In today’s business world, SEO – or search engine optimization – is certainly a hot topic. Business owners know it’s important, but many don’t truly understand what it is, how to set realistic expectations, and how to measure the results. Here are the top things every business owner should know about SEO before engaging with a consultant.
1. It’s the little things that count.
There is no magic “fix” when it comes to SEO. SEO experts know the hundreds of relatively small techniques that, when applied together, make a site more search-engine friendly. Search engines are constantly evolving – and so must your SEO practices. You need to stay up on the trends and continuously optimize your site in order to maintain or improve your search rankings.
Some of the easiest little things to control? Take the time to check your site for consistency. Make sure your content is original, well-written and keyword-rich. The search engine robots, or “spiders,” that literally crawl your site in order to index it can tell if your content is your own or if you copied it from another source.
2. How it looks is not as important as what it says.
To search engines, style means little. It’s code that means everything. When deciding your rank, images and style have very little influence. That’s why using text for your navigation links and assigning titles to graphics and pictures make your pages more search-friendly.
If you’re building a new website, take the time to come up with a sound content strategy. Know what is relevant to your audiences, what makes your company different, and what new perspective you can offer. This will help ensure that your site’s structure is well organized, intuitive and attractive to robots.
3. Keep it clean.
“Clean” code is very important for search engine optimization. Search engine robots crawl through your code, and if they’re bogged down by code that’s improper, they’ll turn away.
How can you keep your site clean? Keep code simple and straightforward, without a lot of styling codes. Make sure your code is up to the standards of The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community that develops web standards. Use h1, h2 and h3 tags for headings, unordered lists for navigation items and bulleted lists for service descriptions. Create an XML site map (a document structure and encoding standard used by robots) that lays out the landscape of your entire website – this will make it easier for robots to reference you during a search.
4. Describe, describe, describe.
When you think about SEO, you may think it’s all code and technology. But marketing plays a huge role in your SEO effectiveness. If people aren’t clicking on your links, you won’t be ranked as highly.
Use sound marketing strategies and copywriting to make sure each page of your content has relevant meta descriptions, titles and keywords. These are the behind-the-scenes descriptors that categorize your content for search engine robots – and they are what users see in search engine search results.
Meta titles are the most important to a search engine robot. This is the line of copy found at the top of your web browser when you’re on any given web page. The best meta titles are very descriptive and specific, including location information. Meta keywords and meta descriptions, while important, are used lightly by robots because they’re easy to fake. Meta keywords are a list of words and/or phrases that relate to the site and the specific page’s content, include alternative spellings (i.e. bicycles, bikes, etc.). Meta descriptions are summaries of the content on any given page, usually 255 characters or less. Both should still be considered in your SEO strategy because they are used when you share links on social sharing sites.
5. Stay fresh.
Stale content is a turn-off to search engine robots. As they index your site, they time-stamp all content, so they will know immediately if your site has remained untouched for months – or years – and they will rank it accordingly.
Keep your content fresh by updating it with recent news stories, company awards, white papers or blog posts. Include a news feed that embeds your social media updates or links to outside, legitimate sources into your site. And if you do use content from another resource, give credit.
6. Links are priceless.
Search engine robots use links to help legitimize your site and your authority. The more links leading to your site, the better – as long as they’re from credible sources. It helps for your site to have outbound links as well. Develop relationships with other companies and websites that can be beneficial to your audience. If they have a blog or discussion forum on their site, participate in the conversation to establish your authority and begin forming that relationship. Ask if they will link to your site, and add their link to yours.
For example, one of our clients recently improved their search rankings exponentially and experienced a surge in online traffic because a state website included their site as a resource. Search engines view “.gov” websites as the highest authority, so if you can get an inbound link from one of these sites, it can drastically help your SEO efforts.
7. Track your results.
Too often, businesses “optimize” their websites and never check the effectiveness of their efforts. Yet it’s easier than you might think to see the results of your SEO. There are many free online resources, including my favorites from Google:
- Google Analytics gives you rich insights into your website traffic and marketing effectiveness.
- Google Webmaster gives you data about crawling, indexing and search traffic. It tracks how Google views your website, the amount of users who find and visit, and it notifies you of added links.
Data should be reviewed approximately every two weeks, and your SEO strategy should be reevaluated on a quarterly basis using the insights you gain.
8. Don’t buy any magic beans.
Finally, like I said in #1, there is no secret trick to get to the top – but there are people out there who will tell you there is. The best way to learn how to spot SEO charlatans who promise you the world is to educate yourself.
Be aware that there are good techniques (sometimes called “white hat”) and bad techniques (“black hat”). Black hat optimization involves buying links, using too many heading tags, and pirating material from other websites. These actions can decrease the ranking of your site, damage the value of your brand, and in some cases, penalize you publically.
Just ask J.C. Penney. In February 2011, it was outed by the New York Times for using black hat techniques to increase its search results for the 2010 holiday season. As a result, Google banished the company’s website to the depths of its results pages.
The takeaway? SEO is a powerful, efficient practice – when used effectively and measured with patience. Just be sure to know what you know, and know what you don’t know, and you can begin optimizing your site immediately.