Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is an ongoing process of multiple steps which must be revisited often — a fact overlooked by many and where many fail. It is by reviewing these steps that we are able to gain familiarity with the challenges and opportunities presented in optimizing our Web presence for both short- and long-term gains. Only when we get our brands, our businesses and employees involved thoroughly in the process of optimization do these FRESH perspectives (and their importance to your enterprise) make themselves obvious. Whether you’re on the inside of your website’s SEO campaign, or on the outside looking for ways to contribute to the greater cause, FRESH perspectives will guide you toward the path to Web success.
FOCUS ON THE BRAND
Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in early October 2008 that the Internet was a “cesspool” in need of brands, and implied the only solutions were quality content and increased relevance. Focusing on how a better brand for your website (and the company powering it) could benefit its bottom line is an essential first step to eventual success.
It is important at the outset to note the difference between a company and a brand. The simplest explanation might be that a brand represents a company, instead of the other way around. Companies protect brands, and brands support companies but they are not mutually exclusive of one another. A company can exist without a brand, but not well.
One of the many ways that a brand plays a role in SEO is through the use of domains. When selecting a domain name for use in an SEO campaign (whether for a business as a whole or for a specific promotion) it is important to remember three things; brand sensitivity, linkability and rankability. Remember, a brand is universal, so while we may be focusing on domains now, the perspectives outlined below influences how consumers interact with your brand across various marketing channels and beyond the initial interaction with a domain name.
Web experts will tell you that selecting a domain name that is short, memorable and easy to spell gives credence to your business — and they are right. A consumer’s first impression of your brand means everything. Selecting a domain with your company name that includes, or reflects your brand and industry is a good start. For example, a Google search for “coffee” brings out the usual suspects — Wikipedia and Starbucks. And while Starbucks might get away with simply “Starbucks.com” some of the next several organic results include “CaribouCoffee.com,” “CoffeeUniverse.com,” and “CoffeeGeek.com.” You can be sure that these industry, brand and keyword-rich domains have helped achieve winning results.
Remember, brands should be entertaining, engaging or reflective of some aspect of your company. The success of your brand therefore will play a major role in both linkability (I trust this site — and will link to it or tell others about it because of its strong brand) and rankability (the inclusion of keywords which play a role in the SEO process and, thanks to the increasing influence of how users interact with certain sites over time — behavior).
Brand engagement is not exclusive to your domain name. Finding ways to help existing and prospective end-users interact with your brand both on and away from the website is the ultimate test, and one that carries with it the ability to drive adoption and sustainability. Integrating your brand in every step of the SEO and marketing process is integral to your success. You’ll find over time as you build or re-establish a brand that including brand elements in content optimization, inbound link campaigns, and site structure improvements and then investigating how “brand” influences the actions endusers take (which can be seen through analytics) is what “focusing on the brand” and more importantly leveraging it is all about.
RELY ON QUALITY CONTENT OPTIMIZATION
You might be expecting that tried and true phrase right about now. You know the one — content is…(one that wears the golden, jewel-encrusted crown.) While I will spare you from the specific words, content is what search engines want. But what kind of content and how do you develop “quality” content, like so many experts often advise? Like many things, there is no single best answer. Fortunately, what the SEO industry has learned over years of trial and error is that relevant content seems to work best — hopefully that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Relevancy is in the eye of the search engine, but increasingly with end-users, thanks to the personalization of the Web. And as users start to take ownership of the Web, they increasingly influence relevance — through word of mouth and mouse. This gives you greater creative flexibility when developing your content.
The first and most important step in any content optimization campaign should be keyword discovery, as it lays the foundation for SEO as it relates to content.
There are a variety of keyword research tools available — some paid, and many free. However, it is rare that these tools actually find the same exact keywords. The solution is to use a combination of several tools to get an accurate view of the keywords you want to target and then create your own master keyword spreadsheet by importing lists from the various sources. After building your master list, consider separating those terms into buckets or groups. An e-commerce site, for example, would separate specific product keywords into groups. This process also helps when you start optimizing your site structure, as well as provides your pay-per-click marketing campaigns some much-needed information in advance.
After the first go at keyword research is complete, it is time get into the nitty-gritty of your SEO campaign. The process carries with it an awesome power to bring your website to life and attract visitors and search engines to revisit your pages often, so careful attention is warranted. To do this, we must use the data we have gathered to establish our site’s primary structure focusing on its titles and descriptions, header tags and anchor text. While there are plenty of onpage SEO checklists available online, in the end it comes down to putting compelling, creative, and keyword-rich title tags, meta descriptions and header tags within page content. Keep in mind that there are as many ways to craft these important parts of your site as there are experts telling you how to do it, so rely on fact that you must test various combinations and keep moving forward as you implement what you learn through website analytics.
Our keyword research also helps determine what content should be developed and expanded upon, and if we use the bucket method referenced above, what secondary keywords each page should include. One common mistake is thinking you have to add all of your content on a particular subject on single page. In reality, it is perfectly acceptable to break up that content into several pages. In fact, it’s recommended. Targeted pages focused on individual keyword(s) make content easier for the visitor to find and digest and help you rank for that keyword(s) with the search engines.
But what about the actual copy of your pages?
The type of content provided to end-users relies greatly on a number of factors; including your brand and its objective, and the keywords you want to rank for on the results pages. For example, through keyword research, a life insurance company that wants to target those new to the work force might determine that disability insurance is a better fit for this group. Developing a campaign around the cost and benefits of disability insurance would warrant its own content page(s) with keywords and terms including short term disability insurance, supplemental disability insurance, or life and disability insurance. Include these keyword phrases in your new content pages’ tags as well — H1 and H2 tags such as “Supplemental Disability Insurance Choices,” “Supplemental Disability Benefits,” and “Explaining Disability Insurance Benefits,” for example. This will get you on your way to a higher ranking. Of course, you’ll need a few links for search engines and end-users to find you, but more on that later.
It’s also important to continue adding fresh content. And the best way to never run out of possible topics is to never stop listening to the conversation happening in your industry. Returning to the insurance example, over 130,000 jobs were lost in the industry in September, 2008. An opportunity? Absolutely — a new content page focusing on “Disability Insurance for the Recently Unemployed” would be timely, helpful to a new prospective audience and one that would, if crafted thoughtfully, be a great motivation to purchase said disability insurance. In short, always be on the lookout for new content topics and opportunities to target new keywords and increase incoming traffic to your website.
EARN TRUST THROUGH LINKS
Once content pages have been created and the appropriate meta elements are in place, visitors will beat down a path to you door, right? Wrong. You’ve just begun. Now you need the fuel to feed your SEO efforts — links.
Link building is the process of getting external websites to link to your site and is probably the single most important factor in a successful SEO Campaign. There are countless ways to go about link building, from media relations and press releases to sponsored widgets and weblog commenting. What follows are some essential tips and guidelines to keep in mind when trying to build links to your website, and a few ideas on how to increase the number of sites campaigning for yours with their outbound links.
To some degree, blanket submissions of your website to online directories have lost their impact, but it’s still a great starting point to begin your link building campaign.
Website Magazine has provided a list of directories that still pass on valuable link juice to the websites they index: WM Directory Guide. You will find well-known directories alongside some you may have never heard of but are capable of positively influencing your ranking.
Too impatient to wait for natural traffic?
You’re not alone. Many Web professionals start their promotion campaigns with pay-per-click advertising to generate some initial traffic — helpful in terms of identifying search terms that will convert, too. Consider setting aside a portion of your budget for paid search during the time your SEO efforts slowly bring non-paid traffic. As long as your paid search is yielding a positive ROI, continue to use it to supplement and support your SEO campaign — it gives you more exposure and branding on the search engine results pages. How much will you be paying for visitors from PPC search engines? It depends. Website Magazine has put together a PPC Bid Matrix that shows the average bid price across multiple PPC ad networks.
Once you have exhausted the link building opportunities with directories, the next place to look is with your competitors. Perform searches for the top keywords of which you want to be linked with on the SERPs. You can determine the competing domains by performing a back-link check via Yahoo Site Explorer. You will then be able to find the sites linking to these competing domains, giving you an opportunity to target those resources as potential sites from which to acquire links.
The most effective way to get someone to link to you is still through networking. Instead of impersonal “let’s exchange links” emails however, it is imperative that you leverage relationships by initiating a dialogue to accumulate and secure those links. As much as the term is bandied about, the presence and viability of a community — and your role in it — can act as an unlimited pool of potential links. A casual reference to a community of like-minded people at a service like Twitter could result in inbound links with as little effort as it takes to type 140 characters. (The length of that last sentence.)
Those most proficient at building links understand they are only limited by their own creativity. The opportunity to earn links remains high, especially in a Web environment where we are all clamoring for ways to be linked to from other sites. If we consider the F of the FRESH perspective on SEO, consider link building this way: since our brand is so important to the success of our enterprise today and in the future, why not send out press releases on new products or services related to your website?
Since it is our responsibility to foster an active community, why not provide a resource directory of non-competitive, yet supplementary products to your own? Over time, you will find that these portals of information are sought out by end-users and other sites will take notice.
The level of competition in the industry and of the keywords for which you are optimizing is going to determine how aggressive you need to be with your link building. If competitors have thousands of incoming links to their website, you have a quite a challenge ahead of you and will need to try to build links daily, if not hourly. However, even if you are not in a highly competitive space you will want to get at least a few links per week. You never know when a competitor is going to set up shop across the street.
SITE STRUCTURE REFINEMENT
All of the valuable information you learn with your keyword research should act as the blueprint to your website’s internal site structure. By utilizing keyword groups you established, you can organize your website into categories that will make your site friendly to both users and search engines, while simultaneously supporting your brand objective. These keyword groups will help lay out an initial map of your site structure, and during the second run through FRESH SEO you will be able to use insights gained from the analytics portion to implement changes. One example of this might be that grouping your keywords into primary and secondary navigation could provide guidance on turning a popular subcategory into a high-profile category.
While “site structure refinement” might sound like a major undertaking, it is really no more complex than making a few changes to naming conventions and navigational architecture. Some will argue that shifting content from one location to another while renaming files and their contents will cause search engine spiders to virtually eat themselves in a maze of redirections. It is important to know that for many this is common practice. Done correctly, redirecting URLs and renaming files is no more harmful to your SEO efforts than one misguided user review is to your reputation.
Here are a few best practice SEO tips on site structure that any site can employ:
• Revisit existing pages and incorporate keywords in the anchor text of internal links.
• Keep site structure shallow (as close to the root directory as possible) and avoid creating unnecessary sub-folders.
• Restructure page names to include keywords that influence rankings and aid usability.
• Make internal site structure consistent; present text navigation on every page.
• Use absolute links: <a href=”http://www.yoursite.com/page.htm”></a> instead of relative links: <a href=”page.htm”></a>.
It can be extremely time-consuming to change your site structure once it has been established so it’s generally not recommended if you have already secured a respected ranking. However, it is a good idea to test it from time to time. Always be on the lookout for broken links and it’s not a bad idea to resubmit your XML Sitemap, especially if you have a larger site with multitudes of pages.
Website analytics are absolutely essential to developing a FRESH perspective on your SEO Effort. Analytics displays how well (or how poorly) your SEO campaign is performing, so it is critical to install your analytics package or solution as soon as your site up and running — that way you won’t miss anything during the process.
In most instances, Google Analytics (a free tool) is more than adequate, but there are many other alternatives including those that come with your CMS or hosting account, or third-party vendors such as Woopra. Yahoo has also launched free analytics with its recent acquisition of IndexTools. In the event that your site requires an analytics package with more than four goal conversions, there are more robust analytics packages like Omniture and Enquisite, among others. Most important is that you test to make sure your analytics code has been installed correctly and you have clearly outlined what can be defined as a conversion.
One of the best byproducts of Web analytics is that it will show from which keywords you are inadvertently getting traffic. Often times, when you optimize a page for your main keywords you receive traffic from other, related long-tail keywords. By digging deep into your analytics you can spot potential keyword opportunities. You can then create new pages to improve your overall traffic.
You also want to track your SEO progress over time. Develop a monthly report to track your keyword rankings on the three major search engines — Google, Yahoo and MSN. You can do this by using one of the leading search engine ranking software solutions such as WebPosition and WebCEO, although there are several free Web-based tools to check your search engine rankings as well.
There are also other resources not included in your analytics packages. Peruse forums and industry blogs to find out what is being said about your company. CrazyEgg.com provides some tools, including heatmaps that will show where visitors are most likely to click on your page.
While analytics are vital to every online enterprise, numbers only tell you so much. To engage in true holistic analysis, what’s really needed is to find out what people really think — not through click streams, page views or any of the rest, but through engaging your users.
Move beyond the analytics of your site and instead consider how people perceive the brand. Consider ways to allow users to easily interact with your site. This could include polls and surveys or even direct email questionnaires. Make contact forms, phone numbers and email addresses readily available and be sure to respond to user issues promptly. Ask for feedback. Consider employing focus groups to test your website. In short, ask your users, “How can I serve you better?” In the end, it might just change how you position your company and optimize its Web presence.
Staying FRESH with Your SEO
Keep in mind as you begin optimizing, or re-optimizing your website that SEO is a process. You will find that much of the FRESH perspective is circular and many of the mentioned factors intersect. You might find that you start ranking well for a keyword that you never intended. And, a domain with that keyword might be available. Acquire it. Or, you might discover through your analytics that you are getting links from an industry you never expected. Build those relationships and get more links.
By focusing on your brand, relying on quality content optimization, earning trust through links, refining site structure and gaining a holistic understanding of how content and site-wide improvements have improved your site through analytics, you will achieve success on the search engines and in the minds of your users.