Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of optimizing a website for high ranking results by search engines. Hopefully, it makes your site show up within the first few search results. Accordingly, SEO can have a major impact on businesses of all sizes.
According to Forbes, the expected click-through rates for first-page search positions on Google are around 36.5%. Search results just below that give you about a 12.5% click-through rate, and then click-through rates drop off the farther down the results you are. The higher up your business is on search results, the better it is for your website traffic, click-through rates, and your business.
What do search engines look for?
Search engines like Bing and Google try to deliver the most relevant content to users. They use an algorithm to decide what the most relevant web pages are. SEO is trying to make your site into something the algorithms rank highly.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to know the exact details of how these algorithms work. Moreover, the algorithms change constantly.
Still, some best practices can help small businesses rise to the top of the search results. Let’s review some of the most important facets of SEO, as well as how to measure your success.
The technical side of search engine optimization is the cornerstone of SEO. Always start with the basics and tackle your technical SEO first. The fundamentals include:
- Appropriate URL structure and hierarchy. Make sure that your URLs are consistent, all lowercase alpha characters, contain relevant category pages as pools for top-level terms and, when possible, do not contain query strings. Also, using a keyword in your URLs may help improve your site’s search visibility.
- Robots.txt files. In tech SEO, placing a Robots.txt file in your main directory is critical. This file will guide the search engines to the areas you want them to crawl and tell them what’s important and what isn’t.
- Sitemaps. Sitemaps help the search engines find the pages on a site. It is an XML file that lists URLs for a site and some metadata about each URL. Using a sitemap doesn’t guarantee that all the pages listed will be crawled, but it can help the crawlers do their jobs better.
- HTTP or HTTPs. HTTP stands for hypertext transfer protocol, and HTTPS is the “secure” version of that protocol. Historically, HTTPS was used primarily by eCommerce sites and those collecting sensitive information. But now that Google is using HTTPS as an SEO ranking factor, many businesses have moved to HTTPS. If you decide to go with HTTPS, you’ll have to use an SSL (secure socket layer) certificate. Using this protocol creates a secure encrypted connection between the web server and the web browser.
- Speed. Page speed has long been a ranking factor. Do your best to make sure that pages on your site can load quickly. Don’t neglect your mobile site to boost desktop speed. Mobile page speed is becoming increasingly important and used as a ranking factor by some search engines.
- User Experience (UX). Search engines want to send searchers to sites that have a good user experience. Creating a positive interaction includes good quality content, headers and image tags (image alt text below), and giving users the information they need to understand your page and find what they’re looking for. And because the engines want to give their users a good experience, they include user experience in their ranking factors.
Technical SEO is essentially the “behind-the-scenes” SEO elements. Content SEO is all the content and written words on your website.
For content SEO to work, you need to weave content throughout your site. That content should be well written, relevant to the individual pages, provide a good user experience and be substantive. If you don’t have content, your site won’t rank for the keywords that are so important to your business.
Content is critical for SEO ranking factors. Your small business can gain traction in improving your site’s ranking by producing quality content.
Your content should be rooted in your products and services. You’ll also need to include relevant keywords, phrases that people use to search in Bing and Google, within that content. To find keywords for each page, you can use one of the search engine’s keyword research tools. You can also try a free tool like Keywords Everywhere to research the phrases people use to search.
Once you create a list of terms that are relevant to your site, you can assign one to three keywords to each page. Then create content that contains those phrases. Just don’t stuff the keywords into your content. If the phrases are relevant, it should be easy to include them in your content and provide your readers with quality information and sterling user experience.
Principal elements of SEO
Once you’ve assigned keywords to an individual page, go through the most important elements for SEO.
- Title tag. This is the title of your page. It is displayed in the search results as a clickable headline for a result and briefly explains what the pages are about. The tag should contain one or two of your most important keywords and the name of your company or organization. It should be no more than 60 characters, including spaces.
- Meta description. Located directly below the title tag in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP), the meta description gives searchers a reason to click. It should explain what your page is about and include a call to action, when possible. Meta descriptions should include at least one keyword and be roughly 120 to 160 characters long, including spaces.
- Headline. Every page should have a headline (also called a page title or an H1 in HTML speak). It should contain your most important keyword and work to tell your readers what the page is about. It should capture your audience’s attention and entice them to continue reading.
- On-page body copy. This is the “meat” of your content. It tells your story, explains your products and services, and allows you to deliver your message in your voice. All keywords should be included in the content once or twice each. But be sure you’re not “stuffing” them. Instead, your keywords should fall naturally into place. Never use the same content across multiple pages. It provides a poor user experience and could have dire consequences from the search engines.
- Image alt tags. If you’ve ever used your mouse to hover over an image and noticed text describing that image, then you’ve seen image alt text. It’s contained within an image alt tag and served only when your mouse hovers over an image, a visually impaired person using a screen reader visits your site, or an image file won’t load. The image alt tag is where you clearly describe the image.
- Video transcripts. Search engines can’t watch videos or listen to audio, but they can “read” text. You should always provide a written transcript of the video if you have videos on your site. Your keywords should appear naturally within that transcript.
Backlinks, which are sometimes called “inbound links” or “incoming links,” occur when one website links to another. If your site is linked to from other sites, then you have backlinks.
In the eyes of the search engines, backlinks are like votes from other sites. The more votes you get from authoritative sites, the more viable and valuable the engines consider you to be. This endorsement can enhance your site’s ranking and visibility.
All backlinks don’t carry equal weight. Search engines want to see backlinks from high-authority or trustworthy websites linking to your site. If you get links from low-authority or untrustworthy sites, it won’t look good for you.
Additionally, these types of backlink scenarios will also hurt your ranking:
- Your site and another site are obviously exchanging links
- The use of backlinks built by robots on dozens (or hundreds) of websites
- Backlinks built using “dofollow” widgets, like badges and plugins
- Your site has links from foreign language websites that have nothing to do with your business
Positive backlink scenarios will help you to improve your ranking with the engines:
- Create types of content that get highly shared and referenced, like infographics
- Try guest blogging on a high-authority site
- Promote your content on other channels
- Use email marketing to share SEO content
- Contact bloggers or websites running weekly or monthly roundups and submit your best material for their consideration
- If you happen to be interviewed by a local, regional, national or international TV show, magazine or newspaper, you’ll probably get a link from that publication’s site to yours – so make yourself available
Backlinks can change without your knowledge. You must check them from time to time and see what kind of backlinks you have. With some free tools, you can do it in minutes.
Once you’ve generated your backlink report, you can see whether the sites linking to you are “good” or “bad.” You can go about “disavowing” the links that are negatively impacting your site. Hence, you can work with the search engines to do this.
Local SEO is when a business provides goods or services in a specific geographic area. They use keywords with a location component to signal the search engines that you have a “service area.” This way, if someone in your town is looking for a local graphic designer, a nearby restaurant, or a dentist, you’ll show up in their search.
But local SEO isn’t as straightforward as simply adding a location to your keywords and your content. To make it work, it involves a few additional steps:
- Make sure your business name, address and phone number (NAP) are listed correctly on your site and across the web.
- Submit your site (and your NAP) to local directories like Yelp to further increase your local visibility.
- Build links locally via organizations you volunteer with, support, or otherwise do business with. Link building helps confirms (for the search engines) that you provide goods and services in a specific area.
- Use social media to engage with those who live and work in your area. You’ll reach more people and build your reputation to signal your location to the search engines.
- By encouraging your clients to leave local reviews (in the search engines or on social media), you can gain visibility and help local customers get to know you before ever actually meeting you.
Currently, there are three leading platforms for local SEO: Google My Business, Moz Local, and Yext. They all have different strengths. Let’s take a look at when and why you should use them:
- Google My Business (GBM): This free tool by Google allows you to create a brief profile that displays your name, address, phone number, hours of operation and URL. By creating a profile, you can help your business appear in relevant search results, including Google’s Local Map Pack, Local Finder, and local organic search results. (Note: Neither Moz Local nor Yext can claim or adjust your Google My Business listing.)
- Moz Local: As a fee-based local SEO tool, Moz Local pushes U.S. and Canadian business information (name, address and phone number) to partner sites and directories that impact local search engine results. By using Moz Local, you can build citations and consistency – and mitigate duplication among the major aggregators and other important sites and apps.
- Yext: This fee-based software can help manage your location-related information on a wide range of directories and social media sites. Like Moz Local, Yext helps ensure consistent, accurate information about your business appears across the web. Yext can also help with social media sites.
Keep tabs on site performance with SEO analytics tools. For websites, there are seven key performance indicators (KPIs).
Here are some of the KPIs to know:
- Organic traffic. This measurement tally visits to your website from search engines over a specific period. It’s often thought of as the single most important KPI for organic search. If organic traffic begins to spike, it could mean people are conducting more branded searches, or your optimizations are taking off. However, if you notice a drop in organic traffic, it might mean be something as simple as a broken title tag or as serious as a penalty or algorithm change. Either way, your analytics tool can help you see what’s happening.
- Traffic share. Shown as a number, the traffic share can help you understand the percentage of users who visited your site on a desktop/laptop or mobile device. This can help you understand the environment users are visiting from and tailor your site appropriately.
- Click-Through-Rate (CTR). This is how many users clicked your link to go to your site (or a specific page). As your position in the SERPs increases, you can expect a higher CTR, and if it decreases, you’ll likely see a lower CTR. (Tip: To increase your CTR, be sure to craft compelling, relevant page titles and meta descriptions with a clear call to action.)
- Bounce rate. This metric shows the percentage of sessions where a user loaded a page, then left without taking any action. For search engines, bounce rates are important because they want to ensure their algorithms are satisfying users’ queries.
- Time on page. This metric measures the amount of time a user spent on a page.
- Conversion rate from organic search. A conversion is an action. It could be signing up for emails, creating an account, making a purchase, etc. By measuring the conversion rate from organic search, you can determine the ROI of your SEO efforts and what your top conversion pathways are.
- Page views per session. By giving you insight into how many pages users are viewing per session, you can understand how effective your content is at keeping users engaged.
There’s a lot to know when it comes to SEO. Thankfully, there are also a lot of resources online and otherwise. If you start with the basics outlined here, you can create a site that gets discovered. This foundation will help you build relationships with your current and future customers.