Whether your Web site is brand new or ten years old, managing how it appears to search engines is crucial to its success. The typical Web site gets 61 percent of its traffic from organic (nonpaid) search engine results, and 41 percent of all traffic from Google alone. Ensuring that the company’s site ranks highly in search results is, for most businesses, a make-or-break proposition, which is why search engine optimization (SEO) is now a multibillion-dollar industry.
No one knows exactly what combination of tactics will maximize a Web site’s ranking in search results, but a lot of smart people have developed some good approximations based on history and empirical evidence. I asked three experts–Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, and Michael H. Fleischner, author of SEO Made Simple
–about what tips and tricks they thought someone just starting out in the SEO game ought to know. The best and brightest of their recommendations follow.
Know What Keywords to Optimize
Search engine optimization is useless if you don’t know what you’re trying to optimize. For some businesses, picking appropriate keywords is straightforward: A candy merchant would probably choose candy, chocolate, and similar terms. But other business sites face more-difficult decisions. What terms should an online store that sells many different products emphasize? And how should a general-interest Web site that covers a wide range of topics determine which search terms to focus on?
For starters, you should base your decisions about which terms relevant to your business to optimize on which terms people are searching for most often. One way to gauge search term popularity is to use an online keyword tool designed to see measure what general terms are searched for the most. Both the Google Keyword Tool and the SEO Book Keyword Suggestion Tool can help you get a quick, accurate sense of the search volume for any term of your choice, and they will recommend related terms that you might not have thought of.
Ultimately it’s a numbers game: You need to optimize for terms that drive the highest traffic and are the most relevant to what your Web site offers. Optimizing your site for terms that no one ever types into a search engine won’t generate any traffic for the site, no matter how conscientiously you pursue the optimization. So before you do anything else, carefully select a handful of relevant high-interest terms for optimizing.
Experts agree that your title tags should be central to your SEO efforts. When it comes to indexing content, search engines treat the words in these tags–the text that appears in the title bar in your browser–as the most important single element on a Web page. For that reason, you should load it with your keywords, and make every title tag on your site unique. Danny Sullivan says that you should think of the tags as being like the titles of hundreds of books that you’ve published and want potential customers to be able to find: “If you give them all the same title, no one knows they are about different things.”
Years ago many people thought that URL structure was irrelevant and that only the actual content of a page really mattered. But search engines today consider keywords in your URLs much as they do keywords on the page itself. Though most publishing systems make it easy to use keywords in URLs, many such systems (like WordPress) default to simplistic URLs that consist of numbers instead of including keywords.
It is well worth your while to take the time to make keywords part of your URL structure. Thereafter, a piece about Quantum of Solace (for example) will look more like www.pcworld.com/quantum-of-solace instead of like www.pcworld.com/11/&id=27. And readable URLs don’t just help search engines, says Rand Fishkin; they help users, too.
Each page of content on your site should link to by only one URL. Multiple URLs that refer to a single page of content can confuse search spiders.
Be Aware of How Others Link to You
I love it when readers link to Filmcritic.com, my movie review Web site, but a link like Filmcritic.com is cool has far positive impact on the ranking my site receives from search engines than a link like movie reviews. Why? Because search engines take into account the anchor text used to link to a site.
If you want to rise up in the rankings for a certain keyword or phrase, you need to encourage others to use those keywords in the anchor text for the link to your site, instead of just using the name of your site. To make this easy, you can provide the actual HTML code you’d like the linking site to use: Many linkers will simply copy and paste it on their Web site rather than taking the trouble to customize it themselves.
Spell Correctly–or Have a Good Reason Not To
Your site and (especially) your keywords need to be free of spelling errors. Typos can be a huge problem for eBay sellers, who can’t figure out why no one is bidding on their “Tiffanny” bracelets. On the other hand, including the incorrect form of certain words that are frequently misspelled can work for you. For example, about 5 percent of searchers misspell “absinthe” as “absinth,” so it may be wise to include the misspelled term as a secondary keyword to supplement the correctly spelled version of the word.
Mind the Flash
Flash-based Web sites look pretty, but search engines don’t care about that. Sullivan notes that the closer your content is to plain text, the more easily and completely search engines will be able to spider it. Search engines today are better at working with Flash than they used to be, but if you’re more interested in strong search results than in a flashy interface, text and HTML are still the way to go.
Resist Duplicate Content and Plagiarism
One of the most difficult SEO problems to remedy is the issue of duplicate content–the tendency of others on the Web to steal your work and republish it as their own. All search engines are terrible at recognizing which version of a page is the original one, and you may very well be penalized as a duplicate page if an engine fails to recognize who was copying who. The penalty is severe, too: Duplicate sites won’t show up in search results unless the searcher clicks the search engine’s link for “repeat the search with the omitted results included,” which no one ever does.
To deal with cases of plagiarism, many Web hosts have a mechanism for reporting abuses such as copyright infringement. (For example, the Google Blogger service has a notification system.) The process can be tedious, but your efforts will pay off handsomely if they help you reverse penalties that are unfairly being assessed against you.
Give OnlyWire a Try
Michael Fleischner says that he’s seen clients achieve great success in getting word out about their content by using OnlyWire, which lets you automatically submit a page of content to more than 20 social bookmarking sites with a single click. OnlyWire also gives you the option of embedding a “bookmark & share” link on your pages that permits other visitors to do the same. For best results, Fleischner says, “Individuals should bookmark their home page and channel-level pages once per month and get others to do the same.” Submitting select content to major social news sites such as Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon can produce occasional floods of traffic, too, but that strategy is very hit-or-miss. And beware of oversubmitting to social news sites, lest you be branded a spammer.
Use Word Clouds to Link Internally
If you drop a word cloud (or tag cloud) on your home page, according to Fleischner, internal linking to your content “takes care of itself.” Linking from one page to another within your Web site–no matter how you achieve it–helps improve your site’s search result ranking.
Put Quality First
It may seem too obvious to bear mentioning, but the quality of your Web site’s content must come first in any SEO strategy. Search-engine results are, to a large extent, driven by the number of incoming links to your content, whether these links come from blogs, news stories, or social news sites like Digg. Unless you give visitors a compelling reason to link to your pages, you won’t get these links and you won’t rise up in the search rankings–no matter how frequently your keywords appears on your home page. Write provocative blog posts. Create entertaining and original promotional copy for the merchandise in your catalog. Include photos and videos on your pages. Do whatever you can to set yourself apart from and above the millions of other sites on the Web.
Don’t Let SEO Get in the Way
A final piece of sound advice from Fishkin: “SEO should never have to compete with user experience or usability. What’s good for users is almost always good for engines, too, so building the best Web site you can–with the best content, design, and architecture–will go a long way to bringing you success with search engine rankings. Just make sure that whatever you build, search engines have easy access to it, and you’ll be miles ahead of the pack.”