One thing that any web developer worth their salt should know is the basics of search engine optimization (SEO). Much of SEO comes down to basic code-level best practices, and it isn’t terribly difficult to simply bake SEO into your development process when working on public facing web applications. However, keep in mind that SEO will always be an evolving, fuzzy science, changing on the whim of the indexing strategies of major search engines. Immediate results are rare, and a long term process should be in place to truly understand the benefit (or detriment) incurred.
I break the concept of SEO down into a few categories that I’ll explain further below…
- Content SEO (internal factors)
- Strategic SEO (external factors)
- Insight and Tracking
Content / Internal SEO
These ‘Content / Internal’ best practices are things that a developer or content creator can bake in during the site development process. Only a few of these items will make a difference on their own, but as a whole can make an enormous impact. These basic factors should lay the foundation for any SEO strategy. However, these internal factors absolutely cannot be the only part of your SEO strategy. Here are a few of the most important ones…
- Page Titles. Arguably one of the most important content level factor, this is one of the few that can make an enormous difference on their own. Your page titles (what goes in the HTML <title> tag) should be relevant to what is on the page whereas I often come across page titles that only contain the name of the site. Instead, you should have the ‘title’ of the page prefixed or appended to the name of your site. Some believe that appending the name of your site to the page title is better than prefixing.
- Page URLs. This goes hand in hand with your Page Titles, as page URLs carry almost equal important. The URLs of your pages should mirror closely the titles of your pages, but don’t need to be exact. Popular opinion is that the closer keywords in your URL are to the end of your domain name, the better. Search engines have a very ‘human’ behavior in this case… tell me, which URL is more descriptive about this post? – “http://jsprunger.com/search-engine-optimization-101/” or “http://jsprunger.com/?p=88″. Search engines think the same way.
- Freshly updated and unique content. The more your web site content is updated, the more often it will be indexed by search engines. Sites with freshly updated content seem to get a bonus from most search engines. Bloggers in particular should ensure that their sites are configured to ‘ping’ a service like Ping-o-Matic whenever you create a new post, this will immediately notify Google and many other services of your new content. Having unique content is perhaps one of the most important factors, simply rehashing or copying content will get you absolutely nothing from most major search engines – in fact, duplicate content can seriously hurt your rankings.
- Keyword usage in your content. Also a highly important factor, whatever keywords that you want to rank for – make sure you’re using them in your content. Think about what your customers or clients going to search for. A few guidelines for keyword usage…
- Don’t overuse your keywords, don’t be spammy. Find the right balance between keyword usage and having readable, engaging content.
- Make sure you have your keywords in your page title and URLs.
- Use keywords within the first 100 words of the page or within HTML headers.
- Get your keywords used in external links to your site. More on this later…
- Image alt tags. This is a pretty minor SEO factor, but very important if you have any interest in getting results from services like Google Image Search. The productivity from image search results is usually pretty low for most businesses, but every little bit can help sometimes. Some web sites (i.e. e-commerce, product catalogs) can benefit from image search much more than others. Make sure you have descriptive ‘alt’ attributes on your <img> tags – this is a best practice for usability and accessibility in general though.
- Meta keywords and descriptions. Long gone are the days of meta tags being useful for SEO. However, the meta description tag can still play a huge role in your pages getting click-through from the search results. Google will use the meta description of your page as the ‘teaser’ for the search result, but if you’re missing this tag you’ll often just see garbage or irrelevant content for the teaser. Users are much more likely to click through to your content in search results if the result description is accurate and compelling.
- Updated Sitemap and sitemap.xml file. Keeping an up to date listing all of the content on your site in a sitemap will greatly enhance the ability of search engines to properly index 100% of the content on your web site. You can use a tool like the Google Sitemap Generator to keep a continually updated sitemap file.
- Avoid so-called ‘black hat’ or any sort of sneaky SEO techniques. These strategies usually revolve around hiding or cloaking text on your pages in an attempt to fool search engines. It isn’t worth it – leading search engines can easily detect and adapt to these techniques, resulting in your search rankings taking a dive or even a complete blacklisting of your site.
Strategic / External SEO
Strategic SEO includes all of the factors external to your website that can affect your search engine rankings. The number one external factor is getting ‘backlinks’ to your content, this is what made Google so ridiculously powerful and accurate – and their rankings are still very much based on the number, diversity, and quality of links to to your site.
Backlinking can be explained with this anecdote: Several years ago you could search for ‘Miserable Failure’ on Google and the number one result was the White House biography page for George Bush. This was due to a simple viral campaign to get people to put links on their websites, comments, blog posts, etc. linking to the biography page with the anchor text ‘Miserable Failure’. That’s how backlinks work. The more external, inbound links to your site, the more ‘authoritative’ your site appears to be in the eyes of major search engines.
But how can you get these backlinks? A few examples…
- Mainstream media and press releases. Old fashioned, but if this is relevant to your industry, press releases for important announcements make their way around the internet very quickly. This obviously works best if the press releases link back to your web site.
- Getting linked and promoted in blog posts. Do your friends, colleagues, or business partners have blogs or websites? Ask or barter with them to promote your content, requesting specific keywords be used in links to your web site. This is a two way street – the more you’re willing to promote content from other sites, the more they’ll be willing to promote you back. However, popular opinion is that one-way links are deemed to be of higher quality in the eyes of major search engines.
- Twitter (annoying or ridiculous as many believe it to be) can be a great way to spread the word about your content. Maybe you’ll get lucky and someone with 30,000 followers will retweet your link if you’ve included the proper hashtags. After this happens, you’ll start to see your links pop up all over the internet.
- Social Bookmarking. Submitting your content to social bookmarking sites like Del.icio.us, Reddit, and Digg or more niche-specific sites can be a great way to spread the word about your content. These services will also often directly link to your content with the exact text that you’ve specified – bonus! Don’t be a spammer though, if you have high quality, unique content that people actually want to see – submit it. If not, don’t bother.
- Make it easy for your readers to submit your content to social bookmarking sites, for example – drop an AddThis button on your website like the one at the top of this post. This allows your users to easily link and promote your content if they find it valuable.
- Targeted submissions. Do you have niche content? Find targeted venues for submitting your content and articles. For example, you’ve written an article relevant to the Healthcare industry. Track down some Healthcare industry groups on LinkedIn and submit your article to the news sections. Contact industry publications, they’re often happy to include high-quality articles.
- Alliances and partnerships. Work with your business partners and allies to cross promote each other where applicable. For example, you’re a partner for a specific vendor. If you work closely with that vendor, they’re often more than happy to promote their most capable partners by linking them on pages within their own websites.
Insight and Tracking
As mentioned previously, part of SEO includes a process testing out your SEO changes and tracking their effectiveness over time. A variety of free and paid tools are available to assist you in analyzing your search rankings, search terms, and keyword effectiveness. Below I’ve listed a few tools that can help.
- Google Analytics – by far the best free website traffic tracking software that I’ve ever used. Formerly known as Urchin, Google Analytics allows you to slice, dice, drill down, and report into your tracking data any way you like. Even better, Google Analytics allows you to configure “goals” for your web site which are basically actionable things that users of your site can perform that are of value to you, the business owner. For example, submitting a contact form, downloading a white paper, completing a transaction, etc. Dollar amounts, if applicable, can be tied to goals, allowing you to determine the exact revenue per visitor. This effectively allows you to determine the most valuable incoming keywords and most effective traffic sources for your web site. Beyond visitor value, Google Analytics can help you determine many more important statistics. For example…
- Most popular content on your website
- Browser capabilities of your visitors
- Location and language preferences of your visitors
- Most popular search terms used to find your web site
- Tracking of your CPC ad campaigns
- Tracking visitor loyalty
- Tracking the top exit pages for your web site (pages where visitors leave)
- Keyword ranking monitoring and reporting. There are a variety of free and paid tools that will allow you to continually monitor and report on current and historical keyword rankings for your own website, as well as the keyword rankings for your competitor’s websites. These tools will allow you to see if you’re making progress on increasing your search rankings.
- SEO analysis tools such as the Microsoft SEO Toolkit allow you to analyze the your website to check for content level flaws such as broken links and duplicate content that can affect your search engine rankings. The Microsoft SEO Toolkit allows you to view detailed information about SEO problems on your website using built-in reports and dashboards – an extremely useful tool to use when analyzing the state of SEO on an existing web site.
There is much more to search engine optimization than can be written up in a single blog post (see also: thousands of blogs dedicated purely to the subject). However, I hope this quick guide to the basics will give you the tools necessary to implement numerous high impact SEO quick wins for a client or personal web site. For web developers, the factors listed above should be kept in mind whenever developing customer-facing websites that could benefit from enhanced search results and search rankings. Most of the ‘content / internal’ best practices can be easily baked into the development process of almost any e-commerce or content management system implementation project.