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Search Engine Optimisation for Beginners – a Layman’s Guide

If you own a website, you’re probably aware of Search Engine Optimisation (or SEO).  A little time spent applying some simple SEO techniques to your website will be worth the effort in terms of increased visitor numbers. 


But where to start?


The best time to think about SEO is in the planning stages of your website so it can be written and designed with SEO in mind.  This will save you time and money, especially if you have engaged the services of a web designer or copywriter and you have to go back to them to make costly changes.


Your website must appeal to its intended market.  Remember that no matter what the purpose of your website is – be it to sell products or services, share information, ideas or specialist knowledge – design and write your website for your visitors.  No matter how highly the search engines rank you, it’s not Google who’s going to place an order for your products or services – if users aren’t immediately engaged by your website they’ll wander off in search of your competitors’.  So make your website attractive, relevant and interesting and make it easy for visitors to navigate and to find the information they’re looking for.


If, like the majority of people, you only discovered that SEO existed after your website went live, don’t worry. There are plenty of things you can do to crank up your site’s popularity.


Research your Keywords: It’s worth doing some keyword research to find out what search terms users are typing into the search engines.  This is a big subject area to cover in a short article, but there are some very good resources available to help you.  Google has a very good (and free) keyword research tool that will help to get you started, but if you don’t mind paying for an all-singing, all-dancing, report generating keyword research tool, look no further than Wordtracker’s website.


Choosing which keywords to use is a bit of a balancing act.  If you find a popular keyword or phrase that thousands of users are searching with every month, you’d immediately think, “Great – I’ll use that to optimise my site”. 


But hold on for a moment.  There’ll be a huge amount of competition from other websites using that same word or phrase.  Take, for example, the phrase “Website copy writing”.  Type this into Google and look at the number of results returned at the top of the page.  At the time of writing it shows a figure close to 13 million.  Are you ready to compete with that?  How many pages do you think you’d need to scroll through to find your own website? It’s not impossible to rank well of course – somebody has to get that number one spot.  But let’s be realistic.  Let’s shorten the odds a little in your favour.


Try this next: type the phrase “Website copywriting” (all one word this time).  Google returns just under a half million results.  Now we’re getting somewhere.  


To reduce the competition even further, try narrowing your key phrase to a geographical location.  Type the phrase “Website copywriting in Somerset”.  The field has narrowed to a mere 13,200 results (at the time of writing).  Of course, not quite as many people will be looking for a website copywriter specifically in Somerset, but those that are will stand a much better chance of finding your website than your competitor in Dorset! In summary, then:


·        Find a balance between a keyword’s popularity and the competition for using it


·         Look at common misspellings and alternative spellings for your keywords


·         Think about targeting your potential visitors using geographical parameters.


Keyword research is a fascinating and rather addictive hobby once you get started.  There are lots of good books on the subject and many online resources, too. 


Meta Tags: Meta tags are an element of your website that a visitor won’t see, part of the coding behind the scenes. The title tag tells the browser what text to display in the browser’s title bar. The description meta tag is particularly important, as it helps the search engines decide what your website is all about and appears under the title in search engine results.  The description should persuade visitors to click through to your website, so it should be well-written and relevant, but should also contain some keywords.


Website Content: This is the text and images that visitors see when they visit your website.  Search engines love content.  It helps them decide what your website is about.  But be careful – make sure that your content is unique (i.e. don’t just copy someone else’s – the search engines have ways of finding out!), and don’t repeat the same information on each page. Each page of your website should have a unique purpose and identity (and by the way, the meta tags should reflect this on each page, too).


It goes without saying that your content should be well-written, grammatically correct and free from errors.  If this is not your strongest point, engage the services of a copywriter experienced at combining website copywriting and Search Engine Optimisation. The text is the backbone and purpose of your website and it will be money well spent.


Make sure that you update the content on your website regularly.  There are two main reasons for this.  Firstly, fresh, interesting and relevant information gives your visitor a reason to come back to your website.  Why would they bother if nothing ever changed? Secondly, the search engines like new content on a website – it tells them that the website is current and therefore more likely to be useful and relevant to search engine users.  This is why blogs are often very successful at ranking well in search results, as they are updated regularly.


Optimise each page of your website for two or three keywords or phrases at most.  If you try for any more, the search engine may not fully understand what that page is about.  Sprinkle your keywords throughout the page (in headings is a good way of showing the search engines that the keyword is an important one), but don’t over-do it.  If keywords account for more than about 15% of your content, it may harm rather than help your ranking.


Build Links: It used to be the case that if you provided a link to someone else’s website, and they returned the favour, everyone was happy and the search engines smiled on you.  Not anymore.  The search engines are way more sophisticated these days and can detect artificial attempts to boost a website’s ranking. Reciprocal links are still fine if the site you’re linking to contains content that is relevant to yours, but it may actually harm your own website’s ranking if it doesn’t.  


One way links pointing to your website are far more valuable to you.  The best way to encourage other websites to link to yours is to make sure your content is well-written, informative, relevant, helpful and unique.  This will make your website a good resource for others to link to and perhaps even establish you as an authority on the subject.  Relevant links to your website not only boost your ranking with search engines, the increased amount of traffic improves your chance to generate more business.


There are many ways of building links to your website:


·        Submit your website to the many free directories (but make sure that they’re relevant). Some directories give one-way links, others ask for a reciprocal link


·        Exchange links with similar websites to become part of a large, pooled resource of information


·         A blog can be linked to your website and updated regularly


·         Professional forums can be useful as they often enable you to include a link in your forum post when you contribute (but not always – check their rules)


·         Write articles that include a link to your website and submit them to article directories


·         Make use of online social networking and media websites


·        Ask your visitors and satisfied customers to provide a testimonial and link to your website


Link-building takes some time and effort but keep plugging away and you’ll be surprised how soon your links grow.


Pay for Results: Everything we’ve talked about so far will reap results with no cost to you whatsoever (unless you’ve already taken fright and engaged the services of the first SEO company to promise you page one ranking). But it does take time and effort. 


If you want quicker results, have you considered paying for your website to appear higher in the search results? You might have heard of sponsored advertising campaigns, or “pay-per-click”. The most well-known is Google. 


Put in very simple terms, you set a budget, write a short, well-written advert that gets your message across and select the keywords that you want your advert to be found for.  The idea is that when a user types in one of your selected keywords, your advert will be scooped up and displayed among the sponsored ads.  If the user clicks through to your website, you will pay a fee to the search engine.  This is where you have probably heard of the phrase “pay per click”.


There are all sorts of variables involved.  For example, if you choose very competitive keywords, you may have to pay more per click to get your advert shown more often or nearer the top of the sponsored ads than someone else.  If your budget is not set very high, your advert won’t appear every time your keywords are used.  You can bid on each keyword or phrase, setting a maximum that you are willing to pay per click.


It all sounds very complicated but take a little while to look at Google’s Starter Edition which helps you to create and manage your adverts.  Once you’ve got the hang of it you can graduate to their Standard Edition, which puts you more in control and offers many features for you to play with.  Be warned though – this is addictive!  Once you start seeing which of your ads are working and which are not you can’t help but tinker with them constantly!


The main benefit of PPC adverts are that you will get instant results.  An appealing advert will start generating extra traffic to your website almost instantly, unlike SEO.  You can pause your ad campaign at any time, change it, promote time-limited special offers etc. and analyse the data generated by your campaign to see what is working and why.


What Search Engines Hate: You should have lots of ideas to help your SEO along by now, but here are a few things to avoid, things that don’t help the search engines at all:


·         Websites that use frames:  Search engines have trouble navigating them and may not be able to index a frame-based website.


·         Cut and pasted text from MS Word: Don’t cut text directly from Microsoft Word and paste it into a web page.  It will contain all sorts of formatting clutter and search engines hate having to navigate clutter.


·         Flash animated landing pages:  Some websites use Flash animated landing pages that require the user to click through to the home page of the website.  Not only can search engines not index Flash intros, many users are irritated by being yet another click away from the page that might contain the information they’re looking for.


·         Buried pages: A web page that is more than three clicks away from the home page may not be found by the search engine.  Just as importantly, it may not be found by your visitor, either!


There are lots of other things to avoid, but we’d be getting into rather technical realms that are beyond the scope of the true lay person.  If your web designer isn’t aware of them, he should be, and you should be looking for one that is! 


You’ll have reached the conclusion by now that search engine optimisation is a very big subject.  But it’s not rocket science.  A little knowledge will take you a long way and if you’re prepared to put in the time to research the best way forward for your website, you will reap results.  It’s an ongoing process, though, requiring continuous tweaking and experimenting over a period of time.  It’s also a learning curve, but I have found it to be an enjoyable one – a fascinating insight into search trends, and very, very addictive!   

Mandy Cochrane

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