SEO 101 – The Basics


Search engine optimization, or SEO, is not rocket science, but it is complex and it is an ongoing process that changes almost daily. There is no such thing as a permanent fix to magically send you to the top of the rankings for good. But here are some of the basics to look for when optimizing your site for the first time.

On-Page Factors

1. Title Tag
This one is very important. Among the first things the spiders will crawl on your page is the Title Tag at the very top of your HTML code. This is what you see in the blue bar at the top of your browser when you land on a page. Using unique text in this tag on each page is absolutely essential. I have seen huge sites with thousands of pages all using the same content in the Title Tag of each page, frequently the name of the company as the only text. Not only will you NOT rank for anything but what is in that tag for your entire site (Do you want every page on your site to rank for nothing but your company name? I don’t think so.), but you run the risk of most of your pages not appearing in search results at all. You must have a unique Title Tag related to the unique subject matter of each page throughout your website (10 to 15 words, 80 characters maximum).

2. Internal Navigation
There was a time when the search engine crawlers choked on javascript links and database driven web pages that looked something like http://www.widgets.com/product.php?categoryid=1&productid=10, but they are better at reading them these days. However, you still need to make your links as digestible to the spiders as you can. As much as possible, you should make your links through plain text and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). Javascript and image map links should be avoided as well as session IDs and variables in dynamic pages. Avoid using frames like the plague! These can all still give spiders a fit. Also, use an HTML page sitemap (a page with a list of your page links, not a Sitemap – see below) with text links to not only help visitors find what they are looking for, but to direct the spiders to all of your internal pages.

You’re better off letting your pages be found naturally by the spiders. Good global navigation and linking will serve you much better than relying on an XML Sitemap, which is a file that is uploaded to a search engine with a list of your page URLs.

3. Make Your Site Unique
They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but that’s a big no-no on the web. Do not copy someone else. Make your site as unique as possible with information that no one else has. In other words, don’t steal content off of someone else’s site. Not only can that be copyright infringement, but it can put you and the site you copied from in hot water with the search engines for duplicate content (see Duplicate Content below). Creating a buzz about something unique is great link bait. Which leads us to:

4. Content
Content is King. Content is spider food. The search engines are looking for the foremost authority on a keyword or phrase. Do your keyword research and make sure your site has plenty of keyword rich content high on the page that is useful to the visitor as well as digestible to the spiders. Make use of H1, H2 and H3 headlines that contain your keywords. Make sure your prose is natural and easy to read.

Don’t go overboard and make every other word on the page the keyword you want to rank the page for. Stuffing the page with keywords is considered a form of spam.

Focus on search phrases, not single keywords, and put your location in your text (“our Palm Springs showroom” not “our showroom”) to help you get found in local searches.

Having terrific content will not only be great for your visitors and spiders, but it’s wonderful link bait, too (see Links below). A blog is a great way to create fresh, new content (for the spiders and for visitors) and attract inbound links. The more good content you put on a blog, the bigger the blog gets. The bigger the blog, the more relevant it will become to the search engines. For some, a blog can completely take the place of a standard web site.

Also, use Flash animation and images sparingly. Spiders can read text, not Flash nor pictures. A sure way to kill any chance of ranking well is to create a site that is all Flash or mostly images.

5. Duplicate Content
Let’s say you have a site that sells a thousand different types of widgets and the pages are all built from the same template with the same text and the only difference is the model of widget on the page. What could happen is that the search engines will not see enough difference in the pages to consider them unique and will rank what it considers the best single page and dump the rest.

To avoid duplicate content issues, make sure all of your pages have unique Title Tags, Meta Tags (see below) and text, in this case probably in the form of product description text.

And, if you are writing articles for distribution to the various article sites for mass distribution (a great way to get back links), be sure to publish the article on your own site first and give the spiders a chance to crawl it. That identifies you as the originator of the content. Then push the article out for distribution across the web, making sure you have a link back to your site in the article content.

6. Code Bloat
Between you, your web designer and web programmer, it’s real easy to wind up with a page that is full of internal code that not only impedes spiders, but causes your pages to load at a snail’s pace. Be very careful with this. Too much code will send both the spiders and the visitors away and can knock the meat of your pages down to the bottom. It’s best to have your spider-friendly content as high in your code as possible, so when you can, place javascript (if you absolutely MUST use it) and CSS in external files that can be called with a single line of code from each page.

For instance, one site I worked with had so much javascript going on that the first 200 lines of code after the Title and Meta Tags were javascript, knocking the rest of the content down and making the page load size huge. I was able to move the javascript into external files, each simply called by a single line of code. This made every page on the site smaller in size and brought the spider-friendly content up higher in the code by 199 lines.

For example, you could put your all 100 lines of your CSS on each and every one of your 300 site pages or you could call your CSS from an external file called style.css with one single line of code on each page like:

External CSS code

Having a single file for your CSS or javascript also means you only need to edit one file when changes need to be made, too. :-)

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll need to ask your web developer or learn a bit about HTML.

7. Tweak and Test
Make one change at a time and evaluate. Changing too many things at once can confuse things to the point where you don’t know which change you made did what. For instance, let’s say you changed your content on a page as well as the linking structure and Meta Tags at the same time and the page dropped in the rankings a few days later. How would you know which to point to as the problem?

Try one tweak at a time and give the search engines time to digest it before moving on to the next.

8. Meta Tags
The only Meta Tag that carries any weight at all as far as SEO is the description, and it doesn’t have the influence it once had. It basically has no effect on rankings these days. Still, it’s a good idea to make it keyword rich and include what you want to show up in the SERPs (search engine result pages) as your description. Yes, this is what frequently comes up describing your site in the results, so be sure it says what you want it to say. A good description can definitely have influence on clickthrough traffic. What makes a good meta description?

a. Target the description to the individual page using the keyword focus for the page.
b. Describe the page in human-readable text.
c. A list of keywords just won’t cut it. Use a snippet of text that accurately describes the page.

The keyword tag has very little influence on rankings anymore, practically none, but it can’t hurt to include it. Just don’t stuff if with a thousand words. Ten or so should be enough for any page. As of this writing, Yahoo appears to be the only major search engine to actually find words included in the keyword meta tag.

Off-Page Factors

9. Links
If Content is King, then Links are Queen. Search engines look at links pointing to your site as verification that you are an important authority site. It’s not just the quantity of links but the quality that counts. You can have thousands of links pointing to you, but if they are all from link farms or spammy sites, they won’t do you any good. Try to get back links from quality sites. If you have good content, a lot of links will come your way naturally, but if you want to speed things up, you’ll need to actively pursue those links. One way is to contact theme related, non-competitive authority sites and request a link. The acid test for a potential link is if there is a natural, logical reason for that site to link to you. If not, then you don’t want the link.

And, you want the links back to your site to use your keyword text in them. This is extremely important. If the keyword you are targeting is “widget” then you want the link back to your widget page to use that text and not “click here” or something like that.

Another way to use your content to get back links is by submitting articles to other sites for publication (A blog and RSS feed are great for this). Just be sure the content includes links to your site. Press releases are also great for generating interest and backlinks, but take care and only submit press releases to sites like PRWeb when you really have news.

Having a blog and RSS feed have an added advantage – an open door to the various social search sites. If you place easy link buttons or links (click here to Digg this article, etc.) on your blog articles and posts, visitors will save them to the various social bookmarking sites, creating instant backlinks and the potential of being found by other visitors to those social sites.

Submitting to trusted directories is also a good place to start. Most of the best require a fee for a listing, but they can be a great first step in your link building campaign.

There’s no simple, easy one-step way to build links. It’s really about networking and relationships and your useful content is the key.

10. Competition
Keep track of your competition by searching for your primary keywords and study what they are doing. Don’t copy them, but you can analyze what they are doing right and you are doing wrong. See who is linking to them and investigate getting your own link. If you are a new site, you’ll be playing catch up for a while, but have faith. That guy in the #1 spot had to start from scratch at some point, too.

11. Training & Support
If you are on a shoestring budget and don’t have money to hire an SEO, you’ll have to do it all yourself. SEO changes daily and if you think all you have to do is tweak Meta Tags, you’re several years behind and have a LOT of catching up to do. You’ll be learning as you go. You’ll probably want to invest in some SEO training. I give search engine optimization workshops and do site critiques, so check my blog, The Web Optimist, for information.

You can get ideas, updates and recommendations from my blog and from S E O forums and blogs online. Don’t rely on the forums as a solution for all of your website problems, but as a place to go for advice from S E Os and others who are also asking questions.

12. Analysis & Statistics
Sounds boring, but all of your hard work is worthless if you don’t know how you are doing. Chances are your hosting company will have some sort of web statistics feature where you can check basics such as unique visitors, where your traffic is coming from (referrals), page not found errors, etc. One mistake newbies make is to consider “hits” as the number of visitors they are getting. In actuality, “hits” are useless information. Hits are simply server pulls. As an example, if you have ten images on a page each time the page is loaded each image results in a server pull or “hit”What you really want to look at is the number of “unique visitors” to your site, not hits, as an indication of your traffic.

If you are an e-commerce site, you’ll also want a way to track conversions, which will require something more than your basic hosting stats. Google offers free web analytics that could be adequate for many site owners, but there are also commercial applications available that offer greater functionality.

Whatever you do, don’t leave the site on autopilot. Check your stats frequently. You’d be surprised at the little things you’ll see that will help you bring in more traffic.

13. History
There is evidence that the search engines actually look at your domain history in their ranking algorithms (How long the domain has been up, how many years you’ve renewed for, if you’ve changed IP addresses frequently, etc.). The more stable you are the more they consider you a trusted site.

If you’re in it for the long haul, renew your domain for several years at a time (not just annually) and get a dedicated IP address and keep it. The best situation is to have a dedicated web server, but not all of us can afford that. The next best thing is to pay for a dedicated IP address with your host so that you are no longer sharing the hosted IP block. It usually doesn’t cost that much. Not only will the search engines see you as stable, you don’t run the risk of the IP being banned if one of your shared hosting neighbors is naughty. Although Google claims that a shared address is fine, if you are serious about your business, why take chances?

Don’t bounce from host to host because that screams SPAMMER to the search engines. Find a good hosting company and stay there. Also, be aware that by using services that block domain ownership information when you register a domain, Google might see you as a potential spammer.

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This barely scratches the surface of beginning SEO and is intended to get you started in the right direction. I go into more detail in my SEO 101 workshop, offered to web site owners and small businesses. Check my blog at http://www.weboptimist.com for more information or contact me to set up a custom workshop for your business group of five or more people in the Palm Springs area of Southern California. Travel is possible for large groups.

This article will be updated periodically.

See my related S E O 101 posts .

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+Richard Burckhardt


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