Search engine optimization (SEO) can seem like a black art to the uninitiated. Many SEO companies promise that your site will get a “top ten ranking” or a “number one position in the search engines”. In reality, there are lots of factors that can influence your site’s position in search results. What’s more, that position can change on a daily basis: you may be number 1 one week, and number 15 the next!
In addition, SEO has a bit of a bad reputation. Many people believe SEO is simply a way to “spam” the search engines; to fool them into including a site in the top ten, even if that site has no useful, relevant content.
However, SEO in its basic form is simply about making it as easy as possible for search engines to find, index, and rank your Web pages based on their content.
This article cuts through the mystery surrounding SEO, and shows how you can start improving your search engine rankings today with some simple, ethical techniques.
How search engines work
Although search engines vary wildly in the details, most engines work in the following basic way:
- They crawl your site’s pages, following links from one page to the next and reading the content of each page.
- They analyze each page, extracting information such as the page’s topic and keywords.
- They index your pages, which involves storing information about each page in the search engine’s index.
- They return your pages in their search results. When someone searches for something using keywords that match those of a page on your site, the search engine returns a link to that page in the search results.
The key point to understand here is that every search engine’s job is to match the search phrase entered by the searcher with the best possible pages in the search results. They do this by looking at the words the searcher enters — the keywords — and comparing them with pages in their index. The pages that the search engine feels most closely match those keywords appear at the top of the search results.
The only way a search engine can do this is by looking at the content of your page (as well as the links that link to the page). Therefore it stands to reason that you should make sure your pages prominently contain the keywords and key phrases that visitors will be typing in when they’re searching for your page content. This is the essence of SEO.
Identifying keywords and key phrases
So you know that it’s important that your pages contain the keywords that people use to find your type of content. How do you find out what those keywords are?
This is where keyword research comes into play. The idea is to look at each page of your site, as well as your site in general, and identify suitable keywords and key phrases for each page.
Often the main keywords to use will be obvious, and will probably already be in your page content. For example, if you have a page on dog training, the chances are that the keywords “dog training” are somewhere in your page, such as the page title.
However, part of the skill of SEO is using brainstorming to produce a list of related keywords that visitors are likely to use. For example, suitable keywords and key phrases for your dog training page might include:
- training dogs
- puppy training
- training puppies
- obedience training for dogs
- dog training techniques
…and so on.
Apart from brainstorming keywords yourself, you can use a couple of other techniques: log analysis and keyword suggestion tools.
Looking in your logs
Your traffic logs are a good place to look for keyword ideas. Most logging software and services such as Webalizer, AWStats and Google Analytics can show you what keywords people use to reach your site.
For example, you might find that you get a lot more visitors who are searching for “puppy training” than for “dog training”. This might simply mean that your page or site features “puppy training” more prominently in its content. However, it might also mean that there’s a higher demand for puppy training than for dog training, in which case it’s worth optimizing your page further for the keywords “puppy training”.
Using keyword suggestion tools
Keyword suggestion tools let you type in a keyword or key phrase, and they then produce a list of alternative phrases built around that keyword, based on what searchers actually type in. This effectively does the brainstorming for you; you can look through the list and pick the key phrases that most accurately describe your page.
Some popular keyword suggesters include the following:
- Wordtracker has a basic free keyword tool, or you can get a free trial of their comprehensive subscription-based tool.
- The free Google AdWords Keyword Tool. It’s designed to help you choose AdWords keywords, but you can also use it to find keywords for SEO. It reports both the popularity of each phrase as well as how many AdWords advertisers compete for it.
Understanding niche keywords
A big part of successful SEO is understanding the importance of niche keywords. Consider the following two key phrases:
- dog training
- dog training milwaukee
“dog training milwaukee” is an example of a niche key phrase, because it’s much more specific than “dog training”.
Obviously a lot more people search for “dog training” than for “dog training milwaukee”. However, for this very reason there are lots of websites optimized for the key phrase “dog training”, which makes it hard for you to get your site into the top 10 for that phrase.
On the other hand, the number of websites that optimize their pages for the key phrase “dog training milwaukee” is likely to be tiny, so there’s not much competition for that phrase. If your dog training service happens to be located in Milwaukee, and you optimize your pages for the phrase “dog training milwaukee”, then you have a much better chance of making it into the top 10.
Furthermore, because you’re attracting visitors that are actively searching for dog training in Milwaukee, your search traffic is going to be much more targeted, which means you’re more likely to get a sale (or a newsletter signup, or whatever the goal of your website is).
Working your keywords into your page
You now know how to choose appropriate keywords and key phrases for each page of your site. How do you actually include them in your pages?
A Web page contains a number of textual areas where you can include your keywords. Search engines give some areas higher priority than others, and the exact weighting also varies from engine to engine. Here’s a list of the main areas to insert your keywords, in rough order of weighting (most important first):
- Your page
- Your page’s URL
- The headings in the page (
h2and so on)
- The page’s body text
- The text inside any links in the page (as well as any links that link to the page)
altattributes in your page’s
Your goal should be to insert your keywords into these areas in a natural way; if it reads oddly then you’re probably overdoing it! For example, if you were optimizing your page for the phrases “dog training milwaukee” and “puppy training” then your page’s
title element might read: “Puppy training and dog training in Milwaukee”.
Once you’ve inserted your keywords, you need to re-upload your site, submit the site to the major search engines (if they don’t already list it), then sit back and wait! Monitor your page’s position in the search results for your chosen keywords. It can take anything from a couple of days to a few weeks for the position to change.
This article has shown you some of the basic strategies of SEO. You can now get started with improving your site’s search engine rankings. While you might not make it to #1 for all your keywords, with these techniques you should at least see some improvement in your traffic levels over time.
For more SEO ideas, take a look at 10 Essential SEO Strategies — and good luck with your site!