SEO is Search Engine Optimization.
It's the practice of making changes that improve the way a website is evaluated and positioned by a search engine’s ranking algorithm. Since Google is the de facto search engine of the world, it's safe to assume that when we say “search engine” we really mean Google.
SEO takes place in three places:
The content of your website - What you have to say and how you say it.
The structure & performance of your website - How the code that makes up your website is written and delivered.
The reputation of your website - Which sites link to your site and how.
First, Fix any Problems
If your site has any error messages, missing pages, broken links, pages that don't load, embedded objects (like videos and maps) that have errors, etc., these need to be fixed before you do anything else. It may seem like a no brainer, but a lot of people think that a cruddy website can be “fixed” with some SEO magic. A big part of SEO is actually making things run as smoothly as possible. We’ll get into that when we discuss structure. For now, let’s establish some of the fundamentals.
SEO usually comes down to what is on the pages of your website. Good quality, informative, and interesting information is rewarded. Google doesn’t always get their automated analysis right, but it is their goal to read content the way a human would and to evaluate the quality of the content the way a human would. It’s a monumental task and they keep trying to improve.
This brings us to one of the most important aspects of SEO. There are no tricks to getting to the #1 spot. If you do manage to exploit the Google Algorithm it will be short lived. Google tweaks their analysis constantly. Small tweaks happen almost daily and big changes happen every six months. With each roll out they try to prioritize sites that share traits with known, valuable websites and demote sites that have traits that seem spammy or repetitive. The point is it's incredibly difficult to game the system in the short term and impossible to keep it up in the long term.
At its simplest, a search engine looks at a web page and stores a copy of the page’s text. When someone searches for “cupcakes,” the search engine scours its notes and returns a list of all pages that mention the word “cupcakes.” A page that has “cupcakes” on it ten times is ranked higher than pages that mention it only once.
That’s an oversimplification, but it explains the basic principle. So all you need to do is write the word “cupcakes” on your page a million times right? Well, this is called keyword stuffing and was one of the first attempts at search engine manipulation. Google now recognizes that humans don’t write like that and certainly don’t want to read a page full of it. The algorithm will throw out your page because it believes you are attempting to intentionally manipulate search results.
Now, the cynical among you will say, “Isn’t that exactly what we ARE trying to do with SEO??!” Not really. And this is where you have to pay attention to semantics. SEO is about trying to make sure search engines see the best version of our site. When someone asks for a photo, you don’t show just any photo of yourself. You choose a flattering one. That’s what we’re trying to do with SEO—make a good impression.
Long tail keywords
“Cupcakes” is a very short keyword. “Gluten-free vegan cupcakes with creative flavors in Cincinnati” is going to have a lot less competition. You can test this yourself. Copy a sentence or two from the homepage of your website and run a search for it. Your site should come up because it was the best match…as long as you have unique text on your site, which I sincerely hope you do.
Long strings of keywords are easier to rank highly for because they are more specific with less competition. There’s also fewer searches. So it's about balancing being niche with being far too specific.
Taking action with keywords
Start by choosing 5-10 keywords or short phrases. Make sure some of these words appear in the defining parts of the page: The HTML title, description, and the H1 tag. Your target keywords should also be in the test of your page. Don’t make it unnatural, but also don’t miss a chance to add the text. For example, say “our cupcakes are the best” and not “ours are the best” or “they are the best.”
You could also create a new page for each of your target keywords. That may not make sense, but you can probably see how having separate pages dedicated to cupcakes, scones, muffins, and bagels would help.
Structure and Performance
For the past few years, Google has been using technical aspects of a website to determine the overall quality of a site, which then gets plugged into the equation of how well a page ranks. Mobile friendliness and SSL encryption are big ones, but now page loading speed is becoming more and more important. What this means is that a site that is on a slow server or overloaded with too many scripts or plugins likely won’t perform well. You can run Google’s test on a site here:
The problem is going to be with DIY systems like Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace. A lot of them use scripting as a crutch to create user-friendly layouts. I’m sure their developers are scrambling to create leaner versions of their websites.
Taking action on performance
As far as what you can do, it depends on the results of your speed check. A good rule to keep in mind though is that less really is more. Smaller files, fewer plugins, fewer scripts all help get your website lean and performing at its best.
Reputation = Backlinks
The holy grail of SEO: Backlinks. Personally I hate this term. What we’re talking about are inbound links to your site. Why do we need the word ”back” if they originated from outside the site? Whatever. It may not be the term we deserve, but it’s what we have.
Backlinks are something that Google pioneered when it first launched and is arguably the reason for its success. Google didn’t just look at the content of pages, but how all the pages in the Google index linked to each other. Every link was effectively vouching for and recommending the content found on the other side of the link. Thus, links became the currency of SEO. Every link to your site is a vote for the quality of your content and a vote to move your page up the rankings. Not all links are created equally either. A link from a high profile site like the New York Times carries much more weight than a link from a Blogger site that was just launched.
Taking action with backlinks
First, make sure your site is listed in online directories, especially those that are industry specific. Second, create good and frequent content in a blog and then share it on social media. Hopefully it will become shared and forwarded to lots of people and link back to you. Participate in industry forums, especially ones where you can have a profile with a link back to your site. And if your company is involved in any local events or is covered in the press, try to make sure there’s a link to your site in the article.