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An Introduction to SEO Best Practices

enge-eric
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SEO best practices have been constantly evolving since the advent of the search engines themselves. As we enter 2007, this evolution continues, inexorably pushing the Web site owner toward practices that begin to sound much like conventional business plans.

Following SEO best practices should provide you with a secure strategy for building organic traffic to your site for the long term. They can be broken into 4 major categories of activity:

  1. Subject-Matter Expertise: If you are not an expert on the topic of your Web site, then invest the time to become one, (or employ one).
  2. Information Architecture: Design a site that enables users to find the great content you have in a fast and effective manner.
  3. Technical Implementation: Learn how to deal with the idiosyncrasies of search engines to get the best results.
  4. Marketing: Formerly known as "link building," in 2007 we will begin to think of this as marketing and promotion

Subject-Matter Expertise

You need to have great content. Building a large organic traffic stream will not happen unless you have great content. You need to offer something on your site that people want to read about, and link to. In addition, you just won't close business well unless your content is seen as high quality by prospects.

There are may ways to show expertise on a Web site. Here are a few basic ideas:

  1. Write great articles about your area of expertise (but don't burden these articles with sales pitches for your products or services)
  2. Offer great tools that people will want to use
  3. Create a unique and valuable community on your site
  4. Be a major source of news and information in your area of expertise

The key thing here is to think about high quality content for users, instead of "link bait." Where link bait seeks to get quick and easy links from any source, a better plan is to build trust with your audience. Trust building is not a gimmick or a trick. Trust is something that you earn and will keep your business growing for years to come.

Information Architecture

Wikipedia defines information architecture as the "practice of structuring information (knowledge or data) for a purpose". In broad strokes, think of this as user-centered design. (By the way, bots will eat this stuff up too.) The basic elements of an effective information architecture include:

  1. Understanding how your users think about the topic area of your site.
    This is where keyword mapping exercises come into play. Keyword tools such as Keyword Discovery and Wordtracker are useful. Tools such as these can help you find out how users search for things related to the content you have, or plan to have, on your Web site. Map your navigation and pages to the things you learn during this exercise.
  2. A well defined and clear global navigation scheme.
    Make it easy for users to navigate your content. The menus on your site need to be consistent in structure and location. It's helpful to implement a "bread crumb" bar (like the "Search Engine Watch Forums > Search Engine Marketing Strategies > Search Engine Optimization" links at the top of this SEW forum page), showing the structure of a site, to help the users remember where they are and how they got there.
  3. Leverage common UI practices.
    This is no time to implement a new paradigm. Users have been conditioned by other Web sites to look for things in certain places on a site. Take advantage of this and make life easier for them.

Technical Implementation

While the search engines urge us to "design for users," not search engines, the reality is that the search engines have certain basic requirements. Failure to meet these requirements can spell certain doom for your site's prospects. Here is our list of 11 things that you need to do to put together a solid technical implementation for the search engines:

  1. Implement a clear navigation scheme that can be fully crawled using text links
  2. Minimize the number of clicks to your key content.
    Search engines look to site owners for clues as to what is important on a given site. If a piece of content is 4 clicks from the home page, what are you saying about its importance?
  3. Put all your CSS and JavaScript in include files.
    These files are loaded separately from the rest of the page, and the search engine will only need to load it once per page for your site. This also makes the unique content on each page of your site easier for the bot to find.
  4. Use absolute positioning with CSS.
    This allows you to move the unique content of each page in your source file to immediately following the %lt;body> tag. This enables the search engine to find it immediately and quickly.
  5. Implement pages that are rich in search engine visible content.
    This means text based articles and descriptions, and text based links. Give the spider something to chew on.
  6. Make sure your content is not duplicated on your site, or elsewhere.
    In other words, don't repeat the same articles and descriptions tons of times on pages all over your site, unless you have lots of other content on those pages that is truly unique
  7. Perform canonical redirects.
    Decide whether you prefer people to get to, and link to your site as "yourdomain.com" or "www.yourdomain.com." Then take the other version and 301 redirect it to your preferred form. Make sure that various other subdomains do not bring up your site content, or 301 redirect it as well.
  8. Map page titles and headers to the key search terms that you want users to use to find each of your pages.
  9. Link to related content on other sites from pages all over your site.
    Sites that don't link out are no-nos, and this is a negative flag for the search engines. Link to great content related to your site. This reinforces the relevance of the content on your site.
  10. Effectively link related content within your own site.
    This is a great tool for reinforcing the relevance of pages on your site.
  11. Write effective meta description tags.
    This will not help your ranking at all. However, these descriptions often get used by search engines as the description they show for your site in their results. So write something here that is likely to get a user to click through to your site.

While we are at it, let's take a look at 7 things you shouldn't do as well:

  1. Don't cloak.
    Yes, there are legitimate reasons for doing cloaking. Just know that the search engines don't have the time to figure that out for you, so if you cloak, you are putting your entire Web business at risk, regardless of your reason for cloaking.
  2. Hidden text.
    Nearly everyone knows this by now, so I include it only for completeness' sake. It's trivial to find text hidden by standard HTML techniques, and this will be rapidly punished. Of course, you can hide text using CSS, and this is harder to detect (though it's possible Google has begun crawling CSS files). But just don't go there. It's not worth it.
  3. Don't buy links to influence your rankings.
    I know that this goes against the conventional wisdom of most SEOs. But it's just trouble waiting to happen, and it defocuses you from the other things you need to do to build your business.
  4. Don't spend time swapping links.
    These links are heavily discounted by Google. This became highly evident to everyone as of the "Big Daddy" update by Google in 2006. In addition, if the link swaps you do are low in relevance, this will hurt your rankings, not help them.
  5. Don't use Session IDs on your URLs.
    This creates (from the search engine perspective) duplicate content. It also blows up your "page rank" distribution. If the bot finds "yourdomain.com?id=8058240" when it crawls your home page, it things that this is the home page. I can pretty much guarantee that no one has linked, or will link to, "yourdomain.com?id=8058240". The only way to solve this problem is to build your site without these session IDs.
  6. Don't build your site around Flash.
    While search engines can index text within Flash, you need to realize that Flash is a movie. No one makes entire movies of text (it's just not what the medium is for). So as soon as you decide to use Flash, you have decided to not implement a site with lots of text. Big mistake.
  7. Don't build your pages using primarily JavaScript.
    As with Flash, you simply end up hiding the text on your site from the bots, and this is a bad idea.

For completeness, we should cover the legacy myths as well:

  • It's all about Page Rank.
    This is simply not true any more. A much better way to think about this is what is your "Search Phrase Specific Page Rank". In other words, if someone searches on "blue widgets", what is the accumulated page rank of all the pages related to blue widgets that link to the page on your site about blue widgets. This has all become very topically driven. The gross measure of Page Rank as used by Google (what you see in your Google toolbar) primarily drives crawl frequency and crawl depth, not rankings.
  • You need keyword metatags.
    No major search engine uses these for ranking purposes, or for that matter, any purpose at all that I know of. You can implement them if you want, but don't spend more than 5 seconds a page -- they are a waste of your time.

Marketing

Getting people to link to you remains an important component of the marketing effort. We're not suggesting that you buy links, or swap them by the bushel. We mean getting people to give you links without giving them anything in return.

Since people won't generally link to you for the express purpose of making you money, why would they do it? Because they care about their visitors, and they think your site has something of value for them, such as great content. This also happens to be the profile of the sites whose links to your site are likely to have the highest value in the eyes of the search engines.

For years, our industry has thought of this process as "link building". It's time to change our thinking. Not that there is anything wrong with link building, or its close cousin that we all talk about, "link baiting." Links still drive higher search term rankings. But a few things have changed:

  1. Since we need to think about search phrase-specific Page Rank, we must get highly relevant sites to link to our sites.
  2. Since swapping is now heavily discounted, this type of activity has become virtually a waste of time. The exception is swapping links with highly relevant sites. The best guideline to use here is: Would you link to the other site even if they didn't link back to you? If the answer to this is yes, then go ahead and do a swap.
  3. Link purchasing is a practice that works really well for lots of people. However, it comes with significant risks, so get over it. Why would you want to do this with any business that you are building for the long term?

So what does this mean? It means you have to get your links by different means (in Smith Barney terms you have to "earn it"). Great content. A reputation as an open business that builds relationships with its customers and partners. In short build trust. This is what will get people to link to your site.

There is a lot of old-fashioned marketing in the winning strategy for today's Web site marketing. Here are some basic ideas:

  • Use basic PR (that's public relations, not Page Rank) to create visibility.
  • Join and contribute to industry associations.
  • Become a member of the Better Business Bureau and put their logo on your site.
  • Form strategic partnerships with major players in your space.
  • If you are a newcomer, then establish some deep level of expertise that others in the space will need. If your expertise can expand the business of other players, they will most likely be more than happy to work with you.
  • Engage your customers in public forums and answer their questions.
  • Publicly answer the concerns and accusations of your critics. Don't let them talk about you without addressing their concerns.
  • Write quality articles and syndicate them to other popular sites in your space.
  • Start a blog and use it as a vehicle to communicate free advice and information.
  • Develop a free gadget or utility that will help people, and then give it away.

Summary

No doubt that there are many opportunities to drive up search engine traffic using techniques that are not in keeping with their terms of service. You need to view these techniques as both a risk and a distraction. It's a risk because the traffic you get from these techniques will go away when the search engines catch up to them, or you can get banned in the worst case.

It's a distraction because it keeps you from focusing on building the trust in your business. The trust is the enduring asset that you are trying to build. When you spend time working on other things, you are building a weak foundation for your business. If you are thinking about building your Web site as an asset for your business, there is no time for distractions.

But you can't ignore the technical requirements of the search engines. Getting these right is critical. Don't think of it as designing your site for search engines. Think of it as designing your site for users, but being search engine smart at the same time.

Eric Enge is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric is also co-founder of Moving Traffic Inc., the publisher of City Town Info and Custom Search Guide.


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