Prepare Your Site for SEO

Your web site looks good. You’ve given it all the things you’ve been told it needs: great titles; H1-H3 tags, meta tags, good quality unique content, and easy navigation. But you’re still not getting the traffic you deserve. What should you do next?

Perhaps your site isn’t quite as ready to fully benefit from your SEO efforts as you thought. Just as you need a good foundation in place before you build a house, there are certain basic things you need to have in place if you want to get the most out of your SEO efforts. This article will walk you through that preparation.

First, let me give credit where it’s due. This advice comes from Gary Beal, also known as GarytheScubaGuy in the SEO Chat forums. Every year for the past three years, he’s been giving out sets of tips for improving web site optimization. This article is adapted from his latest set, which actually forms a step-by-step strategy “that most anyone with a bit of knowledge can implement,” according to Beal. I’m going to cover as many as I can here, in some depth (I may only get through a few this time, but you can be sure I’ll cover the rest in future articles). 

The first step really involves planning, and making sure your site is ready for SEO. You’ve heard the phrase “Content is king,” but you might not have thought through all the implications of it. It means getting good, fresh content on your site regularly enough for the search engines to sit up and take notice. And that means setting up your site so that it’s easy to get all that content up there.

In all likelihood, this means getting some kind of content management system working with your site. You’ll want something along the lines of WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, or some similar application. If you don’t set something like that up early on, you could end up with various pages all over the place and tons of internal navigation issues. Those kinds of issues can confuse the Googlebot and other search engine spiders when they come crawling…and that’s a problem you don’t need.

How do you know whether your internal navigation is an issue? Beal recommends running Xenu (a free tool) on your website. The tool will give you a detailed overview of your website’s navigation and tell you if there are any problems with its internal linking structure. You’ll learn all about your site’s 302s and 404s, and  knowing about these problems is the first step toward fixing them. Once you fix all of your issues, be sure to create a new XML sitemap and submit it to Google through Webmaster Central.

{mospagebreak title=Getting Canonical}

Okay, so we’ve covered the first issue: finding the navigational issues and broken links in your site and fixing them so that it’s ready for SEO. Next we need to make sure that Google knows exactly where to find your site – and that it’s only in one place. That’s not usually an issue with a brick-and-mortar business that has only one physical location, but a website can actually have more than one “location.”

That may sound crazy, until you try a little experiment. Type your favorite website’s URL into the address bar. Type it in with the preceding www, and without. Now try it with the trailing slash, and without. Mix and match. In theory, they’ll all lead you to the same place. You may realize that they’re all the same site, but Google doesn’t make that distinction. Some companies even own .com and (or other country code) versions of their URL, and have the same website on each one.

People who link to this site could be using any number of URLs that work. Google would effectively see different sites with different links – thus splitting up all that link juice which, trust me, would be much more effective when concentrated on one site. What you need to do to fix this problem is designate one URL as your primary site.

You do this by going to Google’s Webmaster Central – the Tools section, to be exact. Designate one URL as your primary, and do a 301 redirect to the others that aren’t your primary. You’ll also need to check your internal navigation to make sure all of your links go to the correct, canonical URL.

So, which version do you use – www or non-www? Trailing slash or non-trailing slash? Which top-level domain? Well, as far as TLDs go, .com is still the best known. But as to the rest of it, the important thing is to choose one and stick with it. Be consistent.

{mospagebreak title=Your Site’s Hierarchy}

Did you plan your site’s navigation from the very beginning, or did it just kind of grow like an untended garden? If it’s the latter, you probably have a number of broad sections on your site with no real hierarchy. That’s all well and good, but it means you’re more than likely diluting some of the power you could be getting from  your internal links.

Beal recommends building a website’s navigation like a silo. “A silo is a vertical page linking design. You have your landing page, or your main page, at the top of the silo and underneath this page you have pages which support your main landing page theme.” These pages link to your main landing page (and vice versa), thus giving it more power and link juice – and indicating to Google that it is an important page.  Silos give the Googlebot a clear path to follow, and also help guide the end user to where they can find important information.

This might be a little tricky to visualize. So, for simplicity, let’s say you have a website on do-it-yourself home maintenance and repair. You might have silos on broad topics like plumbing, electrical, painting, etc (you probably don’t want more than three or four silos, depending on what your site is all about). Each top silo page links to the other top silo pages.

Underneath the electrical silo, you might have articles on installing a ceiling fan, making sure all of your electrical outlets are functional, etc. The electrical top silo page links to all of the electrical articles; the electrical articles link to the top electrical silo page and each other; but the electrical articles, for the most part, do NOT link to the other top silo pages or to articles under other silos.

According to Drupal for SEO, “Cross-linking between silos should point to a silo landing page whenever your content contains a keyword that supports that silo’s theme.” So an article that explained how to avoid painting over electrical outlets would go under the painting silo but could also link to the electrical silo (I’m stretching a point here, but I’m sure you get the idea).

How is this different from the kinds of navigation we’ve seen before? Often, a web site will have every page linking to every other page, looking a lot more like a wheel than a silo. This is fine if you don’t have a lot of content on your website, or if you have perhaps ten or so pages. But if you either have a lot of content or plan to have a lot of content, you need to make sure it’s much more organized or else you’re going to confuse your visitors, both human and software-based.

If you’re having problems with the concept of silos, just think in terms of categories. I suspect that the term “silo” is mostly used to get the idea of hierarchies across, and pages that support other pages.

{mospagebreak title=Building Silos}  

So how can you create a silo? Well, Drupal has built-in functionality to help you set it up. But if you don’t want to use Drupal, there are plenty of ways to create silos. 

If you blog, it’s easy enough to tag your posts appropriately. You may want to make a list of tags based on the keywords for which you wish to rank, and use them to help guide you in choosing topics.

You can create specific categories and sort your articles based on these categories. This will probably require a fair bit of reorganizing if your site has been around for a while, but admit it, you knew you’d need to do that going in.

You can install a related pages plugin. This will point the reader to articles that are related in topic to the one they’re currently reading. It can help keep them browsing your site. If you have a lot of content already, this might be the easiest approach.

You can create a mini-sitemap of the particular silo each article belongs to on each page.

What results can you expect from building these silos? First, you’ll get higher rankings for your chosen keywords, because you’ll be telling Google more effectively what your site is all about. Second, you can expect to see an increase in overall traffic, because of your improved position in Google and because it will be more obvious to searchers that you’re actually addressing their topic of interest. You’ll also see more unique visitors, for the same reasons. And you’ll see more traffic from long-tail keywords.

Everything covered in this article should have helped you to prepare your site for the work ahead. Now, you’re no longer making the task of SEO harder by having problems that would discourage the Google spider or human visitors from going through your website. So the real work of SEO can begin.

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