I’ll just say it right up front: the target audience for this post is for business owners and entrepreneurs who are online and understand the importance of optimizing their site for search but aren’t sure where to start. If you’re unconcerned with search traffic, that conversation is for another day. If you’re looking for in-depth topics, start with one of my other SEO posts like Choosing Keyword Phrases for Site Content. You know you’ve got a problem but you don’t know how to correct it. Don’t worry, Josh Can Help.
Think of yourself at the bottom facing up...Once the SEO bug bites, it’s tough to shake the feeling that you’re not doing something – or anything – right. There are stated, universal things one can do to improve ranking but the black-box nature of search engine algorithms makes for a tense situation, especially if you’re already ranking well for a few key terms. Combine this mysterious environment with the stories everyone has about the almighty Google fist striking a site completely off the ranking pages and you have a recipe for abject paranoia.
Trust me, I totally understand the fear. I’ve seen the penalties first-hand and have learned from my own mistakes. I’ve also seen what a misinformed and out-0f-date SEO practitioner can do to a site and it’s not pretty. It’s no wonder why some business owners are paralyzed.
But there is, in fact, a way out. It’s not through weird tricks, paid links, or slight of hand; it’s through careful analysis, modest code fixes, intelligent keyword research, coherent content planning, and regular monitoring. The plan I outline below is the road to good SEO. Following these steps correctly are guaranteed not to break anything or hurt your ranking and, in the vast majority of cases, will lead to more traffic from search engines.
I should mention… I help business’s navigate these three steps on a regular basis. If you’re interested in getting help, click “Improve Findability” here.
Step 1: Current Site Analysis and Improvement
The very first thing we need to do is understand where we’re at now. We can’t, of course, fix anything if we don’t know what’s wrong. But we also need to know what’s right. Not only that, we need to know where we’re starting in order to see the improvements we’ve made.
Most of this analysis relates directly to SEO but some of it relates back to general good practices for websites. While a few of these changes might not move you up or down on the search engine results page (SERP), they will improve your interaction with users and help you get the most out of the search engine traffic you’re getting. What I’m saying is that you won’t regret making improvements in any of the categories below.
1) Site code review
You can choose keywords and write blog posts all day but if the code of your site is constructed poorly, then you’re wasting your time. A proper code review consists of:
- HTML tag usage: The problem I see the most often is improper HTML tag usage. Maybe you’re missing a ; or ; tag, possibly a duplicate ; or ;… it’s easily to get a few things wrong. If you use WordPress, then site-wide changes are fairly easy.
- Code validity: The HTML code on your site is a clue to how much time was spent building it. 100% validity can be tough to achieve, especially if you’re using certain modern techniques, but getting most of the way there is easy in all cases.
- Broken links: Another potential indicator of site quality is the number of broken links. Trust me: you probably have a few, it’s inevitable (I probably have a few too). You don’t need to be overly cautious about these but a regular clean-up is important. If you’re on Windows, Xenu is your savior; Mac users have Integrity (not bad and free) or Screaming Frog (very good but free version is limited)
- Page speed: Google has made it clear: the speed at which your page loads is important to users and important to them. The number and size of images, the number and size of page includes, and the total amount of code being loaded can all have a negative impact on your page speed which has many downstream effects. I find Pingdom Tools to be incredibly helpful here.
- Overall structure: Is your content in the right place? Is there 100K of HTML code for less than 4 paragraphs of text? Are you missing a DOCTYPE? Is there a bunch of ancillary components loading before your site content? There is a right and a wrong way to structure your page and it’s not hard to tell when something is wrong.
2) Analytics review
If you don’t have some kind of analytics package installed on your site (and I’ve definitely been approached to improve sites without it), then you have no idea what’s going on with your site. Step one, here, is to install something (Google Analytics is an excellent, free option) and wait a few weeks to gather data. Once we have that, it’s time to see the good, bad, and ugly.
- Keywords sending traffic: We want to see what search terms are actually sending traffic now. We’re looking for anything sending more than a handful that aren’t related to the name of your company or website. In Google Analytics (new), this is under Traffic Sources >; Sources >; Search >; Organic.
- Pages receiving search traffic now: When we’re switching around keywords and HTML tags, we don’t want to damage anything that’s already ranking. We’re looking for pages that receive more than a handful of visits per month from search engines. Same path as the keywords above but now, at the top of that table, look for “Secondary dimension,” click that, click “Traffic Sources,” then “Landing Page.” This is now showing you the top pages that received visits from search engines and what keyword brought them there.
- Search traffic problems: We’re looking for long-term trends up or down, big drops, big spikes, and anything else out of the ordinary. What you’ll typically find is a generally flat distribution over time but if there are any big anomalies, those might be relevant. Go to Traffic Sources >; Search >; Overview and extend your time period out for a few months. You’re looking for drop-offs, pick ups, big dips, or big spikes.
3) Other miscellaneous checks
There are several more things we’ll want to do to make sure we understand everything that’s going on with the site:
- Sign up for Google Webmaster Tools and install the necessary components. Here, you’ll want to submit a sitemap, make sure there aren’t any robots.txt problems, and look for any other red flags. Once you install this code, it might take a day or two before you get any indicators back.
- Search for “site:yourdomain.com” in Google and hope for the best. We want to know if the right number of pages are indexed (usually just a guess), there aren’t any old sections or pages live, you’re not completely missing, and other problems. Look for weird titles, bad description text, and missing pages.
- Use SEOmoz (affiliate) to crawl the site and see domain authority. This is only for those signed up with SEOmoz (an amazing SEO application) but we want to know what the authority of the site is and if there are any crawl problems. The information you can find in this tool will save you more time than you could imagine.
- Run a few more scans just to be sure. There’s nothing better than making the computers work for you. I use UITest.com for miscellaneous site information and the SEOBook Search Engine Spider test to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Hubspot’s Website Grader is also an excellent tool for finding issues on your own site.
4) Compile problems, set priority, and fix
Depending on what platform you use for your site and how tech-savvy you are, these changes will have differing levels of importance. The optimum, of course, is to fix everything but not everything is worth your time. Put all the changes together in a list and figure out the ones that will have the greatest impact on your site’s performance. IMHO:
- Start by installing analytics and Google Webmaster Tools if you haven’t already
- Have a look in Google to make sure your site is appearing correctly
- Next, move to major code issues like missing DOCTYPEs, duplicate or missing page titles, and missing header elements
- Look for and fix broken links
- After that, the rest is just a matter of how big the problem if and how difficult it is to fix each one
Step 2: Research and Select Keywords
Now that your site is running the way it should, it’s time for the really in-depth SEO task: keyword choosing. I wrote a thorough post on choosing keyword phrases for your content which sums up everything you’ll need to know about the process. I have a few more general tips to add, though…
- Choosing keywords is one part “what’s on the page” and one part “what are people searching for.” The key is finding a balance between the two. If you choose words that people are searching for but they aren’t relevant to your content, then you’ll never rank. If you choose words that are on your page and no one is searching for them, you’ll rank but no one will see your page.
- You don’t just choose keywords one-time and you’re done. Once you’ve chosen your words you need to go back and see how each page is performing. If no one is coming for the words you’re using it could either be your ranking or the words you chose. For pages that aren’t ranking after a month or so, it’s time to do more on that page (additional content, links, etc) or change the words.
- A very common mistake is choosing a keyword for the whole site and then using it everywhere. Each page needs to have its own unique word or phrase. If you optimize for the same keyword on more than one page, you’re competing with yourself.
- This step is frustrating but don’t give up! Keep researching, switching words and phrases, and trying new things. Watch to see if you get on the first page and, if you do, make sure that keyword is in all the right places.
- Some phrases are harder than others. Some industries are harder than others. Always look to get more specific if you can, as long as those phrases are being searched.
Again, this is where to start for choosing keywords. Step 4 at the end will tell you where to place those words once you find them. You should look to do the whole process for each one of your existing content pages … static pages and blog posts alike. Make sure to keep track of what page got what keyword so you know what to look for in Google and in your analytics.
Step 3: Monitoring, Experimenting, Modifying and Link Building
This last step is the ongoing part of this whole process. Step 1 is a one-time analysis, assuming you were able to permanently correct all of the problems you found. Step 2 speaks partly to the initial research but will be repeated with what you find out here.
Explaining this completely would take way more than just a blog post so I broke it out into a few components below. All of these work together to help you monitor keyword performance, find issues, and make subtle changes to improve ranking. I have them listed in order of priority for folks that don’t have all day every day to watch their pages bounce up and down in ranking. Start at the top, find efficiencies to make it faster, and keep on top of it.
1) Watch your analytics (properly)
This, really, is the one thing you have to do. Improving site SEO is really about one main thing: driving more people to your web pages. If the people aren’t coming then there is something wrong. Look for a few things to happen:
- Your overall traffic from search engines should be increasing
- You should see the order of top content by search rearranging, hopefully with the pages you optimized at the top
- You should see a larger number of keywords appearing in your organic search traffic sources
Watch the pages that start to perform well after a few weeks and try to move the strong keywords into prime locations (beginning of titles and headers). Changes should occur within, at most, a month so optimize, wait, check, rinse, repeat.
I should note here… as your traffic from search engines increases, you might notice your overall bounce rates increasing and pages per view decreasing. This is characteristic of most search traffic: they find what they need and leave quickly. This isn’t to say that this traffic is low quality, just that they’re looking for something specific and it you don’t provide it, they’re gone.
2) Monitor ranking, links, and errors
You can do some of this in Google Webmaster Tools but the easiest, most comprehensive way is with SEOmoz (or similar). The few things that I make sure to track on a regular basis are:
- Keyword ranking: Even if you’re not getting traffic from a certain keyword, that doesn’t mean you aren’t ranking for it. Maybe you’re in position #11 and some minor tweaks will bump you to the first page. This can be done manually but it’s very time-consuming and difficult as ranking bounces around frequently.
- Page optimization: Each page ranks differently for different words. Make sure that the right pages are getting the right treatment.
You also want to make sure to check in with Google Webmaster Tools on a regular basis as well as it can give you some great insight into incoming links and other attributes. Make sure you’re checking in regularly on:
- Incoming links (nice to know who)
- Crawl errors (I’ve found some scary stuff here before)
- Site speed (problems with your CMS or host?)
- Sitemap (should have a green checkmark)
- Malware (unlikely but you never know)
3) Watch your incoming requests and engagements
More comments? More post likes? More incoming calls? This, of course, is the endgame. Keep track of the number of requests you’re getting and watch for a boost.
4) Build more links
How’s that for an afterthought? As a site owner you should always be looking for ways to increase the number of links pointing to your site. I wrote a nice post on incoming links and how to build better ones here. That’s a great primer if you don’t really understand the concept of links or you’re not sure what types of links you need.
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Nov 30, 2011