In a nutshell SEO – or Search Engine Optimisation – is brought about by Google’s search engines indexing your site, and it recognising that your website and its content is relevant to people’s searches.
You get two broad types of SEO: on-site and off-site SEO. On-site is naturally everything on your website that is search-engine optimised. Off-site is what happens elsewhere on the web – things like other websites and blogs mentioning you in their content and linking back to your website. We’ll come back to off-site SEO later (that’s a little more in the realms of PR) after we have gone through everything you can do on your website to get a Google stamp of approval.
When it comes to on-site SEO, there are a few basic boxes to tick, which part one of this blog will cover, such as installing Google Analytics and Google Webmaster tools on your site, and making sure your website’s tagging and naming systems are all done correctly. This is everything from your site’s meta data to proper naming of image files, to ensuring your content is written in a way that is SEO optimised, to adding relevant tags to each page of content.
The really basic ones should be implemented by your website developer, and your content management team can be trained to do the rest as part of regular website updates. It’s important to get these right upfront and to continue loading content to your site in a systematic and SEO-first way, forever onwards.
If that sounds daunting, the good news is: it’s not rocket science. If you’re technically minded there’s nothing stopping you from doing them all yourself.
Here is a step-by-step checklist to get you going:
- Google Analytics
- Google Search Console (previously Webmaster Tools)
- Google My Business (and Google Plus)
- Permalinks or URL structure
- Meta tagging
- Content tagging
- Image naming + Alt text
- Key words
- Mobile responsiveness (for mobile search)
- Usability and user experience
Starting from the top, with Google, Google and Google.
Installing Google Analytics is the first way to give Google a heads up about your new website. It might seem obvious but it is amazing to see how often it’s overlooked. Google bots may find your site eventually but it’s worthwhile making the first move here and it’s really simple. First sign up to Google Analytics with your Google or Gmail account. Go to your Admin tab and under Accounts choose Create New Account and follow the steps. At the end you will get a code in the format UA-12345678-9 called your tracking ID. In a standard HTML site, include this in your website’s <head> tags. In a WordPress site you can install a plugin (this one is good) and just input the code in your settings. Done.
Next on Google’s list is Webmaster Tools, now known as Google Search Console. We won’t go through the whole list because Google makes it nice and easy. Just add a property (your website), verify your site (using Google Analytics is easiest) and follow the rest of the steps. It takes time to track your site and populate with data so you can’t do it all in one go. At the end, submit your website to make sure Google knows about your updates. All of these will help you discover any problems Google might have crawling your site, find any broken links or duplicate content, demote pages you don’t want showing up, see what keywords people are searching to find your site, see who is linking to your website, and more.
Last on the Google list is to get your Google pages in order. That’s Google Plus and the newer Google My Business – a great tool that allows you to control things like how you appear on Google Maps and in Google search results, including useful details like your contact number and trading hours. While Google Plus never really took off as a mainstream social media platform, it does have the benefits of improving your SEO, so take that extra minute to share your content there too.
Creating a sitemap
A sitemap is kind of like a little roadmap that gives Google a breakdown, in very basic programming language (xml), what is on your website and how it is structured. There are tools you can use to create one (Google “sitemap generator”) and WordPress plugins that’ll do it for you. Once you’ve got your sitemap, go back and submit it to Google Search Console, and link it to your website footer so it’s easy for crawlers to find.
What’s in a URL?
Every web page’s URL or web address is important because it gives insight about your page structure or hierarchy and it can help with relevant keywords. A link that is in the format mywebsite.com/news/article-title makes it easy for both readers and Google to know what to expect on your page. SEO-friendly website links or permalinks can be engineered to fit the right structure for your site – whether it includes the content type (like news or video), the topic, section name, product category or date will depend a lot on what type of site and content you have. The final element should always be the page title (or product name, for an online shop) to be the most hard working for your SEO. Randomly generated IDs won’t do you any favours.
You can also strip out words like “a” and “the” as well as verbs like “is” and “are” as they don’t add any useful information to your link.
If you ever change a link make sure you add a redirect on the old link, so if anyone visits it again they go to the new URL instead of getting a 404 error page. Also, it’s best practice to avoid special or “unsafe” characters in links, don’t use underscores and do use hyphens in place of spaces rather than the automatically generated “%20”.
Tagging, from meta to free tags
There are a variety of different ways to use tags to optimise your website content for search engines. Think of tags as labels or ways to categorise every element of your site, like a Dewey Decimal system for digital information. Every new tag on a website generates a new url, which all serve to optimise how your content gets indexed by Google and other search engines.
Meta tags target your basic page level code and serve to describe your page content without being on the page itself. Google has guidelines for how to do these well and a simple search will get you on track.
Free tags are used on regular content like blog posts and articles and it’s good to have five to ten per page as a rule of thumb. These are useful for people searching both on Google and on your website as these will improve their search results if done well. Always include the most important subject matter, common nouns and topics or themes that might help people get to that page. For example, I might tag this page: Google, SEO, search engine optimisation, tags, content, website, URL, hyperlink, metadata, sitemap, keyword, Google Search Console, Google Analytics. These tags may be displayed on the page itself, depending on the website design, and would link to the page showing all content with that tag.
Lastly, it’s possible to create your own kinds of tagging or categorisation systems, sometimes known as taxonomies, unique to your website. You might have five key subjects that your content fits into or key product categories, and your website can treat things in those taxonomies differently, for example have a different page layout or colour per category. When defining your website’s information architecture these are the kinds of things to consider, as not only will they help users understand your content better but they will also vastly improve your SEO.
Optimising images (and video)
All media files need to be named and described in a relevant way in order for search engines like Google Images to be able to know what they are and index them in search results. File names, image titles, descriptions and alt text all contribute towards this and should all be named in a logical way. The same goes for any file attachments like PDFs. Alt text is usually shorter and very literal while description can be used as a caption underneath your image and can also include things like image credits.
When writing content always keep in mind that the more times a word appears on a page, the more relevant that page will appear in a search of that term. Words in titles or headlines and teasers or excerpts do the same and are prioritised in search results over body copy. Because of this it’s important to make your titles as relevant to your subject matter as possible and avoid poetic or abstract titles that are not descriptive of the content. There is also a character limit for Google indexing headlines so keep your titles succinct and under 75 characters.
Of course, keyword stuffing is also seen as a bad thing by Google’s most recent search engine algorithm. “We also want the ‘good guys’ making great sites for users, not just algorithms, to see their effort rewarded,” says Matt Cutts, Distinguished Engineer at Google. Google’s algorithms increasingly focus on content that is well-written, relevant and ultimately interesting and valuable to real people.
“It’s actually what search engines have always wanted,” says Contently “but only recently did the Google brain get smart enough to evaluate content for quality in ways that penalise manipulative SEO tricks such as keyword stuffing, hidden text and links, doorway pages, and duplicate content.”
Google can also now understand synonyms a lot better. This is good news as it allows for more natural writing without compromising on style to appease Google. “If I use the keyword ‘Barack Obama,’ Google knows that is the same thing as ‘President of the United States’ or ‘Michelle Obama’s husband.’ You don’t have to shove in the keyword ‘Barack Obama’ 49 times anymore. You can write a lot more naturally at this point,” says digital marketing consultant Michael King.
The crux of it then is choose your words wisely and be relevant but don’t try to trick the system by overdoing it.
Linking words in your copy to other pages is also good for SEO, in particular internal linking which creates more relevant references to other sections of your website. Never say “click here” when adding a link but instead link your words in the normal flow of copy in a way that reads the same whether the link were there or not. If a reader sees a hyperlink they will know what to do with it. You don’t need to spell it out!
Mobile responsiveness, usability and user experience
One of the more recent updates from Google in its now-famous “Mobilegeddon” has also started to rank sites that are responsively designed higher in mobile searches. Simply, if your site is not properly responsive it will be penalised and show up lower in searches from mobile devices. That means mobile menus, pages that resize according to the user’s device and images that are optimised for mobile. If you’re not sure your site is mobile friendly, Google has a tool that will tell you.
This change is indicative of another new move for Google: prioritising usability and user experiences in search results.
“Usability and user experience are second order influences on search engine ranking success,” says Moz. “They provide an indirect but measurable benefit to a site’s external popularity, which the engines can then interpret as a signal of higher quality. This is called the ‘no one likes to link to a crummy site’ phenomenon.”
“Crafting a thoughtful, empathetic user experience helps ensure that visitors to your site perceive it positively, encouraging sharing, bookmarking, return visits, and inbound links – all signals that trickle down to the search engines and contribute to high rankings.”
The future of SEO
While the points listed here have looked at the basic SEO boxes to tick, there is plenty more you can do to improve your search engine ranking. SEO is continually changing as Google’s algorithms get more sophisticated. The future shows that more and more there will be a focus on how relevant your content is to a user’s searches. HIgh-quality, legitimate and credible content is key. “Focus on developing high-quality content rather than trying to optimize for any particular Google algorithm,” says Google Fellow Amit Singhal on Google’s blog on building quality sites.
We will look at that in further detail in part two of this series.