How can a site be optimized for search engines

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There’s a small set of basic rules that apply to any web page or web site, whether you are a small business or not. Your site has to crawlable, your content has to be good (page titles, keyword use etc) and you need quality, relevant inbound links.

Make your site easy to crawl

The last thing you want to do is make it difficult for search engines to index your website. Make sure your site design doesn’t present unnecessary obstacles to search engine spiders.

Spiders are interested in text, text and more text. They do not see the graphic, clever animations and other flashy bells and whistles that web designers routinely use to make site look pretty. In fact, over-reliance on some of these things can even hinder spiders, potentially preventing some sites from being indexed at all.

Words are the foundations for SEO

The starting point for effective SEO is knowing what the people who are looking for your products, services or information are typing into the box of search engine homepage. Known as keywords or keyword phrases these form the foundation of SEO efforts. Effective keyword selection should the very first thing that is carried out as it permeates every aspect of SEO activity. Keywords are used to differentiate site architecture and will also inform the content marketing strategy. Search engines are becoming smarter at understanding not only the meaning but also the context of search. Semantic search is likely to become increasingly important in the future, with the focus on keywords gradually declining. Nevertheless, finding and using the right keywords in content will be a key factor in successful SEO for some time to come.

Choosing effective keywords

Knowing your target audience is a critical component of any marketing campaign. What would your customers type into the search engine box?

These are your seed keywords. They give you a starting point to work from. Take these keywords and play around with them. Imagine various combinations of search terms your prospects might use to find your site. Type these into the engines and look at the results. Examine the sites that are ranking highly for your chosen keywords. Analyse them and try to work out how they are achieving those rankings.

Analyse the competition

Tools on the web can provide you with insights into how your leading competitors are doing in terms of search engine traffic for particular keywords. Services on sites like SEO Toolset can provide information on which keywords are driving traffic to your competitors’ websites from the major search engines, and which of your competitors’ sites are ranking for which keyword phrases – all of which can inform the choice of keywords you want to optimise for.

I have my initial keyword list, now what?

First, narrow your initial list down to more manageable size. There’s nothing wrong with staring small: optimise a few pages for what you believe and your main keywords, monitor the results on ranking, traffic and conversion for these pages. That will give you a solid foundation from which to build your optimisation efforts and SEO expertise.

Eliminate all words or phrases that are too general. Broad single-word terms such as “shoes” tend to be both very difficult to rank for and at the same time far too generic to drive valuable targeted traffic to your site.

The more general a keyword, the less likely it is that your site will contain what the searchers is trying to find. Effective SEO is not only about generating traffic volume, it’s about finding a balance between keyword search volume and keyword specificity that drives the maximum volume of targeted traffic to your site.

Long-tail versus short-tail keywords

Keywords fall into two broad categories. Short-tail keywords are simple one or two word phrases that are typically very general in nature and attract a large volume of individual search requests. Long-tail keywords are more complex queries that contain more words and are much more specific in nature. Individually they attract a much lower volume of search traffic than their short-tail counterparts, but cumulatively these long-tail type queries account for the lion’s share of internet search traffic.

Success keyword research should ultimately allow the marketer to find and focus on phrases that satisfy:

  • Volume – the number of people actually using the search terms
  • Competitiveness – the number of other sites competing for the same phrase relevance
  • Profitability – based around the product or services with the best margin

It makes sense to take a balance approach and work with a mixture of general short-tail and more specific long-tail keywords as part of your organic SEO effort. Focusing on highly specific long-tail search terms is likely to yield a higher return on your investment for pay per click (PPC) campaigns.

Focus on one page at a time

One of the key things to remember when you are approaching SEO is that you will be optimizing your site one page at a time. Each of the exiting pages on your site will need to be optimized independently. It is also highly likely you will want to create new pages to maximize your potential search engine exposure for as many of your chosen keyword phrases as possible.

When search engine presents results to a user, it is not presenting whole sites. It is presenting the individual pages that, according to its algorithms, best match a user’s query. That means each individual page on your website gives you an explicit opportunity to optimize for specific keywords or phrases – and that’s important.

Your goal is to isolate the important keywords and phrases in your particular market, and then to ensure your site includes individual pages with unique, relevant content optimized for a small number keyword phrases. The more individual pages you have, the more opportunities you have to get your business in front of your prospects in the SERPs… and at the end of the day that’s what SEO is all about.

Give each page a unique theme

Each website page should have a unique theme. This will help to determine the ‘key’ words that I should be optimized for. Whenever it is a category page, product page, guide or blog post, keeping each page focused makes optimization much more specific as well as delivering users the content they are expecting to see.

Choose your page carefully

Title tag and the text it contains is what appears in the title bar at the top of your browser window when you visit a web page. It is also the text that appears as the ‘clickable’ blue link for a page when it is presented to users in the SERPs.

What you put in the title tag is incredibly important for the following reasons:

  • The title tag is the most important on-page factors used by the search engines to rank your page. At this stage most, if not all, SEO experts agree that appropriate use of the title tag is a key factor in ranking well in the SERPs, and advice weaving your primary keyword(s) for a page into the title tag whenever possible
  • The title is the first glimpse of your content that a search user will see. Giving your pages compromise, compelling and informative titles will entice more users to click through to your page when it appears in search results

Give each page a unique meta-description

Depending on the query and the page content, leading search engines will often use the contents of your meta-description tag as the descriptive ‘snippet’ of text that appears below your page title in the SERPs. A well-written description can entice more users to click through to your page when it is returned in search results.

Use of meta-description text by each search engines is inconsistent. The rules applied vary from engine to engine, and even between different types of query on the same engine. However, having compelling, informative meta-description is something that search engines encourage, certainly won’t hurt your rankings, is beneficial to users, and may well boost traffic to your site.

Use HTML markup for page headers

The actual difference that using specific HTML mark-up for page headings (e.g. H1, H2) makes is marginal. However, the heading of a page should summarize its content and will thus determine the type of keywords that it will be optimized around. Using HTML heading mark-up won’t do any harm and will also provide users with a snapshot of content they arrive at that page.

Make navigation easy for visitors and search engines

Search engines use a site’s structure to determine the relative importance of pages within it, so pages linked from the main navigation are given a higher priority than deeper, secondary or tertiary-level pages. The words used within the navigation are also key for engines, allowing them to determine the themes of linked pages – so it’s important to use specific terms rather than generic, non-specific terms such as ‘products’ or ‘services’. CSS based drop-down navigation systems can help to provide flexible, search engine friendly links to internal site categories and pages.

Tag visual content for search engines

Page-specific images make sites much more appealing for visitors, and search engines are becoming much better at recognizing the content of photos. However, it is still important to properly tag and describe visual content for search engines and visitors. This includes adding an ALT description to all key images and, if relevant, a caption. This is vital for linking images as their ALT tags act like anchor text, so are given much more weight than non-linking images.

Enhance search engine listings

Structured data markup is a way of providing additional meaning and context to the search engines about the content of a page, so they can create ‘rich snippets’ that enhance its listing on the SERPs. The main standard for structured data is ratified by schema and can be applied to a huge variety of data. For example: reviews, locations, people, events and products. When properly tagged, structured data can enhance search engine listings with star ratings, dates and additional information that benefits users and can also improve click-through rates.

Another way to enhance search engine listings is through Google Authorship. When a connection is established between and author and the content they create through Authorship, Google displays the author’s profile picture, name and a link to their Google+ profile.

Content – the most important thing on your site

Content is the single, most important thing on your website. Unique, relevant, informative content is what sets your site apart from the competition. It is the reason users want to visit you, why other sites will want to link to you and why search engines will want to suggest your site to their users in search results.

The term content encompasses everything on your website. It includes all visual elements – the flashy graphics, animations, videos, banners, etc, and all the text.

When writing content for your site the key thing to remember is that you are writing it for a human audience, not for search engine spiders. Yes, your pages need to be ‘search engine friendly’, but the spiders should always be a secondary consideration. Put your human audience first.

If your content does not deliver, your visitors will leave as soon as they arrive. On the web, you do not have a captive audience. The user is in control. One click and they are gone.

Your copy needs to be relevant, it has to be interesting, and it has to provide the answers the user is looking for. It needs to do all of this quickly, in a concise, easily scannable way.

Content and search engines

Search engines gave evolves rapidly, and are now in what is considered to be their third generation. Each generation has become much smarter than the last at interpreting the actual visible content on a page, and judging its relevance to the user. Today’s generation of search engines do not rely on meta-data to judge the content of a page, they analyze and interpret the actual content presented to the user. And they are getting better at doing it.

It is all about analyzing and prioritizing your content. All search engines combine and measure just two things: the relevance and authority of your page content in the context of what the user typed into the search box.

Search engine optimization for sustainable high ranking hinges on the production of great original content that appeals to real, live people.

Keywords in content

Do not worry too much about it. If you are writing copy about a specific set of keyword phrases, there is a high probability you will use those keyword phrases and related phrases organically in your writing, and will achieve a natural balance. That is exactly what search engines are looking for. Focus on writing compelling copy that addresses the needs of your target audience while keeping your target keywords for that page in mind, and the search engines will do the rest.

There is no magical number of words per page or number of times to use your phrases in the copy. The important thing is to use your keyword phrases only when and where it makes sense to do so for real people reading your pages. Simply sticking keyword phrases at the top of the page for no apparent reason is not going to cut it, and it just looks silly.

Links – second only to content

The critical importance of links in securing a high page ranking is one of the few things that has universal consensus in the world of SEO. Popular opinion maintains that nothing is more important than high quality inbound links from authority websites in achieving high rankings in the search engine rankings.

Submitting your site URL and sitemap

Submitting your site URL, strictly speaking, isn’t necessary anymore. If you have followed the advice above, and have managed to secure some inbound links, it won’t be long before the spiders find you. That said, all of the major search engines offer a free submission process, and submitting your site won’t hurt. If you want to kick-start the indexing process, then go ahead and manually submit your homepage and one or two other important pages.

The other thing you can do that will help search engines to crawl all relevant pages on your website is submit an XML sitemap that adheres to the sitemap protocol outlined on www.sitemaps.org.

Submitting a sitemap won’t do anything to up your pages’ rankings, but it will provide additional information that can help search engines crawl your site more effectively. It is one more thing you can do to improve the odds, so ask your webmaster, web developer or SEO to include a sitemap for your site, and to either manually submit it for the major search engines, or to add an entry in your robots.txt file (a file that sits in the root directory of your web server that contains instructions for automated crawlers) that lets them pick it up automatically.

And start all over again

The ever-changing nature of search environment means that there is no magic bullet in SEO. It is not a one-size fits-all discipline, and it never ends. You have to work hard to find the right blend of targeted keywords for your particular business operating within your particular market at the current point in time. You have to optimise your pages based on those keywords, and deliver compelling, high-impact content. You have to attract incoming links.

Then you have to measure, monitor and refine continuously, tweaking and turning your optimisation efforts based on changing conditions in the marketplace, the search engines and your customers. Take your foot off the gas, and that high ranking you’ve worked so hard to achieve will gradually (and sometimes not so gradually) start to slip away.

Optimisation is a dynamic and iterative process. And if you want sustained results it needs to be ongoing.

Ryan, D., 2016. Understanding digital marketing: marketing strategies for engaging the digital generation. Kogan Page Publishers.

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