06 March 2010

A SEO letter to a new webmaster

Dear Webmaster,

First off, I want to demystify search engine optimization. I've read so many blogs and books by specialists and it seems that most SEO specialists are actually marketing themselves rather than dispensing the very core knowledge that is required.

There is really only one page whose opinion I trust and that is the official Google Guidelines for Webmasters (find it here - http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769 ). Make sure that you read this page and ask me any questions that will clarify your understanding of it. If anybody tells you to do something other than what is written on this page be very careful.

Yes - there are "tricks" in SEO. But think about it - Google hires teams of incredibly clever people (read Matt Cutts academic profile if you don't believe me). What are the chances that Google is going to be tricked for very long? Very slim. And Google punishes sites that have tricked it in the past. So avoid using SEO "tricks" and focus on building a sustainable strategy. The site I optimized, has retained it's #1 position for over a year now - simply because I followed the Google guidelines and some extra stuff that I'll explain here.

Next, ask yourself how does Google make money? It makes money by selling advertising. It gets people to click its adverts by attracting them to its search engine. How does it attract people to its search engine? By providing the most relevant results.

So, how do you make life easier for Google? Provide useful information that people will want to read. This leads to the mantra that you will hear all the time : "Content is King".

Google wants to help people find useful information. If you provide useful information Google will help people find your site. This is the most simple rule of SEO and I'm surprised it isn't drilled into people's skulls.

So to recap:
1) Read http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769 carefully and study it
2) Add content to your site regularly

Right - lets focus on your content. We need to be able to help Google realize that your site is valuable and what information it has.

We do this in a few ways:

META tags.
1)
Although the "keywords" tag is not so important install a Joomla module that will write it for you automatically. There might be some search engines that use it, and there might one day be a resurgance. Plus it requires no effort to do.
2) Your description tag is sometimes used by the search engine in its results page. Make sure that your description tag is unique for each page and summarizes the content.
3) The TITLE tag is essential. Use keywords from your page in your page titles. Make every page title unique.

HEADINGS
Use keywords in headings in your text.

Bold and emphasis
Use bold and italics (emphasis) on keywords in your text. Do this once per paragraph.

Images
Images can have an "ALT tag". Make sure that you right-click an image, click properties, and see it's ALT tag. This will be displayed to blind readers, and search engines use it as a clue to find out what the picture is about.

Keywords
A keyword should actually be called a key phrase since it can consist of several words. "Key phrases" are easier to target than key words. For example: "Drug rehab in Pretoria" is easier to target than "Drug rehab" because it is a narrower market.

Use modifying words to target key phrases so "affordable drug rehab", "luxury drug rehab", "drug rehab in cape town", "best private drug rehab" will be target keyphrases/keywords.

Decide what a page is about and choose two or three keywords for that page. Use them at a rate of about 5% in your content, headings, title, meta tags, and picture ALT tags. Don't use your keyphrase over and over again just to try and impress search engines.

Under no circumstances stuff keywords into META tags, headings, or your page content. Don't make your content sound unnatural in order to stuff keywords in.

Focus your page content
When you add a page decide in advance what search phrase people will be typing in on the search engine. Use this exact phrase a few times in your article. Answer the question that people are asking.

I like to link to other pages about similar issues. I'm not to fussy about marking these links "nofollow" (some people will talk about this). I think it adds value to my readers if they can find more information from my page. Just make them target="_blank" so that people can come back to your site. Never link to bad sites (anything you would be ashamed to show your mom, your wife/husband, your boss, or a court of law is a bad site).

Regular content updates
Don't add 50 pages in one day, rather write 1 article per day for 50 days in a row. Keep your content additions regular and even. Keep adding valuable content. Aim to have at least a few hundred targetting your specific area of expertise on your site. When you reach about 500 articles you will find that you start doing really well on search engines.

INCOMING LINKS
* Get people to link to your site. Find the industry experts and ask them to link to you. Show them the useful information you have and how it can benefit their readers.
* Do not do link exchanges (also called reciprocal links) where somebody links to you in exchange for you linking to them.
* Do NOT pay for links (!)
* It is better to have a few high quality links than hundreds of irrelevant links. Get links from sites with a high page rank. Install the Google Toolbar into your browser to be able to see a sites page rank.
* Register on forums related to your industry. Put your site in your signature and post to these forums. Ask the moderators if they give "dofollow" links - these forums will be better for you to post on.
* Ask your suppliers to link to you.
* Find out who is linking to your competitors and approach them for links (do a Google search like this ---> link:yourcompetitorssite.com )
* Try getting a DMOZ link, but don't sweat if you can't. I'm personally surprised that search engines trust it so much, given the slow turnaround on the site.

Other
Add a sitemap module to your site.

Search Engine Optimization is hard work, not magic. Good luck!
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