During the early days of the internet, major search engines paid lots of attention to backlinks (links to your website) and keywords, the words and phrases that websites use to define and describe their webpages (or integrated within the webpage itself) in hopes that they match the terms entered by users in search engines.
Today, search engine optimization (SEO) is not just about optimizing your website with keywords, but it’s also about building content around concepts that enable search engines to deliver even better results in a highly interactive and social web. Practicing good SEO, the processes that drive free and organic traffic from search engine results to your websites, is also tied to creating quality content that can be easily crawled and indexed by Google, Bing, Yahoo! and other search engines.
How Search Engines Work
To continually deliver reliable search results, search engines are constantly refining their algorithms so their search engines are smarter and more intuitive when indexing content. Google claims that its algorithms (i.e. programs and formulas that dictate the actions of the online software) use over 200 factors to crawl and index web content that consistently matches the most relevant webpages with users’ keyword searches. Moreover, these “spiders” are not only crawling your webpages for relevant keywords, but also indexing content for behavioral, categorical, demographic and geo-localization purposes.
While the thought of optimizing a website to adhere to 200-plus values might seem overwhelming, there are simple best practices you can follow to help boost your site’s search rankings. If SEO is brand new to you, view this video by Google engineer Matt Cutts for a basic overview of how search works. However, if you’ve already dived into the basics of SEO and are ready to take your search strategy to the next level, continue reading below.
1. Conduct an SEO Audit and Competitive Analysis
You won’t know which benchmarks to set or what goals to strive for if you’re operating within a bubble. Before you launch headfirst into an SEO campaign, audit competitors’ websites to see how their webpages rank against similar keywords and phrases. Likewise, survey your customers to uncover the search terms they’re frequently using to find you online. You should also audit your own SEO practices to see how to best optimize them. Outspoken Media, SEOPad and Pushfire, among others, all offer SEO audit and consulting services for a fee, but they offer free quotes and free analysis reports to help you get started.
Once you’ve determined your top keywords, use them where appropriate throughout your site: in the page header, in the page URL, in the page title and within the body of the webpage. Google’s Keyword Planner (previously called the Keyword Tool) allows you to search keyword ideas and analyze the potential return on investment (ROI) of online ad campaigns. To access the Keyword Planner, simply sign up for a Google AdWords account.
2. Clean Up Your Site’s Dirty Code
If you’re knowledgeable about basic HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), then ensuring your website has clean code is key to helping web crawlers understand what they’re looking at and how to index your pages against their algorithms. Using clean and consistent HTML syntax as well as CSS to minimize the use of obsolete HTML elements and formatting will show search engines that your site is reliable rather than spammy and low quality.
Other than the basics (like inserting keywords and quality links into content), there are a few HTML best practices that can boost your search engine rankings. An important one is inserting “alt” tags for images. When a webpage cannot display an image (if the browser is incompatible, or if the user simply chooses not to download the images), alt tags offer a description of the image; they are also catalogued by crawlers and can contribute to higher search rankings.
Also, although Google no longer uses them to rank sites, many other search engines still use keyword metadata to catalogue and rank your pages. The metadata are keywords embedded into the HTML code but not visible to viewers. This allows the site to load up a number of keywords without negatively affecting the quality of the site’s content. Note: While adding keyword metadata in your code is a good practice, flooding your code with irrelevant keywords is a deceptive practice that will most likely result in a ban from search engine results.
3. Consider Outsourcing
Depending on your business model and the size of your marketing budget, outsourcing your SEO campaign may make more sense than running it in-house. Are you an e-commerce site that relies on a strong web presence to drive traffic to your site and create buzz about your online brand? Then budgeting a few hundred dollars per month to retain consultants who will optimize your content and monitor your SEO performance may deliver real and worthwhile results.
There are a number of online resources that can facilitate your search for SEO help. Online marketplaces like Elance, oDesk and BizReef, can connect you with a pool of freelancers for hire, many of whom offer SEO-optimization services. Make sure to check their rankings to evaluate the satisfaction of their previous clients. SEOCompanyReviewers.com has a list of their top 50 SEO-service companies of the U.S.; they also list the companies’ prominent clients, so you can check out what SEO practices are popular among the big players. For smaller budgets, companies like Deluxe, Mainstreethost, Page One Promotions and others provide small business SEO services that might fall into your price range.
4. Think About Your Content Strategy
Without web content, you cannot practice effective SEO. To develop an effective SEO strategy, you’ll need to create and publish marketing content that is both appealing to your target audience and optimized for search. Producing relevant content that generates quality sales leads means also constructing a strong online brand that improves your credibility, strengthens customer loyalty and expands your market presence.
But informative content filled with relevant keywords is just the foundation of a solid SEO strategy. Search engines also want to see the content on your site constantly updated and refreshed; if the content on your page stays stagnant, its search rankings will fall.
Another important factor in search rankings is the number and quality of your inbound and outbound links. If relevant and trustworthy sites link to your pages (and vice versa), it proves that they provide helpful content and that their domains can be trusted. Note: Like stuffing your site with irrelevant keywords, buying and/or exchanging links (especially from sites with poor reputations or through link farms) is a poor, deceptive practice that can get you banned from search engines.
When thinking about content marketing, you also have to think about how your social media profiles influence search results. Search engines have increasingly begun to incorporate social signals from Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks to measure the popularity, influence and authority of online brands. While SEO is certainly important, producing content that compels people to share, whether it’s an interesting article or an exciting contest, should remain a top priority in your digital marketing strategy.
5. Connect With Other SEO Experts
As the saying goes, you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” to be successful at SEO. In fact, some of the best SEO resources may be available within your own professional network.
For example, leverage group discussions and articles posted on LinkedIn, which is known for crowdsourcing marketing advice from professionals all over the world. Join groups focused on SEO for small business owners to keep your SEO skills fresh and to stay abreast of the latest trends happening in your industry.
Finally, be outgoing, and explore social networking websites such as Meetup.com, which lists countless events around topics like digital marketing, SEO, search engine marketing and other specialties. Additionally, SEO blogs and forums such as the High Rankings Forum and the Moz Q&A Forum offer free advice that could possibly save you significant time and money when evaluating the best SEO tactics for optimizing your website.