12 Steps to Becoming a Natural at SEO – Part 1
At my first job out of business school, I was tasked with implementing Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for the website of the company where I worked. First, as green as I was, I knew this was a big deal and was shocked at the fact that it hadn’t been undertaken yet. I mean, in a day and age where people don’t even bother typing in URLs anymore and just go straight to Google or Bing, what’s the point of having the best product/service in the world if no one will be able to find it? Second, I remember feeling completely overwhelmed by the amount of information available and work that needed to be done on our website at the time.
I stepped back, took a deep breath, and proceeded to strip it down to a few basic action items that could help boost our rankings in relatively quick fashion. And guess what? It worked out pretty well. After a few months our natural search traffic increased 213% year over year! So I thought I’d share 12 tips and tricks that helped increase our organic rankings. This is the first of two posts that will each contain 6 SEO take-aways. Fret not, they’re no Labors of Hercules, but they should be more than enough to give you a proper foundation to start optimizing your website.
1. SEM vs. PPC vs. SEO: WTH?
You’ve probably seen these acronyms floating around as you were doing your research (the first 3 at least). Here’s a refresher on what they mean:
- SEM/PPC: Search Engine Marketing and Pay Per Click usually refer to a form of online advertising that seeks to promote websites by increasing their visibility in search engine result pages through the use of paid placement, contextual advertising and paid inclusion. In some instances, SEM is used as the umbrella term for both PPC and SEO. Paid results can be found at either the top or right hand-side of search result pages.
- SEO: Search Engine Optimization is the process of improving the visibility of a website or web page in search engines via unpaid search results, otherwise known as “natural” or “organic” results. In general, the earlier or higher a page gets ranked on the search results page, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine’s users. Unpaid results constitute the main portion of these results.
Here’s a visual that shows it in action:
Above is what you typically get when typing “VerticalResponse” into a search engine. In the red rectangle are the paid search results, and in blue, the organic ones.
2. Create Brief, Unique and Accurate Page Titles
Let’s go back to our previous search results:
When your web page comes up in the listings, the title tag will appear in the first line and link to said page. You can also find it at the top of your browser window:
When writing a title tag, try to keep these best practices in mind:
- Make sure it accurately describes the page’s content and effectively communicates its topic. For example, you can list the name of your website/company and a few bits of information about what the company does, using keywords that are likely to be typed in user search queries. In our case, “email marketing” or “social media” would be good options.
- Make your title tag unique for each page so that “search spiders” (the programs that “crawl” websites on behalf of the search engines) will know that given page is distinct from the others on your site.
- Keep it brief and to the point as users want to be able to scan through results and click on what seems most relevant to their query in a hurry. Also, as with email subject lines, if your title is too long the search engine or browser header will only show part of it.
3. Paint the Picture with your Meta Tags
A page’s description meta tag gives searchers and search engines a summary of what the page is about. It’s usually the paragraph located below the title tag in your results:
Notice I said “usually.” Sometimes the search engine might decide that another portion of your page is more relevant to the query and show it instead of the actual meta tag. To make sure that doesn’t happen and your carefully crafted description gets the attention it deserves, here are a couple of tips:
- Accurately summarize the page’s content. Write a description that both informs and interests users enough to draw their mouse pointer toward your link.
- Use unique meta tags for each page. Just like for title tags, each page should get its own distinct description, especially in cases where multiple pages from your website show up in the same search query.
4. Clean Up Your URLs
In addition to the title and meta tags, simple to understand URLs will be more click-friendly to users, while informing them of the exact content of your page. For example, if given a choice between http://www.verticalresponse.com/email-marketing and http://www.verticalresponse.com/0123456789/9876543210, which one would you click? My thoughts exactly.
- Use relevant keywords in your URLs. Not only will this help visitors remember your links better and make them more willing to click on them as mentioned above, it will make the URLs easier for spiders to crawl as well.
- Provide one version of a URL to reach a document. Use and refer to one unique URL for a given document to avoid splitting the reputation of that content between different URLs.
- Allow for the possibility of your URL being truncated. Consider what might happen if a user removes part of your URL, either voluntarily or accidentally. For example if a user were to shorten http://www.verticalresponse.com/email-marketing/social-sharing to http://www.verticalresponse.com/email-marketing/, you’ll want to make sure it actually takes him/her to an existing page. This, however, is tied into your website’s navigation structure.
5. Throw Away the Ariadne Thread
The term “Ariadne Thread” harks back to the mazes and labyrinths made famous in Greek mythology. While making for great narrative, getting around your website should not be as complicated. A website’s navigation is important in helping visitors find the content they want quickly, while at the same time helping search engines understand what the webmaster thinks is important. So to avoid either group getting lost, you can follow these few basic steps:
- Create a simple, naturally flowing directory structure. Your site’s directory structure should organize your content well, allowing users to go from general to more specifc content and letting them know where exactly they’re at on your site.
- Put an HTML sitemap page on your site, and use an XML Sitemap file. The former will help your human visitors find what they’re looking for, the latter will do the same thing, but for search engines.
- Have a useful 404 page. If a visitor lands on a page that doesn’t or no longer exists, instead of serving a generic “404 not found” page that will irritate him/her more than anything, why not create a custom one that provides links directing back to the more helpful content on your site?
6. Content is King, Always
Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other optimization techniques discussed here. Organic or word-of-mouth buzz is what helps build your site’s reputation the most with both users and search engines. Beyond creating quality and well-written content, anticipate differences in users’ understanding of your topic. In other words, keep in mind the different variations of search keywords or keyword phrases that users could type in while performing a search. For example, a seasoned email marketer might look for “CTA” while a new one might use a more general query like “action button.”
Whoops, looks like my time is up. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our primer on SEO in the coming days, where we’ll tackle some more exciting topics such as promoting your site, reporting (yes, numbers *can* be fun!) or how to make sure the mobile version of your site gets found. In the meantime, feel free to try out some (or all) of the tips outlined above and let us know how they worked for you!
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