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Search Engine Optimization

AccompanyingSEO worksheet

A key component of my business plan regarding the help desk software I’m currently creating is getting a good placement in the search engines for it. Without a huge budget for ads there’s really only a few ways to get your product noticed. One would be to get press, but help desk software isn’t very sexy. I don’t expect to see a link to me on the Yahoo homepage anytime soon. Another is a blog, which you’re reading right now :-). And in today’s world perhaps the most desired way is to have a good rank on the search engines.

Part of my commitment to obtaining a good ranking for my future product was to attend the Search Engine Strategies conference in NYC. It was a great event. As I’m attempting to keep my business as transparent as possible, I thought it would be interesting to share what I learned with all of you.

Some of it you know and some you don’t. I found that I knew about 75% of this so hopefully an article with 25% new information is informative enough for you!

This should serve as a good starting point for anyone trying to get their websites up to speed. If you do implement any of these techniques I would love to hear your feedback in the comments below since there is much of this I’m just starting to implement myself. These tips are generally from the perspective of a site trying to sell a product or service, but many of the ideas should work well for other types of sites as well.

I’m going to assume throughout this article that you want to create some brand loyalty and customer retention and generally be a good net citizen. My advice would be somewhat different if you were just trying to maximize your visits with no regard to the visitors experience. Since I don’t like sites like that I’m not writing for you. (you can leave now)

Keep in mind that the search engines generally only care about individual pages not entire sites so the tips in this article are for optimizing a single page of a site. This is especially important in the link building section where those tips must be followed for each PAGE you’re trying to optimize. This is why it’s generally a good idea to not worry very much about optimizing every page of your site, but rather focus on optimizing a few pages very well.

Search Term Research and Targeting

Before you implement one change on your site you need to do the research to find out what keywords you want your pages to show up for. This is not as simple as it may appear. If you’re selling toasters then of course you are thinking about the word toasters, but is that really the best word? Are there other, better words people use when they are looking to purchase a toaster? Perhaps they type in “kitchen appliances” or “4 slot toaster” or “2 slot toaster” or “white toaster” or “black toaster“.

If you can determine that “white toaster” is more likely to be someone looking for a toaster than just “toaster” you are in very good shape. That means you’re going to have greater conversions (people purchasing your product) than if you optimize for the word “toaster”. Also, being a phrase instead of a single word makes it more likely that you can win a higher spot in the search engines.

A Google search for toasters returns 4.5 million pages, while white toasters returns just 725 thousand. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to rank high for white toasters, if you do the search you’ll see there is competition there, but it does mean you have a better chance at ranking high. And if in fact people searching on white toasters purchase more often then you’ll be making better use of your time by optimizing for white toaster rather than trying to climb past 4.5 million other pages for “toaster”.

Here are some ideas on where and how to find the right keywords:

1. Check your competition. See what words they seem to emphasize. You probably want to compete on those words as well.

2. Make sure you understand how your customers talk about a product. Many times the words you use in house are not what an actual customer would call something. Do interviews with your customers, talk to your support staff about words they commonly hear, and view online forums and weblogs in your industry.

3. Understand your customers phases. Most customers go through 3 phases during their product search. Customers tend to use different types of search language during each phase.

  1. Learning – Here they’re finding out what kind of product they need (solutions for X, problems with X, why does X)

  2. Shopping – They know what they want and are now looking for the product with specific features they need (goes 50mph, white toaster, dries in 10 minutes)

  3. Buying – They are ready to purchase (part 8732662, Panasonic dvd-7654, Maui golf resort)

Make sure you understand the different phases and the words people use when they are in each phase. Many companies focus their SEO efforts on the buying phase because those words are easy to define. If you can capture search engine traffic from the learning phase that could give you a significant advantage.

4. There are alot of keyword tools out there. NicheBot is one where you can enter your keyword and it will show alternate queries as well as how each of these rank in Google. Another nice free resource is the search engine Teoma. Do a search and you’ll see in the right hand column a box called “refine”. The refine box shows related keywords to the search you entered.

5. In the world of “Pay For” keyword research there are a bunch of players. The one that has been around the longest is Wordtracker. It’s not too expensive and they have nice options like one day of access for a few dollars. If you are only doing research on a single product this may be sufficient, but remember you’ll need to do it every few months to keep up with changing trends.

6. Once you have your keywords you’ll need to track your progress. You probably want to purchase a tool to help you with this. If you want to track the big 3 search engines on 10 different keywords and you want to see all your links that appear on the first 3 pages, that’s 90 pages you’ll need to check. You don’t want to do that by hand on a regular basis. A few tools which get good recommendations are linked below and a bunch of others can be found on DWOZ.

Bruce Clay. The SEO Toolset provides keyword reporting tools like keyword page density, keyword rankings across search engines and more. This can be very valuable information to track over time.

Advanced Web Ranking is a desktop tool that provides similar information.

Getting Started

1. You’re not fooling anyone
Don’t think that there are any quick fixes to your search positions. If you’re doing something that feels shady then it probably is and the search engines will probably figure it out sooner or later and your ranking will take a severe drop. There are plenty of tried and true methods for getting a good search engine position so stick with them. They work now and will work in the future and most of the time they have the wonderful side benefit that your visitors actually prefer them as well!

2. Your target audience should drive all your decisions
The main thing to be aware of when optimizing your pages is to never forget about your audience. Sure putting the words “car parts” on your page 100 times might help your search position but you’re probably not going to get alot of sales. Remember that humans read your pages and buy your products not search robots. If your pages sound bad people will leave your site.

Read the page out loud to yourself and a coworker. Does is sound bad? Would you click the back button if you found this page via a search engine? I’ll talk about some strategies for effective web writing later on.

3. Technical components and search engine optimization:

  1. The title tag should have 4-8 words in it. Words should include keywords your optimizing for on that page. Don’t forget that the title needs to be HUMAN FRIENDLY. When your page makes it to #3 on Google you don’t want your link to look like this: “car parts, parts for cars, honda car parts, toyota car parts, free car parts, cheap car parts”. Humans don’t like clicking on links like that because we’re becoming trained not to. Try “Great prices on car parts for foreign cars” or “Car parts for foreign cars” or “Honda and toyota car parts” (remember search engines don’t buy car parts)

  2. Meta tags don’t have too much use but some engines use the Description tag so you should have one. Make it a nice human readable paragraph that highlights the keywords you are trying to optimize for on that page.

  3. XHTML, CSS, and the like: don’t worry about them from an SEO perspective. The engines are very good at finding your content. In fact in some cases overusing these may hurt your ranking, but in general if you do the right thing and don’t use CSS to create invisible text on the page, etc then you should be fine.

  4. Order is important, the search engine knows what text is higher up on the page and weights that more heavily. Keep your most important keywords “above the fold“. This is important both for search engines and users!

    This also means that you have to be careful about your source code ordering. If you have a very long left hand column or top navigation in terms of the number of bytes of code then the search engine will think these elements are more important than your main content.

  5. URLs:

    Dynamic website are not penalized! It’s ok to have a ? in your URL and generally 2-3 parameters after are fine (?id=74&cat=97). You should, however, avoid having more than that or the search engine spider may abort the crawl.

    Having them doesn’t hurt your optimization, but it also doesn’t help. URLs with keywords in the page names and directories do help your results. Use dashes (-) as separators instead of (_), since they are generally preferred. Also use dashes where necessary to make sure the search engine understands your words. ex: mensextremeskiing.html vs mens-extreme-skiing.html

    There are no penalties for deep directory structures as long as the crawler can find everything.

  6. Don’t misuse alt/title attributes in image and anchor tags. If the image is clickable then the alt attribute can help you slightly, but don’t fill it with keywords. Simply describe the image or navigational element. That is the purpose of the alt and title attributes. Also visitors using a reading browser don’t want to hear a paragraph of text for each image.

Writing for Search Engines

Writing for search engines is a tricky proposition. You need to balance some very conflicting needs. The main content (body) of your page is the primary source of keywords for search engines. So you need to highlight your keywords while not sounding like an idiot! Remember, humans need to read and understand what you’re trying to sell them. If you get to a top position but everyone clicks the back button once they land on your page then you’re not going to sell anything.

There are a few tips that can help you with your SEO writing. First, remember that this doesn’t necessarily apply to every page of your site. Some pages simply don’t lend themselves to search engine optimization and that’s OK. When you’re getting ready to optimize your site you need to pick a subset of the pages to focus your optimization efforts on.

Now some tips:

  1. Search engines can only read actual text. So don’t ever put the body content of your page or important keywords in images because search engines can’t read images.

  2. Try to get about 250 words on pages you’re trying to optimize. This doesn’t have to be all in the main body. Perhaps you have a table with some information and a right side column with more text. The 250 word count is for all the readable content. More is generally better.

  3. The number of times a keyword appears on the page is important (keyword density), but don’t keyword bomb your pages. Here’s an example of a site with too many keywords in the content. Can you guess the phrase? (click to zoom)

The engines are getting better a picking this out and of course it's totally useless for humans. There is no information in there.  

To get a good keyword density without sounding silly try having opening and closing paragraphs on your pages which use the keyword, but limit it's use in the middle paragraphs.
  1. Try and target a maximum of 2-3 keyword phrases per page. Don’t forget that by targeting a phrase you are inherently targeting the individual words as well.

  2. Get rid of those marketing words, forget your thesaurus. So don’t use “retreat” when “vacation” will do. People generally search how they talk, if you’re using words people don’t say then they probably don’t search on them either.

  3. Try and use the variations of a keyword like plurals and past tense

Link Building

Most of you are probably familiar with Google Pagerank. This is what Google calls their algorithm for determining a pages relevancy and a major factor in this is how many external links point to your webpage AND how relevant those sites that point to you are. This last point is extremely important. Getting a bunch of links from any old domain isn’t going to help you very much. You need to focus on building a collection of inbound links from sites which are relevant to your topic. This is important for all the search engines not just Google.

So how do you get people to link to your page? Well first scroll back up and read writing for search engines again …………. OK good. Writing good content that people want to link to is key. If you’re only stuffing your pages with keywords then humans that do the linking aren’t going to link to you. This is by far the easiest way of getting links because it will happen without any additional work on your part.

Now once you have good content you can start to go looking for links. Be smart! Don’t waste your time sending thousands of emails to every site you can find asking for links. In fact you want to avoid links from sites which aren’t relevant to yours. If you sell FTP software then having links to your site from real estate agents isn’t going to help you and it may even hurt your ranking.

A good strategy is to do searches on your keywords and see what comes up in the first 20-30 spots. Those are the sites you should be contacting about links since those are the sites that the search engines consider the most relevant. A link back from a few of them is worth more than a hundred from non relevant sites.

Obviously your competitors won’t link back to you so look for informational sites, directories, and weblogs in the results which may be willing to link to you. It may also be worth purchasing a link from these top ranking sites, but don’t pay too much since results are far from guaranteed. Also be sure if you purchase a link that they directly link to you and don’t put your link through some type of redirection script which they use to track click through. That will hurt or potentially eliminate any value the link has in terms of search engine optimization.

A note on inbound links. The more links a page has that link out to other websites the less each link is “worth” in terms of SEO. If you’re thinking about purchasing a link for SEO purposes, make sure it’s not on a page with lots of other links because they may not help you very much. Sorry I can’t define “lots” because it’s highly dependant on the individual page

When you’re asking for links make sure that you have actually have looked over the site and send a unique message to the webmaster. Generic messages get deleted instantly. Remember these sites are looking for good content for their visitors. If you have an appropriate site for their visitors they should want to link to you so take the time to do things right.

Schedule time to look at sites linking to you every month. Remember links get removed and sites taken down all the time so keeping track of who’s linking to you and if they’ve gone away is important information to know.

Links for Linkings Sake

This section has nothing to do with search engine optimization so skip it if you don’t like good advice 🙂

OK, when you’re thinking about building your link network don’t forget about the fact that links on good sites actually drive visitors to your site all on their own. It’s important to have links on appropriate community sites, information sites, etc because links on those sites drive qualified visitors to you. Forget about SEO! They are valuable all on their own.

So when you’re out looking for sites to link to you and if you know there is an important site but it’s ranked 1000 on Google you may still want to ask them for a link because they may be reaching people who are very important to you even though they may not greatly increase your search rank. Remember you need to be where your customers are and sometimes that’s not in the first 2 pages of Google search results.

Also some sites like association sites may be password protected or personalized. These sites may not be in Google at all but having a link in them could be very good for your business.

It’s Not Entirely About Google

Don’t forget about the other search engines. Google (and AOL which they power) are about 44% of the current search market, but that means 56% of all searches are done somewhere else. Don’t leave half your customers on the table. Check your positions in the other engines. Yahoo and MSN are the most important with Ask a distant 4th.

Wrap Up

Don’t forget to test. The ideas above work “most” of the time for “most” of the people. Constantly tracking the performance of your optimized pages is key to success so make sure you budget your time wisely.

Hopefully you found at least 25% of this useful :-). Please add your thoughts and tips in the comments below and don’t forget to download the worksheet.

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