This article is not about driving traffic to your site. Although good SEO is a part of that, this article is about how I build sites to be SEO friendly from the start.
You will hear a lot of hoodoo about the magic of SEO (Search Engine Optimization,) but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it still boils down to one thing: content is (still) king. A lot of people make bank selling SEO services alone, but the old rules of SEO still apply and I use them on every project.
As mentioned on the Semantic HTML page, Too often a publisher hands over a site to an SEO company only to find it has to be rebuilt and optimized to really do well in search engines. By building applications that are SEO-aware from the ground up, I cut out a lot of the revisions that would normally be required to make your pages SEO-friendly. Below are some of the most important ones, but keep in mind this is not everything.
- Web sites don’t rank in search engines, web pages do. I focus SEO efforts to each individual page. Who cares if an obscure blog post ranks on page 539 in a search for widgets. You want the sales page to rank – that is where we focus. How we focus is important.
- The <title> <H1>, <meta> description tags, and keyword URL’s are the most important. Outside of content, that is. These are what comes up in search engine results. If they are not present, the title is gathered from the first <h1> and the description is gathered from the first bits of the content, which may or may not be the intent. Make them both keyword rich (but not keyword stuffed,) write them so they make sense in the search results, and note each search engine’s recommendations as to their length and content.
- Always have a level 1 head, <h1>. It doesn’t have to (shouldn’t) be as long as the <title> content, but should contain at least one page keyword and describe what’s in this page. There should only be one <h1>, as close as possible to the opening body tag. If it’s visually too large, style it down with CSS.
- Keyword URL’s. Wherever possible, I put the main keywords as part of the page URL and eliminate query strings, like ?some-key=some-value from page URL’s. (I’d almost forgotten to mention this one, I just do it as second nature.) Note that images are URL’s too, and can include keywords.
- The <meta> keywords tag is not that important. Most believe it has no effect on search engines, but as mentioned in the Semantic HTML page, I build a document to provide as much information to the device reading it as possible. I always include keywords.
- Content is king. Did I already say that? It needs to be hammered in. Let’s get the widget sales page up in the results, how do I do that? We talk a lot about widgets on that page and other pages linking to it. This doesn’t mean we spend tons of money on keyword research and keyword stuff the page, that will actually get pages de-indexed in the results. We fall in love with our widgets to the point where we want to write about them in full, natural sentences, write about them often at least two or three times a week, create lots of blog post about our widgets and link to the sales page from them.
- Quality inbound links. Back in the day there was this thing called "link directories." It was not unusual to see every web site with a links page. Link exchanges between web sites were perceived as the golden path to SEO nirvana. Well . . . that is not what quality links means, and it doesn’t really work. I discovered links from poorly-ranked sites actually brought my pages down in results.
There is a number assigned to a web site called page rank. The more visits to a site, the higher the PR. Let’s say (guessing here) payPal is a PR9, and someone at payPal stumbles across your widgets page and likes it enough to post an article with a link to your page in it. That is a quality inbound link, they are rare as unicorns but they exist. There is a shark market for this too, some SEO services will promise quality inbound links but it will cost you, often to find out the quality link is from a site that has you buried in with a million other links.
Focus on what you can control, cross linking your sales page from your site internal pages. They are legitimate and may not have a high PR, but they count. Review your crawl data (below) and see who is linking to you. Reach out and thank them, do the work. Linking out to high-PR sites is also helpful,* do so when you can.
- Use the alt attribute. The alt attribute for images was one of the first elements used as an assistive tool for visually impaired users and is a required attribute. Many developers include it and leave it blank just so it validates. Often this is a missed opportunity to include keywords.
<img src="my-widget.jpg" width="300" height="200" alt="medium sized widget in our line of widgets">
- Traditional marketing still applies. We all hate spam mail, but if you’re in love with your widget you will want to talk about it. Do it, wherever you can! Be cautious and prudent with email campaigns and understand the CANN-SPAM act. Talk on social media, but don’t spam. Look for places people want to hear about your widget.
- Create the site map. When you think your site is ready, it’s time to create a site map. IMO this is one of the most important steps. I have used the standalone XML Sitemap Generator for years, for all my sites and client sites. It is inexpensive, has no limitation on the number of URL’s, and well worth the twenty bucks. Run the generator, make sure it doesn’t report any 404’s (broken links) or 500’s (server errors and broken scripts.) Once it’s all clear, put the sitemap XML file at the root of the domain and note it’s URL, you will need it to tell the search engines where to look.
- Submitting to search engines is only sorta important. They will find you anyway. SE’s will tell you it’s not going to speed up when your site gets crawled or how frequently, but in my experience it’s always seem to help and the site map tells the SE where to look and indexes pages that may not otherwise be found for a very long time. Once done, we check in on the search engine tools every day or so for activity. Regenerate the site map and re-submit it at most once a month.
- Review the crawl data. Now we’re getting somewhere! Once the search engines begin crawling your site, we can see real keyword data, not keyword data that someone searches for in advance and guesses is what you need. We can see what words are bringing users to your site from searches, and what words are not. Using this real data, we can go back and enhance the pages, add a couple more sentences with the keywords, but don’t force them – which brings me to my next point.
Google only loves you when everyone else loves you first.
- Make your content compelling. Have you followed a link, gone to a web page and asked yourself (if your first language is English and the web page is in English,) was this page written by someone for whom English is not a first language? We’ve done all this work to bring a visitor to your page and POOF they’re out of there because the content has made them distrustful. This is usually because someone has taken effort to "stuff" the page with keywords revealed in keyword research. Even if it helps get visitors to your page, it does little good if you alienate them with fake-sounding or thin content. Write from the heart, have someone else read it for you, does it make sense? Does it sound phony or strained? The goal is not to pry open someone’s wallet, it is to provide content of value that makes your visitor connect with you. Your goal is to make them love with your widget as much as you do, from there they will shout "take my money!"
What does that have to do with SEO-friendly pages? It doesn’t, I lied a little. It’s part of marketing, but since it includes building pages, it’s relevant. If people love your widget, they will tell other people about it, and maybe even share links to it. That kind of traffic can’t be bought with anything but love for your widget.
Content is the reason search began in the first place.
This is not all I do when building a site to be SEO friendly, but these are the most important parts. When I build a site, it can be handed over to a marketing team with very little source code modification.