By now, everybody has heard about search engine optimization (SEO). If you’re unclear as to what it means, it’s essentially the process of making your website rank as high as possible on Google and other search engines (Bing, Yahoo, etc.). Ideally you want your site ranking #1 or at least in the top ten, which generally equates to the first page of search engine results. Top 20 or 30 is OK, but any ranking beyond that is virtually useless in terms of people finding your website through a search.
“Back in the day” it was much easier to rank high in a Google search. The rules of the game were simpler and there was far less competition. As the years went on, Google became wise to tricks people were using to rank well, so it’s become much more challenging to do so. And, since nowadays it’s virtually unheard of for a business/organization to not have a website, there are more sites and pages out there to compete for those coveted top spots.
Still, despite the increased challenges, the core methods to ranking well remain intact. Essentially Google wants to see that your website provides quality content that others consider worthwhile. This may seem like a bit of a vague statement, but it should be at the root of your SEO strategy and, for the most part, happen naturally, without feeling like you need to manipulate Google.
There are plenty of advanced strategies for outclassing your competition which we may get into in a future post, but for now, let’s start with twelve methods you can and should follow for your site.
1. Quality Content
First and foremost, your website needs to contain good content. Even if your site were to somehow rank high with poor content, once searchers clicked to view your site, they’d quickly click away and turn to your competitors’ sites. So you need valuable content throughout your website for both Google and your human visitors to be impressed.
What is good content? For the most part, it’s simply what people want to know about you and the services or products you offer. There is a subtle difference between what you want to say and what people want to know. For many people starting out with a new website, the tendency is to write “about me” (or us) – i.e., this is who I/we am/are. While there is a place for such information on a website (usually under an “About Me/Us” page) that shouldn’t be the main focus of the site – i.e., not front and centre on the Home page or many other pages. The Home page and most of the site should focus on what someone who doesn’t know anything about your products or services wants to learn. As a writer, this usually requires a step back to see things from a different perspective. Often, getting a third-party to review what you’ve written is very helpful to make sure that you’re not overdoing industry lingo and that you are speaking in terms the layperson can understand.
Quality content is also answers questions people may have. This type of content is usually in the form of articles or blog posts. Each of these pages or posts answers a specific question an outsider may have, such as, “How can I…?” or “What is… ?”
The more content you have the better. I always say that each page is a potential “in” to your site via a Google search. Rather than having a few very general pages, which may be difficult for Google to categorize, having many very focused pages gives you many different, specific search terms that your site can rank well for. For instance, say you have a site about environmentally friendly construction. If you have a few general pages, you probably won’t rank very high for “environmentally friendly construction” or other related terms. However, if you break the content into several detailed pages about green building materials, LEED certification, Feng Shui, building in harmony with the landscape, etc., you would have the potential to rank well for each of those search terms – i.e., many “doors” to get into your site via search engines.
Much has been made about use of keywords and using a certain number or ratio per page. As with other manipulations, Google quickly caught on to sites that “keyword stuff” pages and penalized them. While it is important to include keywords in your page’s content, it’s also now important to include synonyms and related terms. Truth is you shouldn’t really have to think about it. Your pages should just naturally contain keywords and synonyms so that they are easily read by humans and understood by search engines.
2. Structured Content
It is also important that your pages’ content be organized in a logical fashion – again, for both humans and search engines. Two formatting constructs are of particular importance:
These help to organize the various sections of the page. They make it easy for readers to skim the page, if they so desire. From a search engine’s perspective, they help to indicate what the content is about overall and how to prioritize the components within.
In HTML, there are six levels of headings – ranging from H1 (most important, usually largest) to H6 (least important, usually smallest). It’s best practice to use only a single H1 per page – generally at the top of the page – and then use lower levels – H2, H3, etc. for subsections, sub-subsections, etc. Personally, I rarely use anything lower than H3, but that’s up to you. When analyzing your page, Google gives most weight to the H1, so it’s a good idea to make that descriptive of the page’s content and it should (naturally) contain at least one keyword.
Search engines and humans like bulleted and numbered lists. These also make for easy skimming in order to grasp the pages’s main points, as they’re generally succinct and, well, to the point.
3. Fresh, Unique Content on a Regular Basis
In addition to having a lot of good, well-structured content, it’s essential to publish new content on a regular basis. On a small level, this can include updating information about staff, products, services, specials, holiday hours, etc. But it’s also very useful to post articles – usually in the form of blog posts as frequently as you reasonably can. The frequency will vary greatly, depending on the type of organization you run and how many resources can be designated to writing web content. However, if you’re a one-person show or small business, you might want to aim for once a week. If you can set aside a couple hours each week on a certain day and time, that will make it much more likely for you to follow that schedule and produce regular content. After a while, Google will notice that your site has regular information to share and consider it a relevant source of information.
Regularly posted articles also give your loyal audience a reason to come back to your site on a regular basis, which is a good thing from a potential business point of view as well as showing Google there’s more click-through traffic to your site. Win-win!
4. Simple, Keyword-Rich URLs
Using fairly short, keyword-rich URLs for your pages can be a benefit for SEO. The keywords themselves can help search engines get a better sense of the page’s topic. And they can make it much easier for humans to write down and remember. For example, yoursite.com/green-building would be much better for both search engines and humans than yoursite.com/page-id-17465. Note that it’s best to separate keywords with hyphens (-) as opposed to underscores (_).
5. Title Tags
We touched on title tags in a a previous post, so I won’t go into too much detail here. In brief:
- they’re the large text link at the top of a Google search result and also in the browser tab;
- they should usually be no more than 50-60 characters long (approximately 10-12 words);
- they’re a good place for keywords;
- more weight is placed on the words at the beginning of the title tag than the end;
- they’re good attention grabbers (see first point), so it’s a good chance for a catchy heading.
6. Description Tags
The importance and use of description tags was also discussed in a previous post. The description tag shows as the text beneath the URL (which is beneath the title tag) in a Google search result. Usually around 150-160 characters are displayed. Although Google doesn’t directly use the description tag in its ranking algorithm, having an effective one can increase the likelihood of someone clicking through to your site, which can thus improve the page’s SEO. So it’s worth giving the description tag some love.
There are two types of links: to/from other websites (external) and within your own site (internal). Let’s look at how both types can be used effectively.
Getting links to your site from external sources is kind of like a popularity contest. In general, the more external links pointing to your site the better. However, the quality of the links is very important. If your friends and family link from their small and unrelated websites to yours, those hold little, if any, weight in Google’s view. However, if a trusted and industry-relevant authority site links to your that’s a sign that your content must be of interest and importance (to both Google and humans).
Quality content should attract lots of links, without too much work on your part. But it never hurts to get the word out to let the world know – whether through email, social media, or good old word of mouth.
The text within the actual links also factors in. “Click here” or “read this article” are less effective than, say, “Read this article about the benefits of eco-conscious construction methods.” Unfortunately, we often don’t have much say over the link text on others’ sites, but you can always suggest an edit.
The reverse of getting a link from an outside site to yours is linking from your site to another site. These links don’t hold the same weight of sites linking to your site, but can be beneficial – or harmful. Let’s look at the harmful ones first. Linking to non-reputable or shady websites does not look good on you, so Google will likely dock rating points for doing so. However, linking to reputable, authority sites, such as wikipedia.org or universities, such as yale.edu can be a small benefit to your rankings. It can show that your content is to be taken seriously. In any case, I do recommend opening all links to outside sites in a new browser window (target=”_blank” in HTML speak).
It goes without saying that it’s important to have an intuitive navigation menu for visitors to easily move from page to page within your site. It’s also advantageous to have text links (see above) within the content to other pages in your site, particularly if they improve the user experience. Doing so can increase the time visitors spend on your site, which factors into Google’s complex ranking algorithm.
8. Social Media
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn… The list goes on and on and continues to grow. We’re all familiar with the more popular ones and, perhaps, some of the less popular ones. It would be impossible to have a presence on every social media outlet there is. And you may not have the time or interest to participate in any of them. However, it can boost your SEO to post on at least one platform, if your posts include links to your website.
It’s debatable how much weight Google puts into links in social media, but the clicks to your pages do get noticed. Again, these are more “ins” to your site, which can never hurt.
9. Mixed Content
Google – and humans – like seeing a variety of content types within each page. I’m not talking about having several different fonts in different colours and sizes, flashing text, or cheesy background music (ah, the good old days…). I’m talking about including useful content formats, in addition to text, interspersed throughout the page. The obvious (and easy) type is images. Find some decent and relevant stock photos or, better yet, original ones you’ve had a professional photographer take or, if you’re qualified, taken yourself. Place these photos in relevant spots within the page. They should accentuate the text and provide a visual break for the eye.
Charts, graphs, even tasteful cartoons can add to the aesthetic of the page and make it more informative and digestible. If you’re really adventurous, you can include an infographic that you or your designer creates.
Another fantastic way to diversify the content is by including video. A one to two minute clip of you explaining about your services, products, or a particular issue can be welcome by humans and Google will love it.
Audio files can be useful as well, especially if you’re promoting music.
10. Alt Attributes for Images
It’s only a matter of time until Google and other search engines have perfected technology to fully decipher the contents of an image. Until then, they rely on us to tell them. When adding an image to a web page, one of the specifications in its code is the alt attribute. This is a text field in which you can describe the image. The original intention of this attribute was to help the visually impaired as well as those with slow Internet connections (or viewers with images turned off in their browser) who need a verbal description of what others are seeing. Google uses this text as further information for understanding and ranking a page.
The alt attribute is also used in Google images searches, which can be another effective method of driving traffic to your site.
As you might imagine, the alt attribute is an easy target for spammy content and, of course, Google knows this. So be careful to not overdo keywords and make sure to be honest about how you’re describing the image.
11. Site Speed
Nobody likes to wait for a slow page to load. Our patience has decreased as the Internet has grown. In its infancy, waiting 30 seconds for a page wasn’t a big deal. Now if we have to wait more than a few seconds, we start getting edgy.
Google, of course, takes loading speed into account. Again, it may be an indirect factor – i.e., maybe not the page speed per se, but the resultant length of time visitors spend on a page – but it surely is a factor.
Common ways to keep the load speed down include:
- optimizing images;
- reducing or eliminating unnecessary bells and whistles, such as image slide shows;
- taking advantage of browser caching;
- eliminating dead links.
As always, the better the experience for the user, the happier Google will be.
12. Mobile Responsiveness
By now you probably know that more websites are viewed on mobile devices than on desktops or laptops. Google sure does! And you can bet it factors that in to its rankings, in particular when you do a search using a mobile device. If your site is not mobile friendly, its mobile rankings will suffer.
Of course, Google has a tool for letting you know if your web pages are mobile friendly. Any issues will show up using their test. If there are any, make sure to have your web developer fix those for you.
Getting good rankings in Google and other search engines is tougher than it used to be. But that doesn’t mean you have to throw up your hands in frustration. Follow these basic rules and you’ll be off to a good start:
- Make sure you’re providing quality content by keeping your (human) readers’ interests in mind.
- Structure your content so that it’s logical to follow and easy to scan.
- Keep things fresh by updating existing information and adding new content on a regular basis.
- Utilize simple, keyword-rich URLs.
- Optimize your page titles and description tags.
- Obtain quality inbound links and use outbound links judiciously.
- Make social media work for you.
- Add variety to your content with images, video, and audio, if appropriate.
- Properly label images with alt attributes.
- Reduce page speed as much as you reasonably can.
- Ensure that your website is mobile responsive.