Client-friendly SEO guidelines – Part 1

A few weeks back I was commissioned to create a brief but through set of user-friendly SEO guidelines. The objective was not to explore every nook and cranny to the Nth degree. (In other words, there are some known imperfections in this list.)

Instead the goal was  a bit less ambitious. This set of guidelines would keep the ideas bite-sized and layman/laywoman friendly. In doing so the hope was that the majority of desired actions would be more likely to take place. “Build understanding and confidence—not paralyze with perfectionist expert level details,” was the directive.

I’ve been given permission to republish this and have decided to break it into three parts. Here is Part 1 of 3:

Introduction

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. Broadly, the intention of SEO is to optimize a website’s structure and content in order to increase the accuracy of a search engine’s indexing of that site. Metaphorically, it is helpful to envision a search engine as a match maker. A suitor searches with a keyword/phrase with the intention of finding something. It is up to the match maker to interpret those needs, compare the stated needs to its massive number of indexed pages, and then based on a top secret algorithm pull out the pages that seem to matter most. The match maker then returns a list of results to the suitor with its best guess for a match at the top of the list, second best guess is the next one down, and so on.

If the person searching is in fact looking for a site such as yours then it is in your best interest to help the match maker make that connection. There is nothing to be gained in playing hard to get. The more “search engine friendly” a website is, the more likely it is for that site to be listed on relevant search engine results pages (also know as SERPs).

Overview

SEO is as much of an art as it is a science. Since the algorithms that search engines (e.g., Google, Bing, etc.) use are highly proprietary, much of what is understood about SEO is based on reverse engineering that black box. In other words, Google (for example) does not publish a document that specifies exactly what matters and what does not. Instead, there is a whole industry built around trying to decode the black box and then providing services based on that distilled knowledge. To further complicate matters, search engines are constantly refining their algorithms. So while there are quite a few knowns (read: best practices), the nature of SEO is such that there are also always a certain number of unknowns.

Rather than get bogged down in technical details and other advanced concepts, the intention of this list is to provide a high level overview of the some key elements of SEO—SEO 101 if you will. This guide is by no means every trick in the SEO book. It’s meant to be a simple but thorough primer so there’s no need to feel intimidated.

If this all sounds like extra work, think again. The fact is most of this list involves things that need to be done regardless. For example, no matter how you cut it your site is going to need content. You can’t launch with blank pages. Your pages will need titles and they will need URLs too. With this in mind, the purpose of these guidelines is to help you look your best with a minimal amount of extra effort.

1) Keywords

As they say, content is king. Start by making a list of keywords and key phrases that you would ideally want to be associated with your site/brand/company. (Note: Throughout the rest of this discussion, the word “keywords” will be used as a short substitute for “keywords and keyword phrases.”) In other words, when people search using these keywords ultimately they would probably be interested in finding your website. These keywords could be the type of services you offer, the geographic areas you serve, or even specific brands or products you sell/service.

Just keep in mind they should be searcher-centric. Ultimately, this is about making yourself more attractive to them. Not showing up unshowered with a take it or leave it disposition. If you don’t want to prepare for the date (i.e., doing more business) then don’t bother trying to fake it. It doesn’t work that way.

If you want to take it a step further, Google also offers a keyword tool that helps you determine the approximate number of times a given keyword has been used in a search.

https://adwords.google.com/o/Targeting/Explorer?__c=1000000000&__u=1000000000&ideaRequestType=KEYWORD_IDEAS#search.none

Yes, this tool can be helpful. However, you should be aware that in most cases keywords with a high number of searches are typically broad (i.e., not focused), as well as have quite a bit of competition associated with them. That is, you probably won’t be the only site wishing to be connected with such high exposure words.

More importantly, a high number of search does not necessarily mean all those people would be interested in your site/brand/company. This is especially true of broad keywords. For example, “web design.” Is the person using that keyword looking to learn web design, hire a web design outfit, see examples of web design, buy a web design book, looking for a web design job, or maybe even researching web bots? Broad, high traffic keywords are necessary, just be sure to understand the limitations inherent in their vagueness.

Depending on the nature of your business you might wish to consider geography as part of your keyword selection. For example, you might be more interested in being strongly tied to “web design nj” or “web design princeton” or “web design princeton  nj.” The number of searches for these keywords aren’t going to be as high but the objective of this exercise is quality and not quantity. If you’re a Jersey based guy then a California girl might not be a good match for you.

Once you compile your list, identify the primary keywords, verses what should be considered secondary. Having this list prioritized is going to help as you move forward.

2) Page URL

Search engines like URLs. The logic being, if the word(s) is in the URL then it must be important and somehow directly connected to the content of the page. Therefore, be reasonably descriptive and use relevant and appropriate keywords in your Page URLs. Also you can’t use spaces in a URL. Instead be sure to use a dash (-) and not an underscore ( _ ) between the words. SEO industry experts say dashes, also known as hyphens, perform better.

Most people don’t bother to read the URLs. Therefore, you can often take advantage of this opportunity and be hyper-descriptive. You also do not have to worry about proper English either.

For example—

Bad: FauxHonda.com/service_dept

Good: FauxHonda.com/service-dept

Better: FauxHonda.com/car-repair or possibly FauxHonda.com/car-repair-nj

So while the links to that page and the text on the page might say Service Department, the URL can be a bit less site user friendly and more search engine friendly. That being said, if you have a page where you often share the URL with others, you might want to be sensitive to that fact and make that URL user friendly and possibly shorter. You have to find a balance, and that is part of the art mentioned earlier.

Finally, don’t over do it. Google likes focus. Trying to make it seem like your page is everything under the sun is not helpful. KISS (i.e., Keep it simple stupid) is a good rule of thumb for SEO 101ers.

3) Page Title

Similar to the page URL is the page Title, also known as the page meta title. This text doesn’t display on your site per se, but it does display in your browser. Typically, at the very top of the screen you’ll see what often looks like a brief description. That is the page meta title.

Your page title should be no more than 60 to 70 characters—depending on who you ask—and spaces are allowed. Longer page titles are acceptable but search engines only look at the first 60 to 70 characters. The rule of thumb is that search engines consider the words on the left to be more important than the words further out in the “sentence”. Stick to this approach the best you can. Proper English isn’t required but in terms of aesthetics it’s probably a good practice to try to follow. It is frequent enough that people do read page titles. You don’t want to look or sound unprofessional.

There should also be a fair amount of correlation and consistency between page URL and page title. The search engines are assuming that anything in the title is also important and highly relevant to the content of the page. One should reinforce the other and vice versa.

That wraps up Part 1. Part 2 will roll out in about a week and then finally Part 3 about week after that. Naturally, if you have any questions or comments in the mean time please feel free to ask.

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