Client-friendly SEO guidelines – Part 3

If you missed either of the two previous installments you can start by catching up here:

Client-friendly SEO guidelines – Part 1

Client-friendly SEO guidelines – Part 2

And without further delay here is the conclusion to this three part beginners’ guide to search engine optimization basics.

8) Image File Names

Believe it or not, search engines also index the names of your image files. Therefore, it is wise to  take advantage of this and give your images file names that are relevant and informative. Don’t be cryptic or lazy. We already know that playing hard to get is not going to help the match maker work for you. The rules for naming image files are very similar to page URLs. That is, use keywords, be descriptive and use dashes (-).

For example—

Bad: photo225.jpg

Good: rose.jpg or flower.jpg

Better: flower-red-rose.jpg or red-rose-flower.jpg

If you have keywords that are sometimes misspelled, using the misspelled version within image files names is a good way to get those misspellings indexed and associated with your site. Since 99.99% of all visitors to your site probably aren’t going to view a page’s source code just to see your image file names, the risk of a misspelling reflecting negatively on your site/brand/company is next to none. While it’s unlikely this trick has a major impact on getting traffic to your site, it is none the less worth mentioning.

9) Analytics

In terms of free tools, the industry standard is Google Analytics. It might be free but it is very robust. So much so there are a countless number of books dedicated to Google Analytics, as well as thousands of people who’s profession it is to understand and use it. Don’t let that intimidate you. Start slow, make an effort to pick up the basics, and then expand your understanding of Google Analytics as you feel is necessary. It is also recommended you consider utilizing Google Webmaster Tools.

One of the main things to know about using Google Analytics is that it is very good at telling you what happened. On the other hand, it’s not very good at telling you why. When making decision based on analytics be sure to put some effort into trying to interpret and understand the why. Avoid jumping to conclusions, quite often you’ll find there are at least two sides to every story.

10) The Process – The conclusion is the beginning

Last but not least, always be mindful that SEO is not a set it and forget it project. While your pursuit of SEO has a start, it does not have an end. The possibilities are endless…Search engine indexing algorithms continues to evolve. A competitor launches a new website and/or makes a conscious effort to build in bound links. Or maybe your product mix changes. Whatever the case may be, change and SEO go hand in hand. This isn’t the end, it’s the beginning of your love affair with SEO.

Granted, you might not have the resources to obsess over SEO on a daily basis. However, it is recommended you consider scheduling different levels of commitment on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis. For example, maybe you review Google Analytics weekly, and revisit your keywords quarterly.

SEO is like any relationship—it takes work to make it successful. Either you’re committed to it or you’re not. And what you get out will be direct function of what you put in. Don’t expect SEO to help you, if you’re not making time to help yourself.

Client-friendly SEO guidelines – Part 2

Welcome back to the middle portion of the Client-friendly SEO Guidelines show. If you missed Part 1 you can catch up here:

http://www.alchemyunited.com/2011/06/29/client-friendly-seo-guidelines-part-1

The one caveat I’d like to repeat from Part 1 is that the intention of this series is to build understanding and confidence—not paralyze a novice with perfectionist expert level details. If you feel there’s a flaw that’s too flawed given the context, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Just please keep in mind the intention here is SEO 101 for the time constrained SMB and NPO.

4) Headline Tags

Sometimes referred to as “H tags” since they begin with an H and are then numbered 1 to 6. If you view a web page’s source code and see: <h1>some text here</h1> or <h2>some other text here</h2>, etc. those are headline tags. These tags are part of the page’s design and are applied to the content on a page to tell the search engine what’s most important (h1), a bit less so (h2), and so on. Contrary to popular belief, headline tags need not be used to set type display characteristics (e.g., font size, font color, etc.) Typically they are styled but that’s not their true intention.

Be aware that not everything can be equally uber important. If you get carried away with the Headline tags the search engines’ algorithm might just decide to ignore your headlines all together. Therefore, headline tags should be used with some discretion. It is always best to be objective and honest when tuning your site to be “search engine friendly.”

While h1 is typically applied to the visible (and often generic) page title, h1 might instead be better used if you also have a sub-headline that describes the page’s content in more objective detail that makes better use of your keywords. For example, the headline might be creative and somewhat subjective so it catches a reader’s eye. While the sub-headline would be more objective and thus more “search engine friendly.”

If the design of your site doesn’t include a sub-headline or short page description, then you probably want to consider it. You might not feel you need it, but if it’s written and tagged properly Google will appreciate it. Headline tags are a tool to help make your content friendlier to your match makers. And again, keep in mind that there need not be any correlation between what you define for search engines as h1 and how that h1 is styled for the human reader. Regardless, your site’s first priority is to be user friendly. SEO friendly is second.

Although they can be applied more broadly, there should also be correlation and consistency between page URL, page title and the headline tags. These parameters don’t have to line up perfectly but they should be reasonably close. On the other hand, you do want to have a sense that you’re creating a general impression, a cloud if you will. That cloud is made up of various keywords and content that accurately reflects your site/brand/company as well as the content of a particular page. Hopefully, you’re starting to get a feel for how search engines “think” and how you can use that awareness to tip things in your favor. Be precise. Be specific. But also keep in mind that sometimes “long tail” keywords are effective too.

5) Page Description

The page meta description does not appear on your site. When you do a search, it does however appear in the list of search engine results pages results (SERPs) that are returned for the searcher to read. The page meta description should be honest and objective but none the less a bit enticing. If you have something the searcher is interested in, you want them to read your description and click through to your site. Don’t over promise, but don’t be too understated either. For example, if price is a critical decision point then be sure to address that in your page description.

The standard recommendation is to keep the page description to less than 160 character. This is going to be read by real humans so do use proper English. You can exceed 160 characters, however most SERPs will only display the first 160 characters. Evidently, matchmakers prefer brevity, as do most searchers.

6) Page Content

Rule number one is that your content should be written to be read by real people. Writing copy that is search engine friendly but user unfriendly is a no-no. In fact the latest release of Google’s indexing algorithm (code named: Panda) will penalize context it believes is unnatural.

When writing your content, refer back to your keyword list and be sure to also use the lower priority keywords. Search engines are not going to match you to searches unless your site contains those words too. Feel free to repeat keywords you have used in the previous steps but don’t over do it. In 2011, “stuffing” your content with keywords is also a no-no. If you’re interested in more depth in this area do a search for: “SEO keyword density.”

7) Link Anchor Test

Link anchor text are the words within a link that are clickable. Yes Virginia, these words matter to search engines. The search engines assume that if the words are part of a link to a page, then they are important and also descriptive of the page receiving that link.

Whether linking within your site or out to other sites try to avoid things such as “To do ‘blank’ click here” where “here” is the only anchor text in the link. Try to use wording that is descriptive of the site/page being linked to, and be sure that wording is part of the link anchor text.

And while we’re on the subject of links, it’s worth mentioning that the best way to improve your SEO impact is building in-bound links. That is, links from other sites to your site. Since that’s not always something you can have a direct and immediate impact on, it is considered to be outside the scope of these guidelines. None the less, building in-bound links is something to be aware of as you add tools to your SEO tool box.

Alright then, that’s it for Part 2. Hopefully you’ll share this with your friends and colleagues. Part 3 should be published some time next week.

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.