you weren’t necessarily expecting.
Inbound Link Building
Another essential piece of the SEO puzzle is getting other sites to link back to yours. There are several ways to do this, but also some pitfalls to avoid.
- Directory submission – this is the process of simply adding your site to online directories that list and link to external sites. There are a few important things to remember when submitting your site to directories, however:
- There are a lot of good free directories that do not require a reciprocal link. Don’t get caught up paying for every submission (though there are some directories that are worth paying for).
- Make sure that the directory itself is in good standing with Google. You will want to check its Page Rank (Google’s 1/10 score of the importance of a site). The easiest way to check page rank is to install the Google Toolbar
- Make sure the directory links directly to your site and doesn’t first go to a tracking page. If the link is not direct, it is essentially useless.
- Try to find directories that allow you to specify the anchor text – the text that people will be clicking on to get to your site. Make the anchor text one of your primary keyword phrases, e.g. the words “Philadelphia coffee shop” should link to philacoffeeshopsite.com.
- Press release distribution – Your client should have press releases that outline the current happenings at their company. These should be posted as text (instead of or in addition to PDF) format both on the website, but also on aggregate press release sites that allow you to submit your own press release. You should also include links back to your site directly in the press release
- Social Networking & web 2.0 – There are many sites available that allow you to post your own business profiles on the web. Hotfrog and Merchantcircle are good examples of such sites, and I recommend adding a listing there for any site you are optimizing. Additionally, if you have interesting, relevant content to share with the public, consider posting it to aggregate sites such as Digg.com.
Hopefully this article provided insight into the SEO process, and can act as a “getting started” primer for companies who are looking to expand their services offerings. I do not recommend that business owners attempt to optimize their own site, because you will not get the results you expect, and your time is better spent running the business. Hire a competent SEO company instead, and work with them to position your site for ideal keywords and phrases.