Practical Search Engine Optmisation Guide Part 1
SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, is a big topic. And I am by no means an 'expert'. I use inverted commas, as I actually believe it's difficult to class anyone as an expert in a field which progresses so rapidly, where the goal posts are constantly changing - like much of the web, SEO is one ever-evolving tool.
A couple of weeks ago I was called by a client - "I've just Googled 'enter vague search term here' and my site didn't appear - is there a problem?". This client's site had been online for a matter of weeks, and the search term he'd entered was vague. Other than paying for Google Adwords there was no way he was going to get a page 1 result within such a short space of time, which I explained to him, and gave some helpful hints on how he might improve his ranking.
I thought it was about time I addressed this issue in a blog post, as it's something I'm regularly asked about, so I'm going to give some information on the kinds of things I do to improve my search ranking, and those of the sites I build.
As I said, I'm by no means an expert, but I do have some experience and would like others to benefit from the things I've learned.
So here goes...
1. Setup Google Analytics to Monitor Your SEO
This first tip isn't actually going to improve your ranking. But, if you make any changes to your site, you're going to need to be able to measure the results, to see if it's actually made a difference, right?
So the first thing to do is to add Google Analytics to your website. It's a free service and will give you all the information you need to know about your site's visitors, how they found your site, what content they looked at and so on.
To get started to go www.google.com/analytics and register for the service. You'll then need to follow the instructions to create a 'tracking code' which you can pass on to your website developer, or add to your website's element if you're able to do it yourself.
Once this code has been installed in your site, you'll be able to begin viewing data about your site's traffic. The data is collected in real time and processed pretty quickly, so you should soon be able to start viewing data.
I generally suggest website owners who are new to Google Analytics let it run for a couple of weeks, or more, initially, before making any changes to their site. This is so you can accurately compare what went before to current performance.
2. Check Your Page HTML Structure
The code which makes up your website's pages is called HTML. It is what the web is made of and consists of a number of 'tags' which provide context for the content which they display.
There are a number of text tags, for instance, which include h1, h2, h3, p, blockquote and so on. These tags describe the content they contain. It is important, therefore, that they are used responsibly for their specific purpose.
If you have 'content management' for your website (where you have access and are able to edit the content yourself) you need to ensure that you're using the correct structure for your content. This is what should be used and why:
Each page of your website should contain 1 h1 (heading 1) tag. This is a headline - it describes the content of the page and gives the reader (which includes Google and other search engines) an instant overview of the rest of the content. This headline should include your keywords - those words which are going to draw the most useful traffic to your site.
Heading 2 (and 3, 4, 5 and 6)
Heading 2 (h2) tags are for subheadings. As are heading 3, 4, 5 and 6. You should use heading 2 for any subheading after your heading 1 page title. Heading 2 tags describe sub-sections of content. For instance, the sub-headings on this page are h2 tags and the headings I'm using within this sub-section are heading 3 tags. You also want to ensure that these sub-headings include relevant keywords as far as possible.
I don't think I've ever created a page of content which requires more than heading 3 tags, but 4, 5 and 6 are available should your content require them!
HTML contains 2 kinds of lists: bulleted and numbered. Obviously you should use these as you would within a normal document, they describe un-ordered and ordered lists of items. Using bullet points is also a great way of condensing content into easily readable bite-sized chunks - vital for engaging your site's visitors in your content.
Unlike printed documents, HTML allows us to embed clickable links within our text content. When creating a link you can use one of a couple of formats:
- You could create a link like this - where the link is simply some of the words within the text
- Or you could have some content and provide a click here command to make it obvious
However you define your links you should make use of the 'title' attribute. Again, if you're editing your own content, your website editor should enable you to define a 'title' for each link. This is mainly for accessibility purposes - the title describes the content your are linking to, which is useful for both human visitors and search engines (especially when you're linking to another page within your site).
This is a bit more technical, as, unless you're actually constructing your website yourself you will have little control over this. But just briefly, your navigation menu should be structured as an un-ordered list. This is the same HTML structure as a bulleted list, but obviously given different styling characteristics so it gets displayed as a menu, in whatever way your website design dictates.
Ensure that your images are giving appropriate ALT tags (that is ALTernate text, which is displayed should the image not load for some reason). There is also a Title and Description tag which can be employed to give your images further written detail. This is how Google Image Search works (partly, anyway). Never use images instead of text.
To Summarise this Section...
The idea behind the HTML structure is that even without your website's styling and image the pages of content should still make perfect sense. This is why you should not use images for text - Google cannot read text contained within an image (and for that matter, neither can a visitor with bad vision who's using a screen reader). Just as reading a badly formatted document is difficult for a human, so reading a jumbled mess of incorrectly used HTML is difficult for Google. Make sure you use the building blocks of HTML correctly and you're already onto a winner as far as SEO is concerned.
3. Optimise your Page Titles and Meta Tags for Search
Google weights page titles heavily and so they must be carefully worded in order to achieve the best results. Before writing your page titles, it's worth spending a while working out some specific search phrases you want to target. If your search ranking is very low (i.e. for a new site) you're definitely better off targeting specifics. For example, if you're a builder in Whitby, you would probably want to target search phrases such as:
- Building Firm in Whitby, North Yorkshire
- Builders in Whitby, North Yorkshire
- House Renovation in Whitby, North Yorkshire
- Property Maintenance in Whitby, North Yorkshire
Note I have included the word Whitby in each of these phrases. Because there are going to be so many competing websites for more generic phrases (such as Builders in Yorkshire) you will have more success targeting a smaller area - initially.
In my personal experience, I have always targeted 'Website Design Whitby' as a phrase, but because of the on going emphasis on Whitby, and its wider location of North Yorkshire, I am now receiving enquiries for more generic terms (Website Designer and Website Designer UK both appear in my analytics data for the last 30 days).
Your page titles should be written as an understandable sentence - I favour the capitalised sentence approach, such as this from my current Home page:
- Website Designer in Whitby - North Yorkshire Website Development, Graphic Design and Photography
Note there is no repetition of words, my page title gives both a specific and broader location for those searching geographically and contains the key items I want to be found for online.
Again, if you have content management for your website, look our for the page title input in your control panel, or ask your website developer to make these changes. You should go through each page of your website and create a page title which accurately describes the content of that page - reinforcing what will be apparent throughout the rest of the page content.
Websites can also contain Keyword and Description meta tags. These are hidden elements which contain either a list of keywords associated with your website, or a short description. Google no longer bothers to read keyword meta tags, so I wouldn't waste any time with these. However, you may wish to use the description tag.
I do not, and rely on Google generating a description from the content contained within my page (taken from the first paragraph of content). This method appears to work well, but if you'd rather give a specific description for each of your pages go ahead and use the description meta tag.
4. Write for Humans, not Search Engines (but be Specific, and Varied!)
Ultimately, the content on your website is for human consumption. As a result it should be written firstly for human readability - not machines. However, I always recommend being as specific as you can be, in order to improve your keyword population. For example, consider the following sentence:
- I live in a small coastal town and work as a designer for all kinds of clients.
As a human, you can understand this. And, because you (probably) know some other details about me, your brain can fill in the blanks. However, the following re-write is no less readable, and informative, but will give Google far more information on which to base its calculations:
- I live in the small coastal town of Whitby in North Yorkshire and work as a website and graphic designer for all kinds of clients; from small businesses and sole traders, to government organisations, development firms and charities.
How much more informative is the second option? Yes the word count has probably doubled, but I would suggest that the second option is going to work more than twice as well as the first.
This is similar to the page titles concept, but be specific. Don't use generic words if you don't have to, but don't go over board either! This is about balance - giving enough detail to Google whilst retaining human readability.
If you've got Google Analytics running, you'll want to see visitors arriving on your site for a wide variety of search terms. You'll achieve this by using detail and variation across your pages.
More SEO Ideas
Click Here to view my follow up post containing more practical tools, tips and techniques to get your search ranking up.