Checking the List: SEO Details

When you’re new to SEO, or even if you’ve been optimizing web sites for a few years, it can be a bit overwhelming. There is so much to remember to make your site climb to the top of the search engine results pages. What’s worse is that the search engines keep modifying their algorithms, so you need to change your tactics regularly. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone came up with a checklist?

Fortunately, someone has. I can’t take the credit for this; that belongs to Gary Beal, who you may know as longtime SEO Chat poster and moderator GaryTheScubaGuy. Gary has been an SEO for ten years, specializing in search, pay per click, affiliate management and email marketing. He’s currently affiliated with He focuses on competitive industries such as online gaming, banking and finance, insurance, travel and investments, so he knows what he’s talking about.

Feel free to read the basic list as well as the comments on the forum thread. I’m going to expand on the list a little by trying to explain why some of these items are important. Since the list is a little too long for me to fit into one article along with all the explanations, I’m going to cover it in two parts.

Gary divides the list into four separate areas:

  • Meta tags and on-page optimization.
  • Technical issues.
  • Linking.
  • Other issues.

I’d like to note that he doesn’t discuss how to determine what key words you should be using for your web site; that’s an entirely separate topic, and worth an article (or several!) in its own right. Once you have decided what key words you want to use on your web site, however, the meta tags and on-page optimization category (perhaps the largest of the four) explains exactly how to use them.

The technical issues category deals with the kinds of things that are easy to check with a computer, (usually) easy to fix, and probably don’t affect your users on a conscious level. Even so, they’ll affect whether a web surfer is likely to find your site in the search engines and follow a link to become a visitor. Once the visitor arrives, some of these factors will also affect whether or not he or she wants to stay.

As to the linking area, there are a variety of issues connected with finding out how many back links you have, to say nothing of getting those back links in the first place. The area of “other issues” simply deals with points that didn’t seem to fit neatly into one of the other three categories. That doesn’t make them any less important however. Without further ado, then, let’s start discussing the things you need to make sure you’ve done with your meta tags and on-page optimization when performing SEO on a web site.

{mospagebreak title=Meta Tags and On-Page Optimization}

A good place to start putting key words is in the title of your pages. Gary recommends using a one-word buffer; for example, if your key word is “dog collars,” you might use “cheap dog collars” or “compare collars for dogs.” The buffer is there to avoid setting off over optimization penalties. Remember that you should use only one key word per page; in the eyes of the search engines, if you use two or more key words per page, you’re diluting their relevance.

Okay, so you have the right key words in the titles. Did you put them in the META key words? That’s a section in the page’s HTML. While Google has de-emphasized META key words, it’s still a good habit to use them. Keep them down to 128 characters or about 10 key words that cover the themes of your site, separated by commas, with the most important ones first.

You should also put key words in your site’s META description. Keep the key word close to the left in the description. Gary recommends using a full sentence. Some search engines actually show the contents of this tag in the results under the link for your page, so you want this to look attractive to potential visitors. For example, “Dog collars, leashes, pet beds, pet food and more for the discerning dog lover can be found here.” You can certainly get away with something shorter and with fewer key words (remember, ideally, that you should use only one key phrase per page). You might want to use the “View Source” command on a variety of web sites, especially those that score high in the SERPs, if you need to get a better idea of how the META key words and META description tags are used.

Let’s move on to the stuff that we know visitors are going to see. Did you remember to put key words in the first sentence of the first full bodied paragraph? Fight the temptation when you do so to make them “pretty;” do not use bold, italic, or any styling on them at all. They should be plain text. Since this is the first usage, if you try to make them stand out at all you could set off over-optimization flags with the search engines.

{mospagebreak title=More Optimization That Visitors Will See}

Look at your headers. Did you put any key words in an H2, H3, and/or H4 header? And are you wondering why I didn’t mention an H1 header? Headers of course are a way to let the search engines know that something is an important theme for your page, but again, you need to watch out for over-optimization. Gary did some tests that seemed to indicate that Google sees key words in the H1 header as over-optimization “when combined with other factors.” In his thread, he notes that “Using H2-H4 still sets it apart and provides any benefit the H1 used to, without having to eliminate them altogether.”

After your first usage of the key word in the page’s first full paragraph, you can begin using it in ways that are designed to draw the eye: bold (second paragraph if possible), italic, and in a subscript/superscript. It also makes sense to use key words as part of your URL (a directory name, file name, or domain name). But do not duplicate the key word in the URL, or – you guessed it – you might set off over-optimization warning flags.

Are you using images on this page? Images can really help you add more key words. Make sure you have a key word in the filename of all your images. Boost both your SEO and your page’s accessibility by adding key words to the ALT tags of your images as well. Finally, add key words to the title attribute of your images.

Now let’s look at your links. This is the web after all, and everyone links to everyone else (well, ultimately anyway). So, do you have key words in the anchor text for links that go to another site? How about key words in the anchor text for an internal link from the page? If you publish lots of content, you may find that some of your authors will submit articles that link to other articles that appear on your site. This is a good thing. Next, make sure that you have key words in the title attribute of all the links targeted in and out of the page.

Okay, I mentioned putting key words in an internal link that goes from the page you’re optimizing to another page on the site. Make sure you also have key words in an internal link that goes TO the page from another page on the site (preferably from the home page). I also mentioned putting keywords in outbound links to another site. If it’s possible, try to make sure you also have key words in inbound links TO the page from another site.

No, we’re not done yet. Check your external CSS or JavaScript file; there should be key words in the filename. Also make sure that key words are in an HTML comment tag. Finally, rounding out key words and links, do you have key words in the anchor text of a link to a site that has a PageRank of 8 or better (for example, .gov or .edu sites)?

{mospagebreak title=Getting Technical}

Now let’s take a look at the more technical aspects of your web site. What is the code-to-text ratio of the site? At a minimum, you should have more text (content the visitor sees) than code on your site. There are online tools you can use to check this, such as the aptly-named Code to Text Ratio tool on SEO Chat.

What is your page size, and how long does it take to load? If your pages are very big and take a while to load, visitors won’t wait until they finish; they’ll head back to the search engine results they received and click another link. It’s a truism – confirmed with actual studies – that a web surfer won’t wait longer than eight seconds for a page to load. I venture to say that those are the patient ones; you’d best make your pages load even more quickly than that.

Let’s look at your key word density now. Gary advocates keeping the key word density on each page between three and seven percent. Too high and you trigger over optimization flags with the search engines; too low and you risk being judged less relevant for those key words than your competitors – who will then appear higher than you in the SERPs. As with code to text ratios, there are online tools available to help you measure key word density, such as SEO Chat’s own Keyword Density tool. 

Is your page W3C Compliant? Some have suspected that Google prefers pages that are compliant, but no one has been able to prove it. On the other hand, it’s easy to check; W3C makes its own tool available. And validating helps ensure that your page will appear similarly in all browsers that follow the standard without having to rely on error correction. This means your visitors won’t receive unpleasant surprises.

Is your web site’s content entirely original – or is there duplicate content on the web? This is very important for a couple of reasons. First, as you know, Google penalizes for duplicate content, and it often can’t tell who had any particular piece of content first. Second, copyright laws apply on the web as well, and copyright holders are within their rights to demand that stolen content be taken down. We’ve had to do that any number of times here at Developer Shed. This cuts both ways; we also make sure our writers aren’t infringing someone else’s copyright.

That’s all I could fit into this article. Next week I’ll finish covering the technical aspects you need to focus on, then move on to the other areas that Gary enumerates in his checklist. Expect to see a lot of attention paid to links. I think I’ve given you quite enough to check off until then! 

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