Blogging and SEO, a Beginner`s Guide

So you want to optimize your website for the search engines, and you’ve heard that blogging can really raise its visibility, especially in Google. Before you start writing up a storm and preparing for the rush of traffic from the search engines, take a moment to consider what you want to accomplish – and what needs to be in place for your blog to deliver the results you hope to achieve.

Let me give credit where it’s due: most of what you’re about to read is taken with permission from a particularly insightful post on our SEO Chat forums by one of our regulars, Anthony Mangia, a well-respected member. He noticed how many of our members, particularly newcomers, have questions about blogging and what it can do for their rankings. So that’s where he started, with the question of whether blogging does, indeed, help your rankings.

As with many things in SEO, the answer is both yes and no. “Blogs are not inherently different” from any other web page, Mangia notes; in fact, “they may even be worse” because “chronological navigation is subpar.” So what kind of value can you get out of a blog?

Mangia mentions four points that should be of interest to anyone trying to increase traffic to their pages. First, blogs give you a specific place to add fresh content to your web site. Fresh content keeps people coming back for more. In fact, blogs can indirectly encourage you to keep adding fresh content, “because nobody wants to see that the most recent post was 3 months ago,” Mangia observed.

Second, blogs give you a place to put linkbait – and a little more flexibility with it than you might otherwise have. If you work for a large company, for instance, you might find yourself at odds with the marketing department about putting any new content on the website that isn’t tightly aligned with the company’s image, whatever that may be. Blogs can potentially let you be more creative with writing the kinds of articles that people enjoy reading and linking to. Think about it: when is the last time IBM’s marketing department put out a cool top 10 list?

Third, blogs help you build a community around your website. They open up possibilities for networking with others in your industry. You can learn things, build a good reputation, get related links, and develop a following of people that will spread word of your posts in the various social media.

Fourth, you can use RSS feeds with your blog to increase your exposure. Increasing your exposure often leads to more links…which often leads to higher rankings in the search engines. At the very least, it never hurts.

So, to sum up the benefits of blogging, no, Google doesn’t automatically put you on a special list of its favorite people just because you blog. “But blogs do create opportunities for you to create content that will get links and rank well,” Mangia wrote. Now that you’ve seen what you can do with your blog, let’s look at some of the other things you need to consider before you jump right in.

Some newcomers to blogging wonder whether their blogs should be hosted on their company’s web site or on another domain, like Blogspot. Mangia strongly favors hosting the blog on your company’s web site. If you’re hoping to attract links with your blog, what good is it if those links go to yourcompany.blogspot.com? “You get no ‘link juice,’ no website recognition, no opportunity for people to subscribe to your RSS feed or e-mail address, and everybody that looks at the blog post is several clicks away from being able to purchase something (or do whatever it is that your website is for),” he explained.

That said, the next question that often comes up is one of organization. Where should the blog go? Should it be in its own folder or a separate subdomain? Or, to put it more precisely, should it be at http://www.yourcompany.com/blog or http://www.blog.yourcompany.com/ ? Or is there a difference?

At least at present, there does still appear to be a difference – and the first of the forms shown above is the best choice. That setup puts your blog in its own folder off of your main domain rather than in a separate subdomain. Matt Cutts himself suggested that this is the proper method; given the position he holds at Google, he should know. While Google may start seeing both versions of this the same way in the future, currently the folder option is the way to go.

The next thing you need to consider is blogging software. There are a lot of options out there. If you’re blogging for SEO purposes, the actual platform itself doesn’t matter as much as how much control it gives you over certain important factors (more on these in the next section). Given that, a custom-coded blog, a fancy content management system, and a free blogging system you get off the Internet ought to all perform the same.

That said, Mangia likes WordPress, for three very simple but important reasons. First, WordPress has been around long enough, and is popular enough, that there are some great resources in place to make optimizing a WordPress blog easy. Aside from the SEO plug-ins that help – and there are a lot of those – there are a couple of very good guides available for doing SEO for WordPress. One is by Jim Westergren and includes an update for the latest version of WordPress. The other is by Joost de Valk and in addition to the text, offers a video link to an hour-long presentation he gave on the topic.

Mangia’s second reason for liking WordPress is the many good-looking, free themes available, to say nothing of the many great-looking, cheap themes available. This means that Mangia can choose the one that gives him the look he wants without having to build it from scratch. After all, as he put it, “I’m not a designer, I’m an Internet marketer.”

Finally, Mangia likes the user interface. That doesn’t mean you’ll like it, mind you, but he makes an important point here: “This is your blog – you’ll be dealing with it (hopefully) every day – make sure you pick an option that has a user interface that you like and are comfortable working with.”

Remember on the previous page I noted that there are certain factors that you want to make sure you can control when it comes to SEO for your blog? Mangia provides a truly comprehensive list. I’m reproducing it in its entirety below, along with some more details I’ve added to some points:

  • URLs/Permalinks – Make sure you can customize the URLs of your blog posts. A good URL structure might look something like http://www.domain.com/blog/post-name/ — separate spaces in your post name with dashes (not underscores or periods). Some people like to have the category in there too, and that’s okay.
  • Canonical URLs – Make sure that your blog does not have any canonicalization problems (http://yoursite.com vs. http://www.yoursite.com, for example). You can do a search on Google for more information about this issue. There are a few WordPress plugins that will help you correct this if you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • Customizable META information -  This is not extremely important, but it’s a good idea to optimize your META descriptions, just in case.
  • Optimizeable Title Tags – Be sure that you can customize your title tags. The post name may not always be the best title; stop words (ones that Google ignores) should generally be removed, at the very least.
  • Alt Tags on Images – This is fairly self-explanatory. An alt tag is another place you can put (NOT stuff) a keyword or two; at the very least, a good, short description of the image gives the search engines something to chew on (and index).
  • Breadcrumb Navigation – This always helps. Not only is it good for SEO, but it is good for usability.
  • Headers – Post title should be an H1, subtitles in H2s and H3s and so on.
  • Create a Sitemap – Why you need to be able to control this should be obvious. Most blog systems have plugins for this.
  • Pagination – Instead of having "previous" and "next" links for navigation, it is suggested that you have links to each page on your blog.
  • Your best articles… deserve their own links from your blog’s main page.
  • Social Media Links should be available. Consider having them provided by  AddThis or a related service.

There aren’t the only items that you want to have totally under your control. Consider what you normally do to optimize a web page; that’s what you’ll want to be able to do when optimizing your blog. Mangia considers the above list to be “a bare minimum of things you should be concerned with when it comes to the on-page optimization of your blog.”

Now that you have a blog, you obviously want to get the word out that it exists, and encourage people who would be interested in what you’re writing about to visit regularly – to say nothing of convincing their friends to stop by, too. So how do you do this?

Well, the first step would be to convert readers into subscribers. And believe it or not, you can use some of the same techniques here that you would use for optimizing an e-commerce web site for conversion. If you know how to do that, you’re off to a good start. (Hint: don’t forget those calls to action!)

You also want to encourage comments on your blog, to make it a welcoming place where people want to hang out and carry on interesting conversations about your content. Here on SEO Chat – which isn’t really a blog, it just looks like one – we encourage our authors to post the first comment. That acts like a call to action. Let your readers know that you welcome their comments, and guess what? They’ll often be quite happy to comment.

Another way to promote your blog is by getting involved with social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Digg, and so forth. “Getting involved” doesn’t mean posting a link every time you post a new blog entry; it means holding two-way conversations. If you “foster a community around your blog,” Mangia says, “links will follow.”

Chances are you aren’t the only one in your field with a blog – and if you aren’t, that other blog is not a competitor, it’s an opportunity. Mangia encourages you to find related blogs and get involved, for the same reasons you’re promoting interaction by using the other suggestions mentioned above. Also, it will give you ideas for things to write about in your own blog.

Finally, if there are any other link building strategies that you know work, they should also work with your blog. The topic of link building has been covered extensively on this site and elsewhere, so I won’t rehash it here; you can do your own research (and I expect we’ll be covering it again soon). Good luck!  

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