I do a lot of marketing research and search engine optimization work for websites, and my clients always ask me the same question when we start: “How do I make my website the #1 result in a Google search?” After I respond with the obligatory, “Pay me to put it there,” I tell them the truth that you can’t actually pay anyone to put you in the first result on Google, and there is no simple way to get there overnight. I invariably have the same lengthy discussion with them explaining how Google ranks its search results, after which they usually ask me, “So do you know anyone else I can pay to get the #1 result?”
While you can’t simply pay someone to guarantee you the top search result on Google, and you can’t even pay Google, with some time and effort you or an SEO consultant can optimize your website so that you might be able to rise up through the ranks. I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 techniques I use to assist clients in obtaining better search rankings in Google (and oh yeah, those other search engines too).
Identify keywords that visitors will find interesting
One of the most important aspects of any search engine marketing campaign is identifying keywords for content. The problem is, most webmasters identify keywords as those terms which they find interesting, not ones which people will actually search on. For example, let’s say you started a new company called “MyCo” and created a website to sell your new product, “the MyCo MyWidget,” which is the latest and greatest can opener on the market. You may think the terms “MyCo” and “MyWidget” are great keywords to use, but you’re wrong. No one is going to visit Google and enter a search on “Myco MyWidgets,” because no one knows what they are yet (for more info about promoting a new website or company, read the Purpose of Press Releases in Search Engine Marketing). Instead, choose keywords which describe your product in generic terms which a potential customer may actually search on, such as “can opener” or “open cans.”
If you’d like to do some research to find out what terms are popular and who’s searching for what, check out Google Trends Labs. Just enter a search keyword and Google will let you know the volume of traffic they get searching for it. The Google AdWords tool is another good place to find keyword search volume. Also read how to use Google to find the best keywords for your website.
Look at your website the way Google does
A good website designer already knows how to code their website’s HTML so that it will present the same no matter what browser your visitors are using (Internet Explorer 6 or 7, Mozilla, Mac or Windows). But search engines like Google don’t care what your website looks like, they care that they can easily sift through your code and images to find the actual searchable text in the content on your website. They also can’t index graphic images or Flash elements, so keep that in mind when designing your website. If you’re home page is just one big Flash graphic, you’re not helping your search results at all.
Try using a Search Engine Simulator in order to strip all the code and graphics from your web page and just view the actual text. Make sure the resulting text still has the keywords you’re looking for in it.
Code for SEO
In order to code for search engine optimization, you have to understand those parts of your code that search engines are going to consider the most important.
Title tags need to be unique to each page, and about 60 characters long (Google apparently accepts up to 63 characters, other search engines may accept a bit more). A good rule of thumb is 10 words or less. You should use your company name in your title tag, but make sure you also use accurate, popular keywords which describe your company. Any keywords in your title tag should also appear in your page content, as the more relevant to the content the greater weight Google will give it.
The Meta Description tag is the next most important tag. Google may take this tag as verbatim when your website appears in search results, so it is essential that it be a good description of the page’s content, and of course that it uses keywords which you want to target. Again, the description should contain keywords which also appear in the actual page content. According to the Official Google Webmaster Central blog, descriptions should be clearly informative, not duplicated, and not repetitive. This means use a unique description for each page on your site, and don’t repeat keywords within the description.
For the most part you don’t have worry too much about the Meta Keywords tag; Google doesn’t bother with it. Semantic markup heading tags, such as H1, H2, and H3, often carry greater weight, so use your best keywords in them. Image ALT and especially TITLE tags should accurately describe the images they are applied to for accessibility purposes, but it doesn’t hurt to use keywords in them. Read about other Useful (and Useless) Meta Tags in SEO and Web Design.
Search Engine Friendly URLs
Your web page file and/or directory names are another great place to use keywords. Google applies weight in rankings when your URL matches the search term. It would be best if your domain name matched the search result, but even if it doesn’t you can still create a URL structure which can increase your result rank. A url which looks like “www.myco.com/mywidget.html” is not as good as “www.opencans.com/my-widget-can-opener.html”. If you use a Content Management System (CMS) or other website software which creates dynamic URLs which look like this, “www.myco.com/index.aspx?page=1234″ then you’re in trouble. Google and most search engines don’t like dynamic page URLS at all (pretty much any URL with a question mark in it). In this case you’re going to want to use some kind of URL re-writing technique to create what we call search engine friendly URLs. A good example of this is the forum software which my company publishes, ITCN ASP.NET Discussion Forum Software, which automatically converts all URLs into search engine friendly alternatives.
People have been saying it for a long time, and it still rings true: Content is King. It doesn’t matter how many search engine optimization techniques you apply, if you have lousy content, or content which has been duplicated from another website, the search engines just aren’t going to care about you. Make sure your content is something people are going to want to find if they do a search for it, and then re-write it to make sure it includes keywords for which people are actually searching.
Also make sure you have plenty of it; no one will want to link to or even visit your site if there’s nothing there for them except what you’re selling. Become an authority on a subject related to your market by writing or blogging about it profusely. Try writing product reviews, giving out awards, or even just writing some personal notes. If you position yourself as an authority in your field, people will want to read about what you’re doing, and by extension, what you’re selling or promoting.
Keyword Proximity and Density
Now that you’ve identified some good keywords, used them in your content, and also repeated them in your title and meta description, get ready to re-write again. Chances are you didn’t think about keyword proximity or density. Both are important to understand, as one can help you and one can hurt you. Keyword proximity is the art of ensuring that keywords people are searching on appear near each other — in close proximity. For example, if someone is searching for your MyCo MyWidget Can Opener, you may have found that popular keywords are “metal can openers” or “plastic can openers”, so you included the term “Metal and Plastic Can Openers” in your title tag. Looks good to you, but not necessarily to search engines, since the terms “metal” and “can openers” and not in close proximity. Better useage would be “Metal Can Openers and Plastic Can Openers.” Make sure somewhere in your content you separate the wording as two different terms so that they will exactly match the popular keywords. Also read about Long Tail Keyword Marketing and my Guide to LongTail Keyword Marketing.
But be careful, because if your keyword density increases too much you can be penalized for keyword stuffing in search results. If Google finds the term “metal can opener” 20 times on your page and there are only 22 terms, you’ve got over 90% keyword density and your page can be dropped to the bottom of all search results!
Google doesn’t publish at exactly what threshold good SEO ends and keyword stuffing begins, but a good rule of thumb is to keep keyword density between 6% and 10% for a couple important keywords on your page, and about 3 to 5% for less important terms.
Don’t be too good
Since Google doesn’t publish the algorthym which explains how much weight they give each of these techniques in their search engine results, we can’t say which technique will get you to the top of the list in all search results. However, I can say that I have noticed this: If you take a look at the first result on just about any page of results in Google and run it through a Page Analyzer (software which checks the relevancy of your title and meta tags, and keyword proximity and density), you’ll find it doesn’t score 100% for many, or sometimes all, of these techniques. That’s because it would appear Google doesn’t like anything automated – if it even thinks your page has been run through a page analyzer to have a 100% score, they seem to think you’re trying too hard.
It may also be simply because Google doesn’t attach as much weight to keywords as it does to one-way non-reciprocal backlinks – sites which you don’t link to, but link to your website.
Get some backlinks!
This is probably the best way to increase your visibility within Google. The more sites which link to yours, and the better those sites are, the more Google will trust your site as a good candidate for high search result ranking. Get as many as you can – 300 is a good beginning target to shoot for, but not just any old backlinks. These should be links from established websites which are actually related to yours by subject or field. And don’t pay for backlinks – according to the Official Google Webmaster Central blog, sites may be penalized if Google finds out you paid for links (or maybe not?).
Also make sure your links are “dofollow” links, and that they don’t have the rel=”nofollow” attribute on them.
But if you can’t buy them, and you need them right now, how are you going to get them? Well, that is where the art of linkbaiting comes in. It’s going to take time, lots of time, and lots of perseverance. But you have to actually offer content (or something free) to which visitors will actually want to link. Then you have to spend time each day personally contacting other website or blog owners in your field about your content and/or freebie, and hope they link to you.
Sounds difficult and time-consuming? It is; unless, of course, you can generate a viral marketing strategy. If you offer something of great interest (it may be a funny YouTube video, something weird, or just a great free offer), you’ll find it will take off on the web with a life of it’s own. Think of it this way; if you handed a $20 bill to everyone who knocked on your front door, it wouldn’t be too long before you had a lawnful of people waiting to knock on your door. You’ve just got to figure out the content equivalent of that $20 bill for your website and email it around; word will spread quickly.
Keep links to a minimum
Google also takes a look at how your site is linking to others. If you have more than 100 links to other websites on a page, there’s a good chance Google will remove that page from their results, or move you to a zero or non-existent PageRank. This is because of link farms – websites whose sole purpose is to create links to other web pages to increase their search results. If you’ve got that many links on one page, Google assumes they are either not all relevant to your content, or possibly paid links, neither of which are good for your results. If you need that many links, consider using the rel=”nofollow” attribute on them or excluding link pages in your robots.txt file.
But don’t let that discourage you from linking to other websites; just don’t put them all on one page. In a good-sized page of content, there shouldn’t be more than a dozen or so links to external websites. Link to other websites related to yours, and webmasters who check their logs to see who is referring visitors to their site may notice your website and link back to you.
Pay attention to PageRank
PageRank is a number, from 0 to 10, which Google assigns to a web page to describe it’s importance, or more accurately, it’s value. So you would think the higher the PageRank of your web page, the higher your rankings in search results, but you’d be wrong. It doesn’t hurt to have a higher PageRank, but even a website which a PageRank of 3 can come up before a PageRank of 5 if Google feels its content matches the search better. But if you only have a PageRank of 0 or 1, you’re probably not going to end up on the first page of results for any competitive terms.
The quickest way to increase your PageRank is to get some backlinks, but don’t get them too fast. If Google finds 1,000 random backlinks to your site overnight they may think you’re buying them. And don’t expect your PageRank to be increased overnight, they only tend to update PageRanks every 3 months at Google.
About the Author
As the president of ITCN NJ Web Design, Programming and Marketing, Barry Wise has been designing, developing, programming and marketing web applications in NJ since 1995.