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A Plea to Stop Treating SEO as an Afterthought

Mark Jackson
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Too many times, I've been approached by a company that has just finished redesigning their Web site and thought, Okay, now we're ready to find someone to optimize this thing. Unfortunately, that conversation is long overdue, at that point in the project. It is my hope that this article will save many companies some frustration and help them launch their sites without some of the headaches that can accompany what should be a joyous occasion.

As I write this, I'm sitting in an airport on my way to visit a large retailer planning to redesign their site. They are one of the few who have taken it upon themselves to consult with a search engine optimization firm before they even select the platform that their site will reside on or the company who will design/develop it. Search engine optimization considerations came first.

Here's the deal: If you're interested in having your site rank well in the search engines for terms that you believe are important to your business, you need to build your Web site for success, from the beginning. To help you do that, I'll outline a five-step process that should help you keep track of all the essential elements.

Step One: Keyword Research

In order to succeed in marketing your business via the search engines, it's not enough to have rankings. You need to ensure that you are being found for the keywords which not only have high volume (number of times a search term is queried each month), but also to consider which keywords or phrases are most relevant to your business. You need to know which keywords have a history (through PPC efforts or otherwise) of converting into leads/sales, and which keywords you have the best chance to compete for.

For the most part, I only concern myself with that last one if my clients are more interested in "quick results" than concentrating on the keywords that might take a little longer to gain top rankings.

Once you've narrowed your targeted list of keywords to those that you believe cover your business, you can now begin the task of figuring out how to structure your Web site and strategy so that you are able to market your site to the search engines for these keywords.

Step Two: Information Architecture

With the keyword selection process out of the way, it's now time to begin figuring out how you're going to assign each keyword/phrase to a page and how those pages are laid out in the structure of your site. Remember, search engine optimization is not voodoo. "Content is king," as they say. You must have content to back up the keywords that you have selected.

The general rule of thumb is that you can target two or three keyword phrases per page of your Web site. So, if you know that you want to target 3,000 search phrases, a good estimate is that you're going to need at least a 1,000-page Web site.

Step Three: Copywriting

Now that the site is starting to take shape, you can begin the process of writing copy. In all of my years in designing and developing Web sites, this seems to be the biggest hurdle in launching Web sites on time. You certainly want the site to have the right tone, communicate effectively and drive visitors to a desired action. You also want to take a little extra time and make sure that your content has a good amount of quality, keyword-rich content.

There's no need to go overboard here. Another general rule of thumb is that you should have about 400 words of copy on the home page and 250 words of copy on interior pages. Be especially cognizant of the keywords that are used within the first paragraph. Just as you'd find in most usability sessions, top/left is prime real estate.

Step Four: Design and Development

Search-engine-friendly design does not have to be ugly design. Granted, I've often laughed about how search engines like ugly Web sites. But, all that really means is that text is good. And, with CSS, you can do some great creative things while still maintaining search-engine-friendly design.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Navigation does not have to be constructed in images or JavaScript. Create as much of your site with text as possible. Using CSS, you can do this and still maintain the look/feel that you're trying to achieve.
  2. Design does not need to be stifled by search engine optimization. A good client of ours recently relaunched their Web site. You can see that they were able to balance a good look with search engine optimization. Their main keywords are in header tags and match up quite nicely with title tags on the page. This Web site just re-launched, so it will take some time for the rankings to register the effect (this is a topic that I plan on discussing at a future date).
  3. Check the code. Use the W3C compliance html validator. Go a step further and check your site for accessibility (Section 508 compliance).

Step Five: Ensuring a Smooth Transition

If you don't already have Web analytics in place, now is the time. You will want to know where your traffic is coming from before you flip the switch to launch a new design.

You may have rankings for phrases and not even know it. That retail client that I mentioned earlier? They have many decent keyword rankings for their current site. Had they not thought about search engine optimization, they may have launched a better looking Web site, but would have lost all of these rankings.

Be sure that you are aware of your current rankings and which of these are driving traffic, sales and leads to your current Web site. You will want to ensure that each of these pages are properly redirected to the corresponding new page (assuming that you planned for keeping these pages intact and they are a part of the new information architecture).

Although these points are fairly "high level" and don't touch on other important aspects of SEO and Web design like usability, keyword research, and link building, I hope that these steps serve as a reminder to be careful when you're redesigning a Web site. Even if you're considering SEO without a site redesign, these basic principles will help you achieve the rankings you desire.

So how should you answer the question, "When should I think about search engine optimization"? The answer is simple: before, during, and after design and development. Build your Web site upon best practices of SEO and routinely monitor and improve your search engine optimization efforts to achieve your goals. The Web is constantly growing and changing, and the competitive landscape grows every day, so the right time to think about SEO is always now.


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