Search engine optimisation for beginners
Simply owning a website is, in itself, no longer a source of competitive advantage; virtually every company now has one. What starts to transforms your site from a vanity-publishing cost into a revenue-generating asset is how easily it can be found by your customers when they are ready to purchase.
The key to this is search engine visibility – by which I really mean visibility to Google. According to Internet data specialists Hitwise, over 91% of UK Web searches on November 2011 began on Google; its nearest competitor, Microsoft, accounted for less than 4% of initial searches. These tips hold true, nevertheless, for all search engines.
Get it noticed
Broadly speaking, there are two complementary strategies.
You bid on keywords that you think your prospects would be likely to use in searches; if you do so and your bids are high enough, links to your site will be displayed on the results page when users do search with these keywords. You are charged by Google every time somebody clicks on the link through to your website or when you achieve your sale or other ‘conversion’ goal. This is especially useful as a tactical tool, to attract traffic to a new site or a time-limited online campaign.
Search engine optimisation (SEO)
You tune the content of your pages to ensure they are displayed near or, ideally, at the top of regular, non-paid for – so-called organic – search results. This is the approach that really pays dividends in the longer term, not least as Google doesn’t charge you for it.
How search engines work
To get to the top of organic results, you need to understand how Google and its peers work. They catalogue the Internet, trawling electronically through sites, following links, scanning text, noting the frequency and position of words on each page, what is linked to it and where in turn it links.
By analysing this data, Google builds up a conceptual map of the Web, identifying what particular sites and pages are ‘about’ and, most importantly, which ones appear to be the most authoritative on any given subject, as recognised in particular by the number and source of links from other sites.
Google uses complex algorithms are used to balance a range of factors. Although the rise of social media has placed a greater premium on recent results about topics in the news, it is still fundamentally this concept of authority that determines which page makes it to the top of the list of results for a given search query.
Your SEO strategy
You should certainly expect and, indeed, aim to ensure that your home page is returned as the top result for searches on your company or website’s name. Provided that it is part of your domain name and features a few times in the text on the home page, achieving this goal should be relatively straightforward.
Thereafter, however, it gets harder. Your focus for the other key pages on your site must centre on getting them returned high in results returned for terms not specific to your company. This is because, in typing keywords relevant to your market into a search engine, people are identifying themselves as your active prospects, even though they have probably never heard of you or your competitors. Yet for the following few seconds – and no more if they see nothing to arouse interest as soon as results are displayed – the goal for these Googlers is to find out more about what you offer.
Other sites also understand this connection between user searches and sales lead generation, so competition for top spot on single words like ‘football’ or ‘wine’ is predictably intense; making this a short-term goal simply invites failure. Results tend to be biased in favour of bigger brands because users click on links to their sites for the very reason that they know and trust them.
You will instead enjoy more immediate success by using keyword phrases to focus on more tightly-defined niches, such as ‘crime pattern analysis software’. Users themselves are tending to use longer search phrases as a way of obtaining more precise results from the outset. Search terms that people use are very much concrete rather than abstract – car not personal automotive solution – so you need to avoid jargon and simplify the language on your pages to increase the chances that they are returned on searches by non-expert users.
This is how you can go about SEO for new pages. Existing pages can be revised by following the same steps.
(1) Identify keywords for which you would like each prospective page to be returned on search results; the Google AdWords keyword selection tool is a good place to start.
Enter a single term, see which keyword phrases its suggests and experiment with variations to build keyword phrases.
(2) Use these terms in your page.
The key places for keywords are:
- the main title;
- bullet points; and
Include them liberally in your body copy, too, particularly at the start, in the middle and at the end.
(3) Pay particular attention to your document’s metadata.
This is placed in the <title> and <meta name=”description”> metadata fields within in the <head> section of your HTML file. Google uses the title as the hyperlink to websites displayed in their results, and weights the description tag quite highly when parsing the page to deduce its subject. The <meta name=”keywords”> field nowadays merits little attention as most search engines began ignoring its contents several years ago, as a result of site owners using it to try to fool them about the actual contents of their pages.
Sites that excel at SEO ensure that the metadata of every page is different, rich in keywords and relevant to the page’s body copy. If they include their company name in metadata, they do so at the end of it rather than the beginning, rightly recognising that the focus is on scoring well in generic searches. They avoid repeating identical keywords in their page metadata (Google penalises so-called keyword stuffing) and, no less importantly, ensure their white papers and other PDFs are also correctly described.
Many site owners neglect metadata almost entirely, either by leaving these fields blank or, nearly as badly, populating multiple pages with the same information. In either case the search engine is more likely to disregard them.
(4) Link to other pages on your site whenever possible.
If you have a page about risk management on your site for a target audience of insurers, for example, refer to it in a page for your product that serves their needs using the key phrase ‘insurance risk management’ as the link text, not the over-used ‘click here for…’, which is meaningless out of context. This reinforces the link between the pages and helps Google better understand your site.
(5) Encourage related sites to link to yours
Search engines notice which sites and pages are cited by others. They will rank your pages more highly if these referring sites are authoritative in their own right. Links from high authority sites will boost the credibility of those they influence because, from the terminology used on the respective sites and other clues, Google will deduce that they all belong to the same community of interest.
Links from unrelated sites, however, may be detrimental. In the early years of the Internet, some web entrepreneurs created ‘link farms’ that would link to their customers’ sites to help boost their perceived authority. Search engines of course soon identified the farmers and their customers; the rankings of both in search search were heavily penalised.
More recently, ‘content farms’ had sprung up but were heavily penalised by Google in its ‘Panda’ algorithm update last year. They paid freelance writers a few dollars for each article of a few hundred words on a particular topic in the expectation that, thanks to SEO, it would be returned high in search results. The site owners’ aim was not to become an authority on the topics about which their authors wrote but to generate income through affiliate advertising as site visitors clicked on Google AdSense advertising links embedded in their pages. The moral of this story is that you need to write for the user – not the search engine – and encourage links to it.
By following these steps, you will make your site’s content more accessible to Google, improve its chances of being returned higher in search results, get more visitors to your site and generate a higher return on your investment in it, whether it’s more sales, leads or visitor engagement.
The beginner’s guide to SEO
A more extended introduction from subscription site SEOMoz
Google search snippet optimisation tool
Helps you to visualise what your Google search result will look like
Search Engine Watch
Arguably the reference site for those in the industry