As the Internet changes (and change it does), so too do SEO best-practices. We asked our SEO Expert, Christopher, to catch us up.
Once upon a time, the primary role of an SEO specialist like myself was off-page optimization: the generation of external links to a website. Back then, it was considered acceptable to go to any and all lengths to create links to your site, resulting in spam-riddled comment threads and dummy websites stuffed with meaningless keywords.
What does an SEO specialist do in the modern Internet age? Thankfully, not that. Most of what we do now is determined by the world’s most ubiquitous search engine, Google. At 3 billion queries a day, which translates into 1.1 trillion searches every year, Google is easily the top in its class. Even other search engines like Bing and Yahoo use the artificial intelligence model that Google has developed over its 17-year reign.
While it may all seem like smoke and mirrors, there are a few basics that can help get your site closer to the top of Google search results – and closer to real human visitors. Behold, our Beginner’s Guide to SEO:
1. Content is King
Bill Gates coined this term when talking about the Internet, way back in 1996. A lot has changed since then, but he was certainly on to something. We’re now in an era of the web that embodies just what Bill was talking about: emphasis on quality content. These days, the best long-term strategy is to focus on having quality content that is relevant to your industry.
Google’s engineers also recognize the importance of content, and have taken great steps in the past few years to make sure that gets reflected in the way sites are indexed by Google bots. In the world of SEO, that means ensuring a page is on topic and matches its keywords.
2. Jargon keywords sound great… But I just want a new fridge
Customers don’t use industry jargon or irrelevant features and benefits. When they’re looking for a refrigerator, they search “fridges” or even “cheap fridges” – they will never search “premium food-cooling units with stainless-steel finish.” Using simplified customer-facing terms whenever possible is key.
Start developing your keyword list by surveying everybody that touches the business. Customers have the best insight, so speak to people at the company who work with customers directly, or to the customers themselves. Competitors’ sites can also provide ideas for target keywords.
Once you’ve established a good size list of useful terms, you should modify and expand those terms using prepends and appends like “popular”, “list of”, “on sale”, “best” or “in Toronto” to establish the largest keyword list possible.
Finally, use a keyword tool, like one provided by Google AdWords, to examine the search volume, difficulty score and quality of the keywords in your list. Prioritize your list based on this real-world data, and the overall goal of your site.
3. Actually use your keywords: “First Principles, Clarice. Simplicity.”
This might sound painfully obvious, but your site must be optimized to include the keywords you’ve established. Every page on the site should target 1-2 keywords, and it should be clear which keyword it’s targeting.
Including your keyword in important locations like the page title, main headline and body content is an indication both to humans and to search engine crawlers of what your page is about. But don’t overdo it – copy should remain readable and engaging.
One key problem to avoid is using targeted keywords too frequently and dispersed on many pages in your website. Doing so is known as “keyword cannibalization” and will distribute keyword authority too broadly. Google will typically only return a single page from your site as a search result to a particular search term, and without a clear distinction of which is the page on the particular topic competitor sites may take precedence.
4. Keep it Fresh
When a search crawler looks at a page on the web, it’s going to assess how unique and useful it is in order to index it accordingly. When a page is deemed to have the same content as another page (regardless of whether it’s on your domain or one you do not control), your page will lose credibility. It’s important to make every page unique.
5. Alt Text: Don’t Cheat the System
Alt text is a bit of HTML code used to describe images on a website. Alt text is officially meant to be used as an accessibility feature for users who are visiting your site using assistive technology, such as screen readers. A bad SEO practice is to use alt text as a means to stuff keywords onto the page, hidden from plain view but easily seen by search crawlers. Not only can this practice inhibit accessibility for users who rely on alt text to understand the content, but Google has now adjusted their algorithm to punish sites that misuse this attribute.
It’s okay to use keywords in alt text, as long as it’s done in a manner that provides contextual understanding and won’t impact the experience for visitors using assistive technology.
6. Structured Data: Helping Google Take Over the World
Structured data is a relatively new concept to the web. By using additional tags within your page content, you can let web crawlers know that your site contains specific information on a topic, which helps Google to easily categorize data. You can see it being used in Google Knowledge Graph – when a summary about your search topic appears in the right-side or top of the results page. This type of structuring provides users with key info quickly and the opportunity to explore related topics right from the search results page. This helps to bring visitors further into specific search queries and Google may even provide your site as the reference.
7. 404 Pages Make Kittens Cry
If you delete a page or rebuild your site, some pages may not get re-created with the exact same URL. When a page gets deleted, it gets replaced by a page with the “404” error heading on it. All credibility once established by that page is now lost, any links to that content are now broken, and any new visitors will have a poor user experience when clicking through to your site. An SEO specialist can write server rules to redirect those old URLs to new versions of that content, or similar pages.
8. Sad Users Won’t Stick Around
It might not sound like SEO advice, but making sure your site presents a good user experience will impact your search engine ranking. A slow response time and a confusing user experience, such as unclear navigation, will send visitors running for the hills, and this is what’s known as a “bounce.” When a user bounces from a site, that behavior gets tracked, and the site will be penalized by the search engine to prevent other users from a similar fate.
9. Get Good Links
Good links are from domains with high quality content that is updated frequently, always original and informative. On-topic sites are ideal to provide context, such as a website about toothbrushes linking to your site about dental hygiene. The best external links will appear on a page that’s all about your site, for example: another site’s blog article dedicated to how great your website is. The page should use your site’s name and relevant keywords throughout and optimize with a keyword-rich hyperlink to your site.
The web changes all the time. Right now, search crawlers and Viagra-selling bots make up a huge portion of browsers on the web – the actual statistics are ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean we should be writing content that appeals only to our new bot overlords. In the big picture, these algorithms are intended to recognize natural language and human-friendly content. Write high-quality content on your site that appeals to your audience, and the search engines will recognize that and reward your efforts.