Whether you are building a new site or have an existing site you want to expand, you need to get visitors to your site. How do you grow traffic? For starters, you should have a web marketing strategy in place. Here’s a useful summary of the most important techniques to help you create an overall strategy to promote your site.
SEARCH ENGINE STRATEGIES
The most important strategy in driving traffic to your site is to rank high on the main search engines in natural or “organic” searches. A natural search is what customers are typing into Google, MSN, Yahoo, and other search engines when they seek information on a product, service or topic. Search engines operate by sending out automated software agents known as robots that proceed to follow internal and external links throughout the site to index them, a process referred to as spidering or crawling. You want to be sure to optimize your site to help these robots crawl through your site easily.
What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the editorial, design, and coding methods that a site can use to improve its rankings on major search engines.
There are two aspects of SEO. One is technical; it ensures that HTML code has been written to be as accessible to search robots as possible. The other is editorial and deals with keyword optimization, presenting content to maximize the use of targeted keywords and popular subject themes. In this article, I will focus more on the editorial aspect, but do present key points on site optimization techniques as well.
What are keywords?
Keywords are the words used to identify and catalog your web pages. They are strategic and editorially driven; they are the “art” in the “art and science of SEO.” Multi-word keywords are known as keyphrases (e.g., “Asian vacation packages” versus “vacation”).
Keywords are used in:
- Page titles
- Description and keyword metatags
- Hierarchy elements (headlines, subheads, body content)
- Link copy
- Image ALT (alternate) attributes
- URL file names
Determine the best keywords
Keyword selection is a business in and of itself. Search engines look for them to formulate page rankings and search results and paid search campaigns rely on bidding on keywords. In brief, here are the steps used to determine the best keywords for a site:
- Identify the terms most commonly associated with the topics your site covers.
- If you have an existing site, use a web analytics program* to see which words are bringing people to your site.
- Using keyword tools (see end of article for a list of resources), find out which keywords are searched the most and determine variations on keywords.
- Do searches with the keywords to see where you and your competitors rank.
- Look at the source code of competitors’ sites that rank high on search engines to determine the keywords they are using. (In your browser, select “View > Page Source” on a Mac, or “View > Source” on a PC.)
- Compile a list of keywords and keyphrases and rank them according to the terms that draw the most interest. Use the plural form of a word as this will account for searches using both the singular and plural forms.
- Ensure that the site adequately delivers on those terms that are already most heavily searched.
Implement your keyword strategy
Now that you have your list of keywords and keyphrases, let’s go back to the list of where they are used, and customize for each element. These are all areas that search engines will parse for importance and rank pages with relevant keywords in these elements higher. See the content worksheet at the end of the article as a sample of how you may clearly deliver your content with keyword specifications to your Web developer.
IMPORTANT: Avoid keyword stuffing, which is to repeat keywords and minor variations of keywords many times. This will hurt your site’s ranking.
Effective page titles are critical to improving search rankings. Not only do page titles appear at the top of the browser window, but they are also used in the following areas: bookmarks, title bar, navigation tables, session histories, navigation histories (back buttons), and search engine results. You want to create provocative page titles as these are what searchers will click on in search engine results if it matches their search criteria well.
Each page should have a short and meaningful descriptive title of about 5 to 8 words, with no filler words such as “the,” “and,” etc. The titles should be keyword-focused, unique, and summarize the page’s contents in 60 characters or less. Place the portion of the title describing the page first and the company name last. Avoid special characters in the title, repeating the same name for all documents, or not having page titles at all.
Use “Canon EOS Rebel SLR Digital Camera — Acme Photo Store” instead of “Acme Photo Store” or “Acme Photo Store – Canon Rebel SLR Digital Camera”
Description and keyword metatags A metatag is information in your Web page coding that is hidden from the visitor, but is important for how search engines get and display information about your site. Metatags are placed in the <head></head> tags on your pages, as your web developer will know.
- Create a sentence or two describing the content of the Web page, using the main keywords and keyphrases so that a searcher will have a good idea of what will be found on your page and make them want to click to it.
- Maximum number of characters should be about 255, but the first 60 characters are the most important.
- Make sure every page has a meaningful, unique, and keyword rich description tag.
- Some search engines display the description under the hyperlinked page title.
- Sample: “E-commerce, e-mail marketing, and web marketing information for small business entrepreneurs, researchers, non-profits, and merchants interested in Internet marketing.”
- To come up with your keyword list, start by taking your description metatag. Strip out the common words, connectors, etc. Just leave the meaty words and phrases.
- Google and other search engines no longer use this metatag, but as other engines such as Yahoo use it, it doesn’t hurt to leave it in. They may also be useful to have for other applications you may have running on your site, such as database catalogs.
- Sample: “Internet marketing, e-commerce, e-mail, web marketing, small business, entrepreneurs, researchers, non-profits, merchants”
Hierarchy elements (headlines, subheads, body content)
As you write your copy, try to include keywords in the headlines and subheads as they provide clues to the search engines. Don’t be too cute or clever with headlines. This may work in magazines where readers take the time to understand the copy, but the cleverness will get lost online. Make headlines clear and straightforward, as this is the copy that will appear on search engine lists.
Your site’s body content should be of high quality, with attention to spelling and grammar. Search engines will rank the site as more trustworthy, and your customers will too. The content should be rich in keyphrases, especially the first paragraph, where search engines expect most introductory copy to be found.
A technical note: Use standard Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) markup tags H1, H2, H3 etc. for headlines and subheads. Search engines will rank terms in these tags as more relevant. Don’t create new class tags.
Use your keywords within linked text for increased SEO effectiveness as well as to aid in better copy flow. Avoid using “click here.” Instead, hyperlink your important keywords and keyphrases. You should also consider using keywords in navigation links wherever appropriate.
Example: instead of “More >” use “More pumpkin recipes >”
Image ALT (alternate text) attribute
This is one step in SEO that is often overlooked, and is a lost opportunity for better rankings. Images on a site contain alternate text (ALT) attributes in their coding functions. The purpose of the ALT attribute is to provide the same functional information that a visual user would see. The alternative text is accessed by screen readers and read aloud, and is also displayed on the browser screen if an image does not load properly or is missing. Likewise, search engine robots and spiders cannot see an image, so they pull information from the alternative text function to understand what the image is. These attributes are mandatory for compliance with web standards and accessibility.
To craft the alternate text effectively, think of it as the text equivalent of the image. It should convey the same information or serve the same purpose as the image does. A simple example is how to describe a “next” button image. The alternative text attribute should not be “button” but should explain the action, which is “next.” For images accompanying articles, be sure to use relevant keywords in describing them. For example, to describe an image of a camera in their product catalog, here is what one online store uses: “Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi Digital Camera Body (Silver).”
URLs and file names
For additional emphasis, have your web developer name your site files with keywords and relevant information instead of generic names. For example, instead of structuring your files with names such as product1.html, product2.html, etc., give them names to describe the content: pumpkin-soup-recipe.html. Use this strategy to also name images. Instead of “image023.jpg” try “pumpkin-soup.jpg.” Use hyphens to separate the words (don’t leave blank spaces). These days it seems that search engines prefer hyphens over underscores.
How to be more search friendly
There are many technical aspects of optimizing a site for search engine indexing that are worth noting here so you can be aware of the topics. Your web developer should be familiar with most of these techniques when creating or redesigning your site.
- Use structural markup and separate content from presentation as much as possible.
- Provide a site map for your site.
- Provide metadata and text alternatives for audio and other rich media files.
- Create customized 404 error pages (Page Not Found) and include a mini-site map to keep people clicking to your site. Don’t just let the generic page appear as that is a dead-end and you may lose visitors.
- Submit sitemaps to Googe and Yahoo.
- Avoid the use of splash pages, Flash content and frames. If you must use a Flash navigation system, be sure to include hyperlinks at the bottom of the page. This will help search engines to track the site navigation and crawl your site, and it will also make your site useful if the Flash software is not working on a visitor’s computer.
- Avoid dynamic URLs that contain “?, &, $, =, +, %” characters, cgi-bin, session IDs, or cookies. These URLs are usually created dynamically by sites using content management systems and e-commerce catalogs.
How to avoid being banned by search engines
Search engine companies frown upon the tactics taken by many Webmasters to unethically boost their site’s ranking. Sometimes these SEO methods, referred to as spamming, are unknowingly done, so it is important to be aware of what these tactics are and to avoid using them, as they will get your site banned from being indexed.
- Keyword stuffing throughout the site
- False redirects to try to trick search engines (even justifiable page redirects, especially on a home page, can hurt your rankings, even though it doesn’t get your site banned)
- Hidden links or hidden text
- Pages filled with irrelevant keywords
- Duplicate content on several pages
- Intentional misspelling of popular keywords and website names
- Reciprocal linking or link farms
Submit your Website URL to search engines and directories
Once you have your keyword strategy implemented, it’s time to submit your new or overhauled website to search engines. Concentrate on the few key search engines and directories (Google, Yahoo! Search, DMOZ) and you’ll be well on your way to getting indexed. Many of the major search engines power the smaller ones, such as Altavista. It’s a waste of money to use automated submission services that will list your site with hundreds of search engines and directories for a fee.
Be sure to research each directory or search engine and become familiar with their categories and hierarchical structure. Look for links to “Add Your URL” or “Submit Your Site.” Follow instructions precisely in submitting your website. Have ready several descriptions of different lengths to copy and paste into the forms. Ensure that your most important keywords are included in the description.
Concentrate on submitting your homepage only; you don’t need to submit each individual page. Once the search engine robots and spiders find your site, they will follow the links on your homepage to index the rest of the pages. If you have pages or sections on specialized topics, submit those after the site has been indexed. Note that it normally takes one to two weeks for a site to appear. Once your site appears, you don’t have to resubmit it unless you redesign the site and make major changes.
Analyze and fine-tune your SEO strategy
Over time, you will want to monitor your strategy and fine-tune it. However, avoid making major changes to your strategy for at least three months after you optimize your site as search engine optimization takes time to build. Use your Web analytic tools to review keyphrases, rankings, and how visitors find your site. Add new keywords to your strategy as you create new content. Be sure to add announcements about new content and links to them from your homepage. Check back with search engines often to track your link popularity.
Next: Linking Strategies