On the first day of almost every class you took in college, your professors handed you a syllabus. This outline showed you the major areas that the course would cover, and you could fit everything you learned under one or another of the main headings. That’s my plan for this article; think of it as a syllabus for SEO. I have to warn you, though, that this syllabus is not going to last for your entire career as an SEO. Search engines are constantly changing their algorithms, and certain trends outside of the search engines act to disrupt the entire field (social networking sites, anyone?).
I’d like to give a tip of the hat to Richard Burckhardt, writing for Search Engine Journal. His article on 55 search engine tips led me to think about organizing principles, partly because I can’t hold 55 tips in my head all at once. Since I’m not a college professor, these organizing principles will be presented somewhat informally, and will encompass more than one article.
So, without further ado, and quite possibly in no particular order, let’s plunge into some of the major themes you’ll encounter when you’re doing SEO today.
In this section I’d like to focus on the limitations of modern search engine spiders. As you know, the major search engines send out software programs, often called spiders or bots, to scan the contents of web sites so that they can be properly indexed. Using various indicators (such as number and quality of links, age of site, and perhaps as much as fifty others), which they check in a mostly automated process, the search engines then decide which sites are relevant to certain terms (and how relevant). This way, when someone searches on a particular key word or phrase, the list of links returned truly reflects, to the best of the algorithms’ abilities, sites that will answer the searcher’s query.
But search engine spiders, as I mentioned, have limitations. Engineers work constantly to improve their ability to index sites, and to spot relevant items, but there are some things that search engine spiders simply cannot see and/or interpret. Likewise, because of what spiders can and cannot do (such as enter text or passwords), there are certain parts of web sites past which spiders cannot reliably crawl. If you find that certain parts of your site are not being indexed, you might want to check whether the technology you’re using to make your site more interesting to visitors is squishing those spiders.
And Flash? Well, I won’t say forget about it, but if you’re going to use a lot of it on your site, you need to remember that the spiders won’t see it. Even Google, which recently announced that Adobe provided it with the means to read Flash, can’t read many forms of Flash, such as videos. So you need to build in content that the spiders CAN see that will help them figure out those videos. The same holds true for images (the alt tag is your friend!).
Flash has something in common with frames and AJAX: you can’t link to a single page. So each of these technologies should be used sparingly if possible when you’re concerned about SEO. In fact, frames should not be used at all; it’s considered to be an outmoded way to design a web page. What should you do if your customer insists on that splash image or Flash movie taking up all of the home page? Insert text and navigation links below the fold. I’ll return to video themes later; right now it’s time to move on.
From this basic idea of how the search engines work to index web sites, we’re going to move to a broader, classic theme: content is king. Images and videos are great, but search engines see text best, and searchers looking for information online still expect to find it, more often than not, in the form of text. Focus on your site’s theme (the keywords that searchers will use to find your site) and make sure you build good, well-written, unique content using that theme.
Don’t put up just ten to fifteen articles or so and decide you’re done. If you want to build and maintain a position on the search engine results page, you need to keep supplying your visitors and the search engine spiders with fresh content. There seems to be a consensus that adding new content three times a week is about right to get your site indexed frequently. New content added regularly gets interpreted by the search engine spiders as a sign that your site is highly relevant.
But what should you do if the focus of your site doesn’t lend itself to posting fresh content regularly? Maybe your line of work is swimming pools, you’ve been selling the same products for a while, and there just doesn’t happen to be a lot of new and exciting things happening in the field right now. (If your line really IS swimming pools, and I’m mistaken, please accept my apologies!). If, for whatever reason, you have a web site whose content doesn’t change very often, you would be well-advised to start a blog.
As you would if you were posting full-fledged articles, post a new blog entry three times a week. You can limit yourself to just a few paragraphs, but your blog should focus on topics that are relevant to your site. For example, if your blog is about swimming pools, you could talk about how much they add to the value of a home, what goes into building a pool, special summer days spent at a friend’s house with a pool…the list goes on and on. And it’s all good spider food!
Oh, and all that stuff you hear about linkbaiting? Well, I’ll be discussing the fine art of building links in just a bit, but the fact of the matter is, linkbaiting is just a fancy term for building content so good that visitors who read it don’t want to keep it to themselves – they want to share it with all their friends. So once again, it boils down to content.
One word of warning before moving on: there is a difference between unique content and quality content. An article or posted item can be one without being the other. It’s your job to make sure that the content on your site is both unique AND of good quality.
Choosing and using keywords are almost separate areas of study. If this were a full-fledged college course, choosing keywords would probably be a unit of its own covering several days, while using keywords would be spread almost throughout the course. Keywords are important to almost every kind of optimization you will do with a web site. You will use them directly in the body of the site’s content, in various places in the site’s code, and in links associated with the site. If you engage in any social media optimization, you will use them as anchor text to point back to the web site.
So what do you do with your keywords? It goes without saying that you use them in your content. You USE them, you don’t OVERUSE them. Read whatever you write with your site visitors in mind, and consider how they would react. Are you serving their needs? Content that sounds as if you’re simply repeating the same word over and over again won’t fool your visitors into thinking your site is valuable and relevant – and it won’t fool the search engines either.
Even so, there are some places where your keywords are essential. You must have a unique, keyword-focused title tag on every page of your site. Please don’t make it the name of your company, though, unless your brand is a household word. Remember, few people will actually search on your company name; they’ll search on things like “swimming pool toys” or “chlorine for swimming pools” or whatever other keywords are relevant to your field. If your company name needs to be in the title tag, put it toward the end.
Notice the kinds of searches I put in quotation marks in the previous paragraph. These aren’t single words; they’re phrases. These days, savvy searchers know that they can get more relevant results by using a phrase, so you should do the same. Depending on the nature of a user’s search, they might also include a location, such as “pizza fort lauderdale” to find a pizza place close to home. If you want your site to turn up in these kinds of local searches, you should put your location in your text. Try “our West Palm Beach store” rather than simply “our store,” for example.
You should also use key words in text links, image alt tags, and even your domain name if you can. Since you might have several links and tags on a page, here’s something to keep in mind while you’re doing this. If you focus on more than one key word or key phrase on a page, it will effectively dilute that page’s relevance for each of those key words. So optimize for a single key phrase on each page so the search engines will give you strong relevance for that phrase.
Key words also belong in your RSS feeds. You should optimize them in the same way that you would optimize your posts and web pages. Make sure the text in your title and description is, well, descriptive and rich with keywords. Put keywords in the captions to your images, and the content surrounding your images. Oh, and that blog I was talking about in the previous section? Your blog’s title is probably optimized, but what about the titles of each post? They should be optimized with keywords as well, and that optimization should be separate from the blog title.
That’s all I have room for right now. Don’t forget to come back next week for the second part of this article. Stay tuned!