One common pronouncement by business owners is “We have a website.” Unfortunately, the next remark you’ll often hear is, “But I don’t know if it’s doing us any good.”
SEO (search engine optimization) is a discipline that embraces many aspects of marketing and web development. In this article, we’ll introduce the basic ideas of SEO and discuss a few things you can do to improve your rankings and drive traffic to your website. I’ll use the single term “website” to include blogs, ecommerce sites, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of corporate web presence.
We’ll focus on organic SEO, as contrasted with paid SEO. Organic SEO is concerned with the natural process of information development and display. Paid SEO deals with artificial techniques that may be legitimate but are not intrinsic to ordinary data dissemination. In other words, it’s about systematic keyword advertising and search engine marketing. By focusing on organic SEO, we’ll discuss things you can personally do or delegate, quickly and easily, without requiring advanced technical skills.
It’s About Performance
Productivity for a website begins with setting goals and determining which design elements, terminology, functionality and content will achieve those goals. While popularity is nice, of greater importance is the mission-critical accomplishment—getting something done that’s of benefit to your business.
When it comes to the analytical evaluation of your website, it’s not the numbers of visitors or clicks on links that ultimately matter. Your supreme goal is to please your audience, while at the same time, gaining commitments from them. High rankings must translate into tangible outcomes: visiting your store, signing up for a newsletter, registering at your site, posting a comment, joining the frequent shopper program, subscribing to your RSS feed, scheduling a consultation, attending a webinar or purchasing a product online.
“If we build it, they will come” is a bad slogan for anything, especially a website. Quite the opposite is true. “If we don’t promote it, nobody will come.”
People tend to avoid a website that just sits there as a frozen, unchanging artifact of images, words and widgets. You have to do more than just build a website. You must do specific things to that website, continuously, in order to satisfy search engines and attract customers. Obviously, you will promote it in all marketing and sales material, but it’s not enough to just build it, put it online and hope for the best. An effective website is dynamic. It’s constantly being enriched with new articles, white papers, news, announcements, links, comments, polls, photos, videos, audio, printable coupons and responses to user input. It evolves and expands, ever increasingly relevant and useful to your intended audience.
Let’s assume you have a properly assembled website, with the appropriate tools and assets. It has solid architecture, internal links (such as a linked list of archives, topic “tag clouds” or most popular posts), a site map, and the correct title and meta tags. You’ve established that it exhibits cross-browser compatibility—that is, it renders correctly in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and other major browsers.
The design is appropriate and pleasing. It is not cluttered with ads, advertorial hybrids, or clever, but not immediately decipherable, object labels. The domain name is the same as your brand or company, and it is hosted at a stable, professional hosting company with reliable servers and prompt trouble ticket resolution.
You’ve defined the precise content, functionality and personalization that your customers seek online. You’ve tested your website’s usability and proven that newbies can navigate and understand it—and that advanced users can find and accomplish what they need.
Authoritative websites, blogs and Twitter users are linking and sending traffic to your website, giving you “credibility by association” in the view of the Googlebot. Your website links abundantly to other online sources, providing them with SEO power in a legitimate win-win loop—not via “link farms” that attempt to game the system.
Now you’re ready for some hardcore SEO. You need to make sure that search engines, primarily Google, can find your website and list it high in their results pages. Unlike automated spamming programs that promise huge numbers of random visitors, the following tips will generate a steady stream of qualified customers that are loyal to your brand and lucrative to your bottom line.
User-Centric, Not Search Engine-Centric
The first rule, according to Google’s Webmaster Central, is to build your website primarily to please and satisfy users, not search engines. “Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as cloaking,” says Google.
Googlebot favors web pages that typical users prefer for their rich, well-written, unbiased content; multiple media types; personable authorship; authenticity, originality and sincerity; and relevant tools. User-centric websites, in the long haul, will tend to generate better results than their corporate-centric or search engine-centric competitors.
This means you should include text, photos, video and audio; a nice easy-to-navigate design; and the ability for customers to post comments, sign up for RSS or email updates, and express their opinion by voting in polls. Your guiding principle for content is three-fold:
a. Search Engine Oriented. What wording will satisfy search engines, i.e. popular human online search behavior?
b. User Oriented. What wording will your readers expect, understand and benefit from?
c. You Oriented. What wording comes natural to you when you discuss things in a relaxed manner with your customers, close associates or family?
Content Link Strategy
Web users don’t read web content the way they read books. It’s more akin to flipping the pages of a magazine or surfing the channels on television. Users tend to skim online text, rapidly scanning it in search of a specific item that meets an immediate need.
As web usability specialist Jakob Nielsen says, a good website helps the user ignore most of its content and makes it easy to skip what’s not immediately relevant. Not only is the user impatient and in a hurry, he or she is likely distracted by phones ringing, televisions blaring, children quarreling or food being eaten as they engage in their online activities.
The information-seeking behavior and context of users necessitates the strategic inclusion of relevant keywords in your hypertext links, both editorial and navigational. Just as important, your editorial links must actually take the user to substantiating material, and not be a way to trick people into viewing ads or ecommerce landing pages. Substantiating material could be news reports, research studies, blog posts, government documents, academic references, videos, podcasts, or more scholarly treatments of a topic.
Links in your content to external, prestigious, high-traffic sources will demonstrate to search engines that you must be an authority too, since you’re smart enough to be linking to the right sites. A website that doesn’t link to other, non-affiliated websites will seem untethered, like a floating island detached from the flow of information. Loading your website appropriately with links to authoritative online sources will increase its overall value and credibility. Think of how many times you found a website that was rich in relevant links. Chances are, you bookmarked it as a favorite to return to repeatedly.
You must skillfully craft the exact wording of your link text. Web developers call the words that become a link the “link title” or “anchor text.” The words that compose the link must be semantically loaded, for both humans and Googlebot.
For example, “Click here for more information” is an action command. While that may be acceptable from a practical standpoint, such a phrase should never be anchor text because it contains no useful information or relevant keywords and does not describe the destination of the link.
However, “Read more about organic flu remedies” is end-loaded with a relevant key phrase, and that wording, “organic flu remedies,” should be your underlined link. Search engines will like how the anchor text defines the topic contained on the destination page. Users will like it, too. The meaningful link anchor text stands out on the page, catching the eye and guiding the user to explore the implicit promise implied by the anchor text.
If the link leads to a product, an ad, an affiliate or anything that’s self-serving or irrelevant to the user’s quest, you’ll lose credibility and generate negative buzz. Violating user expectations and web norms penalizes web content and prevents the accomplishment of online business goals.
SEO is a balancing act that takes great skill and ongoing research. It’s never done. You must keep up with trends, with an eye to what the search engines are favoring, while keeping your website text flowing naturally.
Keyword Research and “Black Hat SEO”
Realize that keyword selection is in a constant state of flux, as buzzwords and phrases fluctuate in popularity. Excruciatingly detailed and elaborate analysis of word selection can be an exhausting wild goose chase that must be continued perpetually, or the bottom will drop out.
Never use “black hat SEO” gimmicks to attain high rankings in search engine listings—these unethical or illegitimate tactics will backfire. Gaming the system is an unsustainable strategy, as it provides only temporary results. Very quickly, Google will catch on, penalize you, and possibly even eliminate you from its results. In addition, you may have violated laws, or at the least, hurt your credibility.
“Keyword stuffing” is one example of what not to do. Amateurs who seek to manipulate search engines attempt the obvious self-defeating act, planting keywords over and over in an unnatural density, forcing them into every sentence or two, mistakenly assuming that it will convey to search engines that their website is full of good information.
Search engines are specifically programmed to classify such overabundance of keywords as spam-dexing, a deceptive attempt to signify relevance. If there’s a clever way to trick a search engine, the search engines are probably aware of it and have hardened their algorithms against it—or will do so soon.
Content Update Frequency
Add content to your website regularly. Your web presence should be like your store, getting new items in stock every so often. Another reason to update your website is to let people know there is an active human presence behind it. You can enhance the human warmth of your website by displaying photos of yourself and your store.
Google gives preference to websites that remain in-the-know, as demonstrated by constantly cranking out new posts and links. A static site that never gets updated is seen as out of touch with the changing world. That’s why Google likes status updates and blogs, since blogs and social networks are continually pumping out fresh content.
Ecommerce sites and corporate websites generally have a “News” page. Update that at least twice a month. Use a “Resources” page to post well-researched articles of value to your customers, and keep adding to it.
Don’t copy and paste content from other websites without permission, and be sure to include the author, source and a link to the original material. Keep the copy-and-paste material to a minimum. Generate your own original material, or hire someone to do so. Search engines prioritize fresh content with good usability, navigation and user relevance.
Share your professional insights, industry trends, perspective on current events, new items in stock, discounts, seasonal specials, limited offers, savings programs, product reviews and videos of your commercials (with “embed code” so your fans can promote you by posting them on their own blogs).
Social Media and SEO
Don’t forget to add social media to your marketing mix. You can use Twitter and Facebook to altruistically (non-commercially) provide value to your fans and followers, thereby expanding your audience. If you prove to be a good member of the online social media community, you can occasionally slip in a link to such things as a new blog post, a product on your ecommerce site or a discount coupon. Status updates on social networking sites are seen by Googlebot as being extremely recent content, giving it priority over older, possibly outdated information.
SEO is Ongoing and Rewarding
The subject of SEO is a broad one, and we haven’t even touched upon paid SEO, as in pay-per-click and keyword auctions. Hopefully, though, you’ve been pointed in the right direction and won’t be as vulnerable to SEO scams and unprofessional methods.
Remember that SEO is never a fait accompli. You must keep on top of the changing ways people search online, the keywords relevant to your business, web objects and tools desired by users, and the preferred means of accessing information, as we progress rapidly to mobile devices, micro content, multimedia and ubiquitous computing, i.e., internet-enabled everything.
The correct understanding and implementation of SEO can make your website stand out, while competitors remain in the dark with a website that may look nice, but just sits there and does not accomplish any business objectives. iBi
Steven E. Streight is a web content developer, social media strategist and internet marketing specialist. Contact him at [email protected].