July 18, 2007
A few years ago I wrote the article Ten Steps To Higher Search Engine Positioning. The article was well received due to the breakdown of the core requirements for ranking a website being reduced into simple steps. Well today we’re going to break it down into 5 steps. Is it even easier to rank a website today than it was a few years ago? More straight forward? Yes. Less time consuming? Not a chance.
As our company provides guaranteed SEO services for our clients, two things are necessary:
- We need to know that our tactics work
- We need to maximize efficiency so we’re not having to charge our clients unreasonably high rates
And so we’ve developed processes by which we can attain maximum results in the least amount of time through carefully developed stages. While we are interested in all the major engines, it is of course Google that we spend the lion’s share of our time studying (having never heard a client say, “I don’t care about Google, just get me ranking on Ask.com.”) Here are the steps we use to optimize websites (including our own) for Google.
Step One: Website Structure
The structure of your website affects the way search engine spiders see your site and thus, affects your rankings. I’m going to assume from the get-go that your site is in a position to be spidered and the internal links followed (i.e. none of the content is hidden due to poor development). This does not mean that the structure is optimized.
The way the code appears on your page affects the way the search engines prioritize specific content. For example, if your navigation appears higher in the code of your web page than the content then it is given a higher priority. The goal then is to make the core sections of your page appear higher in the code than the portions that are not critical to the optimization of each page. Generally the content area of your page contains the majority of the keywords and is more easily optimized and tweaked. For this reason, you will want the content of your page to appear higher in the code. This is especially true if you have image-based navigation.
The methods for doing this differ depending on how your site was initially built. If your website was built using tableless design practices (ideal) then the matter is “simple”. Now, I can’t get into all the details here as this is a huge area unto itself. There are many great sites, articles and forums on CSS that get into this area of structural optimization in detail and where you will find many helpful forum members willing to help out and answer questions. Or of course you could hire a professional developer who already knows how to do this in which case it will take a fraction of the time. This will depend on your resources, time and of course – whether you’re a do-it-yourselfer simply interested in learning another web development skill.
If learning a new development skill appeals to you, here are some useful resources you’ll want to check out:
If your website is designed using tables the solution is actually much easier though less ideal. As Beanstalk’s Mary Davies wrote about in her article on Table Structures, with table-based designs the issue is resolved by simply structuring the cell layout in such a manner that the spiders “read” the content before the navigation and/or other, less easily optimized portions on your page. Knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words I’ll resurrect the one used by Mary to illustrate how this is done.
We can see that a blank cell is placed above the left hand navigation. Because a search engine spider reads from top to bottom, left to right they will hit the top table (the header) and then proceed to the table cell down and to the left. With the vast majority of sites this will be the left hand navigation however, if the table structure illustrated above is followed this will lead a spider to a blank cell. The spider will then quickly move to the cell on the right which is the main content area of the page. It is only after seeing the content that the spider will move back to the left, crawl the navigation and then proceed down to the footer.
The Point Of This
The goal with site structure optimization is to create an environment where the spiders will crawl the most important (and most easily optimized) content as early on the page as possible. This will give increased priority to the content that matters most.
Step Two: Content Optimization
Content optimization is, for our purposes here, the optimization of the wording and formatting of the page and site content to maximize its effect on a site’s rankings. There are three defining principles to this stage:
- Keyword density counts
- The formatting of content matters
- Overall site relevancy helps
So let’s discuss these in order:
Keyword density is essentially the number of times the keywords are used on your page relative to the total number of words on the page. If you had a page that was 1000 words in total and you used your keyword 100 times you would have a keyword density of 10% (this is way too high by the way).
The optimal keyword density generally seems to hover around the 3 to 5% range. Of course the optimal level fluctuates with the algorithm however it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it leave this range. You will find sites that rank with higher and lower densities than this. Keyword density is not the only factor (or how easy would an SEO’s job be?).
If you want to check your density against the densities of your main competitors there are a number of tools you can use to do this.
The Formatting Of Content
Content in header tags as well as bold, italic, anchor text and other formatting options increases the weight this text carries. Now, this doesn’t mean to run out and bold every instance of your keywords in your content but rather to make use of this as you are trying to draw the visitor’s eye to the important content on your pages. Logically enough, if you are targeting a phrase on the search engines then it is highly likely that you will end up wanting to draw the visitor’s eye to these keywords periodically on the page. This is more about usability and conversions than anything else. If a visitor enters our site using the term “seo services” we want to make sure that they find this phrase quickly when they land on the page. This will make the visitor feel more comfortable and help them more quickly find the content they are looking for.
If a page we are working on has an overall keyword density of 4% we would target to attain roughly 25 – 30% of this in some sort of formatting outside of the standard of the site. That said, the visitor is more important than the engines and if doing this will take away from the visual appeal of the site then it is not recommended. We can make up any loss in other areas.
Overall Site Relevancy
The relevancy of your entire site is going to impact the rankings of an individual page. If your entire site is about mortgages for example, you’re going to find it easier to rank for related phrases than if you have a general site with a single page about mortgages. This is because the cohesion of content among the pages of your site builds the overall relevancy of the site to that topic. If we think about it, when Google is trying to determine if a searcher if likely to find what they’re looking for on a site are they likely to believe a site with a single page on a topic is going to give the searcher the information they’re looking for or are they more likely to assume that a site with many pages on a topic is going to prove more useful to the searcher?
So we’ll resurrect the overused saying “content is king”. Many pages on one topic will fare better than many pages on different topics.
Step Three: Link Baiting
The next step (and an ongoing one at that) is link baiting. Link baiting, as we discussed in our article on the topic, is the development of content/tools/etc. for your website with the primary function of attracting links to that page or to another page on the site.
Link baiting can be something as simple as a blog where updates are posted on a topic that others would want to link to (you’re of course going to have to market your blog to get these posts found so they work as link bait). Link bait can also be created in the form of tools, contests, humorous stories or cartoons, or really anything you can dream up that would inspire someone to link to your site. SEOMoz’s Rand Fishkin managed to make his proposal to the lovely Geraldine link bait.
While most link bait doesn’t inspire links being built directly to the homepage of the site they do work to build internal links which boost overall site strength as well as to build links to internal page which might themselves rank for phrases.
Link baiting is an ongoing process. You don’t simply build some link bait, get some links and move on. The more often you develop content that others link to the more often people will visit your site, the more content they will find and the more new links they will build. You will also want to test out different methods for marketing your link bait: Press releases, articles, blog feeds, etc. People won’t simply find your bait because you built it, you need to inform the world that it is there.
Step Four: Link Building
Ahh link building, perhaps the single most discussed aspect of SEO out there and also the topic shrouded in the most confusion. Do reciprocal links still hold value? Is it worth my time to post to forums from a link building perspective? Are articles really worth the time they take to write and submit? The short answer to all of these questions is “yes” but with conditions (isn’t there always a snag?)
Never wanting to give advice I wouldn’t take myself, Beanstalk applies a minimum of 3 different link building methods for each client. Now, exactly which methods we use for link building depends on the client, the type of site, and a number of other factors but the core reason that we use at least three different link building methods is the same for all: one link building method may increase or decrease in value with an algorithm shift. The sites that tend to skyrocket and plummet with algorithm shifts are those that use a limited number of tactics and thus aren’t safeguarded against changes in the way rankings are calculated. Sites that use multiple techniques are better shielded from these adjustments. And so you are left to ponder, which link building tactics will work for my site?
The link building methods you choose now are not set in stone nor should they be. Should you choose to go with three different link building tactics and settle on reciprocal link building, directory submissions and articles you are not locked into this forever. I generally recommend getting some of the easiest out of the way first. Directory submissions are a no-brainer and should be part of virtually every promotion so they make a good first round. If there are a lot of related sites in your industry (say, if you’re a real estate agent) then reciprocal link building makes a fairly simple second tactic to employ. Now, let’s be clear on reciprocal links. Reciprocal link building is not dead but it has been brought back to what it should be – an actual vote for a site. A link exchange between the mortgage site noted above and the Beanstalk site would hold little value for either of us. The sites aren’t relevant. That said, a reciprocal link between said mortgage site and a real estate broker would make sense to both the visitors and the search engines and thus, it is a good candidate.
So you’ve launched in with two link building tactics, let’s assume you decide to try your hand at publishing and submitting an article next. First you’re going to need to accumulate information and check around to see what editors are publishing and people are asking. This should (and likely will) lead you to forums. While you’re there you might as well answer some of the questions people are asking that you’ll be writing about. This is a good test of your material (but please, make sure your comments actually answer people’s questions and aren’t blatant ads – I visit a number of forums daily and nobody likes the ads and they don’t stay posted for long). So you’re in the forums gathering information and answering questions while writing your article (which has added a fourth link building method into the mix), now you’ve got your article published. The next step is to submit it.
A few simple searches on your favorite search engine will provide long lists of sites that publish articles, you’ll simply need to create an account and submit it. I recommend setting up Google Alerts to email you with a random sentence from your article. This will allow you to monitor where it’s being picked up and, of course, make sure the credits are in place.
So there you are, you’ve already employed four different link building tactics (and we’re not even including link baiting in this total). From this stage you need to keep on each of them to insure your link counts continue to climb but you can relax a bit and move on to Step Five.
Step Five: Social Media
The use of social media for SEO purposes is a fairly recent evolution in the community. While the links from social networking sites themselves do hold value, the larger purpose of social media from an SEO perspective is the effect that it will have on personalized search results. I wrote a very length article on personalization and so I won’t repeat all of the details here (if you’re so inclined you can read it after this. It’s titled, “Personalization & The Death Of SEO“).
Now, using social media as a traffic and SEO tool is a highly specialized area. To keep posted on this ever-changing field I recommend reading Neil Patel’s blog on social media marketing. In his blog he covers a lot more than social media as an SEO tool but I won’t get into that in this article.
Aside from the links themselves social media holds one basic function for SEO’s – building relevancy. Google, in their personalization-related patent applications, has been very clear that they will be looking at community and group similarities when personalizing search results. If I like site x then it is likely that if it shows up for a different search I will find it useful again. That is the current state of personalization. It is clear it is going to go further than this and evolve into a situation where the results will run on assumptions such as, if I like site x and my friend Jim likes site x then if Jim, on a different search, like site y – chances are that I will like site y if I run the same search. Now, this doesn’t work well in a micro, two-person universe however when the technology evolves to the point where the patterns of millions of users can be analyzed effectively the results will likely yield quite significant shifts in rankings. But what does this have to do with social media?
Social media is user-based votes wrapped into communities. If I find a site worth bookmarking in Digg and another SEO finds the same resource worth bookmarking, and so on – soon it can be assumed that people involved in SEO communities feel that a resource is worth saving and thus, that result will – when personalization evolves – rise in the rankings.
It is for this reason that social media is going to be an important factor in the ranking of websites down the road. This makes today the perfect day to get started; you don’t want to be playing catch-up to the sites that are currently employing social media tactics now.
So, as you can see, I was not being altogether accurate in the title when I called them “Easy Steps”. The tactics required to rank highly on Google can be complex and time consuming however the path itself is straight forward. If you are willing to spend the time it will take to do it right, success is virtually assured. If you are not, then prepare to make way for those who are.
Author: Dave Davies is the founder and CEO of Beanstalk-Inc. Beanstalk-Inc provides guaranteed SEO services to an international clientele.