The best way to get someone to your website is to tell them where it is and give them a good reason for visiting. But if that would-be visitor doesn’t yet know who you are or where you are, they’ll go to Google. It’s been estimated that 85% of all website traffic is driven by search engines – generally cheaper and more precisely targeted than online advertising, and for most businesses the first and best strategy.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the task – some might call it an art – of creating a website which is search engine-friendly, meaning that search engines will definitely offer your site when someone enters a search-for phrase in Google, MSN, Yahoo or another search tool.
The better optimised your site is, the more likely it is to appear near the top of the search results list – and very few searchers bother looking beyond the first few sites they’re offered, so the top of the list is where you want to be.This means:
- Using the right words in your copy
- Using the right words in your HTML code
- Getting lots of relevant sites to link to yours
- Featuring lots of content on your site, updating and adding as often as you can.
The first thing you need to do when you begin chasing a good search engine ranking is decide which search-for words and phrases you want to appeal to. Those are called keywords, and choosing appropriate keywords is extremely important: keywords are what lead search engine users to your site.
- So keyword analysis is the first stage in SEO. You will be able to come up with some obvious keywords – your company name, products, services, maybe locations – but you should also think a little more laterally.
- Target your keywords. You need to understand exactly what benefits you can offer a potential customer, and how they might phrase a search for those benefits.
- Broaden the approach. They might not be looking precisely for your offering, but they might not realise that you can in fact help them. So if you’re selling mobiles to business, you might add keywords like ‘business advice’ or ‘vehicle tracking’.
- Include variations of your keywords – including common misspellings, capitalised forms and plurals.
- Avoid duff keywords. There’s no value to particles like “and” and “the” – most search engines ignore them anyway. And don’t rely too much on common terms like “mobile phone”. Yes, it may be your business; but several thousand websites out there will also claim it.
- Be specific. The more precise the phrases in your keyword list, the more likely it is that you will fit someone’s search – and the better the chance that those people will actually benefit from your site’s content.
Now you have a list of keywords, where do you put them? In rough order of importance …
- The site’s URL
- The HTML Title
- Meta tag for ‘keywords’
- Text on the page
- Meta tag for ‘description’
- HTML Heading tags
- ALT tags
- Comment tags
Most of these are self-explanatory, though it’s worth reiterating that search engines do look for keywords in ALT tags, comments and text formatting with HTML headings. Keywords should also figure prominently and frequently in the text on the page.
The general rule is to make sure your main page is as full of keywords as possible. Search engines also want to see more than one repetition of a keyword in your text to make sure it’s not an isolated case. This gets the somewhat grandiose termed ‘keyword density’ and the recommended density – the proportion of text that is made up of keywords – is something between 3% and 8%.
Don’t work too hard to achieve this. It will be practically impossible to have two dozen keywords each of which is repeated 3-8 times per 100 words of text; it makes better sense to identify two or three of the most important keywords and aim to use them at the optimum density. But don’t forget that eventually someone is going to be reading the page, so it must still make sense and read well.
One caveat: the search engines are wise to ‘keyword stuffing’, content that consists of nothing but keywords. They want to see real content.The best place for keywords is at the top of the page and preferably near the start of the sentence. (Some SEO experts think the bottom of the page should also contain some keywords.) Most search engines – including Google – give extra weight to ‘keyword proximity’, meaning how close keywords are to each other.
Link popularity: why it matters
The founders of Google came from an academic background, and there’s a working rule of thumb in such circles – the more an academic paper cites some other work, the more likely that cited work is to be an authority on the subject. They applied the principle to websites: if a particular site has links to it from lots of other sites, it’s more likely it is to be a significant source of information.
This is called ‘link popularity’, and it matters for search-engine searches. When Google finds a number of sites that fit the searched-for term, it will organise the results at least in part on the basis of how many links a site has pointing to it. The most linked-to sites are most likely to appear near the start of the list. And since most people will click on the websites at the top of the pile, that’s where you want your website to appear.
Of course, there are a number of ways of faking this – you could set up one-page quickie sites that have links to your main site, for example, or you could sign up with one for the ‘web farms’ that include nothing but links to other sites. But Google is getting pretty good at spotting the workarounds, and it will downgrade your site’s ranking if you appear to be seeking an unwarranted advantage in this way.
So the best approach is to encourage real links to your site, and that usually means setting up reciprocal links – you add a link to someone’s site from your own pages, they add a link to yours. The best links are of course relevant to your area of business, not least because Google and the other search engines are putting more emphasis on link relevance.
This kind of linking means the content of each site actually benefits each other’s sites. If you sell phones, you may want to recommend other sites with stuff you don’t supply but which might be useful to visitors – office equipment, insurance brokers, local services, and so on. And by the same token it makes sense for these sites to recommend you to their visitors. It’s still a reciprocal link, but at least it has a mutual benefit for both sites.
However you do it, you need links if you want to improve your ranking in a search-results list. It’s worth putting some effort into this; contact as many potential link reciprocators as you can. And try giving your site an advantage by providing a reason for other webmasters to link to it – a helpful tool, a guide, an industry-specific directory, or some other useful content that people will feel good about recommending. If your site is worth linking to, you won’t have to rely as much on swapping links as a promotion strategy.
Adding relevant content to your site increases your chances of appealing to the search engines. Content like articles, news, blogs or tools related to your business will improve the likelihood of getting good links, it will add value for the visitor and improve their experience, and it will increase the number of chances you have of appearing in the search results.
A site with 100 pages of good quality content has a much better chance of being found than a site with only 10 pages. Make sure each page has a unique title and some variation in its keywords, and you may even have so many entries on the results page that your competitors don’t get a look in …
Do I need to submit my site to the search engines?
In theory, no – but all the search engines have a ‘submit URL’ form, so you might as well use it in the expectation that this will speed things up (and it’s free).
Should I submit my site to the search engines more than once?
No need – unless you make significant changes to the website, which might for instance involve changes to the mix of keywords you’re featuring. In that case you should repeat the submission.
How long does SEO take to work – how long before I get a high ranking in search results?
It’s impossible to say exactly, but it could be months. And when you do achieve a high ranking, you’ll still need some ongoing effort – otherwise your ranking will drop. Revisit the site every few weeks, tweak your keyword tags, refresh the content, adding links …
Can’t I just pay for a high ranking?
No. If the search results aren’t as relevant as they should be – if they include sites that don’t really meet the searcher’s requirements – the user will turn to a different search engine. It’s in the search engine’s interests to ensure that relevance, and so they can’t take the risk of selling positions on the search results.
What are directories and should I submit my site to them?
Directories are web pages which simply list lots of websites with a short description. They tend to be organised under sub-headings and sub-sub-headings, so the user can type in or click on a quite specific category within a category. Some directories are free; the more useful require you to pay for a listing – which can be a good bet if they are relevant to your business and to your prospective customers. Directory entries can cost a lot in the long term, so choose wisely. One essential is the free DMOZ Open Directory (add an entry at www.dmoz.com/add.html); for local business you might look at Yell (www.yell.com) or Thomson Local (www.thomweb.co.uk).
Find your keywords
There are a number of online tools that can help identify keywords for your site, but these should be the first you try:
Yahoo Keyword Tool http://inventory.overture.com/d/searchinventory/suggestion/?mkt=us&lang=en_UK
Google’s AdWords Sandbox https://adwords.google.com/select/main?cmd=KeywordSandbox
They will tell you what users are actually typing into the search engines to find sites like yours.