Search Engine Optimization or “SEO” is the process of designing your website and marketing strategy to get high quality, un-paid traffic from Search Engines to your website.
Several years ago, the term “SEO” conjured up an image of shady characters working in dimly lit back rooms to “trick” search engines into ranking a site’s pages higher – but those days are long gone. Nowadays, paying for links to your site, hiding content, keyword stuffing or deceptive “black-hat” practices are much more likely to hurt your site than help.
In this article, we will discuss basic SEO best practices that will help you boost the authority of your site on the web, and as a result, increase the value and visibility of your business.
What Search Engines Want
A good place to start thinking about SEO is to consider the goals of Search Engines companies. In order to keep people coming back, Google and other search engines want to display the best, highest-quality results for any given search query.
So, your strategy for SEO should:
- Make sure that the pages of your site actually do have the best, highest-quality content for keywords relevant to your site.
- Make sure that Google and other search engines are aware that #1 is true.
That begs the question – What defines high-quality content? Over the past few years, Google and other searches engines have gotten much smarter about understanding both website content and user experience. Google has published clear quality guidelines that are a great framework to abide by.
The good news is that for the most part, what’s good for your visitors will also help your search rankings.
The first part of quality is making sure that your site is reputable. Your site must be free of spam, malware and other problems. Excessive ads or pages filled with nothing but links are signs that your site is not reputable. And, as mentioned above, any deceptive practices are another sign of a bad-quality site. If you sign up for notifications in Google Webmaster tools they will tell you if they detect any issues on your site.
Another measure of high quality is a fast site. Faster is clearly a better user experience. And, studies have shown that a faster site also converts better. A study by Akamai reports that 47% of people expect a web page to load in two seconds or less. What’s more, just a one-second delay in page load time results in a 7% decline in sales (source). Several years ago Google started factoring in site speed into search result rankings, so delivering on this has never been more crucial to site visibility. Alexa’s SEO Audit Tool can crawl your whole site and flag your site’s slowest pages to make sure your performance is optimized.
For people searching from a mobile device, a measure of quality content is that the site is mobile-friendly. Google began labeling mobile optimized sites in search results this fall, presumably giving ranking preference to those that are responsive. With 1/3 of search result clicks going to the top organic result, the need to perform well in organic search has never been more crucial. You should make sure your site renders well on tablets and phones to maximize web traffic from mobile searches.
Freshness is also a factor. A site that hasn’t been updated in months or years is most likely lower quality. With out of date content, this also probably means the site hasn’t earned any new inbound links. Without a good “freshness factor”, search engines will likely pass over a site for newer, more current content.
Spelling errors and broken links are signs of bad quality. The Alexa Site Audit regularly monitors your site for broken links, which are bad both for your visitors and for SEO.
Quality content is copy that is original, clearly written, and relevant to the user’s search query. Writing good copy is hard work, so you need to make the copy as effective as possible in making the connection between what people are searching for and the pages of your website.
The pages of your site should be, for the most part, focused on individual topics – not individual keywords. But it is important that the content include the keywords or phrases you want to rank for in search engines naturally in the text.
The process of picking the right keywords – Keyword Research – is one of the most important parts of SEO and is a big topic unto itself. But some questions to get answers to are:
- What keywords do people who are genuinely interested in my topic/product/service/organization use when searching?
- What keyword phrases are currently driving traffic to my site?
- What keyword phrases are driving traffic to my competitors’ sites?
- How often do people search for certain keyword phrases?
The Alexa keyword tool, which is part of the Alexa Advanced subscription, can help you find keywords driving traffic to your competitors’ sites. You can also search by keyword, and find the top sites receiving organic or paid traffic from that keyword. Google Trends is another useful tool to help you understand how search patterns change over time. In all, comprehensive keyword research and testing can give incredible insight into your customers needs and buying behavior, trends in demand and market constraints, and even your competitors’ strategy.
Quality content is also reflected in engagement metrics. Metrics like bounce rate and session length allow a search engine to determine how happy a visitor is with the result. Over time, usage patterns emerge and search engines can differentiate fairly accurately between what visitors find engaging, quality content and what they don’t. If you’re offering substantial, differentiated value, your engagement metrics will show it. When you consider that content marketing costs 62% less than traditional marketing but generates about 3 times as many leads, it’s more than worth the effort (source).
Helping Search Engines Understand Your Content
Although search engines are much smarter than they used to be, that doesn’t mean they don’t need some help. You should make it as easy as possible for search engines to find and understand the pages of your site.
Your site should be well organized. The directory structure for your pages helps both people and search engines understand and navigate your content. For example, if you’re selling both kitchen appliances and consulting services, it can be helpful to put the appliances stuff in an /kitchen-appliances/ directory and the consulting services in a /consulting-services/ directory.
Another way to help search engines understand your site is on-site links – the links from one part of your site to another part of your site. If you have any links where the anchor text is “Click here” you are throwing away an opportunity to let search engines know what the page is about! For example, instead of “Click here to use our kitchen planner” use “Try our kitchen planner.”
Still, there are a still lot of little things to get right. Whoever is building your site should understand Google’s technical guidelines. Some basics:
- Each page on your website should have a unique title that describes what the page is about.
- Images should have “alt” text which describe them.
- Avoid multiple pages with the same content.
- Your robots.txt file should not block search engines.
The Alexa Site Audit can help make sure that you’ve got these basics right. On an ongoing basis it audits your site to make sure you’re following best practices. This 25-Point SEO Checklist is also a great resource to remind you of all the essentials that should be optimized on your site.
How does Google know that your content is important?
At the end of the day, even if you’ve followed all the best practices for quality and technical guidelines, you are still competing with many other sites for search traffic. One of the early key innovations of Google was PageRank – which is built on the idea that links to a web page are like votes for the importance of that page. When other sites link to your site it indicates that the content is of high credibility. When people share your content on social networks it indicates that it was valuable or interesting to them.
Many early SEO strategies focused on planting, buying or trading links. Although inbound links to your site are still a very important part of SEO, modern SEO is more about earning links through effective content marketing – creating content that is interesting, valuable and shareable. Easier said than done!
You can use a tool like Alexa’s “Sites Linking In” tool to monitor what sites are linking to your site and to your competitors’ sites. If you see new links to your site or your competitor’s site, learn from that success and build on it!
As they get smarter and smarter, Google and other search engines are leveling the playing field. SEO is no longer about technical tricks. Once you’ve got the best practices implemented, SEO becomes more like all other marketing – understanding what your customers need, and making sure they know that you’ve got it!