SEO in 5 minutes

by Tom Albrighton 14 March 2011 SEO

New clients often need me to explain the basics of SEO quickly and concisely, so I’ve written this post with the aim of doing exactly that.

What is SEO?

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is the process of improving the position of your website page in ‘natural’ search results. ‘Natural’ means the unpaid listings that appear centrally on Google’s results pages (as opposed to the ads that appear to the right or on top, with a coloured background).

In this article, I refer to ‘Google’ throughout, because it accounts for most searches. However, the same principles apply to all the search engines.

SEO breaks down into three key phases: choosing keywords, optimising your site and building links.

Choosing keywords

The first step is to choose the words or phrases that you’d like your site to appear for when they’re typed into Google. These are called search terms, key phrases or keywords.

There are three main things to consider when choosing keywords:

  • How relevant the keyword is to your business and your target audience. Note that the words you use to describe your business may not be the ones people search for.
  • How many people search for the keyword (sometimes called ‘search volume’). The more people search for it, the more traffic it’s likely to bring to your site.
  • How competitive the keyword is (that is, how many other people are targeting it). The more competitive a term is, the more time, effort and money it will take to achieve a high ranking for it.

All these factors influence each other. Simple or ‘generic’ keywords (like ‘holidays’) are relevant to many businesses and attract huge search volumes, but are intensely competitive. Longer, niche keywords, sometimes called ‘long tail’ keywords (like ‘holiday cottages in Southwold’) are relevant to far fewer businesses, attract fewer searches and are less competitive.

You’re looking for the right balance between relevance, volume and competition, which will vary depending on your subject area, your audience and your budget. In some industries, it’s still feasible for small firms to target generic keywords; in others, long-tail is the only way to go.

Around 85% of searchers click on the first three results on page 1. Very few reach page 2. So a high ranking for a niche keyword may be much more valuable than a mediocre ranking for a generic one. Don’t be drawn off course by the lure of big traffic on generic terms – even if you get it, very little of it will convert to sales. Pick your targets and focus on keywords that will bring you the hottest leads for the least investment.

One very good way to narrow the field is by adding ‘geographic modifiers’ (place names), as in ‘holiday cottages in Southwold’ or ‘plumbers in Chiswick’. For many businesses, it makes a lot of sense to focus on nearby searchers.

Keyword tools such as Wordtracker, or Google’s own keyword tool, provide data on search volumes and competitiveness, as well as suggestions for related keywords. However, not all good keywords are intuitive or obvious – it can take a while to find the best ones.

Optimising your site

Having selected keywords, you need to make sure your site signals its relevance for those keywords to Google, by taking these steps:

  • Assign keywords to pages. Your home page should target your most important keywords; use other pages to target other keywords. Consider creating special pages to target keywords that are important to your audience – products, services, places or queries.
  • Include keywords consistently. Make sure the relevant keywords appear in the HTML page title, META description, headings and text of each page on your site. Write naturally, but favour the keyword rather than using synonyms, so it appears a few times, and always in the first paragraph. Include variants (‘design’, ‘designs’, ‘designer’, ‘designing’), since Google recognises these as relevant.
  • Use headings appropriately. Include one <h1> heading near the top of the page, including the keywords for that page. If you use lower heading levels too, make sure they follow in logical order and don’t appear above the main heading.
  • Include enough content. Include at least 250–300 words of text on each page. Don’t put text in images or Flash movies.
  • Optimise internal links. When you link between pages on your site, in navigation menus and particularly in text, include the keywords relevant to the linked (destination) page in the text of the link. For example, if you link to a page on potato guns, make the link read ‘More on potato guns’ rather than ‘Read more’.
  • Ensure usability. Create a user sitemap (list of pages with links) and a privacy page. Include your full address at the bottom of each page. Make sure all text contrasts with background colours (black on white is safest).

Building links

Google uses links from other sites (sometimes called ‘backlinks’) to assess the value of your site. Each link is viewed as a ‘vote’ – but not all links are equal; those from very popular or authoritative sites carry more weight. Link building is simply the process of creating and cultivating backlinks.

The key types of link are:

  • Directory listings. Well-established, human-edited directories such as DMOZ and Yahoo! are particularly important, as are directories relevant to your niche. Sometimes, you have to pay to be considered for inclusion.
  • Articles and PR. You can write, publish and distribute content relevant to your site at sites like Ezine Articles and PRWeb, with a link to your website. However, article links are likely to become much less valuable following Google’s recent Farmer/Panda update.
  • Relevant sites. A link from any relevant site demonstrates relevance to a topic. In business, relevant sites are likely to be competitors, making blog links (below) the most likely means of gaining links. Links from public-sector sites (government departments, universities) carry huge authority, but are very difficult to obtain for commercial sites.
  • Blog links. Since blogs are human-edited, rarely for profit, Google views links from relevant blogs highly. Cultivate links by writing guest posts for relevant blogs and (to a lesser extent) commenting on them.
  • Social links. ‘Likes’ at Facebook and links from Twitter show Google that real people value your content.

Ideally, you should gain high-quality links steadily over time (a constant ‘link velocity’), demonstrating to Google that your site has sustained, consistent value.

Over the long term, it becomes more and more difficult to build additional links to a static, unchanging brochure site. This is one of the main reasons for having a blog – to create interesting, valuable content that people will want to link to.

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