What on Earth is SEO?
You know it stands for Search Engine Optimisation and you know it affects your search rankings. But what exactly does that really mean? And what are you supposed to be doing?
SEO is understandably confusing for many entrepreneurs and business owners. Google SEO and you will be overwhelmed with technobabble and ads for SEO services – which probably leaves you thinking that you ought to be employing an agency to do this for you.
STOP RIGHT THERE!
Your budget is precious and in big demand on many fronts. Investing in SEO services for most small enterprises is highly unlikely to result in a sufficient return on investment.
You can make a big impact on your SEO with a little bit of nous and some time. I’m going to guide you through the essentials that you can implement yourself – saving you money and improving your results.
How does SEO work?
SEO is the process by which you “optimise” your website so that search engines can understand your site and its content. Once upon a time this meant cramming keywords into your site at every possible opportunity. Not anymore.
Now search engines use “semantic” search –they are looking for key phrases in the right context to display results that best match the intent of a search. This means you need to be filling your website with content that people actually want and that search engines can understand.
What are the important elements of SEO?
Whilst the techy bits of SEO are important, it is arguable that the single most important aspect of SEO is your content.
Gone are the days of keyword crammed nonsense. You need to write for people and you need to give them what they are looking for. That means inviting, interesting, valuable and sharable content.
Write for your audience first, search engines second. But how do you keep both happy?
Keyword research remains one of the most important aspects of SEO copywriting but not just any old keywords. Long tail keywords are what you need – these are the more complex search phrases that reflect what people are actually searching the internet for. The better the fit, the more people will click on your link and the better the search engines will understand your content. The more people visit your page and read your content, the higher you will rank in search engines. Good content with long tail keywords is a win-win.
Long tail keywords are a small business’s best friend. Use these phrases in your page titles, meta descriptions, heading tags and, judiciously, within your copy. Investing your time in keyword research is sound business sense. In this article, the title and the sub-headings are all related to common search terms for SEO, which matches it to what people want to find out about and the search engines will be able to understand this. They aren’t single words, they are phrases that are used which narrows the search listing results – dramatically.
The key to SEO is to get your website showing in these narrower results. You simply cannot compete in the cut throat world of single keyword search rankings. Nor should you want to. You want the right people coming to you – people who are genuinely interested in what you are offering. If your focus is too broad, it’s going to take time and money to deal with traffic that isn’t a good fit and won’t convert, when you could be putting your effort into building better customer relationships that generate sustainable income.
The Techy SEO Bits
Whilst your content is the most important aspect of SEO, there are technical things that need to be in place as well. These are the things that allow search engines to understand the content and structure of your site as well as how the content all fits together. Before the panic sets in – you can get a downloadable cheatsheet and checklist with how-to instructions – keep reading to find out more.
When you set up your website, there will be opportunity to use different formats for your url’s. In some website CMS’s (Content Management Systems like Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal etc) you will have a box in the general settings that allows you to switch on Search Engine Friendly url’s.
Search Engine Friendly url’s are nice and clean: www.yourdomain.com/pagename
Why does this matter? It makes it easier for search engines to understand what your page is about. A string of random code is just that – random and non-descript.
There are two types in practice - site title and page title.
Page titles are generally displayed first in listing results. These are what you call your page eg About, Contact for main pages and for topic/product related pages these would be more specific, for example Worcester Pearmain Apple Trees.
Site titles are generally displayed second in listings. In search display there is only so much space available – your site title appears on every search result. Keep your site title short and to the point. Do people need to know you are an LLC? If not, don’t include it.
The goal is to include your most important keyword phrases in the page title.
Heading tags – H1, H2, H3 etc help make sense of the content on your individual page. There should be only one H1 tag on each page and many CMS’s make the page title the H1 tag.
H2 to H6 tags indicate the most important content on the page. They should ideally be used in order but definitely don’t skip a step eg jumping from H2 to H4.
Another way to indicate what is important on a page is to put text in bold or italic.
But do try not to change the colours, sizes and styles of your font in the text. This makes for messy code and search engines don’t like that. The cleaner the code, the better for you. (If the style of your heading tags doesn’t look right and you are not intimately acquainted with html and css, then it would be best to ask a web developer to change their style in your css to match your brand requirements.)
When you upload your images to your website, make sure you add an alt tag (text) otherwise it will just use the file name. If images are blocked or someone can’t see an image, the search engine will display the alt tag if it is present or the file name if it isn’t. Using descriptive alt tags helps with your search presence for images and makes for a better experience for anyone who can’t see the images. “Dscf000875” doesn’t say what you are talking about but “planting apple trees in the orchard” is a lot more helpful.
Meta descriptions are 155 character descriptions of your page content. If a specific meta description is not added, the search listings will show the first 155 characters of your page copy. Why does this matter? The first line or two of your page copy is unlikely to accurately summarise the whole page – which means it is less likely that someone scanning through search listings is going to click on your link. A well written meta description can increase traffic to your site – think 155 character sales pitch. And we all know more traffic (that stays on your site) helps your rankings.
How much copy should I have on each page?
There is no definitive answer to this question but recent thoughts are around the 400 – 500 word mark per page as a minimum. However, it is more important to have high quality, well-crafted copy on your page than to have words for the sake of it. This means having relevant copy that relates to the topic and uses important keyword phrases.
Other Techy Things which are important
Sitemaps – make sure you have one and that it is submitted to Google and Bing so they can index your site. Not sure if you have one? Just put your domain name into your search engine and add /sitemap.xml after it. If you have one, you will see all the details the search engines see.
404 page – having a customised error page that displays when a page can’t be found gives you a chance to reinforce your brand and redirect visitors back to where they can look again.
To www or not to www – whatever you choose, make sure that both versions work. Set your preferred option in Google Analytics and ask your web developer to set up a “301 redirect” to ensure that both options go to the same place. This prevents search engines listing every page twice and penalising you for duplicate content.
Favicons – the little images on the left of the tab. They really help distinguish your site, are easy to create and upload.
Google Analytics – it’s free and it offers amazing information about your site. Yes, it is a bit complicated when you start but it is so worth getting to grips with. Get the tracking code on your site and start learning what is working and what isn’t.
Google Search Console – Link your Google Analytics “property” to your Search Console account – this will give you extra information on search queries, crawl and indexing issues and much more.
Link to your social media accounts – keep the names the same and add your website address to your profile or page information. “Social signals” are getting more and more important.
Be mobile friendly – this is now a key ranking signal. If your site doesn’t work properly on a mobile or tablet, your rankings will suffer.
One of the cornerstones of SEO is links. Search engines are looking for two things. They are looking for internal links and they are looking for other websites linking to your site.
The purpose of internal links is to understand how all your content and pages fit together. To help search engines understand your site the internal hyperlinks within your site need to make sense. Use link copy that describes the destination. “Click here” won’t do that, “Buy apple trees” will.
External links coming into your website demonstrate to search engines that your site is valuable and has “authority”. But what sort of links do you want?
You want quality links. Which means links from sites that are a good fit and potentially share a common interest. You also want social shares of your content. Directory listing links are generally "no follow" so don't contribute to your link building but the directory listing may be vital for your customers.
What you don’t want is links that have nothing to do with your business or your website. Grow your links naturally and sensibly.
So there you have it – the basics of SEO in a nutshell. If you want a downloadable PDF with more how-to guidance and an SEO checklist, you are in luck. Here’s an What on Earth is SEO - The Guide (notice that link text!!)