If you don’t come from a technical background, search engine optimization may seem mysterious. Knowing how to SEO a website isn’t a skill many people are taught in college, nor is it something that friends tend to discuss over coffee. However, ensuring that a site appeals to the crawlers endlessly trawling the internet is surprisingly easy. It involves a number of key principles, many based on simple common sense.
How to SEO like a pro
Knowing how to SEO a website requires a basic understanding of what search engine optimization actually is. In essence, it’s the process of ensuring that online content appeals to search engines when they’re calculating which sites to list at the top of their results. For instance, typing “how to SEO” into your browser might lead you to this particular article, which uses that exact phrase several times throughout its paragraph headings and body copy.
In some respects, SEO really is that simple. Decide which terms you want to be associated within Google and Bing results, and use them on each web page. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. Keyword stuffing – the process of over-using words or phrases to try and fool the web crawlers – is strictly forbidden nowadays. Which leads to the first real challenge of SEO…
Algorithm and blues
Once their web crawlers have investigated a website, Google and Bing use an algorithm to determine how it compares to other sites in response to a specific input string. However, these algorithms are constantly evolving. This is, in part, because they’re getting more sophisticated as the search engines learn how we use their portals in greater detail. However, it’s also partly to prevent unscrupulous individuals from finding workarounds and gaming the system. To deter such black hat activities, Google and Bing rarely announce revisions to their algorithms. Beyond periodic high-profile changes, it’s usually left to industry experts like WestHost to discover (and announce) that a certain technique doesn’t work anymore.
As a result, it’s vital to recognize that SEO’s rules evolve over time. You used to be able to boost a website’s ranking by purchasing hundreds of links on otherwise dormant sites – the number of inbound links being a key SEO metric. Yet association with these overseas link farms is now heavily punished because it’s viewed as an attempt to manipulate the algorithms. Inbound links must be from reputable publications or platforms nowadays, making link building much harder than it used to be.
The more things change
Fortunately, some SEO factors have remained constant:
- How long a website has been live. A new platform will understandably be regarded as less trustworthy than a site launched ten years ago.
- The choice of top level domain. Domestic search engine results discriminate against overseas domains, like .ca or .mx. A generic TLD (.com, .biz, etc) will, however, be fine.
- Whether the site is frequently updated. Adding a News or Blog page and regularly uploading new content reassures the crawlers that the site is still relevant and active.
- Page loading speeds. This has always been important, but it’s vital now that most web browsing takes place on mobile devices – often via slow wifi or 4G connections.
- Missing data will cause a site to be downgraded in future results. This might include server errors, page errors or broken hyperlinks to other locations.
There are also some simple steps you can take to improve your site’s SEO, without getting bogged down in more advanced activities such as coding or XML sitemap creation:
#1. Ensure each page on your website contains a meta description – a short sentence outlining what it’s about. Platforms like Yoast are superb at identifying areas where a few words or a descriptive sentence can be added.
#2. Shrink images down from their original size so they load more quickly. Save them with obvious titles like MyProduct.jpg (rather than the generic titles they were given by the camera), and give each image a caption to squeeze in more SEO words.
#3. Create internal page links within the site. This is especially important if you’ve heeded the advice from earlier and launched a News or Blog page. Each article should end by encouraging people to visit another page on your site.
#4. Ensure your text is short and to the point. Break it up with bullet points and numbered lists, and add a few words in bold if you really want the audience to notice something. Search engines will regard bold text as being key content.
#5. Focus on words rather than images. Web crawlers can’t ‘see’ photos, and they can’t ‘read’ infographics or animations, either. The use of Flash should be avoided at all costs since it has no SEO benefits and doesn’t work on mobile devices.