SEO. You’ve heard of it. You know it has something to do with your website, and you probably even know that you need it, but what IS it?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. This term defines an industry built around making websites more visible in the search engines. Sounds simple, but what does it mean?
You already know that when you type a word related to your business into the search bar in Google, you want your site to come up first. What you may not know is that there are hundreds of aspects of your site that the search engines evaluate in order to decide where it ranks for a given keyword. SEOs (sometimes called Search Analysts) make sure that you’re taking full advantage of these variables in an effort to increase rankings and retain usability.
Let’s talk about the aspects that affect how your site is ranked in the search engines, shall we? To make the conversation more manageable, let’s break up SEO into two sections: On-site optimization and off-site optimization.
On-Site Search Engine Optimization
On-Site search engine optimization should be focused on improving the following two aspects of the site: keyword relevance and navigability.
Keyword Relevance and SEO
Keyword Relevance is a relatively intuitive concept. When people are searching for something, be it information related to a particular topic, a product or service offering, or a certain brand, they enter terms into the search bar in hopes of finding what they seek. These terms, in the form of singular words or multiple-word phrases, are known as keywords. In achieving high visibility in the search engines for keywords that are relevant to your website, you’re effectively driving more traffic – or visitors – to your site. This relationship works both ways. If you suspect that people searching with a given keyword would be valuable visitors, you can increase a given webpage’s likelihood of ranking for that term by making it more relevant. Don’t worry; we’ll discuss how to do this as we move on!
Good keyword research is the foundation of a good SEO campaign. You can’t really do anything until you develop a list of keywords that are relevant to your website and your users. Sometimes, the keywords you would use to describe your products are not actually the ones that laypeople would use to search for you. This is a special problem/opportunity for highly technical sites — such as those in engineering or construction.
While monthly search volume – or the number of times a given keyword is searched for each month – is worth considering when doing your keyword research, you shouldn’t simply target the most highly trafficked terms. Remember, if it has a high volume of searches, chances are that it’s going to be quite competitive. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t go for these top terms. Consider, though, that ranking for these terms can take a lot of time and effort.
All things considered, it’s best practice to think about not only how often a given term is searched for, but also why that term is being searched for. Think about your business’s goals and how they relate to the keywords that a visitor searches to find your site. While one keyword might bring in a substantial amount of traffic, it won’t necessarily bring in the right kind of traffic. Here’s a simple example:
According to Google’s Keyword Tool (which is probably the most popular tool for keyword research), the terms ‘basketball’ and ‘buy a basketball’ fetch around 246,000 and 73 local monthly searches, respectively. While it’s obvious that ranking for the singular term ‘basketball’ would be quite a feat, which keyword would be a more realistic, rewarding target for a website that sells basketballs? Ask yourself this: If I were to create an advertisement (say in Google AdWords) for this company, would I rather the ad read ‘Basketball’ or ‘Buy a Basketball’? In our minds, the latter does a better job of conveying the right message to the user. While ‘basketball’ is probably more of an informational search query (used mainly by those looking to find out more about the sport), ‘buy a basketball’ is much more transactional, and probably better suited for a website that sells basketballs. Volume is great, but it’s important to consider both the costs of outranking the competition and the intentions of people searching for that keyword.
Knowing where to place your keywords on your website is second only to choosing proper keywords in importance. We know that the search engines check for keywords in specific parts of your website in order to establish the level of relevance.
- Title Tag: Arguably, the title tag is the most important place on your site from a keyword placement point of view. The title tag should contain no more than 65 characters, spaces included. Symbols such as – and | symbols are recognized; however, other special characters such as @, $, * are not recognized. The most important keywords should come first in the title tag. For instance, if we wanted to rank for the term “Pittsburgh SEO,” we might do “Pittsburgh SEO | LunaMetrics.” A tag such as “LunaMetrics, LLC | Pittsburgh SEO” would be suboptimal because of the order of the words.
- URL: Include the keywords in URL if your CMS permits it. Separate the words in key phrases using dashes instead of underscores.
- Headers: Headers, encompassed by <h1> to <h6> tags, are yet another important part of the page in which to place your keywords. The keywords stressed in the URL and the Title tag should be echoed in the headers.
- Body Copy: The focal keywords and phrases should appear in the body copy, but should not appear out of place. If the page is properly focused, they will occur naturally in the text. A good rule of thumb to follow is that about 2 to 4% of the body copy should be keywords or phrases.
- Image Alt Tags: When crawlers encounter the <img> tag in an HTML page, they interpret the text featured in the alt attribute as being representative of the respective image. By adding keywords selectively (and not irresponsibly) in the alt tags of images, you’re sending the search engines yet another signal that your page is relevant. A picture shouldn’t say 1000 words to a crawler, but it should certainly say a few!
One of a webmaster’s primary concerns should be making sure that all the great keyword-rich content on the site is easily accessible to both users and the search engines. Search engines have a much easier time crawling through and indexing certain kinds of sites and have much more difficulty making their way through other kinds of sites. Here are some things to keep in mind when deciding how to structure and design your site:
- HTML: The search engines love plain, HTML sites. They can easily crawl text links and index content. Far too often, we come across sites that are completely coded in Flash. These sites are often beautiful, but completely un-optimizable.
- Depth: Ideally, the deepest page on your website should not be more than three clicks away from the home page. Although this is not always possible, it’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind.
- SEO Friendly Menus: Flash menus or heavily scripted menus are not all that SEO friendly. Search engines are learning how to read links coded in these ways but it uses up more of their resources and may keep some of your site from getting indexed.
- The Sign-In Wall: The search engines will not fill out forms. Therefore, any password-protected sections of your site will not get crawled or indexed. In many cases, password-protecting parts of the site is absolutely necessary. Just keep in mind that those pages will be disregarded by the search engines.
Off-page optimization consists primarily of link building . . . but then, there’s social media.
Understanding the value of inbound links – links from other websites leading to your site — is very important. The amount, quality and source of these inbound links, or IBLs, make up your site’s link profile.
The search engines take these attributes (and many, many more) into consideration when deciding how valuable your website is, and how high it should rank compared to its competitors.
To cite a popular analogy, a link is like a vote for the importance and worth of one’s website. The more votes, the better. Unlike democracy, however, not all votes are created equal. The search engines place a lot of importance on the source of the vote and the relevance of the voting website to the subject of your site and the anchor text in the link.
Anchor text is the text that appears in the link and it is what search engines use to establish relevancy of your site to a searcher’s query. Getting links with relevant anchor text is incredibly important to ranking highly for those terms.
Here are some ways to go about getting good quality backlinks (links to your site):
- Solicit a change in existing anchor text: This time-consuming duty involves contacting sites that already link to your site and asking them to change the anchor text in the link to reflect focal keywords. You should put in this time and effort if you can — it is often harder to convince a site to link than to merely change the format of an existing link.
- Directories: Signing up for free, niche directories that let you choose the anchor text you wish to use is a great way of building keyword rich links. Check out this list of free, SEO-friendly directories, which is updated as new, reliable directories surface. It’s a good idea to check back often!
- Press Release Syndication: It is beneficial to circulate press releases to online syndication sites such as PR Web. Don’t forget to link relevant keywords in the copy to the homepage of your site. That’s the whole point.
- Guest Blogging: There are a number of organizations, both governmental and in the private sector that have well-followed, high ranking blogs that are related in subject to your site. Guest blogging on these sites is a great idea. It will not only boost your site’s online visibility, but also provide an opportunity to insert keyword-rich links.
- Non-branded Resources: Creating non-branded resources such as informational articles, focused around keywords will raise the relevance of the pages themselves as well as encourage non-branded links.
- Tools and Widgets: Creating useful widgets and tools for users encourages inbound links to the widget pages. It’s one of the most viral ways to encourage these links.
- Badge Creation: Create online badges denoting participation in special events, affiliation with your site, commendations for exemplary practices, etc. and distribute them to interested parties with an imbedded link in the code.
- Internal Links: Last, but certainly not least, you should consider building keyword rich internal links. This is the easiest step to achieve because there, you are in control of everything that needs to be changed. Simply augment existing links with the keywords with which you wish to optimize the linked-to pages. For instance, if there is a page about the H1N1 Vaccine, link to it from other pages with links containing the keywords “Swine Flu Vaccine”, “H1N1 Vaccine,” etc. instead of just saying H1N1. That way the relevance of that page for those search terms will rise.
While a particular website’s popularity in the social media spectrum isn’t so cut-and-dry as its inbound link profile, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that social media mentions and engagement play a direct and indirect role in search engine rankings. In the case of popular platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., establishing a brand presence and earning an active, engaging fan-base can pay dividends. If a tweet with a link to an infographic on your website goes viral – or gets really popular really fast – chances are that it will earn you some links (benefiting you indirectly), as well as some social mentions from authorities in your industry (benefiting you directly).
What’s more is that you can actually become an authority in your industry by consistently sharing unique, top-notch content that your fan-base finds compelling. Now, and even more so in the future, search engines will interpret this status as a signal of trust, most certainly boosting the rankings of the website associated with a given authority.
And then there’s Google+ – a social media platform from a search engine. As search becomes more personalized, and more users execute their searches from logged-in Google accounts, it makes sense that our social media circles (along with general internet activity) will play a greater role in determining the results that we see. No longer are we just optimizing websites for specific industries or geographic locations; we’re concerned with the individual searcher. What gives your website the best chance of appearing in search results for a logged-in Google user? A Google+ presence, of course. Or more appropriately, a social media presence in general. We’re just scratching the surface, here, but hopefully you see that social media and SEO are quite connected!
Hopefully this article gave you some ideas about where to get started and how the search engines interact with your website. If you’re interested in learning more, consider attending one of our SEO Training Workshops.