SEO is an ever-growing list of things that are simple, but not easy (thank you, Fred Janssen, for that great phrase).
This is a really big (79 items, in all), real list of real things you can do to improve your site’s onsite SEO. I try to put it all in a sensible order. It is way oversimplified and missing some of the more complex stuff, but a good check against what you’re doing, or what your SEO pro is supposed to be doing:
Keyword research: The basics
I’m not a big fan of 100% keyword-driven SEO, as you can’t keep track of all of the long-tail phrases – the ones that only get searched a few times a month, but can drive excellent potential customers to you – through keyword research. But I still start with research to at least find the root keywords.
- Write down 10 phrases you associate with your company and/or product. “Worst job ever” doesn’t count — I’m talking about descriptive stuff: ‘shoes’, ‘sports cars’, ‘bicycles that make Ian drool’. You get the idea.
- Go to the Google Adwords Keywords Tool. Put in those phrases. Set the tool to exact match. Look at the result, carefully. If the phrases you chose don’t show up, that probably means your audience uses different terms.
- Now look at the whole list. Pull out the terms that have high volume (duh), but don’t neglect niche phrases that show very little advertiser competition.
- Put all of those phrases in a spreadsheet.
- If you have a Wordstream or WordTracker account, go log in and double-check your keyword choices. Expand the list if you see anything missing.
- Then use either of the two tools above to pull competitiveness data. WordTracker shows you competitiveness based on title tag optimization and other cues, so it’s got solid data. WordStream has the same.
- You can also use the SEOMOZ Keyword Difficulty Tool for each keyword.
- And, if you’re a real glutton for punishment, you can go to the Google search result for each keyword and count how many of the top 20 pages have the exact phrase in their title tag. Then you can use Aaron Wall’s excellent SEO For FireFox to look at the number of incoming links for each page and domain. The more links each top 20 page has, and the more top 20 pages that have the exact phrase in their title tag, the harder it’s going to be to move up.
- Now, in your spreadsheet, mark how difficult each keyword is going to be. You can use your own scale if you want. I usually add the number of top 20 pages with an exact match in the title tag, and the average incoming links for each term. I also enter the KEI – it’s not a great metric, but it works when you’re comparing relative difficulty.
- Add one more column. In this column, estimate the number of longer phrases that contain the key phrase. There are lots of ways to get this estimate. If I’m being fussy, I go and search each term in my favorite keyword tool, export the result and count the number of phrases that contain the key phrase. Or, you can make a guess. If you know your industry, the guess can work really well.
- For each keyword on your list, search Google, Bing and Yahoo!. Find which page of your site ranks for that term (if any) and where.
- Add the rankings and the ranking pages to your spreadsheet. Now you know how difficult each keyword will be, and whether you have a head start, and which pages have a head start.
- For each key phrase, check your site analytics report. Record how much monthly traffic you currently get for that phrase.
- Add last column: Make the value of this column the total number of monthly searches for the key phrase, minus the monthly traffic you get for the phrase. That’s a very rough look at your opportunity gap.
- Now you know optimization difficulty, potential long tail and opportunity gap, as well as your current level of optimization.
That last step is a big one. It will help you estimate the long tail connected to each phrase: Phrases that are really, really competitive – ones where you don’t have a prayer of making the top 10 – may still be worth a shot if they have lots of related long tail phrases. That’s because, by optimizing for the super-difficult phrase, you can also optimize for all of the long tail ones. You might see a solid lift in traffic even if you never hit the top 10 for the target phrase. Less sexy, I know, but it pays the bills.
Now you’ve got your list. Still with me? Not praying for a computer failure to put you out of your misery? Then it’s time to map the key phrases.
Mapping key phrases to your site
Time to get strategic.
- Use a tool like Xenu Link Sleuth or Integrity to grab a full list of URLs on your site. If you have a huge site, just grab the first 500 or so. Hang on to that – you’ll need it in a minute.
- Pick what I call the ‘keepyerjob’ key phrases. Those are the 1 or 2 key phrases that, if you manage to grab a top 5 ranking, let you keep yer job. Get it? Unless you already have pages on your site that rank in Google’s top 50 for those phrases, assign them to your home page. Those are the only phrases for which you’ll optimize the home page. No one gets to add more phrases. Unless you’re Amazon.com or Wikipedia, you have no hope of getting your home page into the top 5 for more than 2 phrases.
- Now pick the phrases that are still going to be pretty challenging but have a big opportunity gap and the highest number of related long tail phrases. Match the pages on your site that either already rank for those phrases or are already relevant to them. Make sure you’ve got the URL of that page next to the target phrase. These are your optimization targets.
- Keep going! You can do it!
- Pick other, less-valuable pages that are on your site and are still relevant to the phrases and pages you matched up in #3. Record them, because you’re going to link them to your optimization targets to form hub pages.
- Keep working your way down your list of keywords and pages, matching up less-competitive terms to pages that are ‘deeper’ in your site (are more clicks from the home page). Continue until your done or you want to scream for mercy.
Congrats. You’ve got a keyword map. This spreadsheet tells you what pages you’re going to optimize for which terms, and how you’ll link pages together to create the most authoritative possible hubs.
And, you’re past the most painful steps (at least for me). From here on in, it’s just one, humungous checklist.
Create a content strategy
At some point, you’re gonna have to write stuff, or hire someone who can write stuff. And it’s gotta be good stuff. Content will drive your link campaign and help you with your most challenging keywords.
- Get a calendar.
- Write down the 10-20 things you can write about that are relevant to your key phrases and of value to visitors.
- Figure out where you can put all this stuff. It might be in a blog, or as supplemental articles linked from the home page, or something else. Figure it out now, so you can get IT, or web development, or whoever it is, working on adding whatever tools you’ll need. Oh, and any blog must be part of your web site.
- Pick your writer. Assign the writing. Don’t if you say “oh, someone in marketing will do it,” I guarantee utter failure. No one will.
- Get them working on content now, while you move on to the rest.
Check for roadblocks
All of this work is worthless if your site is one big dead end for visiting search engine spiders. So it’s time to check for roadblocks. You can use one of a number of tools to accomplish this step: SEOMOZ has a good crawl test tool. The Web Developer Toolbar for FireFox can help, too, as can LiveHTTP Headers. If you’re on a PC, Xenu Link Sleuth is handy, as well. I’ll try to call out tools as I go through this list, but in some cases you’ll need to feel your way along depending on your site and circumstances.
- Visit your home page – www.yoursite.com or yoursite.com, whichever is your default address – with LiveHTTP Headers running. Make sure you’re not being redirected. If you are, you’ll see something like ‘301 moved permanently’ or ‘302 moved temporarily’ in the LiveHTTP Headers window. Unless you ended up on yoursite.com, you’ve got a problem. Remove the redirect and make sure your home page really is your home page. Read my post about canonicalization to learn more.
- Is there any content that can only be reached using a form? For example, a searchable list of stores? Create another way to access the content. Search engines don’t fill out forms. You’re hiding lots of good pages from search.
- Go to www.yoursite.com/robots.txt. Make sure it doesn’t block all visiting spiders. You can check that using the robots.txt checker in Google Webmaster Tools, or you can read up on robots.txt at robotstxt.org
- View the source code of a few random pages on your site. Make sure you don’t see something like <meta name=”robots” content=”noindex,nofollow”>. That tag tells search engines to ignore the page. If you see that, find out if there’s a really good reason, like duplicate content issues. “It’s easier” is not a good reason to block out your biggest source of traffic and customers.
- If you haven’t, set up Google and Bing webmaster tools. Let them run for a few days. Then check for warnings regarding problems crawling your site. In Bing, look under ‘Crawl Issues’. In Google, look under ‘diagnostics’. If you see any, fix ’em.
- Run Xenu or Integrity on your site. Fix every single 404 error. Every one.
Remove potential sources of penalties
You can get yourself in trouble by accident. Make sure you remove these penalty flags:
- Text that matches or nearly matches the background color;
- Tiny teeny weeny text;
- Tons of links across the top of the page;
- Duplicate title tags across the entire site;
- Duplicate keyword META tags across the entire site. In fact, just remove the keywords META tag. It doesn’t do a lick of good for SEO anyway.
There’s more but these will keep you out of trouble.
On every page that you targeted in the key phrase map:
- Put the target phrase first in the title tag. The title tag looks like this: <title>Your tag is here</title>
- Put the target phase into the page headline.
- Ideally, make that headline the only <H1> tag on the page.
- Make sure the target phrase shows up in the first paragraph of text on the page.
- Put a relevant image on the page, if you can, and make sure the ALT tag contains the key phrase.
- Try to put the key phrase into other structural elements on the page, where it works. Headings, image captions, pull quotes and such are all good targets.
- Try to have another instance of the phrase on the page in bold text, if it makes sense. Don’t start jamming boldface type onto the page and tell everyone Ian made you do it. I’ll deny it.
- Review the page and try to make sure you don’t go synonym crazy. If you’re optimizing the page for ‘bicycles’, don’t use the word ‘cycle’. Got it?
Note that I don’t tell you a specific keyword density, or a number of words on the page. You should have as many words as you need. No more. No less. And you should use your key phrase where it makes sense.
All of those pages, isolated and alone, won’t do much for super-competitive terms. You need to create hubs:
- Remember all of those less-relevant pages you mapped to your target phrases? Get that list.
- Take each one and link it to the optimization target (the main target page for that phrase). That’s going to be your hub page.
- Use the target phrase as part or all of the link or ‘anchor’ text.
- Remove as many other links as possible from those pages, so that they’re passing as much authority and relevance to the hub page as possible.
Speed up your site
Page speed matters. So improve it.
- In FireFox, install Google Page Speed and Yahoo’s YSlow.
- Run them on your home page and at least a few random internal pages.
- Follow their recommendations for image optimization…
- …and for GZIP compression…
- …and CSS minification.
- Then look at the deeper, subtler speed improvements they recommend. They may or may not be doable. The more of them you can do, the better.
- If you’re still having page load speed problems, you’re going to need to look at your server, too. Check to make sure you’ve got enough memory, hard drive space and processor ooomph. You can ask your IT guy or web host about this. We love to talk about this stuff, trust me.
You’re still here? Wow. You do have staying power. K, on to the last lists:
Start using Webmaster Tools
- In Google Webmaster Tools, look at any reported problems and fix them. You should have done this before, but more will crop up over time.
- Then look under ‘HTML recommendations’. If you see any duplicate title tags, check those pages. They may be duplicate content. If they are, you’ll need to fix any canonicalization issues.
- If they’re not duplicate pages, then edit the title tags to make them unique.
- Do the same with META description tags, if you have them.
- Look for any reported 404 ‘page not found’ errors in both Bing and Google Webmaster tools. Unlike errors you find using your own link checker, these errors may be caused by other sites linking incorrectly to you.
- Fix these links by setting up 301 redirects from the broken URL to the right one. Don’t just forward them all to your home page. As much as possible, forward them to relevant pages.
- Set up an XML sitemap and let the search engines know.
Optimize media and structure
K, I’m getting tired, so I’m bunching these 2 together.
- If any of the optimization target pages for your top 5 target phrases are more than 3 clicks away from your home page, look at your navigation. You’re going to need to move those pages ‘up’ in the site navigation, so they’re closer to the home page.
- Make sure all images have keyword-rich, readable filenames that actually describe the image. That will help you in image search results.
- While you’re at it, make sure all images are in a folder called images or similar.
- And make sure images have sensible, relevant text around them. Captions always help.
- Using videos from YouTube? Make sure the video title and description contain relevant keywords.
Link building’s a pain in the ass. But you have to do it.
- Read the Link Loopy series.
- Use a service like 10LinksADay to jumpstart things.
- Write articles for publication on sites like Ezine Articles.
- Start talking to other bloggers. Link to them. Write posts that complement theirs. They’ll start linking to you, too.
- At some point, you’ll have to write great ‘link bait’, too.
- Write the occasional press release, publish it on PRWeb and include a link back to your site.
- Do not trade links.
- Do not buy links unless you really know what you’re doing.
What? You want even more? OK. Start writing. A lot. Text, video and image content will make or break your whole campaign. At some point you’ll have optimized as much as you can, and then content will carry the day.
And don’t expect to ever be ‘done’. You’ll constantly cycle through this list based on SEO analytics, changing keyword trends and the whims of your bosses/clients.
I also recommend reading:
The Art of SEO: Mastering Search Engine Optimization (Theory in Practice), which goes into all of this in far greater depth.
The book I co-authored – Web Marketing All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies. Yeah, I know. Blatant self-promotion.
Oh, and since I’m pimping my own content, The Fat Free Guide to SEO Copywriting ain’t bad, either.
The Search Engine Optimization All-in-One For DummiesSEO All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies, by Susan Esparza and Bruce Clay.
The SEOMOZ, Distilled and Blogstorm blogs.