A Guide To Successful Search Engine Optimization (SEO) To grow a business
With millions of people performing billions of searches each day to find content on the Internet (Sullivan, 2013), it makes sense that marketers want their products to be findable online. Search engines, the channels through which these searches happen, use closely guarded algorithms to determine the results displayed. Determining what factors these algorithms take into account has led to a growing practice known as search engine optimisation.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the practice of optimising a website to achieve the highest possible ranking on the search engine results pages (SERPs). Someone who practices SEO professionally is also known as an SEO (search engine optimiser). Google says it uses more than 200 different factors in its algorithm to determine relevance and ranking (Avellanosa, 2012). None of the major search engines disclose the elements they use to rank pages, but there are many SEO practitioners who spend time analysing patent applications to try to determine what these are. (Referencing: eMarketing: The essential guide to marketing in a digital world By Rob Stokes and the Minds of Quirk)
SEO can be split into two distinct camps: white hat SEO and black hat SEO (with, of course, some grey hat wearers in between). Black hat SEO refers to trying to game the search engines. These SEOs use dubious means to achieve high rankings, and their websites are occasionally blacklisted by the search engines. White hat SEO, on the other hand, refers to working within the parameters set by search engines to optimise a website for better user experience. Search engines want to send users to the website that is best suited to their needs, so white hat SEO should ensure that users can find what they are looking for.
In this Post, You Will Learn:
- How search engines work and how they deliver results
- How to plan, research and implement an effective keyword strategy across text and other content
- Techniques for link building, an essential aspect of SEO
- How specialised search – such as mobile, social and local search – can affect your rankings, and how to optimise for these results
Search engines need to help users find what they’re looking for. To make sure they list the best results first, they look for signals of:
SEO, also called organic or natural optimisation, involves optimising websites to achieve high rankings on search engines for certain selected key phrases. Generally, techniques used for optimising on one search engine will also help efforts across others.
How Search Engines work, according to Google:
“PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links, a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves ‘important’ weigh more heavily and help to make other pages ‘important’.”
SEO can be divided into two main strategies:
- On-page optimisation is achieved by making changes to the HTML code, content and structure of a website, making it more accessible for search engines, and by extension, easier for users to find.
- Off-page optimisation is generally focused on building links to the website, and covers activities like social media and digital PR.
SEO is an extremely effective way of generating new business to a site. It is a continuous process and a way of thinking about how search engines see your website, and how users use search engines to find your website. It’s search psychology.
Search engine optimisation is a fairly technical practice but it can easily be broken down into five main areas:
- A search engine friendly website structure
- A well-researched list of key phrases
- Content optimised to target those key phrases
- Link popularity
- User insights
Approach 1: Search Engine Friendly Website Structure
Search engines encounter two kinds of obstacles:
- Technical challenges that prevent the search engine spider from accessing content.
- A competitive marketing environment where everyone wants to rank highly.
To ensure that search engines can access your content, you must remove technical barriers. Those who want to achieve the best results must follow best practices. These best practices are outlined in my post on Web Development and Design.
The key is to make sure that there are direct HTML links to each page you want the search engines to index. The most important pages should be accessible directly from the home page of your website. The information architecture, or how content is planned and laid out, has important usability and SEO implications. (Referencing: eMarketing: The essential guide to marketing in a digital world By Rob Stokes and the Minds of Quirk)
Users want to find what they are looking for quickly and easily, while website owners want search engine spiders to be able to access and index all applicable pages. In fact, Google has released an update that penalises sites with poor user experience (such as no content above the fold, or a high bounce rate) (Cutts, 2012). There are times when user experience and SEO can be at odds with each other, but usually if you focus on building usable, accessible websites, you have made them search engine friendly as well.
Another technical challenge to search engines is Flash. For the most part, search engines struggle to crawl and index Flash sites. There are some workarounds, but the best approach from an SEO perspective is to avoid building sites or delivering key content in Flash. Instead, use HTML5, which provides similar interactivity and visuals while remaining easily crawlable.
The post on web development and design delves more deeply into building a search engine friendly website.
Approach 2: Well-researched List of Key Phrases
How do you start building your key phrase list?
It requires a little thought and a fair amount of research and insight, using tools that are readily available to help you grow and refine your list of keywords. Key phrases are the very foundation of search. When a user enters a query on a search engine, he or she uses the words he or she thinks are relevant to the search. The search engine then returns those pages it believes are most relevant to the words the searcher used – and, increasingly, the implied meaning of the search. Search engines have built a sophisticated understanding of semantics and the way in which we use language.
So, if a user searches for ‘car rental’, the search engine will look for pages that are relevant to ‘car rental’ as well as, possibly, ‘car hire’, ‘vehicle hire’, and so forth. Search engines have also built up knowledge around common misspellings, synonyms and related searches.
Figure 1. Google delivers search results for logical synonyms.
Because of this, it is crucial that you implement keywords that are likely to be used by their target audience. Websites need to appear when their potential customers are searching for them. A large part of keyword research is understanding search psychology. When we build our key phrase lists, we are tapping into the mental process of searchers and putting together the right mix of keywords to target.
There are four things to consider when choosing a keyword:
Search volume :
How many searchers are using that phrase to find what they want? For example, there is an estimated monthly search volume of over 338 million for the keyword ‘hotel’, but an estimated 6 600 searches per month for a key phrase such as ‘Cape Town Waterfront hotel’.
Figure 2. The AdWords Keyword Planner shows the volume of global and local monthly searches.
How many other websites out there are targeting that same phrase? For example, Google finds over 2 800 000 000 results for ‘hotel’, but only 3 210 000 for ‘Cape Town Waterfront Hotel’.
What is the likelihood that the searcher using that key phrase is going to convert on your site? A conversion is a desired action taken by the visitor to your website. Related to propensity to convert is the relevance of the selected term to what you are offering. If you are selling rooms at a hotel at the V&A Waterfront, which of the two terms (‘hotel’ or ‘Cape Town Waterfront hotel’) do you think will lead to a higher rate of conversions?
What is the average value per prospect attracted by the keyword? Depending on the nature of your website, the average value per lead varies. Using the hotel example again, consider these two terms:
‘luxury Cape Town hotel’ and ‘budget Cape Town hotel’
Both are terms used by someone wanting to book a hotel in Cape Town, but it is likely that someone looking for a luxury hotel is intending to spend more. That means that that particular lead has a higher value, particularly if you have a hotel-booking website that offers a range of accommodation.
Step-by-step Approach To key phrase research
Step 1: Brainstorm
Think about the words you would use to describe your business, and about the questions or needs of your customers that it fulfils. How would someone ask for what you are offering? Consider synonyms and misspellings as well.
Bear in mind that people may not ask for your services in the same way as you describe them. You may sell ‘herbal infusions’, whereas most people would ask for ‘herbal teas’, and some might even request a ‘tisane’. ‘
Even common words are often misspelt, and you may need to consider common misspellings – for example, ‘jewelry’ or ‘morgage’.
Figure 3. Google returns relevant results even for common misspellings.
Step 2: Gather data
Two ways in which to gather accurate key phrase data are to survey customers and to look at your website referral logs. Look to see what terms customers are already using to find you, and add those to your list. If they are already sending you some traffic, it is worth seeing if you can increase that traffic.
Step 3: Use keyword research tools
There are several tools available for keyword discovery, and some of them are free. Some tools will scan your website and suggest keywords based on your current content. Most will let you enter keywords, and will then return suggestions based on past research data, along with:
- Similar keywords
- Common keywords used with that keyword
- Common misspellings
- Frequency of the keywords in search queries
- Industry-related keywords
- Keywords that are sending traffic to your competitors
- How many sites are targeting your keywords
Some Keyword discovery tools
There are a number of tools available, some free and some paid for, to assist with keyword research & discovery. Some include:
Bearing in mind the factors that make a good keyword, you need to aim for the right mix of keywords. Low-volume terms with low levels of competition may be a good way to get traffic in the short term, but don’t be scared off by bigger competition in the high-value, high-volume areas. It may take longer to get there, but once you do, the revenue can make it all worthwhile. It is a good idea to create a spreadsheet of the list of keywords, along with additional information about each one.
Value of Lead
Figure 4. Keep a spreadsheet of targeted keywords for reference.
This will help you to choose the right keywords to target. These lists should be created for the whole website, and can then be broken down for each page you want to optimise.
Approach 3: Content Optimised to Target Key Phrases
Once keywords and phrases are selected, we need to ensure the site contains content to target them. You must ensure that the content is properly structured and that it sends signals of relevance. Content is the most important part of your website: create relevant, targeted content aimed at your selected key phrases.
As you must’ve understood from the content strategy post, content already has several roles to play on your site:
- It must provide information to visitors.
- It must engage with them.
- It must persuade them to do what you want.
Now it must also send signals of relevance to search engines. You need to use the keywords on the content page in a way that search engines will pick up, and users will understand. Each web page should be optimised for two to three key phrases: the primary key phrase, the secondary and the tertiary. A page can be optimised for up to five key phrases, but it is better to have more niche pages than fewer unfocused pages.
Here are some guidelines:
- Title tag: use the key phrase in the title and as close to the beginning as
- H1 header tag: use the key phrase in the header tag, and as much as possible in the other H tags.
- Body content: use the key phrase at least three times, more if there is a lot of content and it makes sense to. You should aim for about 350 words of content. But don’t overdo it! That could look like spam to the search engines.
- Bold: use <strong> tags around the keyword at least once.
- URL: try to use the key phrase in your page URL.
- Meta description: use it at least once in the meta description of the page, which should entice users to clickthrough to your site from the
- Link anchor text: try to ensure that the keyword is used in the anchor text of the pages linking to you.
- Domain name: if possible, use the key phrase in your domain name.
Images, video and other digital assets should also be optimised with the relevant keywords. Search engines cannot decipher multimedia content as well as text, so they rely on the way that media is described to determine what it is about. Screen readers also read out these descriptions, which can help visually impaired users make sense of a website. In addition, media such as images and video are often also shown on the SERPs. Proper optimisation can give a brand more ownership of the SERP real estate, and can also be used effectively to target competitive terms.(Referencing: eMarketing: The essential guide to marketing in a digital world By Rob Stokes and the Minds of Quirk)
Just as rich media can help emphasise the content on a page to a visitor, they can also help search engines to rank pages, provided they are labelled correctly.
Here are some ways to optimise images with key phrases for SEO:
- Use descriptive, keyword-filled filenames.
- Use specific alt tags and title attributes.
- Add meta information to the image. Make sure this information is relevant.
- Use descriptive captions, and keep relevant copy close to the corresponding media. For example, an image caption and neighbouring text will help to describe content of the image.
- Make sure that the header tags and images are relevant to each other.
Also think about what other digital assets you have, and whether these can be optimised in line with your key phrase strategy. For example, consider app store optimisation (ASO) – the process of optimising your mobile and web apps for the specific web stores they are distributed in.
Here are some ways in which you can optimise your apps:
- Give your app a catchy name that also includes your most important keyword or phrase.
- Include a distinctive, recognisable and clear icon.
- Spell out the features and benefits clearly, including key phrases where possible.
- In your app store listing, add links to your major social media platforms and your website – and don’t forget to link the other way too!
- Include as much meta data as you can, including tags, categories and descriptions (this will depend on the app store in question) (Bulygin, 2013).
Figure 5. An example of a page targeting the phrase ‘handmade bags’.
The best way to ensure results is to focus on writing quality content while sticking to a few guidelines on tags and URLs. Remember, you want search engines to rank you highly for your content, but you also want to ensure that the content is a pleasure to read.
Regularly adding fresh, valuable content will also encourage the search engines to crawl your site more frequently. Use your website and its pages to establish and reinforce themes. Information can always be arranged in some kind of hierarchical structure. Just as a single page can have a heading and then get broken down into sub-headings, a large website can have main themes that get broken down into sub-themes. Search engines will see these themes and recognise your website as one with rich content.
Approach 4: Link popularity
Links are a vital part of how the Internet works. The purpose of a link is to allow a user to go from one web page to another. Search engines, doing their best to mimic the behaviour of humans, also follow links.
Besides allowing search engine spiders to find websites, links are a way of validating relevance and indicating importance. When one page links to another, it is as if that page is voting or vouching for the destination page. Generally, the more votes a website receives, the more trusted it becomes, the more important it is deemed, and the better it will rank on search engines.
- Links help send signals of trust. Signals of trust can come only from a third-party source. Few people will trust someone who says, “Don’t worry, you can trust me!” unless someone else, who is already trusted, says, “Don’t worry, I know him well. You can trust him.” It is the same with links and search engines. Trusted sites can transfer trust to unknown sites via links.
- Links help to validate relevance. Text links, by their very nature, contain text (thank you, Captain Obvious). The text that makes up the link can help validate relevance. A link such as ‘Cape Town hotel’ sends the message that, “You can trust that the destination site is relevant to the term ‘Cape Town hotel’.” If the destination web page has already used content to send a signal of relevance, the link simply validates that signal.
The parts of a link:
Here is the HTML code for a link: <a href=“http://www.targeturl.com/targetpage.htm”>Anchor Text</a>
- <a href> and </a> are HTML tags that show where the link starts and ends.
- http://www.targeturl.com/targetpage.htm is the page that the link leads to. You should make sure that you are linking to a relevant page in your site, and not just to the home page.
- Anchor Text is the visible text that forms the link. This is the text that should contain the key phrase you are targeting.
The link sends a signal that the target URL is important for the subject used in the anchor text. There is a lot more information that can be included in this anatomy, such as instructions telling the search engine not to follow the link, or instructions to the browser on whether the link should open in a new window or not. <a href=“http://www.targeturl.com/targetpage.htm” rel=“nofollow”>Anchor Text</a>
- rel=“nofollow” can be included in links when you don’t want to vouch for the target URL. Search engines do not count nofollow links for ranking purposes. This was introduced by Google to try to combat comment spam.
Not all links are created equal
Of course, not all links are equal. While link volume is the number of links coming to a specific page of your site, link authority looks at the value of the links. Some sites are more trusted than others. So, if they are more trusted, then links from those sites are worth more. Likewise, some sites are more relevant than others to specific terms. The more relevant a site, the more value is transferred by the link.
Well-known and established news sites, government sites (.gov) and university domains (.ac) are examples of sites from which links can carry more weighting. Links form websites that have a higher PageRank also carry more link weight.
Figure 6. Links from universities and government bodies carry more weight.
Search algorithms also consider relationships between linked sites. By analysing various things, the search engines try to determine if the links are natural links, or if they are manipulative, artificial links created solely for ranking purposes. Manipulated links are worth very little compared to natural links and may even lead to a drop in search engine rankings.
The search engine algorithm will also determine the relevancy of the referring website to the site being linked to. The more relevant the sites are to each other, the better. Also consider that linking to valuable, relevant external resources can help to improve the visibility of your own site.
How does a website get more links?
With links playing such a vital role in search engine rankings and traffic for a website, everyone wants more of them. There are certainly dubious means of generating links, most of which can actually result in being penalised by the search engines. However, here are some ways for ethical and honest website owners and marketers (and that’s what you are) to go about increasing links to their websites.
Create excellent, valuable content that others want to read
If people find your site useful, they are more likely to link to it. It is not necessary (or possible) to try to write content that will appeal to the whole of the Internet population. Focus on being the best in the industry you are in, and in providing value to the members of that community. Make sure that valuable content is themed around your key phrases.
Figure 7. Ensure that you create remarkable, valuable content that people want to link to.
Infographics are visual and graphic representations of data, and are a popular type of content that is useful to users, and can encourage lots of traffic and inbound links.
Create tools and documents that others want to use
Interview experts in your field, and host those interviews on your website. Create useful PDF guides for your industry that people can download from your site. Think outside the box for quirky, relevant items that people will link to. Calculators are popular tools, and we don’t just mean the ones that add two and two together. If you have a website selling diet books, for example, create a tool which helps users to calculate their body mass index (BMI) and target weight. Importantly, be unique!
Figure 8. The BBC website has several interactive elements, such as this BMI calculator.
Creating a game that people want to play is a great way to generate links. Make sure that the theme of the game is based on the key phrases for your website, so that when others talk about and link to the game, they are using your key phrases.
Capitalise on software and widgets
Widgets, browser extensions and other software that users love to use all help to generate links for a website. Quirk has released a Mozilla Firefox extension called SearchStatus that is exceptionally useful to the SEO community. Each time someone mentions this SEO tool, they link to Quirk. People also like to include fun widgets in their forum signatures – create a widget, make sure that the link is included, and let people spread these around the web for you.
Figure 9. A forum user has included a widget in their signature, linking to an external website.
You can find out who is linking to your competitors, and which non-competing sites are ranking highly for your key phrases. Use this information to identify sites to target for link requests.
Using Google search, the following search operators can be used to find these links and websites:
- Link:url.com –site:url.com
With all link-building tactics, make sure that you use your key phrases when communicating. You will be telling people how to link to you, and ensuring that search engines notice your authority.
Approach 5: User insights
Search engines want their results to be highly relevant to web users, to make sure that web users keep returning to the search engine for future searches. And the best way to establish what is relevant to users? By looking at how they use websites, of course!
User data is the most effective way of judging the true relevance and value of a website. For example, if users arrive on a website and leave immediately, chances are it wasn’t relevant to their query in the first place. However, if a user repeatedly visits a website and spends a long time there, it is probably extremely relevant. When it comes to search engines, relevant, valuable sites are promoted, and irrelevant sites are demoted.
How do search engines access this data?
So, what does this mean for SEO? When it comes to a website, it must:
- Be valuable enough to attract both visitors and links naturally
- Retain visitors and make sure they return to the website
- Convert visitors
Social and Search
Social information is playing an ever-increasing role in search. Social content, such as Twitter messages or YouTube videos, can appear in the SERPs, and there is a growing indication of social influence on search rankings.
There are several social factors to consider when it comes to social and search.
Figure 10. A Google search for Coca-Cola turns up several social media profiles.
Use social media properties to dominate brand SERPs.
When someone searches for your brand name, you can use your social media properties to ‘own’ more of the results on that page, reducing the likelihood that a user will end up on a competitor’s website instead. Use your brand name when naming Twitter and Flickr profiles, and Facebook and YouTube pages.
Social links are used as signals of relevance.
Links from social sites such as Twitter include “rel=nofollow”. However, there is a strong indication that these links are in fact followed by search engines, and are used to determine relevance. If you focus on creating great content on your site and making sure that it is easy to share socially, you should see a result in your SEO efforts.
Personalised results are influenced by your online social network.
If you are logged in to a social network while searching (Facebook for Bing, or your Gmail account for Google), you could see results from or influenced by your social circle. In Bing, for instance, results can include indications of what your friends have previously liked or shared via Facebook. On Google, you may be more likely to see your friend’s blog for relevant searches.
4. Optimise for social search engines.
While Google is the biggest search engine worldwide, YouTube is the second biggest. Even within social properties, users still use search to find the content they are looking for. Content that is housed on these properties should be optimised for the relevant social search engine as well.
Figure 11. A YouTube search for ‘Chrysler’ turns up official branded videos in the top positions.
As web-enabled mobile devices continue to grow in the market, and become easier to use, mobile search remains a key growth area. Mobile searches tend to be different from desktop searches. They are more navigational in nature (users tend to know where they want to end up), and users are often looking for concise, actionable answers.
Mobile search input can also be different from desktop search. As well as typing in search keywords, mobile users can search by voice, or by using images or scanning barcodes.
As with mobile web development, mobile SEO is a little different from desktop SEO, although the fundamental principles remain the same. Build usable and accessible sites with great content, and you’ve already come a long way.
Where there are differences in approach for mobile SEO, these are largely because:
- Search engines have the ability to deliver precise location-based results to mobile users.
- Usability is critical in sites for mobile devices.
- Search engines have less data to work with (compared to traditional web) in terms of site history, traffic, and inbound links.
The fundamentals of mobile SEO are not so different to those of desktop SEO.
A usable, crawlable site is very important.
Build mobile versions of your website that cater for mobile users: simple navigation and content stripped down to only what is required.
Content is important, and should be formatted for mobile usage.
Text and images should be optimised for the mobile experience – so no large file sizes! The meta data still matters: titles and descriptions are what users see in the SERPs.
Links are important.
You should link to your mobile site from your desktop site and vice versa. Submit your mobile site to relevant mobile directories.
Submit a mobile XML sitemap.
Mobile-specific sitemaps use the same protocols as standard XML sitemaps, with the addition of a mobile tag.
Use the word ‘mobile’ on the mobile website, or use mobile top-level domains.
Make it explicit to search engines that this is the mobile version of your website, and they are more likely to prioritise it as such.
Local search refers to search behaviour and results where location matters. Either results returned are local in nature, or results returned can be map based.
With blended SERPs, map-based results can be returned together with other types of results, depending on the type of search. As search engines become ever more sophisticated, location can be inferred and influence the type of results.
Figure 12. A Google search for ‘pizza in Florence’ turns up a range of location-based results, displayed on a map.
For example, a user may search for ‘plumber london’, and the search will know to return results for London plumbers. These may even be returned on a map.
However, a user in London may search just for ‘plumber’. The search can infer from the user’s IP address that the user is in London, and still return results for London plumbers (since someone searching for this term is likely to be looking for a nearby service).
For search engines to return location-relevant results, they need to know the location of things being searched for. This is often determined from sites that include the name and address of a business. Note that this site may not be yours.
Location results are often determined from various review sites, and the results can include some of those reviews. Search engines also allow businesses to ‘claim’ their locations. A business can verify itself through a process with the search engine, and ensure that location information is correct. Google+ Local is a good example of this – the business can claim a listing, add their details, and even receive reviews.
Figure 13. A Google search for a specific business reveals its Google+ Local page in the SERP.
What not to do
Black hat SEO refers to practices that attempt to game the search engines. If a search engine uncovers a website using unethical practices to achieve search engine rankings, it is likely to remove that website from its index
Google publishes guidelines for webmasters, available through Google’s Webmaster Central. As well as outlining best practice principles, Google has supplied the following list of don’ts:
- Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
- Don’t use cloaking or sneaky redirects.
- Don’t send automated queries to Google.
- Don’t load pages with irrelevant keywords.
- Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicated content.
- Don’t create pages that include malicious behaviours such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other malware.
- Avoid ‘doorway’ pages created just for search engines or other ‘cookie cutter’ approaches, such as affiliate programmes with little or no original content. If your site participates in an affiliate programme, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first.
- Avoid link farms and focus on attracting quality, valuable links.
The bottom line: design websites for users first and foremost, and don’t try to trick the search engines. It will only be a matter of time before they uncover the black hat techniques.