SEO Basics

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As a website owner, the single most important question you can ask yourself is, "How can I make my website more useful to my customers?" Search engine optmization (SEO) can get complicated, as there are a number of variables that search engines take into account when ranking websites. It's also an ever-evolving science: Google, Yahoo, Bing and others are constantly tweaking their algorithms in an effort to bring more relevant information to the forefront of search results. But it all boils down to the fact that search engines reward websites that they consider useful, and no matter how much algorithms change, useful and relevant info will always be targeted. If we think in terms of what we can do for our customers and users rather than how we can get on the first page of Google, we can leverage search algorithms to our advantage. Don't buy into the rash of "SEO is dead" articles. As long as search results are based on algorithms, there will always be a method required to factor into those algorithms, which means there will almost certainly always be a place for SEO.

Write Copy For People

This is a fundamental rule of SEO. You've probably heard the old adage "content is king." That's not entirely true, but without good content, your visitors won't hang around. In the end, you're trying to reach real people - not search engines. Don't write copy that's unnaturally loaded with keywords. Instead, write copy that's engaging - copy that entices your customers into buying your product, exploring your site, visiting your store, or whatever your'e seeking to achieve. If you're writing a blog, that may mean you want your copy to be more conversational and less technical. Whatever the audience, focus on what keeps interest. This will also encourage humans to share your content and link to your website, which can be as important as search engine visibility for directing more traffic to your site.

Do not publish duplicate content. Whether the original is on your website or published somewhere else on the Internet, resist the urge to post it twice. This is not necessarily a copyright issue - it's a search engine optimization issue. Even if you have permission, don't do it. Lots of website editors are tempted to re-publish articles written about their businesses but duplicate content will probably result in a penalty. You can, however, cite another article including a link to the original publisher.

Page Title

Page title is one of the most important on-page SEO components of your website. This is the title users see in their browsers and also the title search engines post in their SERPs. Try to incorporate your targeted keywords in the title and make it interesting and enticing.

Keywords - Headings & Copy

This follows writing for people. It's a common myth that keyword density factors into search rank. The only way it factors is that if your copy is so dense that it reads awkwardly, you will be penalized. Otherwise, you shouldn't think about keywords in terms of percentage of text. What's important is using your keyword or keyphrase near the top of the content. This reinforces the topic of your content, which also gives the reader a hint about what he/she will be reading. Try to use the keyphrase at least a couple of times near the beginning of your article. That's not to say you shouldn't use it at all after that - just don't pepper your copy with keywords when it's not necessary to convey your message.

It's also helpful to put your keywords in the url of the page. So if you're writing a blog post about the fundamentals of cooking, your url could be something like

Link Building

Links from other websites can not only drive traffic to your site but will potentially boost your search rankings. One way search engines measure the quality of content is by the quality and quantity of links pointing to it. Links from more "trusted" websites are considered more valuable. Conversely, links from shadier or spammier sources will hurt your rankings. 

There are basically four ways to accumulate links to your website:

  • Unsolicited Sharing
    When you create interesting content, it can quite possibly get shared by others with no extra effort on your part. These links are generally the most valuable.
  • Active Inquiry
    You won't likely woo the world with every blog post you write. Even if it's sufficiently mesmerizing, if no one sees it, no one will share it. Actively seek links can help your content be seen. The best way to do this is by interacting with other editors in your industry or related niche.
  • Comment Links
    Mostly outdated and risky now, commenting on related blogs was once a viable techinique for building links. Be careful with this one. This method has been largely abused and makes search engines wary. It's probably best to avoid but if done correctly, it can be a good way to network with other writers in your niche. If you're going to do it, do it only on articles that are related to your content and only comment if you can offer something thoughtful and relevant. Stay away from the dime-a-dozen "Great post! Thanks!" comments that add nothing to the conversation and may get you penalized.
  • Guest Posts
    This one has also been abused. Steer clear of spammy, disreputable sites that only publish unvetted guest-written articles. If you can convince a trusted site to publish a relevant (relevant to their content and yours) original post by you, this can be a good way to drop a link and help establish you as an authority in your field. Do not offer content that you've already published on your own site. That would be considered duplicate content and would not be helpful for you or the other website.

It's also helpful to link to content within your website from other pages on your website.

Do not buy links. Buying links that are deceptively intended to appear natural is a great way to get your site blacklisted by search engines. It can be done covertly but it's best to just not do it. Buying links is not the same as fully disclosed advertising, which can potentially drive traffic.

Website Performance

No one likes to wait in line and no one likes to sit around waiting for a slow website to load. In an era of ever-decreasing attention spans, it's critical that your website loads as quickly as possible. There are several factors that influence site speed:

  • Web Host
    There are countless "bargain" web hosts out there charging $5 or less per month. Some are decent and some will have you pulling your hair out wondering why your site is down so much or why it takes so long to load. More traffic to your site means more resources necessary to serve the data which translates to more money. You essentially, but not as a rule, get what you pay for. It's best to start with a solid, reputable web host. 
  • Efficient Code Base
    Websites are often "bloated" with inefficient code, which can slow down load time.
  • Image Optimization
    Make sure images are only as large as they appear on screen. Some websites load huge images while rendering them with much smaller dimensions than the actual file. This is a gross waste of bandwith and time. This is especially important for mobile devices. It's also important to use the proper image format: in general, jpegs and pngs work best for photos, while gifs are better for simple line drawing illustrations.
  • Effective Caching
    Caching is the use of memory to keep recently retrieved files and data handy for quick access. When files are cached, the server doesn't have to work as hard "digging" for resources. There are a number of approaches to caching that can reduce load time and lag for a better user experience. 

If these seem out of reach, enlist the help of a web developer and/or your web host.

Usability & User Experience

Users need to be able to find info quickly and efficiently. If it's not obvious, they will potentially lose interest and move on. Since user experience is important to the people who use your site, it's also important to search engines. Make sure to give special attention to the following design considerations when planning a website:

  • Clear and Concise Navigation
    Keep your main menu in an obvious place and make links easy to find. Try not to bury important content so deeply that the client must click through several pages to get there.
  • Cross-Browser Compatibility
    It's important that your site renders consistently across multiple browser-operating system combinations in order to reach as many Internet users as possible.
  • Readability and Typography
    Choose a font that's pleasant and easy to read. Make sure it's large enough, has enough contrast and has enough space between lines that it doesn't appear jumbled together.
  • Responsive Design or Optimized for Mobile Devices
    More than 50% of Internet traffic comes from smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. It's critical that your website renders properly for these devices if you want to maximize your click-through rate.

Meta Tags

Meta tags are tags that users don't see. They provide metadata to search engines in order to describe what kind of content the page contains. Once considered a cornerstone of SEO, meta tags are just one piece of a holitstic search marketing protocol. In the past, website editors would commonly stuff a bunch of keywords in the keywords meta tag. Search engines responded to the rampant spamming by completely ignoring the keyword tag. Since it's become obsolete, it's best to avoid using it. 

You should, however, pay attention to your title tags and meta description tags.

As stated above, the title tag is a crucial component of your on-page SEO scheme. The meta description tag does not carry as much weight but it's still important. It's what most search engines use for a summary on the SERPs. Although Google doesn't even consider the description tag when determining search rank, it can still help your site stand out. A good description can mean the difference between a user clicking on your link on the SERP or scanning past to a more interesting summary. 

Just like good page copy, compelling, to-the-point descriptions will draw interest. Keep them between 150 and 160 characters. If the text is too short, search engines will likely ignore the tag altogether and select page copy to post as the summary instead. It the text is too long, it will get truncated and possibly lose some of its meaning.

The Gist

Nothing will give you instant results. SEO is, in large part, an exercise in patience, but any effort toward usability and accessibility will eventually be rewarded by search engines. Strive to make your site more usable, accessible, and enjoyable for your audience and you will gradually see your search visibility increase. Proper SEO also requires frequent maintenance and attention, as it's always a work-in-progress. Persistence will help your site remain competetive.