For some people, getting their site to rank well in search engines is the end-all be-all for generating traffic to their site. For others, trying to rank well never crosses their mind. While the best approach is somewhere in the middle, there’s no reason to neglect these three basic principles for getting your site to rank well.
Putting your site in the best position to rank well is called search engine optimization (or SEO). SEO “experts” abound these days, but their expert status is more relative than absolute. They may know more than most people, but that’s just because most people don’t know the basics.
Great SEO is more art than science. Anyone can master these basic principles, but it’s how they’re applied that denotes the true experts. The principles may take minutes to learn, but years to perfect.
The most important thing to keep in mind when optimizing your site is that search engines rank pages, not sites. Each of the principles will refer to that basic principle in some way.
Links are the only one of the three basics that are essential to ranking well, and all major search engines now include links as a major component of their ranking algorithms.
Links alone can get a site a number one ranking (as several high-profile “Google bombs” have demonstrated), and it can be impossible to rank well for some very competitive terms without them, regardless of how otherwise well optimized a page is.
How much a link impacts the ranking of your page generally depends on three things:
- How many pages link to the page that links to your page.
- How many other links that page contains.
- How the page links to you.
The more pages that link to the page that links to you, the more “weight” that page has. The more weight it has, the more it can convey to your page with a link. It spreads that weight across all the links on the page, so the more links that page contains, the less weight it conveys to your page.
Search engines now, particularly Google, are experimenting with giving different weights to links based on a variety of factors, including where they’re located on the page. In general, the more prominent the link appears to someone reading the page, the more weight the search engines want to give it. They may not be 100% successful today, but they’re headed that way sooner rather than later.
How the page links to yours is also critical. The best link is a text link on the exact keyword phrase you want your page to rank well for (e.g. compare DirecTV, DISH Network and Cable TV). Don’t have every link to your site use the same link text, though. Google, especially, is very quick to identify that pattern and discount the links since they’re clearly unnatural.
If a page must link to yours with an image, the ALT attribute of the image works much like link text. It’s not quite as powerful across the major engines as plain text is, but it’s definitely better than nothing.
Use Consistent URLs
Even though they may show the exact same content, to search engines
www.yourdomain.com/index.htm are two completely different pages. Thus, links to one URL do not help the other to rank better. Therefore, it’s critical that you always use the exact same URL when linking to a page to avoid splitting the weight between two different URLs. Pick one and stick with it. Because you often can’t control how others link to your pages, try to pick the URL that most people will use (e.g.
www.yourdomain.com instead of
Case is also important in your URLs. These two URLs are not the same either:
Internal Links vs. External Links
Internal links are links from your own site. External links are links from other sites. Most website owners get so obsessed with external links (also called inbound links or backlinks) that they forget to make sure that their own links are the best that they can be. Chances are, an audit of your own site will turn up most, if not all, these common problems:
- Pages linked to with a variety of URL’s (
- Pages linked to with text that is something other than the keyword(s) for which the page is trying to rank well.
- Pages linked to with images instead of text.
- Images without ALT attributes that contain the target keyword(s).
- Important pages not linked to from as many other important pages as possible.
Make sure your internal linking is the best it can be before spending a lot of time on external links. It’s much easier and can almost always have a greater return because of that.
True, search engines are taking steps now to allow you to directly submit content that they can’t find on their own, but if they can’t find it, chances are few people will link to it, and you’re not going to rank very well (or at all, in some cases) without links (see point one above). The more you can make your site navigable just by clicking a mouse, the better positioned you will be.
As a last resort, you can create a simple HTML site map, linked from the bottom of each of your pages, that allows users and, most importantly, bots to get directly to the most important pages on your site. It’s not the best solution, but it’s definitely better than nothing.
Using frames on your site is a big hindrance to ranking well. Remember that search engines rank pages, not sites. A framed page is actually three or more pages masquerading as one: the page that defines the frameset and then a separate page for each frame. Search engines don’t combine all those into one virtual page, so you’re left with individual frames trying to rank on their own. That can be problematic, to say the least.
Content is simply what’s on your page. Here again, you have to remember that it’s a computer program reading it, not a human. Pretend like you’re talking to someone who only speaks a little English. Use your primary keywords over and over and in different ways to make sure it’s clear what you’re talking about.
One Page/One Phrase
Because you must go to such great lengths to be clear what the page is about, you’re often quite limited as to how many competitive phrases a single page can rank well for. So, don’t try to make your homepage rank well for everything. Spread it out across the pages of your site, and you’ll have much better results. Save your homepage for only the most highly competitive phrases.
(You’re not strictly limited to one phrase per page, but One Page/One Phrase is much catchier than One Page/Two or Three Phrases.)
Where you put your keyword(s) is important, though not nearly as important as many people would lead you to believe.
<title> tag is critical; putting the term in your
<title> tag makes a huge difference in your rankings. Remember: you have to be very clear about what your page is about. Nothing signifies that more than the
Also, your keyword(s) should also appear as many times in your page as is natural. It doesn’t matter how well your page ranks if no one can stand to read it when they get there. There’s definitely a balance between writing for the engines and writing for your visitors.
Other than using the keyword(s) in your
<title> tag and throughout the content of your page, though, all other placement advice is largely snake oil. There is no concrete evidence that <h1> tags, <b> tags, <i> tags or keyword density have any noticeable effect on rankings. They definitely don’t hurt (and proper use of header tags—i.e. <h1>, <h2>, etc.—is always good), but don’t think that putting the keywords in an <h1> tag or getting just the right keyword density will have anywhere near the effect that putting the keyword(s) in your
<title> will have.
Images are Invisible
Bots can’t see images, so the more plain text you use, the better. If you must use images, it’s essential that each image have an ALT attribute containing the text that would otherwise be there. It’s not as good as plain text, but it’s better than nothing.
Target the Right Keywords
Your pages can be 100% optimized, with thousands of inbound links, and not receive any traffic to speak of if you’re targeting keywords that no one actually searches for. So, it’s critical that you know what they’re using to find what you’re offering. How do you do that? There are a few different ways.
The best is to fire up an AdWords campaign. Nothing tells you what users are actually searching for, and what keywords convert best, than a pay-per-click campaign, and Google’s AdWords campaign gives you much more control than others. See our article on keyword research with AdWords for full details.
The problem with a PPC campaign is that first “P”: “pay.” You have to pay to get the stats. There are a few ways to get an idea of what keywords are actually used without paying, though. WordTracker offers a free trial, and Overture offers a free keyword selector tool. Neither is as accurate as actual PPC stats will be, but both can usually give you a pretty fair impression of actual keyword usage.
Another new tool getting very good reviews recently is Trellian’s Keyword Discovery. You do have to pay for the full version, but it should be more accurate than either WordTracker or Overture, and it isn’t nearly as expensive as a full PPC research campaign would be.
Don’t neglect low-traffic keywords just because they’re low-traffic, though. If you can easily, effectively target thousands of low-traffic keywords it’s definitely worth it. Even if each one only gets one referral a month, that’s thousands of referrals that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Virtually all the rules above have exceptions to them, so don’t take them as gospel. Get 90% of them right, and often the other 10% don’t matter as much. Do everything right, though, and you vastly increase your chances of ranking well for a wide variety of searches—leading to lots of absolutely free traffic month after month, year after year.