Search engine optimization can be an overwhelming subject because of the many variables that factor into each SERP’s ranking algorithms. Understandably, it can make a beginner’s head spin just to try to decide where to start. This blog suffices to lay out common SEO processes, their importance, and the order that they should be completed in.
If your site has not already been created, I would suggest reading over the URL best practices. URLs are given special consideration because search engines assume that keywords in the URL are the main topic of the page. It makes sense right? Webmasters can stuff several random keywords into the content but keywords in the URL are most likely the fundamental topic of the page, or they should be. That’s what your readers expect to read about. What about dynamic URLs that serve to include any number of search queries, you ask? Search engines do not appreciate dynamic URLs, so try to avoid that if at all possible. See my previous blog for more information about URL optimization best practices.
Keyword research should be one of your first optimization steps, whether your site has already been created or not. Keyword research is important because oftentimes we have an idea as to which keywords we want to rank for, but without gathering data you may wind up optimizing your site for keywords that are nearly impossible to rank for, or even worse, keywords that have no search volume. We suggest doing keyword research by making a huge list of keywords that describe your page (do this for each page of your site). Use keyword tools such as Google’s keyword tool. This tool is especially handy because it shows you the search volume for each keyword. You can then search for the term and see how many competitors there are, which will help you determine how hard it will be to rank for. Remember, just because there are a lot of competitors doesn’t mean it will be impossible to rank. Are the competitors quality sites? Take a look at their SEO, have they optimized well for the terms you’re interested in ranking for? Are they even competitors? For instance, if you’re hoping to rank for the word ‘apple’, because you own an orchard, you may want to check if other orchards are ranking, or if instead you will be competing against sites like the Food Network which are likely much larger with a lot of time invested in marketing. Check out Bethany’s post for more details on keyword research.
Optimizing Content and Meta Data
It likely goes without saying that search engines crawl your site and your meta data for keywords in order to determine what your site is about. From there, they are able to rank it for each search query, however they see fit. Now that you’ve done a spectacular job with keyword research, you can be confident that your site will rank well for keywords with a high search volume, thus increasing your (targeted) traffic. To do so, you will want to incorporate these keywords into the pages. Just as you created a separate keyword research list for each page of the site, you will optimize each page of the site with different keywords. Pick the top 1-4 keywords for each page, and work to incorporate these words into the copy, the meta title, meta description, and alt tags (the copy that shows if you hover over an image, or in place of the image if it does not load properly). You should use these keywords enough to emphasize their importance but not so much that the copy reads funny. The search engines will recognize if you are keyword stuffing (using the keywords too often, in order to attempt to improve rank) and you will be penalized. Plus, you want it to ultimately read well for your target audience, so keep that in mind when you are writing the content. Also keep in mind that search engines generally crawl 60 characters for the title and 160 characters for the meta description, including spaces, so try to keep them short, sweet, and to the point – with keyword sprinkled throughout. Check out Rob’s post on SEO copywriting for content optimization best practices.
Create Sitemap and Robots.txt Files
A sitemap basically acts as a roadmap for the search engines. It tells the spiders which pages are a priority for indexing and which aren’t. You can set a priority and frequency for each page on your site. Make sure that you don’t include any pages that you wouldn’t want crawled. To be safe, you should also create a Robots.txt file to ensure that pages that shouldn’t be indexed are not crawled. These pages must, I repeat must be placed exactly as so: www.domain.com/sitemap.xml and www.domain.com/robots.txt, respectively. Check out these links for step by step instructions on creating a sitemap and creating a robots.txt file.
Set Up Webmaster Tools
Webmaster tools are hugely helpful with finding crawl errors, HTML suggestions, and malware, as well as other site issues. You will want to create an account for both Google’s webmaster tools and Bing’s webmaster tools, just to make sure that your site is behaving properly for both engines. Once you have done all of the above steps, you will want to make sure that your sitemap is submitted to both webmaster tools, as this can potentially trigger a crawl, which will update your rank to account for all of your recent optimizations. You can resubmit your sitemap as much as you’d like but it wont necessarily always help. For more information on Webmaster Tools, check out Jenny’s guide to setting up webmaster tools.
Once you have a well-optimized site, you should begin looking to other creative ways to boost your rank. Linkbuilding is a great way to improve rank, because the search engine’s see each inward link as a vote of approval toward your site. In other words, when others link to your site, the search engine’s view this as a recommendation: you must be an authority on the subject if other sites are singing your praises. Blogs and top ten lists tend to make great linkbait; that is, people tend to link to short informational posts or instructions. For a full guide, check out Jessica’s post on how to better your linkbuilding.
I could go on forever and ever about search engine optimization tactics but this is a good place to start. Remember, search engine optimization is an ongoing process. Although you may have already done all of these things, you will need to continuously redo this list in order to achieve optimal results.
Amy is an Account Executive at Hanapin Marketing, a search engine marketing firm focused on generating results through PPC and SEO.