SEO Basics Part One

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An important topic for any website owner to invest time in learning would be the basics of search engine optimization (SEO). Early on in my experimentation with website design and development I learned that for any site to be successful that, not only did it have to look good and present itself in a professional manner, but the content had to be constructed with equal or greater care than the visual aspect of the site in order to perform well for its target audience.

There is art and science to properly optimizing your site. There is an entire industry dedicated to it, and if you’re in the web design & development business you’re likely to get spammed by companies offering SEO services and promising to produce dramatic results. However the basics of getting your website in to great shape to be found and crawled by search engines are not that mystical, or complicated – quite the contrary. It can be done by following sound coding and design principles and making a conscious effort to highlight the things that are central to the goals you’re trying to accomplish.

Domain names and SEO

Let’s start with your domain name. Thinking up your domain name was probably one of the first things that you did when you decided you wanted to launch your own website. I’m going to leave the actual process of choosing your domain out of this post (I’ve covered it before here). What I will bring up here is the length of your chosen registration time. Multiple year registrations are strongly recommended to ensure retention and demonstrate the credibility of your website. You’ll notice that valuable domains are often paid for several years in advance, while doorway or “spam” domains are rarely registered or used for more than a year. The length of your registration can also have a strong affect on search engine placement. So go ahead and lock up your domain for 4 or 5 years. It will save you the trouble of having to worry about it for a while and will only help with its reputation in search engines.

Proper file system set up

Make sure that you have your website files in the correct directory with your host/on your server. Don’t put all your site files in to a subdirectory of your web root folder. Domain redirects become mandatory when you do this and it adds a level to your file system which could lead to your website content being perceived as less important than it actually is. Furthermore, you could be heavily penalized in your ranking by redirecting from your primary directory to another. If your site is a simple static (X)HTML site, it shouldn’t be difficult to move those files, but if you’re using a CMS such as Drupal or WordPress it’s a bit more complicated and something you should work with your hosting company to get done.

Proper (X)HTML use

Search engines like clean, well-written code. They don’t care about your images (other than making sure that they’re being rendered correctly, but more on that in a minute) and the cannot read any text your image contains; they look nice but do nothing for getting your site seen. Instead, make sure that you’re using good coding practices in your markup. Make sure each page is using the correct heading tags (h1, h2, h3, etc.). Make sure that your code validates by using services like W3C’s Markup Validation Service.

In addition to making sure your code is good, put your keywords in your heading and title tags. This not only tells your visitors who come to your site what each section and page contain, but it also tells the search engines that these particular terms are important to visitors to your site. If you take a look at good sites that are put together well, you’ll see that the heading tags and title tags are dense with content-rich keywords.

Now, back to images.  Images are nice and pretty and everyone likes to see them on a website, but search engines couldn’t care less about images with one exception:  they read the alt tags associated with them.  Good usability practice dictates that you provide a descriptive word or phrase in the alt tags of your website images.  Make sure that any image you use follows sound usability practice by including them and making them descriptive.  Those who use screen readers and and other assistive devices rely on alt tags and if you leave them out you’re doing a disservice to the very visitor you’re working so hard to get to your site.  The added benefit is that these are the only parts of images that search engines care about – text in your images can’t be read and if you don’t want them completely ignored, make sure you use descriptive alt tags for each one.

Internal and external links

Internal and external links are a key part of making sure your site is put together properly. External links will come with time, and are valuable. However developing them will take time – I don’t think that you want to go the route of link exchanges etc. Link exchanges and farms can do more to harm your site than promote it. Work with your network and friends to build your external links and make sure that you sustain your efforts, it will pay off in due time.

Internal links are also crucial to a well-designed site and food for search engines. Make sure in your descriptive content that you include relevant links to other areas of your site for more information. Make sure that you include links to your products and services in areas other than just your navigation structure and footer. Use reciprocal links throughout your site to make sure that your visitors can easily find the information that they’re looking for because the search engines will also see these links and give weight to the fact that they’re linked – this also tells the search engines that the content at the link is important in a similar way as that of the heading tags mentioned previously.

META Data – Keywords and page descriptions

First of all, make sure that every page on your site has the appropriate title, description, and keywords included. You’re only hurting yourself by overlooking them. Now anyone who knows anything about SEO will tell you that meta keywords aren’t what they once where and I would agree with that. However, they shouldn’t be overlooked and will add value to your site by including them. Keep your keywords per page to no more than 10 to 12. Don’t repeat them, make each one count, and make them relevant to the content on the page. Using keywords that aren’t relevant to your content is a waste of time and effort and won’t do what you’re looking to accomplish.

Page descriptions are also crucial. Make sure that you are completing your page description by using a direct, succinct description of the page. The description shouldn’t be any longer than 150 characters. This is no place for fluff – be direct and to the point. It’s this description that is shown in search engines when results are returned. Make sure you’re using descriptive keywords here too. Make sure that you’re also using your page titles correctly. Your page title is no place for superfluous verbiage. As with the other elements here already described, make sure that your page titles engage your targeted keywords and are succinct.

The biggest key to getting your site crawled regularly is by consistently publishing engaging keyword dense content. Make a commitment to writing and blogging. Update your site regularly with relevant information. Make it dynamic and interesting and not only will your visitors love you, but so will the search engines. Engage your audience and demonstrate your subject matter expertise. Make sure your blog posts are long enough to engage your readers – not many of us can be Seth Godin or Chris Brogan.

If you work really hard on the areas discussed here you shouldn’t have a problem getting your site crawled and seeing good performance. Pay attention to these little areas and monitor your site performance regularly, and you’ll see results.