SEO — Search Engine Optimization

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Coding a great site is just the first step in building a successful and popular web presence. Once you have your website live on the web, you need for visitors to find it.

While you could boost traffic to your site by placing advertisements on social networks and the search engine results page (SERP) of search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo!, all of those traffic sources will cost you money – a resource which may not be plentiful when you are first getting started.

As a result, the vast majority of popular websites depend on organic search engine traffic: free traffic coming from search engines as visitors find a website after querying a search engine.

Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the process of improving your website so that it achieves a higher ranking in search engine SERPs, and so that more search engine users click on your website listing in the search engine results.

Google is King

When talking about SEO it is common for the term search engine to be used interchangeably with Google. This happens for two reasons:

  1. Google is the most popular search engine by a wide margin. Roughly 70% of all search traffic moves through Google.
  2. A website optimized for Google will also perform well in other search engines such as Yahoo! and Bing.

In other words, focus your efforts on Google and you’ll simultaneously improve your site’s performance in other search engines. As you focus on improving the performance of your website in Google’s SERPs, pay close attention to anything Google says about optimizing your site for search engines.

The Fundamental SEO Philosophy

Search engines are successful when their users find value in the search results they produce. For this reason, search engines are always trying to improve the quality of search results.

On an ongoing basis, search engines update their algorithms to improve SERP quality. Most of these updates focus on weeding out low-quality search results such as spam sites, copyright violators, and sites that provide duplicated content.

Recent updates to Google’s search algorithm have focused on things like favoring websites that are mobile-friendly over those that are hard to use on a mobile device, penalizing websites that repeatedly violate copyright laws, and penalizing websites that appear to employ deceptive or manipulative SEO practices.

Ultimately, a product like Google Search is successful when it returns the results that are relevant, accessible, and high quality. What this means is that effective SEO will align your website with the needs of its visitors by being as relevant and accessible as possible while producing high-quality content.

SEO Basics

If you want your website to perform well in Google’s SERPs, here are five things you must do:

1. Sign up for Google Analytics and Search Console

Google Analytics and Search Console is a suite of free tools you can use to identify the keywords users are using to find your site, track search metrics like click-through rate and average SERP position, submit sitemaps for Google to crawl, and analyze the overall performance of your site. These are free tools that can help you seriously improve the performance of your website, and you’re only hurting yourself by not signing up and learning to use these free resources. There is a bit of a learning curve when first signing up for Google Analytics and Search Console. Thankfully, Google provides introductory tutorials to help you get started both with Google Analytics and Search Console.

2. Build High-Quality Backlinks

Backlinks are also called incoming or inbound links. Regardless of what you call them, what we’re talking about are links from other websites that point to your website. Backlinks are used by search engines to identify websites that other websites consider to be authoritative on a given topic, and are considered to be the most important factor in determining the position of each listing on a SERP. This is especially true if popular, authoritative sites link back to your site. Building backlinks isn’t easy, and there are basically three ways to do it:

  1. Create original content that is so good, useful, and interesting that other websites want to share it.
  2. Contact other websites and ask them to link to your site. Usually, this will take the form of some sort of reciprocal agreement such as offering to write a guest blog post in exchange for including an author byline that links back to your site.
  3. Give something away that includes a built-in link back to your website. One good way to do this if you’re good with graphics software is to create infographics that include a link back to your website and share them on social media and with websites that might want to post the infographic.

Just be careful that your link building efforts are directed towards building real links and not spam links. Remember that your ultimate goal is to produce high quality content that is genuinely useful to your website visitors. The best way to build backlinks is to create content that is so good that your visitors and other websites want to share it without you even asking them to. Search engine algorithms are designed to catch spammy links – such as links add to the comments section of blogs or in forum posts. A good rule of thumb is that if you are able to post a link to your website on a different website without any sort of editorial approval from the website owner, it isn’t a good backlink.

3. Create High-Quality Content

Ultimately, the goal of any search engine, including Google, is to reward high quality content since that is what search engine users are ultimately looking for. So whatever your niche, focus on producing the highest quality content you can. When creating written content, such as blog posts, articles, and web page copy, follow these guidelines:

  • Avoid extremely short posts. If you can’t write at least a few hundred words on a topic, consider making it a subtopic in a larger post. Opinions vary on how long posts should be, but most experts agree that anything shorter than 300 words is wasted effort, and that posts 1000 words long and longer tend to do better.
  • Google and other search engines like it when you link to external content, and they really like it when your link text is short, descriptive, and natural.
  • Use heading tags correctly to add structure and clarity to your content. Don’t overuse headings (such as dropping paragraphs of text into heading tags) and use them according to their natural hierarchy (use just one h1, followed by h2 subheadings, which are further broken up by h3 subheadings, and so forth)

4. Create an Accessible Website

Search engines prefer websites that are accessible to all types of visitors using all types of devices. There are three basic rules to creating an accessible website:

  1. Write semantic HTML.
  2. Make proper use of image alternative text.
  3. Make sure your website works well on devices of all sizes.

5. Structure Your Website Properly

The final step to creating a solid search-engine-optimized foundation for your website is to make sure that the structure of your website is complete and logical. A properly structured website will help in two ways:

  1. Search engine web crawlers will do a better job of indexing a website that is well organized and includes all of the pieces the crawler is looking for.
  2. Search engine users will click on the results that appear to be the most meaningful, and structuring your website properly can affect how your page appears in SERPs.

Add a Page Title and Description

The first step to properly structuring your web page is to have a good page title in you web page head element. The page title is what appears when a user sees your web page listed on a SERP and is indexed by search engines for use in this way. In addition to a good page title, you’ll want to add a page description using the meta tag in the page head element. The description is indexed and may be used by search engines as a summary of the contents of your page. The syntax for adding titles and descriptions is shown below:

<head>   <title>Insert Page Title Here | Possibly Followed by Website Name</title>   <meta name="description" content="Insert a short page description here. Two to four sentences if a good length. This content is sometimes, but not always, used by search engines to summarize the contents of your web page." </head> 

Use Meaningful URLs

Meaningful URLs are preferred over meaningless ones by both search engines and website visitors. Select URLs that are human-readable and that convey something about the content of the page. For example, a URL ending in ../seo/ would be a better choice than ../pageid=1407/ for a page about search engine optimization.

Keep Your Website Organized

Good site navigation and a clear hierarchical website structure help search engine web crawlers and website users find their way around your website. Start from your homepage and build out the structure of your website logically.

As you define your website directory structure, make sure that when a visitor deletes part of a URL they land at a page that makes sense and not at a 404 Page Not Found error message.

You will also want to create an XML sitemap to submit to search engines to make sure they index the full breadth of your website. In addition, if your website is complex, add an HTML version of your sitemap to help visitors find their way to the content they’re looking for.

Keep Search Engines from Indexing the Wrong Pages

When a web crawler visits your website it will check for a file titled robots.txt and follow the instructions contained in that file. You can use this to your advantage by using this file to tell web crawlers not to index certain pages. If you’ve already signed up for Google Webmaster Tools, you can use their free tools to generate and test a robots.txt file to add to your website’s root directory.

Keep Your Reputation Intact

When you link to other sites you pass a little bit of your website’s reputation along to the site with that link. However, there are cases where you might not want to do this.

  • If you allow users to post unmoderated comments on your website they may post spam links.
  • If you write an article where you link to a site as an example of some negative practice, such as a spam website, you probably don’t want to contribute to their search engine rank.

The good news is that it’s easy to tell web crawlers that you don’t want to vouch for a site you’ve linked to. To do so, simply format your anchor elements with the extra attribute you see below:

<a href="" rel="nofollow">Link you don't want to vouch for</a> 

Many blogging and content management platforms automatically add rel="nofollow" to comments. A few minutes researching the topic should yield the information you need to determine whether you need to take any additional steps to protect the comments sections of your site from spam links.

Additional Resources & Closing Thoughts

SEO is a complex and ever-evolving topic. The ultimate goal of any SEO campaign should be to serve your website visitors as well as possible by producing high-quality content and properly formatting and organizing your website.

Take the time to implement the steps outlined in this tutorial and you will have built a solid optimized foundation on which to build your web empire. If you want to learn more about SEO, here are some additional free resources to help you on your way:

Jon is a freelance writer, travel enthusiast, husband and father. He writes about web technologies such as WordPress, HTML, and CSS.