What is SEO and do you really need it?

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is touted as that very important thing that will put your web site on the first page a Google search. You see ads about it, you get SPAM about it, your friends say you need it, but what is SEO exactly?

When Betty came to me she had been spending $400 per month on an SEO service for over a year, but her site still came up several pages behind her competitors in a Google search. Her SEO service sent her monthly reports that she didn’t understand, but they looked important and made her think that the company was doing something. I overhauled her site in WordPress and employed a couple of the tactics listed below, and within a month her site rankings had jumped up to the same level as her competition.

Proper Markup Language

Simply using a modern web building tool or CMS platform such as WordPress to build your site will take care of the bulk of the structural considerations for SEO.  These tools automatically generate proper markup language.

Markup language is code that designates both the style and the context of the text in your site, for example:

  • <h1>This is a top level page header</h1> This text can be styled to display as 20px bold face green, so that human viewers know that it indicates the title of the page, and the ‘h1’ tag tells search engines that it is a page heading.
  • <p class=”green-page-title”>This is also a top level page header</p>, but it isn’t designated as one in modern markup language.  It may be styled to appear identical to the title above to a human, but to a web crawler it is just a paragraph, not a header. When a search engine parses this site in a search it won’t give the text within those ‘p’ tags any more consideration than the text in the rest of the site. It won’t be able to rank the importance of the words, and the focus of the site will not be be properly accounted for in the search results.

I quickly fixed the markup problems with Betty’s site simply by copying the raw text from her old pages into a new WordPress installation. This gave search engines their first chance to properly rank her site.

Content

Well-written, frequently updated content will take care of most of the rest of your SEO. Good writing will make it obvious what your content is about, and regular updates will let search engines know that your content is fresh and therefore likely to be relevant. By “good writing”, I mean quick to make the point and easily understood. First give an overview of what you will write about, then tell it, then summarize what you said. Shorter is generally better than longer unless you really are writing your life story or a novel. Clear and relevant titles and subtitles with clear and relevant prose work well for both the modern short attention span and for search engines.  A blog or a news page is a good place to add fresh content and keep your site updated and interesting.

Using keywords: It may be fun to write creative titles that tease the reader into discovering your story, but do this sparingly if you want good search engine results. For example, a story about the Zombie Apocalypse could have the title “If I Only Had a Brain”, but if you want Zombie fans to find that story in a search, consider at least adding a subtitle with the word “Zombie: in it, such as  “My Secret Life as a Zombie”.

Just remember that good writing is more important than cramming your text with keywords. If your content is not compelling and enjoyable people will “bounce” away from your site immediately, and that helps neither your viewers nor your search engine ranking.

Markup tags: As you write, pay attention to sub-headers in your page and tag them as such (h2, h3 …). Also be sure to add alt tags to photos to provide a description that tells search engines what your photo is about. These tags can either be hand-coded by a knowledgeable webmaster, or, if you use WordPress or any of a number of other modern CMS platforms, the built-in editor will provide tools to help you do it right.

Submit your site to Google and other search engines

You can do this manually through the “Submit a Site” section of Google Webmaster Tools, or you can use a  plugin like  Google XML Sitemaps for WordPress. This will  create a sitemap (essentially a list of your pages) and submit it to Google, Bing and other search engines.

Use 301 permanent redirects when updating an older site:

If you update an older site that has page URLs that end in extensions like  .htm, .html, shtml, .etc…, and you recreate your site with something more modern like WordPress, your new page URLs will be different because these newer kinds of web sites do not use extensions.  What used to be www.bettysdogtraining.com/contact.htm will now be www.bettysdogtraining.com/contact. If you have any track record at all with Google it will display the old URLs to your site for some time – and without intervention these old URLs will lead to a 404 page not found error. Other sites may also contain links with your old URLs. Besides the 404 page being bad user experience, Google counts them against your site ranking. You (or your competent webmaster) can set up a 301 Permanent Redirect for each of your old pages, either by editing the server’s .htaccess file, or with a plugin like Simple 301 Redirects for WordPress.  The 301 redirect will send your visitors to the new web pages while informing Google about your new URLs.

Meta Tags

Meta tags supply the browser with information about the page that is not visible on the site. The two tags that concern us for SEO are Keywords and Description.

Keywords: The data in the keywords tag is no longer heavily relied on by search engines due to past abuse. People attempted to trick search engines by cramming the keyword field with everything they could think of. They would include the name of a competitor’s business so that people searching for that business would see theirs. These kinds of practices got so out of control that most search engines now ignore the keyword meta tag and focus instead on visible content. It can’t hurt to use the keyword meta tag and it might help a little bit, but your main focus should be on keeping your site content well written, relevant and fresh.

Description: This is a brief description of what your page is about. If a description is available it will be displayed in search results under the link to your page, otherwise the first few lines of your page text will be used. If the first few lines of your page don’t give your viewer a good idea of what your page is about you can use the description to create a concise summary. This extra description text is largely unnecessary with well written content that gets straight to the point. There may be exceptions for some kinds of content, like narratives, and for pages like shopping carts or event calendars that don’t begin with a block of descriptive text. Use this feature if you have the extra time to craft and enter descriptive summaries, but don’t worry about it if the first few sentences of your pages can stand in for a more precisely crafted description.

Links from other sites

Links to your site, especially from high-ranking web sites, make your site look more important to Google. Some SEO business offer to sell links to your site – for example, they might pay a dog food company to link the word “training” to bettysdogtraining.com. Others will post regurgitated news stories to your Facebook page on your behalf. These techniques may or may not come across as authentic; at worst they look like the latest trend in trying to game the system. Blogs that allow readers to post comments with links back to their sites are plagued by “bots” – scripts that post fake comments that link the author’s name to sites selling Viagra and Louis Vuitton knockoffs.  Do post comments to other blogs in your field,  but only if you have something truly relevant and useful to say, or you are no better than a ‘bot.  The same goes for Facebook posts – is it something you would want to read that other people will find useful, or are you filling up space? If people fill up the web with junk as a quick fix for SEO, the benefit of these tactics will go the way of the Keyword meta tag.

You can ask other people in your field to like to your site, but your primary focus should be on your content. Content is  is the heart of your web site. If you don’t want to do the writing yourself consider hiring a copy editor or a ghost writer … or an SEO company that actually offers writing services. When your web site provides truly relevant and useful information, real people behind real web sites will link to it because they want to, and those external links will happen organically. Those are the kinds of honest links that give you a good Google ranking.

You are probably better off paying for old-fashioned advertising than hiring a company to sell links and post to Facebook on your behalf. Betty could have financed a substantial ad campaign in a major newspaper for $400 per month!

Google Analytics: Set up an analytics account if you’d like to be able to analyze which of your pages get the most traffic, how long people stay on you site, and where they came from. This information can help you figure out what works best on your site if you take the time to study it and use it. These reports are probably what Betty’s SEO company was selling her for $400 per month – which was completely nuts considering that her site structure was outdated and her content was old and stale. Analytics data is only useful when you’ve got something to study. Get your site into good shape first, then you can test what kinds of page titles attract the most attention, which pages people take time to read and which they bounce from (meaning they didn’t find what they were looking for), and use this information to craft better content in the future.

Unfortunately, SEO is often overhyped and people waste a lot of money hiring SEO “experts” without understanding what it is they actually do. Without the most important pieces, regularly updated and relevant content supported by proper markup language, no SEO company will be able to significantly improve your search engine ranking.