If you’re building a brand-new business web site, SEO should not be an afterthought; you need to think about it right from the beginning, along with your site’s content. It starts with keyword research. You know what you want to offer, but do you know how your target audience thinks about it? Say you’re in the morbid business of selling coffins, and your market is all within a small tri-state area. Do your customers refer to them as “coffins” or “caskets”? Or do they use some other term? You get the idea.
Once you’ve done your keyword research, you’re ready to build your content around it. Keywords really should fall naturally, but they definitely need to be in the body of your content to be noticed by the search engines. That’s not the only place they need to be, of course, but I’ll get to the other areas in just a minute.
You’re probably thinking of two related aspects of your web site: content and structure. You don’t have to get particularly fancy about your site’s structure; there are a number of places online where you can get free templates. If you’re going to use a free template, however, you will need to make a few changes.
A template will make sure that your web site’s design looks the same on every page; unfortunately, one of the side effects of this is that it uses exactly the same title, description and meta tags on every page. This is not good for SEO purposes. Make sure you go into the HTML of your web pages and change those tags to reflect each page’s actual content. Try to limit your title tags to no longer than 68 characters (counting spaces as characters), and put your most important keywords first in the title tags.
Forget about putting up "under construction" pages. Do you really want Google to index an effectively blank page? Of course not! When you’re ready to take your site live, do it with real content. Spend the time to write it if you must, but if you’re building a multi-page web site, don’t go live with less than five pages of real content. You shouldn’t have a problem with this; if you’re a business with a product, you’ll want a home page, an About Us page, probably an FAQ, and so on.
Look at the URL structure for those pages, especially your home page. Keep it simple! Remember, for an online business it’s all about being found. Dev Basu writing for Search Engine People notes that “Using simple static url’s or permalinks that are descriptive of your web site will help you rank better.”
While you’re at it, make sure your internal linking structure is set up properly, with appropriate links that all work correctly. Site navigation can be confusing to new visitors and search engine spiders. Make it easy. Make sure that every page on your site links to another page on your site; you don’t want any orphans here. You should also consider setting up breadcrumbs, so that your visitors know at a glance where they are.
How are you going to build up your content? One obvious example you’ll hear everywhere is through blogging. I used to think that every site should have a blog, but now I’m not so sure. If you don’t have someone who can write well and regularly on topics that are relevant to your web site, you may want to think twice. Also, is a blog really the best way to fulfill your site’s goals? As Aaron Wall observed in a recent column for Search Engine Land, “…if you are a local plumber, does it help you make any sales to talk about that one clogged toilet that took six hours to fix, flooded the house, and has reached legendary status amongst your peers?”
Google can help make your life easier – and vice versa. By all means, sign up for a Google Webmaster Central account. Google is more forthcoming these days, with services such as duplicate content reports. Paying attention to what Google can tell you may give you a competitive edge over your rivals. Of course, they may already be using it – in which case, you’d still be smart to sign up.
Another thing that will help both Google and you is building and submitting a site map. I don’t mean the kind of navigational site map that a visitor can get to from a link on your web site, though that’s a good idea too. I mean an XML site map of the sort that can help the robots from the search engines know exactly where to go to index your site. There’s an official web site set up by all three major search engines that explains the sitemap standard and how to create one. There are also many tools available for automatically generating XML sitemaps; a Google search for “XML sitemap generator,” without quotes, yields 1,780,000 hits. Many of these tools are free. Still, if you’re at all technically inclined, I’d recommend reading through the information at Sitemaps.org, so you understand the structure.
I said earlier that blogging is inappropriate for some web sites. That’s true, but it’s also true that if you’re posting some kind of content regularly, you might find it advantageous to base your CMS around a blogging system that is friendly to search engines. I’ve seen WordPress recommended as a good system for this purpose. Best of all, it is open source, so if you need to modify it to make it work for you, you can. As Mark Jackson writing for Search Engine Watch noted, “I figure if it’s good enough for Matt Cutts’ blog, it’s good enough for us to modify into a CMS.”
Another step you can take is to install Google Analytics in your web site. It’s free. You’ll have to verify your site with Google to get the data collection started. Google even has a special blog for the service, free product support, a help center and something called Conversion University with a good assortment of articles. Basically, Analytics tracks the traffic to your web site, showing you where your visitors come from and how they interact with your site. This kind of information will be invaluable over time as you grow your site and make various changes.
You’ve properly set up your internal linking structure for your web site, but what about external links? Many new web sites find this challenging. Everyone knows that Google counts an outgoing link to a site as a “vote” saying that site is relevant. Votes help your site reach a higher position in the SERPs (along with tens of other factors in Google’s algorithm). But how do you get those votes?
If your web site’s goals fit well with keeping a blog, you have one possibility. Of course, blogs aren’t a requirement; you could just make sure to write compelling enough content that others want to link to it or even write about it. That hypothetical plumber I mentioned earlier in a quote from Wall might not get any customers from talking about legendary plumbing disasters, but what if he did an article on five fast ways to keep your plumbing system running smoothly? Or maybe he could write one on the seven hidden signs that your system might be malfunctioning. (I just bet mold is one of them). I’m just pulling these numbers out of thin air, you understand, but I think you get my point.
Staying focused on the blogging theme, if you’re in a professional field you probably frequent web sites related to that field; they might even have their own blogs and/or forums. If not, there are plenty of blog search engines you can use. Michael D. Jensen of Solo SEO recommends finding five fairly popular blogs that are relevant to your site and have been updated within the last couple of days. Then you should read the post and make a comment that contributes to the discussion. Most of the time, comments to blogs offer a field for a URL; that’s where you put the URL for your web site. It will give you and the site some exposure in context, and if you’ve written something intelligent, blog readers will be predisposed to favor your web site (because you’ve just shown you know what you’re talking about).
Social bookmarking sites are another place for you to consider. Post a link to your site and tag it with relevant keywords. Google and other major search engines visit social bookmarking sites regularly, so this is another way to help your site get indexed. Don’t be rude about it though, or the community will brand you a spammer and act accordingly.
And you don’t have to bookmark just your home page; as you build content that you think others might be interested in, you can bookmark those pages as well. From time to time I’ve visited Searchles and bookmarked articles from SEO Chat. They have several groups devoted to search engines and SEO, so when we publish an article I think they’ll find of particular interest, I bookmark it there. Sometimes another member of their community has even visited SEO Chat and independently bookmarked an article for which I didn’t post the link to Searchles. Other social bookmarking communities you should consider include del.icio.us, BlinkList, StumbleUpon, and Furl; there are many more.
Starting a brand new web site can be a daunting challenge. But it isn’t hopeless. It takes a good bit of work and patience, but you can eventually build the traffic and sales figures of your dreams.