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A Client’s Guide to SEO

Search engine optimization is one of the most important parts of setting up a website. Whatever line of business you’re in, search engines will bring potential customers to your site. The amount and quality of these visitors depends on how well optimised your site is for search engines.

How Search Engines Work

Search engines must collect massive amounts of data in order to build up a ‘picture’ of the web. In order to do this, they have developed automated robots that ‘crawl’ the web gathering information. These robots use links as pathways between the pages within site and between whole sites on the web.

What happens when people type in a search? In order to display the best results for a users search, search engines must complete two jobs within a split second. They must first find which pages are relevant to the search term (query) entered, then, they must rank them in order of how useful the search engine thinks they will be to the user.  Search engines primary goal is to provide its searchers the best information possible.

How We Use Search Engines

Search engines are the primary method of gathering information on the web. They may be looking for:

  • Information on products they are looking to purchase (online or offline). (Transactional Query)
  • A website they visit frequently. (Navigational Query)
  • General, Non-transactional research. (Informational Query)

Approximately 90% of online Americans use search engines, and I’m sure this is very similar throughout the world. This means there are a lot of people searching for the information you may well be able to provide. It won’t be a tough sell either, they are already seeking the information – you just have to be there to give it them. This represents a brilliant opportunity that can’t be missed.

Is the number one spot in search engines the Holy Grail? To some extent, yes it is. Here is a graph to show the click through rate for each position on the first results page:

As you can see, the amount of people clicking on the tenth result is much, much less than is clicking on the first result. This is not only seen between results, each page get progressively less click throughs. On a term with high search volume being lower in results can yield high traffic.

Choosing the Best Keywords

One of the first things, and most important in any SEO campaign is selecting your keywords. Make sure you have a say in the keywords your site targets as you know your business better than anybody. I can’t stress enough that you must work with the agency to find the best keywords for your business.

With this in mind, you need to know what makes a good keyword. For me the best keyword is the most relevant to your business. At a very basic level, you don’t want people searching for ‘hats’ to come to your e-commerce website that sells socks. It wastes everybody’s time. There are, of course, other factors such as competition and search volume that need to be looked at.

With my clients I work with them to develop a seed set of keywords. I then take this list away, add some more relevant keywords, get some data on each and return with a table such as the one below:

So what does this all mean?

  • Relevance is a score I like to give so I can easily sort between the keywords I want to target. In this example ‘socks’ is certainly relevant but this shop specialises in ‘knee socks’. This means it gets a higher relevance score.
  • The competition is a combination of various factors. Companies also calculate it in various different ways. Either way it’s pretty self explanatory – the lower the competition, the easier it will be to rank.
  • Again quite an easy one to explain, the local monthly searches is simply how many times this query is searched for within the UK. (You may be interested in seeing ‘Global Monthly Searches’ if you aren’t only targeting a single area.)

So how do we determine the best keywords? You need to look at a combination of all these factors. The best possible combination would be: high relevance, low competition and high search volume.

Making Sure Your Site is Built with SEO in Mind

Search engines don’t see a web page like we do in a web browser. They are unable to see several things, including:

  • Images
  • Content contained in Flash or Java plug-ins
  • Audio and Video

Although there a various ways to give information to the search engines it is something you must be aware of. When handing over these types of content for your website, be sure to include an ‘alternate’ description for each image and transcripts of any audio or video.

The M in HTML stands for Markup. Markup gives content meaning, it helps web browsers and search engines differentiate between paragraphs, different levels of headings, bulleted lists and so on. Without meaningful markup, search engines would have a hard time figuring out if a page is relevant to a users search or not.

Should I stuff my content with a tonne of the keywords I want to rank for? Ten years ago, this technique (known as keyword stuffing) may well have worked. As search engines have had to get cleverer and cleverer to fight spammers, the best advice I can give is:

Write content for humans!

If you write your content primarily for people to read, search engines won’t regard it as spam. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t consider search engines when writing web content. It’s a good idea to include your targeted keywords in natural places within the text and in headers – just don’t make it unnatural!

The importance of links

So you’ve chosen your keywords, they’re naturally placed within your content and your site has been built with the search engines in mind; so, what’s next? According to SEOmoz, 42% of the overall ranking algorithm is concerned with the amount of links pointing to your site, the quality of those links and the link text. Search engines see links as ‘votes’. A sites ‘vote’ is worth more if they have a higher authority. If a vote says: “Hey! This is a good resource for [keyword]”, you’re on to a winner.

Content is king

How do you go about gaining links? The best way is to create great content, great content will inevitably attract links. These editorial links are also, generally, the most valuable. Search engines are getting smarter, one day they will be able to tell if a link has been manually built and may devalue it; this would see your rank drop like a stone. Gaining links this way is definitely a long term strategy: it will generally take time to build these links but they will offer value for years to come.

One thing you must note with this technique. It needs a push at the beginning to get the ball moving. You must get your name out there: add thoughtful comments to other people’s blogs, harness social media, online advertising and traditional marketing methods.

Measuring your Success

It is pointless spending time on SEO (or even worse, paying someone else to spend time on SEO) if you can’t measure your successes. Some metrics are more important than others, some can be plain misleading. If you’re employing an SEO company on a monthly basis, they should be offering a regular report. Here are some of the most important ones you will see:

  • Rank is the position you are in the search engine results page for a specific query. This can be a good indication of how your SEO efforts are fairing, however, it doesn’t mean much on its own.
  • Search engine referrals show how many visitors are coming to your site through search engines. An increase in this number shows you may be ranking higher in the search engines. What are the conversion rates and bounce rates for people arriving through search engines? If these values are much very low or suddenly drop then search engines maybe sending people with irrelevant queries to your site.
  • You need to know conversion and bounce rates for specific keyword. Make sure you drill down through your keywords and find the best and worst performers. You can then target these.
  • Inbound links this metric doesn’t mean a massive amount, especially as it doesn’t give an indication of the quality of the links, however it can show how your link building campaign is going.
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