Sunday, November 20, 2011

Optimizing Websites for Search Engines: Revisiting the Basics

I like to revisit the basic strategies one can utilize to optimize their website for search engines every few months or so. One of the reasons I like to do this is that things change, namely the search engines and what is factored in to their ranking algorithms, and it is necessary to account for those changes and make adjustments on the fly. With that in mind, there are also a number of basic on-site and off-site elements one needs to know as he or she attacks the problem of how best to optimize their site so it can rank well in the search engine results pages (SERPs). No matter how much things change, the basics remain constant, and ensuring that they are worked in to the process a must. Let's recap exactly what those basics are.

On-Site Optimization

Keyword Research: The first step in launching a website that is optimized for search engines is to know exactly what keywords you are trying to rank for. Your site can look great, but if nobody can find it that can be problematic. Ranking for keywords that are going to drive conversions, whether it is a phone call from the site or an online purchase, is essentially what makes a website successful. There are a number of tools one can use to execute keyword research, but a good place to start is Google's AdWords keyword suggestion tool, which gives you the search volume and additional variations of any keyword you are interested in targeting.

Keyword Rich Content: after the keywords have been identified, it is necessary to write well optimized content that incorporates the important keywords within each of their respective pages. However, don't over-do it and keyword stuff. Write for search engines, but keep in mind that it is necessary to write for the people that arrive at your site too. Search engines are working usability and experience in to their ranking algorithms on a greater level, so keep that in mind. 

Optimizing HTML: specifically, the title tag, heading tags, and meta descriptions on every page of your website. Each page should have unique pieces of HTML code, that includes the keywords that are being targeted on the page. And while including the targeted keywords in to the title tag (especially) and heading tags has a direct influence on where that page ranks for those keywords, writing meta descriptions (the 2-3 lines of text below a listing in the SERPs) is especially important for click-through-rate.

Internal Linking: it is important to link between different pages on your website. This will make it easier for Googlebot to crawl your site, and stresses to the robot what pages are the most important. It is also a great way to pass on value to weaker pages, for instance, if you link from your homepage to a new page on your site that you just uploaded.

Off-Site Optimization: Link Building

Getting other websites to link to your own is the best way to increase your rankings in the SERPs. But that doesn't necessarily explain exactly how that happens. For instance, how exactly does a link help my rankings? And, what is the difference between the value of certain links? Finally, how do you get people to link to you?

For starters, if you get a link from another site, and they are using anchor text that includes the keyword of interest, that is what helps your chances of ranking for that keyword. For example, if I am selling lawn mowers on my landscaping e-commerce site, I would want other sites to have links to whatever page I wanted to rank for lawn mower related keywords with "lawn mowers" as the title of the link. When Googlebot is crawling the web, they crawl via links, and they understand where they are crawling by the anchor text used for these links. If a bunch of people are linking to your site with "lawn mowers", Googlebot is able to determine that you must have valuable information on or quality lawn mower products (because a bunch of people say so!), and more likely to rank that page high.

So how do you get links? You can try and get free links from other websites, or you can actually pay for links, although Google is for the most part opposed to the latter approach. To them, if you are buying the link, it doesn't reflect that you actually have good information or a good product. On the other hand, if someone is naturally linking to you, it does, or else, why would they want to send their own readers to your site? The best way to get natural links is to have something of value to offer other webmasters (and their readers). Using the lawn mower example, I could offer a discount on a particular brand of lawn mowers to anyone that comes from the site you are trying to get a link from. For paid links, services like Digital Point or Sponsored Reviews are options, two paid link forums that I have written about in the past.

Regarding value, some links are better than others, there is no doubt about that. The value of a link, for the most part, is determined by the quality of links the site you are trying to get a link from has coming in to their own site. If you get a link from a brand new site, the chances are that site doesn't have backlinks of their own, and hasn't built up much authority with Google. That link isn't going to do you much good. On the other hand, getting a link from a site that has been around for 20 years and has a very strong backlink profile will be very effective. To analyze backlink profiles of other websites, I like to use Open Site Explorer from SEOmoz. Best of luck!

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