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A Tactical Guide to Onsite SEO Best Practices

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Search Engine Optimization

It is important to understand that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a process, it is not a project.  Search Engines are dynamic; their ranking algorithms are frequently changed, and other sites are being updated with new content or being optimized, both of these will change the search engines' rankings. Between the search engines updating their algorithms and your competitors modifying their websites, it is not enough to do SEO once, it must be continually refined and updated in order to improve your rankings.  Since SEO is a process, results can take months to become apparent, so be patient, you won't be ranked number one over night.  There are tricks that can help but these will only work in the short term, a long term strategy focuses on sustainable methods (such as the ones described below).  Search Engines' focus is on the user and yours should be too.  If you focus on creating better content for users and giving them what they want, you will do better in the SERPs (search engine results pages).

In this article I will highlight and provide best practices for three main aspects of Search Engine Optimization:
Keyword Research: How to generate and utilize keywords

Meta Data, Titles and Robots: Use and importance of meta data, how to optimize titles and headers making them easy for Robots to crawl

Content: guidelines for creating quality content for the user and the search engine


 Keyword Research

Research should be done before writing any copy, page titles, developing links, or creating any other kind of content.  Your content is the foundation of SEO, and keyword research is the cornerstone of great content; if you optimize your page without doing research you could be creating content that is centered on poor terms.  Even a do a few minutes of research can yield good keywords to include in your content.  This is the first step and needs to be done right, otherwise all of your SEO efforts will probably be a wash.

Method for generating keywords

1. Brainstorming
No one should know your industry, company, site, content and users as well as you.  Spend some time thinking about what users would search for in order to find the content on your site.  Think about your products or services, in terms of both specific models as well as the categories that the models belong to.  

2. Competitive Analysis
a. Look over competitors' web pages; what is their content about? What words or phrases stand out to you when you are reading on their site? Are any of these phrases relevant to your product?

b. Look at the meta keywords in a competitors' source code (right click, view source-shortcut: 'ctrl' 'u').  If your competitor put the meta keywords in, should you be targeting any of these keywords?

c. Use Keyword Generation Tools to build out your lists, and then narrow them down. You are going to want to target a few keywords per page.

3. Keyword Research Tools
Use these tools for expanding your keyword lists, then going through your lists and slim the list down to a scalable size.
Google Adwords Keyword Tool
WordTracker Keyword Tool
SEObook Keyword Tool

When selecting keywords you want to consider three primary factors: volume, relevance, and difficulty.

Volume - How many searches a day (or month) a term gets. If you are looking at a term that only gets a few searches a month, or as the Google Adwords Keyword Tool says "Not Enough Data", then sure you might be able to rank for that term, but do you really want to rank for a term that nobody is searching for?

Relevance - It doesn't matter how many searches a day a term gets if it isn't a good match for your content you won't rank well. Further this isn't a good idea because even if you rank, users won't want to stay on your page if you are targeting keywords unrelated to your content. If the keyword doesn't directly relate to your content, don't use it.

Difficulty -Some words are more difficult to rank for, you have to be realistic about which keywords you can successfully target. If you search for a keyword and five of the top ten results are different subdomains on the Microsoft (or about.com) site, then you will probably have an extremely difficult time ranking for those terms - unless of course you are a powerful brand like Adobe.

Meta Data, Titles and Robots
Meta Description - Max Length: 155 characters (including spaces) - The meta description is not used in the search ranking algorithm, but the meta description is displayed as part of the search results. The meta description is your opportunity to convince searchers to visit your site so you will typically want to use your keywords in the meta description.  The meta description tag can definitely be a factor in influencing people to visit your site.  Do not use the same meta description on every page, this is a poor practice.  Every page should have a unique meta description.

Meta Keywords - The major search engines no longer consider meta keywords in their search algorithms.  The only search engine that indexes meta keywords is Yahoo, but they say they don't even consider them in their ranking algorithm.  As they are not considered by search engines, it is not really important to enter meta keywords.  You want to enter keywords if your internal search uses meta keywords to return search results.  While I do not recommend using meta keywords it is often considered a best practice to enter them anyways.  If used, meta keywords should be 1 to 8 words per page.

Page Title - Max Length: 65 characters - The title is currently one of the most important places to put your keywords.  Make sure that you use your main keywords for the page here; write a descriptive title, remember this is for people too, not just search engines.  Avoid simply listing keywords, this is can be a sign of spamming. Like the meta description, you do not want to have the same page title on every page - each title should be unique.

Alt text - In the alt text you want to describe the image using keywords derived from your research.  This will help images to show up in searches as well as help search engines see that the images are relevant to your content.

Meta Robots - these are page level instructions telling robots how to interact with the page.
<META NAME="ROBOTS" CONTENT="NOINDEX, FOLLOW, NOARCHIVE, NOODP">

Headline or Header Tags (H1, H2, and H3 tags) - these are used to mark section headings as being important because they tell people, and search engines, what the section is about.  H1 tags are the most important and should only be used once on a page - use the H1 for the most important headline that informs people what the page is about. H2 tags are more important than H3, both can be used multiple times on a page and are used for subsection titles or headlines.


Content

Content Format - It is best to use a Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) and HTML for writing web pages because search engines are often unable to read text in JavaScript, AJAX and Flash.  Recently, search engines have claimed to improve their ability to read JavaScript and Flash, but it is still a best practice to write most of your content in CSS/HTML.  A lot of people like to flash websites because they look nice, but really, flash is kind of like cayenne peppers, they are really good but you don't want to eat a plateful of them.  Likewise, flash can be a really good element in a webpage, it is good for enriching webpages, not building them.  Further, search engines have no way of reading text that is in images, so putting text in images should be avoided.  Lastly, don't create pages using tables or frames as they may cause problems for search engines when they are crawling a site.

Copy - Having good content is one of the most important things you can do for your page. Like I said earlier, content is the foundation for SEO, you need to have great content. Not only is it better for users if you have really good content, but search engines' algorithms try to reward pages that have great content.  If you have good content people will be more likely to link to you, causing search engines to see more value and authority in your page.  It is important to use your keywords throughout the entire body copy, though it is really important to make sure you use your keywords in the first few sentences.  Many tests have been done, but none have shown support for keyword density, so make sure you mention your keywords, but there isn't a ratio that you must achieve.

Writing for Search Engines - Ok, you really aren't writing for search engines; write for people first and search engines second.  Think about it like you are writing for people and editing for search engines. You are going to want to target a few keywords per page, if you try and do more you will end up looking spammy or you will not be effective in your targeting.  You want to make sure to avoid looking spammy so don't repeat keywords if you can't do it naturally or don't put keywords in if they don't make sense.  Keep in mind that search engines view singular and plural versions of words to be completely different.  You are going to want to use words that are related to your keywords as well as synonyms.  This helps search engines to see what your keywords are related to and that you are not just putting keywords irrelevantly into your content. You will want to make sure you use keywords in your page title, URL, Header tags, and alt text.

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Expert Comment

by:WaterStreet

This is a very important and key article for people or business who want to draw attention to their web sites.  The article takes a mysterious topic to many, and clearly tells a lot more than just the basics.  It tells what needs to done, why, and how to do it.  I think it's hard to find a relatively short article that does all that.  It got my vote above.
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Expert Comment

by:vakorde
Really helpful for me to decide the contents in my site.
Thanks dhwake.
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Expert Comment

by:jhoekman
This is a fantastic beginnner's guide to getting started on SEO.  I really appreciate it, coming from an SEO background myself, and am confident that it will be a useful beginner's tool to get started with SEO.  

Marking as helpful!
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JavaScript Best Practices

Save hours in development time and avoid common mistakes by learning the best practices to use for JavaScript.

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Expert Comment

by:sokhodom
simple and easy to read.
Thanks for spending time to write this, dhwake!
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LVL 5

Expert Comment

by:Cumbrowski
Good beginners guide from a technical perspective. A good supplement for my guide from a business point of view
http://www.experts-exchange.com/articles/Web_Development/Internet_Marketing/Search_Engine_Optimization_SEO/The-Search-Engine-Optimization-Fundamentals-in-11-Steps.html

I will update my article and refer to your guide. Doing the same from your article would maybe also make sense (not from an SEO point of view though, but from the users and that is what we should do, according to Google's Matt Cutts, right?! :)).
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Expert Comment

by:thx2-net
I've noticed recently that IE8 and FF 3.X will display more than 65 Characters in the title. IE8 will display 95 and FF will display 99. Some of the research I've done indicates that 65 used to be the max but once IE6 and IE7 fade away that 90 - 95 characters would be okay. I've done some testing with this and it seems fine. Any thoughts?
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Author Comment

by:Geoff Kenyon
thx2-net,

Are you talking about the browser page title or the page title that is displayed in the SERPs?  The 65 character limit is what Google will display in the SERPs; I haven't seen any evidence of this changing.  Longer page titles will be displayed in the browser title bar, just not in the SERPs.
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by:thx2-net
Yes, thanks for clearing that up. I was talking about page title in the browser.  65 for the SERP has not changed, so that makes sense.  
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Expert Comment

by:tigermatt
dhwake,

Nice article. Thank you. Marked as helpful above.

tigermatt
Page Editor
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Author Comment

by:Geoff Kenyon
Thanks tigermatt, glad it helped
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by:CodedK
Nice article.
Thank you very much.
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Expert Comment

by:warnercarter
Well written article
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Expert Comment

by:RajeshKanna
dhwake ,


  Hats off to your work ! This isn't just beginner's guide to SEO  . well , this article covers all important points in SEO  

 Many Thanks
 
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Author Comment

by:Geoff Kenyon
RajeshKanna,

Thanks for your kind words, I'm glad you found it helpful

- Geoff
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