A Brief Overview
Think about the last time you went to find something online. You typed a few keywords into a search engine and up popped the top sites for your subject. Those top sites were determined by your search engine to be the most useful, trustworthy, and informative sites on the subject. Research shows that a user will click on only the first five links that pop up before finding what they need or abandoning the search. This is why search engine optimization is a must—if you don’t make the cut, you’re kind of out of the running.
Search engine optimization is making your site attractive enough to a search engine’s algorithms to be picked up in the results, ideally as one of the top five. Although the algorithms are quite complex, you can get “noticed,” so to speak, by those algorithms if you follow certain SEO rules and best practices. As you can imagine, SEO is a broad subject and certainly not something we can cover in just one blog post. But if you want to use SEO to grow your business, we’ve got the basics here. Think of this as dipping your toes in the water—a way to prepare you to dive into the deep end of the pool.
Good and Bad
Something you should know up front is that there are both good and bad practices for optimizing your site, otherwise known as “white hat” and “black hat” SEO. White hat refers to optimizing your site without violating any rules (i.e., Google has guidelines of what to do—and what not do—in order to catch an algorithm’s attention). Black-hat SEO tactics go against search engine guidelines. If you don’t abide by the rules or follow the guidelines (even unintentionally), Google will penalize you by removing your site or dropping your rankings. And, really, it makes sense. Much like giving someone a personal or business recommendation, a search engine’s purpose is to recommend the best-quality sites. You wouldn’t want to advocate a restaurant that is dirty or has gross food or poor customer service, right?
On- and Off-Site SEO
Now, on to the good stuff: What are the general white-hat guidelines that make your website more attractive to the algorithms? Basically, they’re the same things that make your site attractive to users—on-site and off-site SEO. On-site refers to the practices you use on your site that make it user- and search-engine friendly. Off-site refers to promoting it (think social media) so users will visit your site (increasing traffic) so it’ll go up in rank in search-engine results.
On-Site Best Practices
Before you promote your site, you need to make sure it’s worth visiting. Below are a few general tips on creating a beautiful, useful, informative, SE-optimized site.
Domain: Choose a name that is easy to remember, avoiding hyphens if you can, and remember:
- The domain extension (.com, .org, .net, etc.) isn’t factored into the algorithm at all.
- Self-hosted sites (mywebsite.com) fare better in search-result rankings than those hosted by a subdomain (mywebsite.wordpress.com).
- Older domains have an advantage over newer ones, but if you’re considering buying an older domain, make sure it wasn’t penalized for black-hat practices at some point.
Theme: The software that runs your website should already have SEO-friendly features built into it.
- FYI, across the Internet, WordPress is the most-used software, powering more than 59 percent of all sites.
- Additionally, there are SEO plugins available to boost your SEO.
- Your website’s platform should be mobile friendly, fast loading, and include site maps and breadcrumbs.
Structure and Maintenance: Your website should be clean, simple, and easy to navigate.
- Create URLs that are simple, easy to remember, and logical, meaning they relate to the page’s or post’s content.
- Regularly check for and fix broken links.
- Each page needs to have a unique title that accurately describes the page’s content.
- Additionally, every page should have a summary of the content contained on that page.
- Make your 404 pages useful. A 404 page is what you get when a link takes you to a page that no longer exists. An effective 404 page gives users alternative ways to find the information they are seeking on your site.
- Do your keyword research. Keywords are the words and phrases users will most likely choose while searching. Your website content should contain keywords, or variations of those keywords, but should not be chock-full of them (that’s known as keyword stuffing, also a black-hat practice).
Content: Even though “create great content” sounds like a broken record (that’s still an adequate metaphor, right?), it’s still one of the top tips for a great website. Think of it this way: Would you stay on a site that has little or no valuable information? Or that just leads you to other sites? Or that duplicates content (warning! that’s another black-hat technique)? Be sure to:
- Create content that is useful, informative, and fresh. Make it stand out.
- Provide unique content—not just content that is different from other sites but content that is unique to each page of your site.
- Show you’re an expert in your field, either through your research methods or your experience.
- Break up the text on your site with colorful and high-quality images (photos, charts, graphs, etc.), media (videos, tutorials, GIFs, etc.), and adequate white space.
Off-Site Best Practices
As stated above, off-site SEO involves promoting your site so it receives more traffic and is viewed as a useful, trustworthy source. This involves getting backlinks, or link building. When another site links to yours, it’s giving the good information on your site a vote of confidence. The more links you have pointing to your site, the more traffic you’ll get. So how do you get these links? Naturally and most importantly, through creating content that deserves to be viewed (see “Content,” above). You can then promote that content via social media channels to attract the attention of webmasters and bloggers and other followers.
Another effective tactic is to link to sites you trust. You can notify a webmaster that you value their content and that you’ve linked to it—and they just may return the favor. A word of warning: one black-hat technique uses artificial links so it looks like a site is receiving a lot of backlinks. However, search engines are more clever than the black hatters. They’ve created a “no-follow” tag you can use in the code to indicate you are not promoting the site you’re linking to, thus absolving you of selling, exchanging, or creating artificial links.
There’s a lot more to SEO than this skimmed-off-the-top information, but our time is up. If you want to forge ahead on your own, check out this incredible guide from Moz on SEO marketing and Reliablesoft.net’s easy-to-read DIY guide. And we’d love your feedback on what other SEO practices you’d like to learn about and for you to share some of your SEO tips with our readers. Please leave a comment below!