SOPs for SEO
By Alex Ford
In this day and age, the question “Do you have a Web site?” is no longer relevant. Businesses of all types, shapes and sizes have recognized the ever increasing importance of online, and even the most resistant have been forced to acknowledge that a Web site is a necessity, not a luxury, for doing business.
Whether you’re an ardent fan of the Web or a reluctant participant, it’s important that you realize the battle only begins when you design and launch your site. Your site may be great looking (and may have cost a bundle), but if no one can find it, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice and costing yourself sales.
In a perfect world, you’d launch a Web site, populate it with relevant content about your company and products, and your customers would naturally find you. But in reality, the sheer — and growing — volume of information online means that you need to take specific steps to ensure that your site is accessible by potential customers. And that means, in many cases, dealing with the gate-keepers of the Web: search engines.
This process is called “search engine optimization”, or SEO. Broadly defined, SEO is the process of optimizing your web site to improve the volume and quality of traffic from search engines via "natural" or "organic" search results. And like it or not, SEO is a critical component to the success of your site.
Google drives roughly 60-70% of traffic to most web sites, a percentage which can be even higher for ecommerce or distributor sites that feature a wide range of products. That’s not surprising, given that more than 25% of Google searches are for products.
To borrow a quote from the legendary Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights”, when it comes to search engine placement, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” While that’s a bit dramatic, the significance of ranking on the first page for relevant keyword searches - the terms for which your site is relevant - cannot be overstated.
One recent study indicated more than 60% of search engine users click on a result on the first page, and more than 40% will change their query if they don't find what they want on the first page of results. What’s more, trends suggest that the first page is becoming even more important, with fewer and fewer users going beyond first page of search results.
As a company marketing to emergency services, you have additional motivation to pay attention to SEO. Like most online trends, SEO started in the mainstream and has steadily trickled down into niche markets. The good news is that less than one in 20 companies in the EMS market are actively engaging in SEO. This means there is ample opportunity for companies to yield big returns by taking some basic steps toward optimizing their sites.
If your competitors haven’t yet figured out how to optimize their sites for search, you can swoop in and steal a considerable amount of traffic with a well-executed SEO strategy. When paramedics/EMT’s search for your product keywords, they’ll find your site slotted above your competitors, and that counts for a lot.
Putting together the SEO puzzle
Successful SEO requires a complex recipe of many different ingredients. In one sense, you can view your SEO strategy as a puzzle, with four distinct pieces. They all fit together to form a successful SEO program; without any one of them, your SEO efforts are incomplete.
The SEO “puzzle” is comprised of the following pieces:
Content: The single greatest factor in search rankings; the more relevant useful content you can work into your site, the better. It is best to have a lot of targeted pages with very specific topics and subject matter than a small number of more broadly relevant pages.
Underlying Technology: Think about the technology on which your site runs and consider content management systems that support search engine optimization. If you don’t have a platform that abides by the rules of the search engines, it is almost impossible to optimize and continually adjust for changes in search engine algorithms - particularly if you have a site with a lot of pages.
Page Structure: Search engines look for certain key cues and details when scanning your site, so it’s important your Web pages are structured in such a way that they willingly provide them. That means your browser headers, <h1> tags, and content must be well thought out and relevant.
External Linking: Your place in the overall Web community is a significant consideration for search engines in deciding where to place you, so the more links to your site from relevant partner sites, the more legitimate you are to Google, Yahoo and others.
If all of these items are executed well, they form a strong foundation for building a comprehensive SEO strategy.
10 Key SEO Tips
There are literally hundreds of little tips and tricks you can employ in the name of SEO. Googling “SEO” will return an avalanche of results, with tips both broad and extremely granular.
While it’s virtually impossible to employ every single tip you run across, here are some of the most basic and essential SEO tactics to consider using on your own site. Due to the limited use of SEO tactics among emergency service companies, we have found that by employing just a few of these, you can achieve meaningful results.
1. Identify the right keywords
A critical exercise to go through at the outset of your SEO evaluation is determining which keywords are going to bring you the greatest benefit. While keyword selection will vary based on the breadth of your product offerings, there are likely a few critical keywords related to your products that you’ll want to identify and use consistently throughout your site.
The keyword process is primarily comprised of three steps:
- Keyword analysis — a check into what keywords consumers are using to find products and services relevant to your company
- Keyword selection — culling down the list above for the most targeted, relevant and most used keywords
- Keyword placement — artfully placing your few keywords throughout your site in a manner that will bring you maximum benefit
Some of the keyword selection process is common sense, but don’t neglect the value of tools like Google’s Keyword Tool in identifying your ideal keywords. For example, you may consider yourself a manufacturer of “EMS footwear”. But if “EMS boots“ is getting 80 percent more searches, go with the masses. Also, it is always good practice to bold the most relevant keywords when they appear in your Web site copy.
2. Load up on relevant content
The fundamental objective of search engines is to deliver users to genuinely useful content that corresponds with their searches. With that in mind, your best bet for enhancing your search ranking is to load up your site with as much quality, relevant content as possible - the more detailed, the better.
If you’ve ever written a contributed article or whitepaper, post it on your site in full. Search engines are increasingly giving preference to pages with longer content. Likewise, post any and all of your press releases. If you’re getting media coverage, create a News section and post those articles as well.
One of the hottest trends in content-related SEO is the creation of a company blog that covers news, trends and issues in your company’s market and relevant to your company’s products. If you have the time and material to generate regular blog posts on issues relevant to your business, by all means do it. Blogs do very well in search engines because they’re content-heavy, refreshed often, and keyword-rich.
If you haven’t gotten into the habit of writing, this is good motivation to start. You may not be a great writer, but you have a good understanding of your product and your market. Creating quality content takes time, but it pays off big in the SEO world.
3. Optimize your Web site’s title, meta content, content headers and URLs
These are HTML scripted tags that appear in between the open and closing <HEAD> tags on your Web page. Title tags, which appear at the top of your browser, are among the most significant factors in search engine ranking, and it is very important you carefully evaluate which keywords to use in them.
More than just dropping a keyword in and walking away, the title tag should closely correspond with the content on the page and the keywords for which it is optimized. For one, it will appear in search engines as the title of your link result. Make sure that the keywords you choose for your title tag are repeated frequently in the body of your text and used as your <h1> header.
Meta content, or “metadata”, is included within the code of a Web page to provide description and keywords about the information contained on the page. While the value of meta content — which includes description and keywords — has decreased, it is still important. The meta description tag is often shown in search engine results as one or two sentences that briefly explain what the Web page is about. Keep in mind that there are restrictions to the format of your meta content. For example, Google only displays the first 150 characters of your meta description and you may be penalized for including more than 10-15 meta keywords.
Keep in mind how you structure your URLs. Your URLs should include the relevant keywords for the page and not include any question marks or strange characters. For example:
Lastly, make sure that all of the above — title, meta content, content headers and your URLs — are consistent and all use the same keywords. Also, while it might be tempting to recycle your headers and meta info for all pages on your site, it’s important you take the time make them unique and relevant to the page.
4. Create a Sitemap
Your sitemap, while serving little functional purpose, is very important for search engines. It serves as a cheat sheet for search engine spiders, the technology search engines use to learn about your site. Make sure your site map is clean and without a lot of extraneous text or images. Envision a spider crawling through every page and link on your site; it is in your best interest to make it as easy as possible for the spiders to do their thing.
There are two kinds of sitemaps: one for site navigation, and an XML sitemap for spidering purposes. Once your sitemap is created, you can convert to XML using a number of free online tools (just Google “XML sitemap”). Then, submit the XML sitemap to Google directly using the sitemap component of their Webmaster Tools service.
5. Pay attention to page load time
This is an important factor both for user experience and search rankings. Naturally, you don’t want to negatively affect your customers’ experience on your site by making them wait around for your site to load — even if it is great looking when it does. But perhaps more important is the negative effect high load times can have on your search ranking.
Search engine spiders factor in the page’s size, and if it hangs or takes an excessive amount of time loading, the spider won’t hang around to index the entire page. That means your page won’t rank for the keywords it’s been optimized for. We recommend that to keep your load time down you set strict limits on your use of images — especially large ones (i.e. more than 10-20K).
6. Start a reciprocal link program
One of the most important factors in search rankings is the number of inbound links to your sites, meaning other Web sites that link to yours. A high number of good, relevant reciprocal links tells search engines that your site is credible and valuable, and it will rank you accordingly in search results.
To help drive this process, it’s a good idea to put together at least a basic reciprocal link program, whereby you’re regularly approaching respected, relevant sites about posting links to your site in return for you posting their link on your site (thus “reciprocal”).
While the sheer volume of inbound links is helpful, the quality of the sites linking to you is also a consideration. Google assigns a “page rank” to all sites, and the better, more established sites are likely to carry a higher page rank. Inbound links from these sites go a long way toward bumping up both your page rank and search engine ranking. Also, there is significant value in having third parties link to internal pages on your site and not just the homepage.
One more helpful tip — when your partner adds your link to their site, ask that they use relevant keywords rather than just your URL. For example, the text “A great source for vehicle lights” linked to your site is much better than “www.yourcompany.com”.
7. Don’t fall in love with Flash and images
You can do a lot of cool things with Web graphics and Flash these days, and there is the temptation to turn your site into a living, breathing piece of interactive art. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with creating a visually appealing online experience for your customers, SEO considerations must be factored in as well.
Search engine spiders cannot crawl images and still haven’t mastered the indexing of Flash content, so if you’re relying heavily on these elements, you’re sacrificing a considerable amount of SEO value.
Employ graphics and Flash, but do so in moderation. If your site takes a graphics-intensive approach, make sure you’re placing text links so spiders can find them. Label all images with alt text and include descriptions so that spiders can make their way through and identify them more easily.
8. Avoid “black hat” SEO tricks
With the importance of search rankings, it’s natural that some companies seek out any opportunity to gain an advantage. In some cases, this takes the form of somewhat underhanded SEO tactics — known as “black hat SEO” — such as cloaking (sending spiders to different, more optimized sites than users see), keyword stacking and title stacking. These are shortcuts designed to create an unrealistic level of keyword value.
While the temptations are understandable, in reality it’s more likely that these tricks will backfire than pay off. Google and Yahoo are no dummies, and they’re wise to most tricks. What’s more, they don’t take too kindly to being misled, and they’ll penalize or blacklist you for abuse. It’s just not worth the risk.
9. Stay up on the latest SEO news
Google and other search engines use very complex algorithms to determine where your site is placed in the results for various keyword searches. SEO is essentially the deciphering of these algorithms and the specific tactics and techniques that can be employed. One of the reasons SEO must be an ongoing effort is the fact that search engines are constantly tinkering with their formulas in the quest to provide ever better search results to their users, as well as close the door on any vulnerabilities being exploited.
Because of this, it pays to keep an eye on the latest news in the world of SEO for any such updates. Here are a few good sites to bookmark and check from time to time:
10. Do the little things
There are many second-level SEO tactics that bear acknowledging as you’re building and updating your site. Doing any one of them isn’t going to propel you to #1, but they’re all ingredients in your SEO recipe. They include steps like:
- using “alt tags” for all images that describe what they are
- including descriptive text with keywords below product images
- use plenty of keyword-rich interior links to other pages within your site, in addition to external links
- using 301 redirects for all permanent internal redirects
- making use of the webmaster tools on Google and Yahoo to optimize your site: http://www.google.com/webmasters/ and http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com
Clearly, SEO is no walk in the park — it’s more like an Olympic decathlon crossed with an ultra-marathon. Doing SEO right means maintaining a close eye over all aspects of your Web site, and being vigilant about making changes that will help better position it in the eyes of Google and Yahoo.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone; there are countless SEO firms and specialists that can assist you, both in initial setup and your ongoing efforts. Costs vary, but with the inarguable importance of search engine rankings, it can be a wise investment.