Get some Somerset sun on a dark art…
Say the words ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ and you can bet someone will follow up with ‘SEO is a dark art’. True, there are plenty of shady SEO wizards peddling their skills, and certainly some ‘black hat’ SEO techniques (we’ll get to them later), but understanding SEO is mostly getting some info on how search engines work and putting some time in to make them work for you.
SEO is a huge topic but today we’re just discussing the fundamentals, so we’ll use Google as example for this article as it generates over 90% of search engine traffic worldwide and also because what works for Google will generally work for other major search engines.
It’s true that SEO is something of an art as though you can do things to increase your chances of ranking well, the algorithm Google uses is never fully revealed and regularly updates, so priorities will always change for ranking factors.
Google is trying to achieve better results for human users, so while it’s important to be aware of technical aspects, never forget about the person in front of the monitor at the other end. Interesting and informative content will always be at the heart of high-ranking sites.
Let’s start with the areas you most control…
One area where you have complete control is Meta Data. It is additional information within the HTML coding of a page, used by search engines to help categorise a site. It includes page titles and meta descriptions, which is the text people see in their search results, as well as Meta Keywords which aren’t usually visible.
Imagine each page is a book in library, or better yet a dissertation. Titles like ‘home’, ‘about me’ or ‘contact details’ might make sense to someone navigating your site, but mean almost nothing as a search result on their own.
So what meta data do I put in?
Google wants good page titles because it makes their search engine function properly, so they provide access to Google AdWords with every Gmail account. In
AdWords you can use the Keywords Tool to find out what people are searching for based on location, language and device.
Once you have a couple of popular keywords that accurately describe your page, you can put them in. The best practice is:
Primary Keyword, Secondary Keyword | Brand Name
For example, a company selling military antiques might have this page title:
Militaria, Antique Armour | Old Time Collectables
Unless you’re an internationally recognised brand, you’ll do better to put the keywords first because that’s what the users are looking for. Google only shows the first 70 characters of a title, although it reads more, so get the keywords in first.
Resist the temptation to put loads of keywords in the title. This is known as ‘keyword stuffing’, a black hat SEO technique that Google will punish you for. It’s also bad for users who want concise, relevant information.
Because each page of your website has different content, page titles should be different too. This improves your visibility in searches, as well as making titles more relevant for specific pages.
Meta Keywords are the hidden keywords used to help Search Engines categorise a site, but following years of abuse with people using Black Hat SEO and adding popular but unrelated keywords, they are ignored by Google. Meta Descriptions, however, are important. They provide a concise description of a website that shows up in the majority of search engines. Google has confirmed that they are not a factor in ranking, but this is where the human factor comes in.
Again keep them brief and relevant – general opinion is that 150-160 characters is best. Some prefer a 120-character description that displays in full, others use longer descriptions that Google will pick search terms from and highlight in bold.
Fig.1 – ‘Antique Armour’ search. Michael D Long uses a shorter description to ensure the whole message is shown, while Antique Arms and Armour uses a longer description that has been truncated.
If you do not enter a description, Google picks the most relevant content from the page to use as a description. You may find this satisfactory, but well-written and compelling advertising copy can make a huge difference to the person choosing a link from pages of results.
Now that people can find your site, you want them sharing your site or backlinking.
Hopefully your website has such good content this will be happening automatically, content is king and always will be. However you can help to get things started.
Listing your site on free directories like Yell and Hotfrog allows users to find you, as well as generating traffic to your site and improving your ranking.
It’s worth submitting content to forums and online organisations relevant to your site. Check the policies of these groups as some may restrict posting links, or ban them altogether.
Above all, avoid buying links or exchanging links. This is another black hat SEO technique and can easily lead to your site being removed from Google altogether.
It is also important to engage in social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest, a topic so large we’ll be giving it its own article – keep checking back for that.
Panda likes fresh content better
Remember that content is king? Around 18 months ago Google released its Panda update, followed by Penguin about six months ago. Since these updates, Google prioritises fresh, original content on pages in line with its best practice guidelines, while penalising repeated content like a human would.
Having a newsfeed or case study module as part of your CMS allows you to update your site with your latest developments, as well as giving you article submissions for link building.
Hopefully this has given you a starting point for doing your own SEO. As with many arts, there are subtleties and extensions that could fill pages and the constant development of search engine algorithms means nobody ever truly knows it all. Keep reading, try things for yourself and use analytics packages to see what works for your site.