Editor’s note: This post is a guest post by Glen Dimaandal, SEO expert and entrepreneur.
Of all the commodities in the world of online business, search engine traffic is arguably the most precious. Search engines drive targeted and highly motivated visits to the pages of websites. This kind of traffic is more receptive to marketing messages and therefore easier to convert into paying customers. It’s no wonder why companies big and small are always trying to jostle for a good position atop Google’s search results., The ones who manage to get on top have the distinct advantage of being considered by potential customers ahead of everyone else.
Of course, getting to the top is easier to talk about than to actually pull off. Webmasters with goals of increasing their search visibility employ a process called search engine optimization (SEO) to try and outrank their competitor’s pages. This involves refining the website’s technical performance, enhancing its content portfolio, receiving citations from external pages and more. If successful, an SEO campaign can propel a site’s pages to the top of search results pages, allowing it to attract more clicks at no cost on a daily basis.
A lot of medium to large enterprises recognize the value of search visibility and regard it as a core part of their marketing programs. Companies who can have considerable resources can either form internal teams or hire SEO agencies. That’s not to say that smaller organizations will have to live in search obscurity. SEO is relatively easy to learn and can be applied to a website through a DIY project.
If you’re not quite ready to pay for SEO services just yet, this post is for you. In this article, we’ll discuss how you can apply some powerful fundamental optimization techniques that can help your website attract significantly more traffic from search engines than ever before. Here we go:
1. Know the right keywords
Knowing what terms your target customers use to find businesses, products and services like yours is a crucial first step in getting found on the web. You don’t want to be the online store that calls athletic footwear rubber shoes when your customers constantly look for sneakers. You also don’t want to be the company that labels itself as a web design studio when all your potential customers refer to companies like yours as web design agencies.
To check whether you’re using the best terms on your webpages, use the free Google Keyword Planner tool. This online app provides you estimates on how many searches happen per month for a particular term globally or within specific countries. Keyword Planner can also provide you with keyword ideas that you can use to expand your portfolio of search terms to optimize for.
Alternatively, you can also use paid tools such as SEMRush and Wordstream. Personally, I find their search volume estimates to be more accurate, but for starters Google Keyword Planner will work just fine.
2. Check your robots.txt file
The robots.txt file is a small text document that exists in most websites for the purpose of telling search engines which pages they can crawl and which ones are off limits. Checking how this file has been written and making sure it follows best practices can make a big difference in your site’s overall search engine visibility.
To check your robots.txt file, go to www.example.com/robotss.txt. In this case, just replace example with the domain name of your site. You should see something similar to what’s on the screenshot below:
The first thing to check is whether or not the file prevents all search engine bots from accessing your site. While this may sound absurd, this happens from time to time when a website emerges from development or a redesign and its developers forget to delete a line that blocks bot entry. That line would look like this:
While you’ll want bots to crawl most of your site’s pages, there are some exceptions. These include:
- Admin pages – These should be accessible to the website owner and relevant staff. They don’t need to be searchable on the internet by the general public.
- Checkout pages – These are the pages you go through as you complete purchases in eCommerce sites. These are unique to your transaction only and have no value to the rest of the Web.
- Staging area pages – These are pages where you build and test your site or its new sections. These don’t need to be indexed for the same reason you don’t want to walk out to the street after you’ve just woken up.
- Dynamic pages – These pages are easy to identify based on characters such as “=” and “?” in their URLs. These characters signify that the pages are generated by an application server that processed server-side scripts triggered by user actions such as internal searches or filtering. In plain English, that means the pages are unique to the specifications of a single user during a particular session and are of no value to other users. Make sure to add a disallow: ? parameter to prevent these from being indexed.By preventing the indexation of these pages, you focus your site’s ranking power only on the pages that you want to be visible on the Internet. yo
3. Set up Google Search Console
One of the best ways to optimize your site for search is to gain some insights on how it’s being viewed by Google. Fortunately, Google is willing to share some of the data it has about your site using a platform called Search Console. This is an online service that lets you claim ownership of a website in Google’s eyes. When you do, you’ll be granted access to special reports and functionalities that you won’t get anywhere else.
With Search Console, you’ll receive access to the following SEO-related data:
- Indexing status
- Crawl errors
- Content duplication
- Inbound links
- Structured data status
- Notifications on penalties and other problems
You’ll also receive special functions such as tools that let you disavow links, submit sitemaps, remove pages from the index and many more. Search Console is a treasure trove of useful information and it helps train you on a lot of basic SEO principles. You can get started on it by following the instructions here.
4. Use an XML sitemap and optimize it
XML sitemaps are optional but important facet of SEO. This document lists all the public-facing pages of your website and information on when it went live, how often it’s updated and what its place is within your information architecture. That data allows search engines to discover pages more easily and crawl your site more efficiently.
You don’t have to know how to write XML files to use this on your site. Most CMS platforms like WordPress have plugins that automatically generate sitemaps. All you need to do after installing and configuring the plugin is to generate the file and check it using your browser. Often, the sitemap can be found in www.example.com/sitemap.xml. This could vary depending on how your plugin works. Fortunately, that same plugin should tell you how to find the sitemap right after you generate it. It should look something like this:
This was generated by the Yoast SEO plugin, which explains why it looks rather neat. However, having a sitemap that has a more codey look is also valid. Other plugins for non-WordPress platforms are known to do that. Google will understand both if the XML writing is up to spec.
While having an XML sitemap is a good thing, it’s not all there is to leveraging its power for SEO. You also need to make sure search engines are aware of the sitemap by submitting it to their site doagnostic services. To do this, you need to set up a Google Search Console account for your site. Once it’s up and running, you can go to Crawl>XML Sitemaps and click on the Add/Test Sitemap button on the upper right. Data will not be immediately available, but you should see something like this after several days:
This data allows you to see how many pages listed in the sitemap are being indexed. If it isn’t all the pages, there may be a need to review the ones that aren’t being included in the SERPs. Oftentimes, technical issues, content duplication or low content quality are the culprits for non-inclusion.
5. Optimize your site speed
In the past few years, the speed at which your site’s pages load has become an increasingly significant ranking factor on Google. In very competitive niches, site speed can spell the difference between being on Google’s first page for your target keywords and being on the outside looking in. Fortunately, Google has provided a great tool to check your site’s current speed and what you can do to improve it. All you need to do is visit Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool and enter the IRL of the page you want to check:
After hitting enter, the tool will analyze your page. It will then grade the pageon a scale of 0-100. A score of 85 or better is the ideal mark. Good thing the tool also gives you recommendations on what you can possibly fix to speed up load times.
In the example above, we can see that the site needs a little more work to hit that sweet 85 mark on desktop devices. It also requires significant touches to optimize its mobile site speed.
6. Make your site mobile-friendly
In 2015, queries from mobile devices finally overtook those made from desktop computers in terms of sheer volume. Since then, Google has considered itself to be a mobile-first company and emphasized the value of making your pages mobile-friendly. To double down on that, the search giant officially made mobile-friendliness a ranking factor for the mobile version of its SERPs.
A mobile-friendly design pertains to the ability of your website to scale down to smaller screens without losing readability and design integrity. Text should stay large enough to be read without having users zooming in. The same goes for menus, images and other on-screen objects. They can’t end up all over a mobile site’s display when being viewed on tablet and phone screens.
To check if your site is mobile-friendly, use Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool. Similar to the site speed tool, you just need to enter the URL of a page and hit Enter.
You should see something like the message and display in the screenshot above. If your site isn’t mobile-friendly, you may have to talk to your web design and development team. The immediacy of going mobile-friendly will depend on your target audience’s behavior and preferences. More B2B-type of sites tend to be less dependent on mobile traffic, making this item lower on their priority lists. However , ecommerce sites, blogs and affiliate sites usually benefit tremendously from the ability to deliver content to their visitors while they’re on the go.
Fortunately, most CMS platforms have themes that are mobile-friendly out of the box. Most modern WordPress themes were developed with phone screens in mind. A lot of eCommerce platforms such as Shopify and BigCommerce also make it a point to be mobile-friendly.
7. Make your site secure
A couple of years ago, Google also confirmed that using secure (HTTPS) URLs will provide your pages with an incremental ranking advantage. Google cites data integrity as the main reason for rewarding this use of this protocol. More secure sites are able to deliver user experiences that are harder for third parties to compromise. User information also tends to be more secure when they transact or sign in with secure sites.
If you already have an existing site, switching to HTTPS will require some effort. However, it’s a worthwhile investment since you’ll gain better search visibility and your users will feel more confident in sharing their details with you. In time, the added traffic and the quality of user engagement you receive will pay for the costs of making the upgrade to HTTPS.
8. Optimize your on-page elements
Some people tend to make on-page SEO sound like this complicated craft that you need professional help for, but it’s really just a matter of knowing which elements in a typical page affects its rankings and knowing the best practices to optimize it.
When you’re trying to help a page rank better here are the things you need to look at:
- URL Slugs – These are the extensions found after your root domain name in every subpage URL similar to this:example.com/sample-page
Search engines use the slugs of URLs as clues on the page’s context. As such, your URL slugs should be written in real words like the first example instead of random alphanumeric strings as shown in the second example. Make it a point to mention your main target keyword in the slug and eliminate “stop words” such as the, a, and, with and other non-essentials. URL slugs need to be as short as possible while still providing humans and search engines an inkling of what to expect on the page.
- Title Tags – The title tag is the most potent among all the on-page ranking signals that Google considers when assessing a page’s relevance to a given query. This 60-character string of text tells bots and human users in what a page is about in a direct and concise way. As such, it’s the first thing you should look at when you’re trying to improve the search visibility of your pages on Google. If you’re trying to find where the title tags on your pages are, you won’t see it just by reading the contents of your page. The title tag is in your page’s source code and isn’t meant to be seen along with the page’s on-screen content. It is, however, the most visible part of every search listing as it manifests itself as the clickable blue link that headlines each search result.
To make sure your title tags maximize your pages’ search visibility, follow these best practices:
- Keep it within 60 characters including spaces
- Mention your target keyword
- Use the target keyword as close to the beginning as possible in the title tag
- You can mention your brand towards the end of the title tag
- Don’t stuff the title tag full of keywords. Optimize for just one or two
Each page in your site needs a title tag. Even those that won’t be open for search engine crawling need to have this element for the sake of proper labeling.
- Meta Descriptions – The meta description is a 160-character string of text that’s found under the title tag in a search listing and states what a user can expect from the contents of a search listing. While it’s not a direct ranking factor, it does influence a search listing’s click-through rate.
Meta descriptions should encapsulate the essence of a page’s content and give the searcher a reason to click on the heading. You can werite effective meta descriptions by following these guidelines:
- Keep it within 160 characters including spaces
- Make it direct and to the point
- Mention your main keyword at least once
- You can add a call-to-action towards the end
The better your meta descriptions are, the more clicks you’ll get for your listings. This may also help improve your overall search rankings as click-through rates are now believed to be important ranking signals for Google.
- Headline Text – Headline texts carry more SEO weight than any other type of on-screen text in a webpage because they give readers an inkling on what the contents of the page will be about. These lines of text are formatted hith the special H1, H2, H3 HTML tags and so on.The principles of writing effective headline text are similar to that of the title tag:
- Keep it short and direct
- Make it enticing to encourage visitors to keep on reading
- Mention your main keyword once
- If it’s the main headline (H1), make sure it’s the only text formatted as such on that page
Sub-headlines formatted with H2, H3 and other tiers of headline text are also important to properly format. However, they don’t influence search rankings nearly as much as H1 does.
- Image Alt Text – Search engines have come a long way in terms of how they recognize and interpret data in the internet. Google in particular has gotten so much better at assigning meanings to words and comprehending semantic relationships between them. However, one area that they haven’t quite conquered is image recognition. For the most part, search bots still rely on ambient text to get clues on what a particular picture is depicting. To help search engines determine what’s being shown in an image, webmasters can use an HTML element called alternate text (alt text, for short) to tell both human users and bots what they’re looking at. If you’re not quite familiar with it, this is the text that appears over some images when you hover your mouse pointer over them. To help you improve overall on-page SEO, make sure to assign alt text to your images. Oftentimes, you can add or edit this using your CMS platform rather easily. If you’re not quite sure how to do this, you can ask your web developer or designer how you can go about it. When you do that, be sure to follow these best practices:
- Make them brief and direct to the point
- Mention the main keyword that best describes the image
- Try not to exceed 60 characters
- Don’t write just keywords – make the alt text full phrases
As much as possible, add alt text to all images found on your public-facinmg pages. With images that you use in your site’s back end or in restricted pages, the addition of this element is optional.
- Body text – Of course, the rest of the text found in a web page also holds a lot of SEO weight. When writing content for your pages, consider implementing these optimization guidelines:
- User experience and visitor satisfaction should be the primary consideration when designing the page and writing its content
- You don’t have to keep mentioning your target keywords. Write the content in a natural way that readers will love. The keywords will come out by themselves
- If you can mention the main target keyword in the first paragraph, do so. If it’ll look forced and unnatural, forget about it and follow editorial sensibilities
- Link to other pages within your site whenever you are making a legitimate reference to a topic that’s discussed more thoroughly in other parts of your site
These days, it’s widely accepted that long-form content pieces which comprehensively discuss a topic tend to perform better on Google. While this may be the case, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should force yourself or your writers to lengthen your content for the sake of SEO. The important thing is to satisfy the intent of your visitors and to deliver experiences that they’ll find fulfilling.
9. Leverage localized search
In the past several years, Google has made a big push towards making search results more in tune with a searcher’s immediate location. This is evidence by the prominent display of three-pack Google My Business results as well as traditional search results that are more location-specific. If your business targets a city, a state/province or even a country other than the US, local SEO should be placed high on your list of priorities.
While there’s a lot that goes into Local SEO, you can focus on the following areas to get started:
- Claim your Google My Business Make sure to input your correct address, upload some images and get some reviews. Embed the map somewhere on your site. Add as many photos as you can
- Prominently display your business Name, Address and Phone Number (NAP) on all your site’s pages. You can have it in your site’s header, footer or sidebar. If you have a local phone number, use that. 1-800 numbers are fine, but local numbers are better for local SEO
- Get listings on Yelp, YP.com and other local business directories. Make sure to use the same exact NAP as you have on your site
- When mentioning your NAP on your site, be sure to add Schema.org markups
10. Get linked to
In the late 90s, Google revolutionized how search engines determined top results by introducing its PageRank algorithm. Named after Google co-founder Larry Page, this system determined the authority and popularity of websites using the quantity and quality of links pointing to them from other sites. The better a site was at attracting links, the greater its ranking power grew.
These days, Google has otten much better at discerning the quality and legitimacy of inbound links to a site. However, links are still the strongest ranking factor on Google by far. If you want to be competitive in the search rankings for your target keywords, you need to get some links pointing your pages’ way.
Attracting links to your site is a fine art and it’s a topic that we can write an entire book about. However, you the following strategies have been known to be very effective in getting some link love from other sites:
- Build a large and comprehensive content library
- Get your site or business reviewed by bloggers
- Accommodate interviews from industry publications
- Guest blog on other sites
- Share insights as a speaker in industry events
- Hold contests
- Do a sale
Link building may be too work-intensive for some folks. In cases like these, you can look for qualified link building service providers. Some firms specialize only in this aspect of SEO and are able to acquire link placements for you at a cost that’s significantly less than what you’d spend if you try to grind it out yourself.
Overall, SEO is a pretty broad topic that requires a lot of study if you want to gain high-level knowledge on all its facets. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get significant results just by applying the fundamentals. Start with these 10 items and you should be able to gain some headway in your quest for organic traffic growth.
Glen Dimaandal is the founder and CEO of the GDI SEO Service Company, a search marketing agency based in the Philippines. He is a former SEO manager at Fortune 500 corporations and is now a full-time entrepreneur.