Search engine optimization is a complex subject, especially when you consider all the information and misinformation readily available online. Unfortunately it’s often hard to tell which is which. Does the latest tactic you’re reading about work? Does it work for all sites? Only some sites? Or is just another crackpot theory that sounds reasonable, but will never help to improve search traffic to your site?
Let’s face it SEO can become very confusing. The good news is it doesn’t have to be. The basics of SEO are actually quite easy to understand and if you give yourself a good foundation in learning search engine optimization you’ll be able to sort fact from fiction much more easily and you’ll have the tools to delve into more advanced SEO concepts.
This series of posts isn’t going to teach you the latest trendy trick that probably doesn’t work anyway. The goal of these post is to help you build an SEO foundation and point you in the right direction for further study. Through the course of this series (part I, II and III) will look at 3 major aspects of SEO each covered in one post.
- General Approach and Research. This first post will look at how you should be thinking about SEO as well as the keyword research you’ll want to do prior to building your site
- On-Site SEO. The second post in the series will discuss how to build a search engine friendly site and how to write content with SEO in mind.
- Off-Site SEO. The last post in the series will look at building links into your site and page and discuss analytics so you can determine what’s been working and what hasn’t and use the information to continue to improve your SEO efforts.
How to Approach SEO
Search engine optimization is a subset of marketing. It should fit into your overall marketing plan and not be your marketing plan. You can do everything wrong when it comes to SEO, never receive a single visitor from a search engine, and still have a very successful and profitable site. It might seem strange to read that in a post about SEO, but it’s important to understand.
Ironically if you take a step back and generally market yourself well some of the more difficult parts of SEO will take care of themselves. That’s not to say you should ignore SEO, but most of us don’t need to obsess over every little detail. There are many, many factors that determine where a page will rank in search results. Obsessing over one of those factors doesn’t make sense. Try to see the forest instead of staring intently at a single tree.
SEO is not a set it and forget proposition. It’s an iterative process. You do what you can, measure the results, and continue to improve. You can’t SEO a site in a day or month. As with marketing in general, SEO is never ending. It also changes daily and what works for one site may not work for another.
Fortunately the basic principles are fairly constant and building a solid foundation in SEO understanding will carry you much further that trying to exploit the tactic du jour.
That said, SEO can be generally categorized into 5 different aspects:
- Keyword research
- Search engine friendly site development
- On-page SEO
- Link Building
Each of the above is important and they all work together. The whole s greater than the sum of the parts. Let’s talk about each of the above in more detail.
1. Keyword Research
Everyone would like their pages to rank #1, which begs the question rank for what? Not all keywords and keyword phrases are equal. Some are typed into a search engine more often and some are more likely to lead to a sale. You don’t need or want to optimize for every possible keyword or phrase.
For example say you sell real estate in Des Moines, Iowa. You might think it important to rank well for the phrase “real estate,” but is it? Someone looking to buy property in New York or Los Angeles isn’t going to be interested in the homes you sell in Des Moines. Why spend time and money trying to get those people to your site. You’d do much better to target phrases that include Iowa and even better Des Moines.
As a web designer you might think it important to rank well for the phrase “web design,” but again is it important? Are people searching for the phrases “web design” looking to hire a web designer or are they looking for information about web design, perhaps a definition?
There are 3 types of queries someone might type into a search engine
- Informational queries – searching for information from general to specific
- Navigational queries – searching for a specific site or page
- Transactional queries – searching with an intent to purchase
You probably don’t want to spend time ranking a blog post of information for a transactional query and you probably don’t want people typing informational queries to land inside your shopping cart.
All three types of queries are important and each could ultimately lead to a sale. Someone finding helpful information on your site may very well come back later and buy something. The important thing to understand is that what a person types into a search engine reveals something about their intent and that based on the searcher’s intent you’d want different pages of your site ranking for different queries.
Developing a List of Keywords to Target
The first step in developing a keyword list is brainstorming. Take some time and write down as many words and phrases as you can think of that relate to your site with the understanding that this is simply the start of your research. You should be able to build a list of 50 – 100 phrases without much trouble.
As you continue to brainstorm phrases some themes should being to emerge. Do you only offer web design or do you also offer web development? Maybe you also offer WordPress development and Drupal development. You might specialize in ecommerce design or small business web design. Perhaps you also offer web hosting. Each of these will likely become a keyword theme around which you’ll build a more detailed list.
Brainstorming will only yield so many words so your next step should be to expand your list through some keyword tools. Here are a few freebies to get you started.
The last two also have paid options that will return a lot more phrases and have additional features for research. There are also a variety of more advanced keyword research tools should you desire them.
Don’t worry about the absolute numbers with keyword tools. The numbers are estimates. For example when I typed “web design” into the free WordTracker tool, 8 of the top 20 phrases were specific to North Dakota web design. It’s unlikely that so many people are searching for web design in North Dakota and more likely that one or more web design firms in North Dakota are searching for those phrases a lot to see how well they rank.
Consider the numbers more in relative terms in comparison to each other. If all of the above tools show that more people search for web design than website design, it’s probably true. Just don’t count on the absolute numbers to hold true, especially as a prediction of future searches for the phrase.
A few tips about building keyword lists:
- Find the words and phrases your customers use instead of industry jargon. It’s great that you develop with progressive enhancement. How many of your clients do you think search for progressive enhancement or even know what it means
- Look for synonyms – Similar to the above seek the words potential clients will use. You call it e-commerce. They might type ecommerce. Is it web design or website design?
- Add qualifiers – Our Des Moines Iowa real estate agent might add Des Moines, Iowa, or both to most every phrase. As a web designer your services might be affordable or professional. Optimizing for “professional web design services” also optimizes for “web design services” Services would also be a qualifier.
- Qualify your qualifiers – You might be tempted to add a qualifier like “free” since so many people use the word. However someone searching for free anything isn’t looking to buy. Unless you’re offering something for free it’s probably best to stay away from “free” as a qualifier.
- Look to your analytics package to see what phrases are currently brining people to your site. These can tell you what you’re already ranking well for and give you ideas about similar phrases you can also likely rank well for.
The above barely scratches keyword research. Here are some free resources to add to your knowledge of researching and selecting keywords
- Keyword Research and Selection (PDF) – One of the best PDFs for understanding the process of keyword research and keyword selection
- Keyword Research Guide (PDF) – Real experts offer thoughts on keywords for a fictional company
It’s important to remember that SEO, while capable of providing a valuable source of traffic, is still only one way to attract potential clients and customers to your site. Think of SEO as part of your marketing strategy instead of your whole marketing strategy. Don’t lose sight of the forest staring at a handful of trees.
SEO is an iterative process that can begin anywhere. Most of the time it will begin with keyword research, especially if you’ve yet to build your site or create the initial content. Keywords help you define who your market is and what that market is looking for. They’ll also lead the way when it comes to how you develop your site, what content you choose to create, and how that content is written.
In the next post, we’ll look into:
- Search engine friendly site development – Development of your site so search engines can easily find and index your pages, organizing your information can provide cues to search engines for what the site is about and potential pitfalls you can avoid.
- On-page SEO – Individual pages of your site and how to write content for both people and search engines. We’ll look at where some of those keywords you found should be used so they can help improve where your pages rank.