Leading the Search
Originally published: 10.01.10 by Susan Kimball
How to make sure your company’s SEO strategy is supporting your online marketing plan.
In today’s marketplace, having a great website is not enough. Potential customers have to be able to find your company when looking for a service provider on search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing (Note: This article references mainly Google because it receives about 70% of total search volume).
This is where Search Engine Optimization, also known as S-E-O comes in. SEO is the process used to ensure a website gets the highest-possible ranking in organic/natural search results, i.e., non-paid listings. Factors that increase the chances of a higher ranking on a search engine include:
- Using specific words and phrases in online content and website code.
- Structuring your website to be easily indexed by search engines.
- And acquiring links to your site from other trusted websites.
As only about 30% of searchers look beyond the first page, the No. 1 goal of SEO is to rank on the first page of search results for as many keywords as possible. In organic/natural searches, search engines use complex and proprietary algorithms that consider hundreds of factors to rank search results.
These algorithms are constantly changing, so use caution when researching SEO tactics — outdated information could be harmful. The ideal time to set up an SEO structure is when initially designing a website (or during a redesign), but SEO tactics can be applied anytime to an existing website to help improve rankings.
Successful SEO is an ongoing process that goes along with keeping your website dynamic. As a business owner or manager, you most likely won’t be using SEO techniques yourself, but you should understand the basics of SEO to ensure your in-house staff, outside web developer, or SEO vendor are using best practices.
Many of the main components of SEO are separated into on-page SEO and off-page SEO. Key elements of on-page optimization are keywords, site architecture, title tags and meta data, design and content placement, and making pages readable to search engines. Off-page SEO is the process of gaining links to your site from other websites.
Your home page is generally the most valued page on your site, but you should optimize all important content pages for their relevant keywords to capture more rankings. It is even possible to rank for two different pages in the results for one search.
These are descriptive words or phrases in a web page that match words searched on Google, such as “furnace repair.” A key element to successful SEO is targeting the right keywords. It is a waste to optimize for words no one is searching for.
For example, an average of over 33,000 people a month in the United States search for “furnace repair,” but there are no searches for “furnace fixer.” You can do keyword research with Google’s free keyword tool, Google Insights; subscription tools such as Wordtracker or KeywordDiscovery; by analyzing your own website visits, reviewing competitor’s websites; and even asking people what words they would use to look for your services.
Select keywords based on the volume of people searching those keywords, i.e., “furnace maintenance” gets five times more searches than “furnace tune up”; relevance of the keyword to your page content; and competition to rank on the first page of results — it is harder to rank for primary words such as “furnace” that all your competitors will also feature than for “high-efficiency gas furnace.”
“High-efficiency gas furnace” is what is known as a “long tail” keyword phrase, the terms used in hundreds of searches that come after the 10 most-popular keywords. Often the total traffic for all of these searches added together can exceed the traffic that comes from the most-popular terms.
Be sure to include long-tail keyword phrases in your site. They not only have lower competition, making it easier to achieve a higher rank, but also higher conversion because consumers that search very specific terms generally are further along on the buying-decision process.
Another tip for success is to think of your customer’s problems instead of the solution and include keywords they might use to describe their problems. Also be sure to include localization keywords in your site such as state, cities, towns, and neighborhoods that you serve so that when people search for a business in their location, the search engine will know that your website is relevant.
Keyword density is the percentage of times a keyword or phrase appears on a web page compared with the total number of words on the page. Search engines use this factor to determine whether a web page is relevant to the searched keyword.
Experts recommend 3% to 10% density for keywords per page using from one-to-three or three-to-six keywords and/or phrases depending on the theme and amount of total copy on the page. Rule of thumb — have enough occurrences of a keyword in your content to make it stand out to Google as a pattern, but not so many that you ruin your visitor experience with awkward-to-read copy.
This includes linking structure, navigation, and page URLs. For search engines to index or readers to access a page, it must be internally linked from at least one other page on your site. Your most important pages should be no more than one or two “clicks” away from your home page.
As the pages contained in your primary navigation are linked to from every single page of your site, internal-link popularity of those pages is built up — another key ingredient to SEO success. Search engines also count the keywords in your primary navigation as the most important. Use this to your advantage by optimizing these for the most competitive phrases.
When building a new site or doing a redesign that will require changes to your page URLs, use human-readable URLs with keywords rather than dynamic code or numbers.
For example, use www.ABCcompany.com/furnacerepairs instead of www.ABCcompany.com/page.php?p=5& show=list&style=23.
The human-readable format can improve search rankings and your clickthrough rates.
Title Tags and Meta Data
The single most important thing you can do on your web pages to improve your rankings is to have a unique, keyword-rich title tag for each content page. The title tag tells search engines what the topic of the page is and whether it is likely to be relevant to the search.
Keywords in the title tag are weighted more than anywhere else on your site, and words at the beginning of the tag are strongest. So how do you see your title tags? If you are using Internet Explorer, hover your mouse over the blue bar at the top of the page, and the yellow box will appear showing your full title tag.
You can also see your title tag (as well as your other meta data) by right-clicking in a blank space on your web page and selecting “View Source,” which will show the page code. The words following “title” are the title tag for that page.
Your title tag also appears as the clickable link in the search results, so it is the first thing that search engines show searchers about your site. Words in the title are bolded if they appear in the search query to help users recognize if the page is relevant to their search.
Each page should also have a unique meta description tag, which is a more detailed summary of what the page is about. A snippet of this tag generally appears below the title tag in the search results, so providing good meta descriptions gives you the most control over what your potential audience sees in the listings, helping to convince the searcher to click on your result.
Design and Content Placement
All keywords are not equal in Google’s world. By placing specific keywords near the top of the page; by bolding, italicizing, or underlining them; or using them as the text in a link, you can let Google know that these are valuable, so they will be given more weight. Another way to indicate important content on a page is by the use of header tags (H-tags).
Using headings in different sizes not only indicates order of importance to the search engines, but structures your page, making it easier for viewers to scan. Think of H-tags as the main sections in a term paper outline. The major points go in larger text, while subheadings appear underneath in medium-size text, and then body copy follows in smaller text.
Note that font size alone does not indicate importance to Google; the content must actually be coded with H1 (largest size) through H6 (smallest size) indicators.
Make sure all the great content in your pages is readable by the search engines so your pages can be indexed. Following are some factors that impact readability.
- Use Flash sparingly as Google can find it difficult to determine keyword importance within Flash segments. A complete Flash site may even index as only one page.
- A picture may be worth a thousand words, but since Google can’t see, you’ll need to use alt-tags to describe images. You can view your alt-tags just like you see title tags, by mousing over the image to see the coded keywords underneath.
- Keywords that are embedded in graphics are not readable. How can you tell what is embedded? If you can highlight the copy by left-clicking your mouse, it is readable. If not, you’ll want to take the type out of the graphic or add an alt-tag to describe what it says.
- Regularly check for and correct broken links (when you click on a link, and it doesn’t take you where it should). Getting an error page is frustrating for the user and disrupts the search engine’s crawling path.
The most important factor in off-site optimization is link-building — the process of getting inbound links to your site from other websites. Inbound links can drive traffic to your website, but most importantly, Google considers links to be “votes” for your website.
Links are one of the most highly weighted elements in assigning PageRank, a primary factor in determining your search-engine result position. If you are trying to figure out why a competitor ranks better than your company when both of your sites seem equally relevant, it may be that they have significantly more or higher-quality inbound links than you do.
One-way inbound links to your site from authoritative or relevant web pages with a high PageRank are the best. Expert opinions vary on the value of reciprocal links, which is the term for when a site links to you, and you link back to them.
Opinions range from helpful to a wash, to slightly negative. In general, exchanging links with high-quality, relevant websites in your field or community is a safe and positive activity as long as you do it selectively.
Google frowns on buying links or participating in “link farms” (a group of websites that all link to every other site in the group) and can penalize your site for this type of activity as well as sudden, large increases in inbound links to your site.
Link quality is important. Primarily, quality is determined by a link’s relevancy to the web page, but Google also gives weight for these things — links from pages with high PageRank, keywords in the link anchor text, links placed high up on the page, links that appear in relevant content rather than in a list of links, and the age of the link (Google likes older links best).
To see links to your website, two free tools you can use are Google Webmaster Tools and Yahoo Site Explorer. Site Explorer is also a great tool to see what inbound links your competitors have. You also may be able to get some of these links if you request them.
If your site needs more links, look for opportunities with web directories; professional, civic, and local organizations; event sponsorships; local media; and business relationships. You can also submit online articles and press releases including site links, and be sure to include a link in all your social media profiles.
Search engines consider www.abcelectric.com and abcelectric.com to be different URLs; so when your site is linked to from other websites, if some use the www and others don’t, link popularity and traffic data are split.
Check with your webmaster to make sure they have designated the correct default and settings to consolidate this valuable information. A few more things that search engines put significant weight on are age of your domain (the older, the better), the length of your domain registration (Google likes five-plus years best and considers less than a year to be a negative), and usage data such as traffic volume.
The number of content pages in your site is also important — more content pages means more chances to rank for different keywords. You can even be penalized for having fewer than 2,500 words (about five full Microsoft Word® document pages).
Earlier this year, Google launched a major algorithm update – SEO experts are still evaluating the impact. One key thing that has been determined is that page load speed has become an important factor. You can review how well your page load speed performs using Google’s Webmaster Tool.
Finally, keep in mind that SEO can apply to more than your website. Your company can rank in search engine results by optimizing blogs, Facebook pages, and YouTube videos.
A Forrester study found that on the keywords for which Google offers video results, a video is 50 times more likely to appear on the first page of results than a web page.
Articles by Susan Kimball
Leading the Search
Potential customers have to be able to find your company when looking for a service provider on search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing