So you think you want an SEO strategy? The first part of this post will summarize tips for an SEO strategy. The second part of this post will then explore the limitations of SEO as such, and what you realistically can or cannot expect SEO to accomplish for you.
What is SEO? SEO is what you do to tweak a website to show up higher in Google’s search results. (Have I heard of Bing? What, like the cherry?) Ultimately, as I will explain, SEO reduces to coding your site using best practices to make it as easy as possible for Google’s search algorithm to analyze your site, and for users who see your site in Google’s search results to see what your site is about and to want to visit it.
SEO tips: I learned these from reading Google’s own PDF about SEO, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.
- Use the title tag. Not too short, not too long. Each page should have a unique title.
- Use the “description” meta tag. This should be a one paragraph summary that your ideal target reader would want to click to your site if he reads it.
- Don’t duplicate the meta description in the title, or vice versa.
- Don’t flood the tags with keywords.
- Don’t be too generic.
- Make sure that each page’s SEO stuff is unique to that page. Repeating content on different pages confuses Google’s algorithm.
- Smartly choose some keywords that a person would search for to find your site, and bake them into the title and meta description, but without a “keyword flood”
- User relevant keywords in your URLs
- Use short, human-readable, memorable, unique URLs
- Choose URLs with keywords that will educate Google’s algorithm about the topic of your site
- Submit a Google XML sitemap to Google to help Google index your site. There are plenty of WordPress plugins that do this automatically, many of which are both good and free
- Use heading 1 and heading 2 tags, Google will look at the text in these for the topic of your site
- Use Google Webmaster Tools to see which search keywords your site showed up in, use Google Adwords Planner to see keyword search volumes, then make a list of high volume keywords to target and try to show up in them
- Don’t have URLs in the sitemap for which the pages are missing or 404 errors
- And lastly, and most importantly, linkbacks: get other web sites to link to your website, without you also linking back to theirs (i.e. without reciprocal linkbacks), and if you have a comment or message board, take steps to avoid user-uploaded spam links, never let Google think that you are a site of spam links.
Now, for some realism about SEO: it helps if you understand what Google is. Google is a search engine that everyone uses. People go to Google, type in keywords, and a list of web pages show up, that the user clicks to find what he or she is looking for. Why do people use Google, and not another search engine? Because of Google’s algorithm, which crawls the web and identifies the most relevant results for a given keyword. Google’s algorithm is their mysterious, secretive special sauce that only Google knows what goes into it, but based on leaks and journalism, we know the basic idea. There are three elements to Google’s algorithm: item 1, it will read the text in the website, item 2, it will count the number of other websites that link to the website (in other words, a “linkback”), with the more linkbacks meaning more relevance, and item 3, it also has some fancy artificial intelligence component that ostensibly knows what websites are more relevant for a keyword. Interestingly, Google originated from Larry Page’s patent, which he obnoxiously donated to Stanford University in a big Silicon Valley wink wink nudge nudge, and that patent was for a design where the number of linkbacks defined a website’s relevance for search results. In today’s world, Google ignores reciprocal linkbacks, but non-reciprocal linkbacks are still a part of the algorithm. Internal links, what your website links to its own contents internally, matters too, although not as much–if one actually reads Page’s patent, which I did at one point, his actual idea was that the more likely a user would be to find something by just browsing through the web, the more likely should be to show up in his search results. On top of that, in SEO today, Google counts the number of times that users click a search result that showed up in Google’s actual results, and the more clicks through to your website by searchers, the more relevance for the searched keyword Google assigns to your site.
What does this mean? Two things: first, you can do SEO, and if you help Google read your website, it will help with item 1: that Google will read your text for keyword relevance. Also, a lot of what you write, like the title and the start of the meta description, shows up in the search result, so better writing will lead to more people clicking thru to your website. But, and this is the “some realism” part, SEO is not a magic bullet, you cannot game Google’s system, and Google’s algorithm is smarter than you are. It looks for legitimate linkbacks, and if you don’t have them, it will hurt, but to get legitimate linkbacks you need content that bloggers and website owners will want to link to. They will only want to link to you if reading your content will help their readers, which makes them look good. So, writing a well-written website or blog, and having highly relevant, good, useful content, is the secret first, and most important, SEO tip. Unfortunately, having great content is hard, and generating great content is expensive, and generating unique content is both hard and expensive, and then, on top of that, even with great content you can’t force people to link to it, they need to discover it and it has to be so good that people link to it. Not easy. Then, on top of that, everyone is doing SEO, everyone is trying to create great content, so you need to stand out, and it’s hard. And then, to make matters as difficult as they possibly can be, if you offer to link your site to someone else’s in return for their link, Google will ignore the reciprocal linkback and it will not inure to your benefit.
But there is good news, my final SEO tip. If you are legitimately what people are looking for when someone does a search for a particular keyword, and you do your SEO right, you will get clicks, and those clicks will then improve your SEO score (which Google calls PageRank–I always wonder whether Larry Page named it after himself), and with that will come more clicks, and it can be an upward spiral. But you need to be honest about who is searching for you, and do your SEO to present your site to Google as that thing. If you are the coffee and bagel shop on 28th and 5th Avenue in Manhatten (yes, there really is one, it’s quite good actually), and you want people who search for “coffee near 28th and 5th in Manhattan”), then design your SEO text and SEO strategy accordingly. Don’t try to be the thing people get when they search for “gourmet coffee by mail”, if what you are is the coffee shop on 28th and 5th–be honest about what you are, and let Google bring you the people who honestly, legitimately want what you have to offer.
That’s both the agony and the ecstasy of SEO. Thanks for reading!