So, over the last few weeks, I've been brushing up on my SEO skills, for various reasons. I've been rummaging through all the trash companies out there who, for hundreds of dollars per month, will get you listed "first" on Google either by abusing your knowledge of SEO and re-selling you an AdWords account, or "backlinking" you from every trash domain they own.
Let's be honest folks, you know this crap does not work. I'm not going to use this opportunity to call out individual firms, because, well, having their names mentioned on another site would benefit their SEO efforts. Search Engine Optimization breaks down to a few simple things, all of which you can do yourself, as you're updating your website. It doesn't take any special programming knowledge, but a tiny bit of HTML will go a long way.
I highly suggest using two free tools from Google and Bing, both, confusingly enough called "Webmaster Tools". I will admit that Bing's tools are more visually interesting, and give you a slightly more interesting view of your data. There is no "but" clause to that ... except to say that Google's been around longer and I have more experience with them. The W3C (or World Wide Web Consortium) is a wonderfully bland website that has all of the most pertinent information in a format guaranteed to bore you to death. That being said, they are the group that is responsible for maintaining web standards, and they have a nifty set of tools to help you make sure that your website is standards compliant.
Social Media has become an increasingly useful tool in Search Engine Optimization. Think about utilizing LinkedIn (as well as other professional networks), Facebook and Twitter.
If you are a woodworker in New Hampshire, you should not have a ton of articles on your website about mining oil in Zimbabwe. Well, I guess you could, if you really wanted. But no one googling "woodworker in NH" would find your site. Key Word Density refers to the number of times a word or phrase is repeated on a page of your website and across your website. Google's Webmaster tools show keyword density under Optimization > Content Keywords. It will show you, as of Google's last indexing of your site, how Google sees the keyword density for your website. It's a useful tool, even for those of us who do this for a living, because it can show you unexpected trends through your website that a page-by-page analysis can miss. For example, on this site, I'd not been paying attention (it is, at the time of writing this article, relatively new) and the phrase "blog" appeared to Google to be more important on my website than the words Drupal or PHP. Currently, Bing does not offer such a tool.
Learn to Use Heading Tags Properly
Heading tags (for geeks: h1, h2, h3, etc; for non geeks: the 'Heading 1', 'Heading 2', etc options you see in your editor) are a super important portion of your website. They ARE NOT for making text bigger or more interesting. Heading tags are how search engines categorize content within a page and understand different pieces of contents' relevance. A paragraph preceeded by an h3 tag is the "child" of a paragraph preceeded by an h2 tag.
- h1 (Page Title) -- h2 (Article Title) --- h3 (Paragraph Title) ---- h4 (Section Title) ----- h5 (Subsection Title) ------ h6 (If you've gotten this far, you're writing a research paper)
Each page must have exactly one primary heading tag, that's an h1 or Heading 1. That tag is usually reserved for your site's name or the name of the specific page (in the latter case, always try to include your site's name to bind it in Google & Bing's minds to the idea of your site - for example: Cancer Cured! An Opinion by MySite.com). There can be multiple h2 tags on a page, each followed by one or more h3. The same goes for the other tags. Most sites I've worked with do not make use of heading tags past the third heading, but they are commonly used for sites with highly structured data, like news or medical information sites. An example of a page might be:
- h1 Fictional News Site -- h2 Story One --- h3 Brief Intro --- h3 History of the Region ---- h4 1945 - 1980 ---- h4 1980 - Present --- h3 History of the Conflict --- h3 Conclusion -- h2 Story Two ... (got the idea?)
Utilize the Semantic Data Extractor from the W3C on any pages about which you have questions. The SDE will extract data from your pages and give you an outline based on how it perceives your page to be structured. If the output from the SDE doesn't look like you want it to, go back and edit your page.
Make sure, at very least, that your site validates properly. Ensure that your website developer or designer includes this in their services to you. You will pay extra, but if you want good SEO results, this is a must. Utilize the Markup Validation Service offered by the W3C. These guys write the specifications for how HTML should be utilized, hence, this is the ONLY resource you should trust for validating the HTML on your website.
Why is it Important?
Two reasons that Valid HTML is important:
- HTML that validates properly, that is to say, HTML that is properly written, is like reading someone else's impeccable handwritten notes from the meeting you missed last Friday. Badly written HTML is like reading those same notes when your ADHD pre-teen nephew wrote them. In the first case, you'll get a clear, concise understanding of how the meeting flowed, the topics discussed and any decisions made. In the second case, you may get a sense of everything that happened, but most likely you'll get lost somewhere a quarter of the way in (if you can read the writing at all) and end up thinking that the meeting had something to do with a robot monkey attacking ninjas. Validatable HTML allows search engines to understand your site better. If a search engine can't consistently "read" pages on your site, it will visit it less.
Sitemaps and robots.txt
Sitemaps are XML or text documents for telling the search engine's "bots" (short for robot) which content you want them to examine. Your robots.txt file is for telling the bots where the sitemap is located and which URLs NOT to examine. I'm not going to go into detail here about how to create these files, other than to point you to one very good resource on how set up your robots.txt and sitemap by hand, if your content management system does not do it for you already, and tell you how to submit your sitemap to Google and Bing's webmaster tools.
- Google Webmaster Tools
- ADD/TEST SITEMAP (follow on-screen instructions)
- Bing Webmaster Tools
- Configure My Site
- SUBMIT A SITEMAP (follow on-screen instructions)
- Configure My Site
A frequently updated sitemap file is the fastest way to get your new pages noticed by Google and Bing. A well thought out robots.txt file will prevent you from having to use either services' "Block" or "Remove" URL feature.
Cross-Link Related Content.
This is a quick "no-brainer" (that I almost forgot to include!). If you have two related articles on your website, make sure that you link them to each other. As an example, if I have an article about fishing in Montana and a second article about vacationing in Montana, I should link the two together. But wait, it's not that simple! Ok, it is. In the first article, I would simply add a sentence similar to "While vacationing in Montana, fishing isn't the only thing to do!" and link the words "vacationing in Montana" to the second article. The second article would need a similar sentence like "Fishing in Montana is fun and inexpensive." where the words "fishing in Montana" is linked to the first article. This tells search engines that the two articles are related, and provides linked keywords in both articles.
Again, another "no brainer". As much as possible, without seeming overly enthusiastic about it, try to link key words on your pages to other pages on your site. The more frequently search engines see groups of words repeated and linked, the more likely they are to understand that you are a subject matter expert on those keywords and that your site has a wealth of information about those ideas and phrases.
Search Engines are slow. You should be, as well.
Quite frankly, your neurotic five-year-old nephew is probably quicker to catch on to new concepts on your website than most search engines. Search engines rely on a number of tools, mainly your sitemap.xml and robots.txt files to find content on your site. Most search engines, from my understanding, utilize your sitemap.xml and robots.txt files to construct a roadmap of where to start looking at your site, and then utilize links within your pages to understand how pages relate to one another. The initial review of your site, from the time you submit your first sitemap to Google or Bing, can take up to 72 hours. Results won't generally start showing in searches for another 24 hours after that. Do not expect that a search engine will visit your site daily; I've seen Google leave a perfectly vibrant community website alone for weeks on end, for no apparent reason, while crushing another, less frequently updated sites' bandwidth limits on a daily basis. Yes, both Google and Bing have controls for "how frequently" they scan your site. I put no stock in those, and neither should you.
So, what does all that mean?
Plan SEO changes to be implemented incrementally. Do not expect drastic changes over night. Changing the wording in a few paragraphs on a page will have no immediate effect. Again, if you need immediate traffic to your site, pay for it on AdWords.
Social Media, Blogging and Backlinking
For a while, there were a number of services that offered, for a fee, to "backlink" to your website from P3 and P4 domains. Don't know what that means? Good. Stay ignorant and don't ever buy into that bunk. Backlinking is simply having a keyword rich link to your website on someone else's site. There are services, some Social Media and some not, that are more reputable than those P-linkers, and upon whom, Google and Bing shine a more favorable light. A quick list:
- Yellow Pages (yp.com)
- LinkedIn (linkedin.com) business & personal listings
- Facebook (facebook.com) business & personal pages
- Twitter (twitter.com)
- Google+ (plus.google.com)
- See SEOMoz.com for a great list of directories and how to measure them (They're a great font of info, but you don't need to pay for their service!)
Each of these services, either for free or fee, will allow you to put up a listing about yourself or your business. Take advantage of as many features as you can comfortably manage. For a small business, I would suggest YP.com, Facebook and Twitter in conjunction with writing a blog. Utilize the blog to create topical, keyword rich articles about your business or industry, and put out links on as many services as you can. This is a manner of direct advertising meeting SEO gold. Google and Bing love Facebook and Google+ and have included you and your friends' pictures next to results that you've posted, shared, "+1'd" or "Liked" on the respective service.
OMG, I bet you're super overwhelmed! Stop...take a breath.
Now, here's the key: make a plan. Remember, search engines are slow, and won't pick up on changes immediately, which means that you've got time on your hands to make these changes, whether you like it or not! The first step is to sit back and make a plan. Which of these items seems easiest for you to tackle? Do that first.
Jeremy's Suggested SEO Plan of Attack
- Identify key words and phrases you want to present to search engines.
- Pull a copy of your sitemap.
- Identify your most important pages and correct their weight on the map.
- Identify related content.
- Clean up your content:
- Utilize your sitemap as a tool to determine which pages to address first.
- Make sure your heading tags are in good shape and that they make sense.
- Make sure there's a high appropriate keyword density for every page on your site.
- Cross-link related articles.
- Cross-link keywords.
- Know HTML? Fix yours. Don't know it? Hire someone to fix it!
- Take a break. Walk away from it. Google and Bing need time to catch up.
- Plan out which social media outlets you're going to use
- Sign up for accounts. Put them in "stealth mode", if available, or create dummy accounts.
- Learn how to utilize the tool.
- Start a "Blog Idea" log.
- Implement your social media strategy.
- Remember, each time you post a blog or article on your site, to go to all pertinent Social Media outlets and post a link.