SEO 102: 13 Steps to Improve Your Ranking the Right Way
There’s no doubt about it: SEO is a complex process. However, garnering a favorable position in the results for key search terms is one of the foundational aspects of effective marketing today. Therefore, as one charged with growing a business, it’s critical that you master the basics of SEO.
Step one is achieving a thorough understanding of the basic mechanics of search engines and how users engage with Google, Yahoo and the like to find information. If you’re not there yet, be sure to check out SEO 101: A Plain-English Primer
. Once you’ve conquered this, you have the foundation you need to make sound decisions when it comes to establishing priorities and formulating your SEO strategy.
To help you get started on the right track, here are 13 proven tactics that will help you improve your ranking, capture more traffic and increase your exposure to new customers.
Choose your words carefully
: Target the keywords that will best serve your business growth objectives.
Take over the block before you take over the world
: Maximizing your return on the resources you are investing in SEO starts with setting reasonable expectations, especially when it comes to identifying your keywords.
Give the people what they want
: Learn how to shape the content of your site to maximize your exposure to potential customers.
Change of address
: Well-formed URLs play an important role in improving your search rankings and connecting your content with your prospective customers.
Tag – you’re it
: Title tags are easily overlooked by site owners and visitors alike, but this oversight can cost you.
: To you, a picture may be worth 1,000 words. Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for Google.
Points for originality
: When it comes to boosting your search ranking, updating your site often is good, but keeping it fresh with original, relevant content is far better.
Be your own best friend
: Creating links from one page to another within your own website can actually help improve your standing with the search engines.
Spread the love
: Extending your content through social media platforms is a quick and easy way to leverage the power of your original content for SEO benefit.
: Not seeing the kind of search results rankings that you’d like? The missing link might be just that – missing links.
Restraint is a virtue
: For every SEO strategy and tactic, one common ground rule applies: don’t take it too far.
Know where you stand
: Setting realistic goals for your SEO campaign begins and ends with good metrics.
No end in sight
: The process of climbing and staying on top of search engine results page rankings is never-ending.
Choose your words carefully
The right keywords and keyphrases are the essential building blocks for a successful SEO campaign.
Anything and everything to do with search – from the indexing of content to the input of a query to the ranking of results – revolves around keywords. As a result, the right keywords and keyphrases are the essential building blocks for a successful SEO campaign.
How can you be sure that you’re covering your bases? Start with the basics.
What category does your business belong in?
Describe it in one word.
Describe it in two.
That’s the foundation.
Work out from this middle ground in either direction – first more generic, then more specific.
If you had to look for another company that offers similar products or services, what words would you use? How would the average person describe what you do or sell? Add to that list as well any synonyms for those terms.
Getting more specific, go through your product or service lines. What brands do you offer that someone might be looking for? How might a user qualify you by location?
For example, let’s say you’re a dentist. Your service category would be “dentistry.” Generic search terms for your services might include “general dentistry,” “cosmetic dentistry” or “pediatric dentistry.” Your practice could be described in terms of its location, such as “south Charlotte dentist” or “South Park cosmetic dentist.” Getting more specific, you’d want to be sure that you appear in search results for “veneers,” “dental implants,” or “sedation dentistry” as well as for branded services such as “Zoom® teeth whitening” and “Invisalign®.”
By now, your list is likely very extensive. Fortunately, there are tools that can help you gauge how valuable each of these keywords or keyphrases might be to your business based on their relative popularity. For example, Google Insights for Search
provides data indicating the relative level of interest in any given term based on all searches conducted on Google over a specified period of time. You can also use Google Insights to obtain lists of related and rising searches. In addition, the Google AdWords keyword tool
provides the estimated number of searches conducted per month for any keyword. Entering all your possible keyword choices into this free browser-based utility will give you a good idea of which ones are the most commonly searched.
Once you’ve determined the keywords that will serve as the foundation of your SEO campaign, that’s when the real work begins. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, scour your website from the ground up and shape your content to start seeing results.
Take over the block before you take over the world
When defining the keywords that will drive your SEO campaign, it’s critical to be realistic, or else your efforts will be in vain.
Let’s say you own the local flower shop. Unless you have the resources of 1800Flowers.com or FTD, you’re not going to be number one for the generic search term “florist.”
However, a few additional qualifiers can create a more attainable goal. For example, “Charlotte florist,” “south Charlotte florist,” “Charlotte wedding flowers” and “Charlotte gift baskets” all represent keyword phrases that you could reasonably expect to conquer through the application of good, long-term, focused SEO practices.
Taking this one step further, sometimes the best approach is to identify the one keyword set that represents either the largest share of your business, the majority of search that pertains to your business or the segment of your business that holds the greatest potential for growth.
Using the same example of a local florist, let’s say you’ve done your homework and, based on the frequency of searches for “Charlotte wedding flowers,” you’ve decided there is a great opportunity for you to grow this area of your business and claim additional market share. If this is the case, then you might make a strategic decision to direct the majority of your SEO efforts toward optimizing your site for this one specific keyphrase.
To do this, you would employ tactics such as publishing useful content on your site about wedding florals, writing regularly about wedding trends and ideas on your blog and creating links pointing back to this content on other quality sites that are related to weddings and wedding planning. While the techniques you might use can vary, the most important point is that it can pay to focus all of these efforts on making significant and measurable improvements in your ranking for “Charlotte wedding flowers,” rather than spreading yourself too thin by trying to dominate too many categories at once.
Give the people what they want
It’s as obvious as it is true: You won’t show up in search results for something you don’t offer.
However, the beauty of your website as a marketing tool is that, unlike a printed brochure, its content is not set in stone when you publish it. It is a fluid medium that can be constantly expanded and refined to ensure that you are serving your target audience effectively.
The words that consumers enter into search engines are indicative of their needs, and in these needs, there is opportunity for you to provide a solution.
When you are researching the keywords that will provide the foundation of your SEO strategy, you will likely come across commonly searched terms that you might initially be inclined to dismiss because they seem too specific or lie on the fringe of your direct offering. However, it pays to take a second look at these more indirectly related search phrases in order to cast a wider net for customers.
As we’ve established previously, the words that consumers enter into search engines are indicative of their needs, and in these needs, there is opportunity for you to provide a solution.
For example, they might be looking for “baby carrier reviews” or “organic baking” or “Dilworth events.” While the answer to these queries may not lie in your direct product or service offering, you might be able to augment the content of your website in order to provide answers and become recognized by the search engines as an authority in these areas.
Let’s say you own a high-end baby boutique. Instead of just selling baby products, offer customers the ability to post reviews of your products. This not only makes your site more useful but boosts your potential to appear in the results for more specific searches, such as “baby carrier reviews.”
Or perhaps you operate a specialty foods shop. You could enhance your site with a blog and post recipes that not only feature your products but are targeted to pertain to specific searches, such as “organic baking,” “vegetarian cooking” or “low-calorie recipes.” Not only are you expanding your available catalog of content, but the search engines will recognize your site as being relevant to a wider range of topics, which will in turn increase the number of qualified search phrases that will funnel traffic to your site.
Maybe you own the neighborhood coffee shop. By adding a community calendar to your website, you can not only increase the likelihood that it will appear in the results for location-specific searches such as “Dilworth events” but also give visitors a reason to bookmark your site for future reference.
In every example, adding content or functionality in strategic areas creates value and relevance for a broader array of searches, which directly increases traffic. At the same time, increasing the utility of the site vastly improves the likelihood of converting visitors into customers and indirectly increases traffic by making the site something that people love and want to share.
Change of address
When you were knee-deep in the process of choosing your domain name, you probably poured over list after list of available URLs and agonized over which one would be the best representation of your brand, the most memorable or even the easiest to spell. However, since securing your carefully selected slice of Internet real estate, you probably haven’t given much thought to URLs.
If so, it’s time to start thinking about them again. When it comes to SEO, you should ensure that each page has a search-friendly customized URL to help search engines find and identify individual pages within your site.
This is of particular importance if you are blogging or otherwise publishing new material to your site on a regular basis (Here’s a hint: you should be, but more on that later.). Be sure you are maximizing the return on the resources you are investing in developing quality content by incorporating your keywords in your post title whenever possible and then creating a permalink for each article that includes this title.
For example, the randomly generated URL www.carolinaweddings.com/579 provides no information – either to search engine spiders or prospective visitors – about what kind of information the article located at this address contains. By contrast, assigning this same blog post a static URL like www.carolinaweddings.com/top-destination-wedding-locations clearly identifies the subject matter of the article and enables the page to be ranked higher in search results for destination wedding locations.
As a rule of thumb, don’t include more than 10 words in the URL, or else it sends up red flags for spam. Also, including hyphens between each word increases overall readability, both for spiders and users, which has added benefits for ranking.
Tag – you're it
A title tag is the text that typically appears at the top of a browser window. Chances are you rarely if ever even notice these inconspicuous groupings of words and phrases, let alone give them serious consideration.
Search engines, however, think much differently. Title tags provide a primary clue to search engine spiders as to what type of content can be found on that page. As a result, it is critically important to ensure that your title tags are in place and that your keywords are present there.
Be sure to address the title tag for each and every page on your site. Each page does – or at least should – serve a distinct purpose and have something specific to offer a prospective visitor, and your title tags should reflect this.
You’ll also want to make your title tags and page headers as descriptive as possible. Include your keywords when relevant, but don’t just string them together haphazardly. The title tag also appears on the search results display page and will likely be the basis upon which a user will decide whether or not what you have to offer meets their needs.
Take care to limit your title tags to about 70 characters in length, or else they will be truncated by most search engines when results are displayed. To help stay within these parameters, keep in mind that for the most part, there is no need to include your domain name as part of the title tag.
This process may seem elementary or even tedious. However, going through these steps is critical not only to helping search engines index your content effectively but also to catching the attention of prospective visitors who are scanning through pages of results and need to know at a glance what they can expect to find if they choose to click through to your site.
To you, a picture may be worth 1,000 words. Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for Google.
As advanced as the major search engines have become, there are still limits to their ability to crawl, interpret and index content. To get the most mileage from your website as a sales tool, it is important to ensure that as much of your content as possible can be indexed.
First, as unglamorous as it may seem, when it comes to SEO, having a site map matters. Because the crawlers depend on links to identify and index individual pages, even a vanilla HTML site map facilitates the indexing process because it contains direct, crawlable links to each and every page within your site. For the same reason, pages that are inaccessible because of broken links or because they are hidden in password-protected areas or submission-required forms can’t be found or indexed.
Furthermore, it’s important to understand that search engines can only index HTML text; images, video and audio files are virtually invisible to spiders. In order to get SEO benefit from your visual content, you should assign an ALT tag to every image that details what is shown on the page, using keywords whenever possible. Visible text in the immediate proximity of images counts, too, so it helps to include captions or other descriptive wording. Likewise, if it makes sense to do so, including a keyword-rich transcript or written excerpt from a podcast, video or other digital media provides content that can be indexed in the appropriate keyword record.
Also, be wary of Flash files and Java plug-ins. These can produce some visually desirable effects, but generally speaking, any content or links contained within are not visible to search engines.
To make sure your most important content is indexible, visit seo-browser.com
. There you’ll find a tool that allows you to view your site just like a search engine sees it. If critical pieces are missing, take measures to correct this right away, or else you will only be undermining your own best efforts to improve your ranking for your chosen keywords.
Points for originality
When it comes to boosting your search ranking, updating your site often is good, but keeping it fresh with original, relevant content is far better.
It’s a fact: no matter how much of your time and resources you pour into SEO, there’s only so much performance you can pry from your static brochure content. When it comes to boosting your search ranking, updating your site often is good, but keeping it fresh with original, relevant content is far better.
The complex algorithms behind the major search engines are geared toward providing users with the most useful and most up-to-date information about their topic of interest. Therefore, sites that offer frequently updated content are given priority in the rankings.
A word of caution before you dive head-first into this process: Google is nobody’s fool. You must put in the work if you want to reap the rewards. You won’t see significant benefits if your updates consist solely of linking to or republishing good content that you find on other sites. What search engines want to see is legitimately unique content that is different from what others have to offer, both in subject matter and in wording.
Blogging is one of the best ways to fulfill this objective, as it provides a natural way to establish a good rhythm of publishing new content on a consistent basis. When writing articles for your blog, make sure to include your keywords whenever logical, but don’t overdo it. Your goal first and foremost should always be to create content that is valuable and interesting to your followers. If you sacrifice the quality of your writing for the sake of increasing the frequency of your keywords, you not only risk alienating your readers, but you will actually be penalized by the search engines.
Be your own best friend
If you’re frequently updating your website with fresh content that is strategically crafted to incorporate select keywords and phrases, you are simultaneously creating additional opportunities to boost your ranking in the results for those terms.
Internal links are one of the most simple and least time-consuming SEO techniques to implement.
Linking keywords that appear in your latest article or blog post to other previously published material that covers the same subject matter yields SEO benefits in two ways. First, internal links within your site help search engine spiders find and index your content. Second, just as these links allow the crawlers to delve deeper into your site, they give your visitors pathways to do the same. This drives up the number of pageviews for individual pages within the site, which in turn helps to increase their popularity and the likelihood that they will appear in the search results when users enter those terms in a query.
Internal links are one of the most simple and least time-consuming SEO techniques to implement. You’ve already created the content; all that’s left to do is spend a few minutes making connections between new content and old.
Better yet, the advantages of this practice extend beyond SEO. If visitors discover your website because they are searching for information on a specific topic, providing internal links to other pages that pertain to the same subject will give them incentive to spend more time exploring what you have to offer, pass your content along to friends who share the same interests and bookmark your site for future reference.
But remember, as you start building your internal links, make sure to exercise good judgment. Just because it’s easy to create a link doesn’t mean you should add them anywhere and everywhere. Excessive links are distracting to readers and will be more likely to turn them away than draw them in.
Spread the love
In addition to looking for opportunities to create internal links, your rhythm for adding new content to your site should also include promoting this content via social media.
Taking just a few minutes to post a teaser message and a link to your latest article or blog post on Facebook and Twitter has indirect but potentially powerful SEO benefits. Through the magic of social media, your link will gain momentum as it spreads from your direct network through the networks of your friends and followers through their networks and so on. The cumulative effect of all this sharing is increased traffic on your site and more pageviews for each article, which subsequently improves your standing with the search engines.
Another great way to reinforce your SEO efforts by increasing the popularity of your site is to submit every article or blog post you publish to Digg
. If you’ve done a good job of creating compelling original content that interests, excites and even stirs controversy among your community, readers will “digg” your article. If you get enough of these votes to work your way up toward the top of your category or even the front page of Digg, you are all but guaranteed to see a significant spike in traffic on your site.
Furthermore, extending your content through social media platforms essentially automates the process of building quality links that point back to your site, as your fellow bloggers pick up your content and share it with their own readers. In the eyes of search engines, these links elevate the value of the specific article or post as well as of your site as a whole.
Inbound links, or links on other websites that point to your site, are one of the most valuable assets to any SEO campaign.
As we’ve established previously, the two overarching criteria that search engines use when evaluating and ranking the results for any given query are relevance and importance, and inbound links can boost your how your site rates on both counts.
In the most basic sense, search engine algorithms recognize an external link to your site as a vote that the content on your site pertains to the topic in question and is valued by others on the Web. As a result, link-building campaigns are generally part of any good long-term SEO strategy.
Link-building campaigns are generally part of any good long-term SEO strategy
There are a number of ways that you can obtain links on other sites. For example, editorial links are created by bloggers and other content managers when they want to reference something you have published in their own writing. This is one of the many reasons why creating high-quality content and extending that content through social networking sites is so important, because you greatly multiply the chances that someone will discover and cite one of your articles.
You can also approach the owner or webmaster of another popular, good quality website and ask that they add a link to your site. The best place to start with these requests is your own network of business partners, vendors and clients.
Advertising in online directories in another way to score points for inbound links. Just make sure the directory site is one that is respected and has a legitimate editorial process, such as the Yahoo! Directory
, or this approach might be more detrimental to your SEO efforts than helpful.
Believe it or not, you can even create your own inbound links on other sites. The key is to seek out websites and blogs that cover subjects of relevance to your keywords and that have a readership aligned with your target audience. Subscribe to the RSS feeds for these sites and then establish a daily or weekly routine of scanning newly posted material for opportunities to post topical, insightful comments that link back to related content on your own site.
Individually, each one of these inbound links that you create doesn’t carry much weight. However, over time, as you amass hundreds and thousands of these links, it can make a big difference in the perceived popularity of your site in the eyes of the search engines. Additionally, if you are regularly posting helpful comments that demonstrate your expertise and authority, you will not only boost your ranking, but you will also increase your visibility to prospective customers and provide opportunities for direct click-throughs to your site.
The number and quality of inbound links that you have accumulated make up your link profile. As a general rule, the more you have, the stronger your profile. However, not all links are created equal. This is because the way the search engine algorithms measure the value of a link is based on certain assumptions.
For example, one of these basic premises is that trustworthy sites link to other trustworthy sites. Links from well-respected, well-established sites count more because they carry more authority. Therefore, the reputation of the sites where your inbound links reside is more important than the sheer quantity. Before you invest time in actively seeking out a link or commenting regularly on a website, check the site’s Google PageRank
or Alexa Traffic Rank
to gauge its relative popularity.
Furthermore, the type of domain of the site of origin matters. Links from .gov, .edu or .org sites are coveted because they are the most difficult to obtain. Next in line are .coms, which are favored over .biz or .info.
Another noteworthy qualifier: inbound links from sites similar to yours are worth more because it indicates that your peers and competitors like what you have to say.
Keep in mind as well that diversity counts, too. The number and variety of different sources linking to your site is a reflection of the breadth of the audience among which your content is popular and relevant.
Do be aware that reciprocal links – which occur when you link to a site that also links back to you – don’t count as much as one-way links. Why? Because according to the logic behind the search engine algorithms, if another site is linking to you, it’s because you offer something of value they don’t. If the links go both ways, it puts you on equal footing. Furthermore, having too many reciprocal links can work against you because it suggests that you are buying links.
As a general rule of thumb, it is not a smart practice to buy links. If you do and it is discovered, it can result in a serious penalty. This caveat applies to low-quality online directory listings as well.
One final word of caution: be very careful who you befriend. Just as you may be requesting links on other sites, you will likely be the recipient of these requests as well. If you create an outbound link to a site that is suspicious, engages in bad SEO practices or is a link farm, the penalty will fall on you.
Restraint is a virtue
For every strategy and tactic we’ve outlined, one common ground rule applies: don’t take it too far.
Search engines are smarter than you may realize. Just as their algorithms are built to reward you for investing the resources in creating high-quality, well-structured original content and earning the “votes” of others in the community (in the form of inbound links), they are also designed to weed out and punish impostors.
SEO tactics should never compromise the quality of the user experience
Because SEO is such a vital part of today’s marketing, scammy practitioners who wanted a shortcut to the top of the ranks developed illegitimate methods intended to trick the search engine algorithms by creating a false impression of greater popularity or higher relevance. These are known as “black-hat” SEO practices, and any one of them can result in significant penalties once discovered.
For example, there is a common black-hat technique called “keyword stuffing” that attempts to increase the appearance of relevance by repeating keyword terms or phrases an inordinate number of times within URLs, title tags, ALT tags or even the written text on a page. Not only will employing this tactic not work to your advantage, it will cost you.
Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, modern search engines do not use keyword density as a factor in determining relevance. Instead, they have more advanced methods of keyword analysis. As a result, research has shown that using any given keyword more than three times on a single page has negligible impact on your ranking. Search engines can also detect whether the occurrence of keywords actually coincides with the greater content around them, so don’t try to slip in keywords on a page where they don’t really belong.
There are many other areas where employing SEO practices to an extreme can be detrimental. For instance, having too many links going to or from the same sites suggests link buying or link spamming. Updating your site frequently with content from other sites won’t result in any benefit, and if that content is copyrighted and being used without the required permission, it can even get you banned. As tempting as it is to garner hundreds or thousands of inbound links as quickly as possible, resist the urge to participate in cross-linking schemes or buying links, as these will draw penalties if and when they are identified as such.
Aside from the risk of being penalized in the rankings, another important reason to practice restraint is that SEO tactics should never compromise the quality of the user experience. For example, formatting keywords in bold, italic or a larger-size font has SEO benefits. However, if you employ this technique too much, your articles will become difficult to read, and your visitors won’t have the patience to wade through them, no matter how pertinent the information they contain.
When it comes to SEO, always remember to be reasonable with your expectations and don’t get too eager. Climbing the ranks of the results for your chosen keywords and phrases is a time-consuming process. As long as you stick with tried-and-true methods and don’t attempt to cheat the system or manipulate your ranking, you will achieve success while staying on the right side of the law.
Know where you stand
Setting realistic goals for your SEO campaign begins with knowing where you currently stand.
For starters, your weekly SEO ritual should include checking each of the three major search engines (Google, Yahoo and Bing) for your results page ranking for the keywords that you have chosen to target with your SEO campaign.
Another important piece of the puzzle is forming a clear picture of the search engines and search queries visitors are using most often to find you, which can be achieved by using a traffic analysis tool such as Google Analytics
In particular, the terms that are driving traffic to your site provide insight in three critical areas. First, they help you gauge your performance for your targeted keywords. Second, they can point to new trends in keyword demand and help you identify new terms that might be worthwhile to factor into your efforts. Finally, they may highlight keywords that are sending you traffic that you may not have anticipated or even previously dismissed. If you discover that there are terms for which you are ranked high and receiving visits, you may want to rethink your optimization strategy and consider adding new content to ensure that you are serving the needs and interests of this audience.
Furthermore, using Google Analytics, you can examine which specific pages your visitors are accessing through the search engines, which is one way to get a baseline idea of how many of the pages on your site are being indexed. As you continue to implement good SEO practices, you should see this number increase gradually as you garner more inbound links and add more unique content to your site. Additionally, you can examine conversions by keyword, but you should take these numbers with a grain of salt. It is always possible that it’s not really the visitor’s first time coming to your site, just as it is possible that a user might convert during a subsequent visit.
No end in sight
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about SEO is that there is no such thing as a one-time solution. Google never sleeps, and neither should you. In the world of SEO, there’s no such thing as resting on your laurels. The process of climbing and staying on top of search engine results page rankings is never-ending and requires diligence and vigilance.
As you track your performance in the results for your chosen keywords on the major search engines, you will notice that your position will fluctuate from week to week. Typically, you will only move up or down a few spots at a time. Don’t get discouraged and assume that you’re doing something wrong. Keep in mind that many of your competitors are probably employing at least some of the same techniques as you, so drastic, overnight changes are not the norm.
Due to the number and complexity of factors that are weighed by the search engine algorithms in determining relevance and importance, SEO not a perfect science. The techniques we’ve outlined here cover the basic fundamentals that will put you on the right path to improving your ranking, but it is difficult to predict exactly how great an impact any single tactic will have.
The only successful approach to SEO is to follow solid, proven methods and to remain consistent in their application over time.
Furthermore, SEO is a complex and ever-evolving discipline, and there is an immense number of practices and metrics that go beyond the scope of this article. If you want to take your campaign to the next level, consider working with an SEO specialist
. These traffic-building experts can help you evaluate your efforts as well as those of your competitors, weigh these against the variables of your business and define the keywords and strategies that will be most effective in helping your business grow.
Always remember that the only successful approach to SEO is to follow solid, proven methods and to remain consistent in their application over time. Your patience will be rewarded with better ranking, greater traffic coming to your site, more prospects seeing what you have to offer and increased opportunities to convert visitors into customers.