If you're reading this, SEO permeates everything you do. Or at least it should.
The trouble is, SEO isn't a fire-and-forget tactic, and making the most of natural search results requires constant attention. But while SEO is one of the best ways to drive quality traffic to your site, it's also deceptively labor intensive. Precious human resources -- both internal and external -- go into building and maintaining high-quality best practices, and SEO practitioners all say that ranking high in the right search categories is the responsibility of everyone on your team.
But SEO also requires vigilance because it is often about keeping a close eye on a countless array of factors, with no sure way of knowing which are more important than the others, and which combination of terms users will employ to find you. In short, there's a lot to do just to stay current, and even more to do to get ahead of the curve.
But where do you start, and how do you know if any of it's working? Are you winning or losing your SEO battle, and if you've hired an agency to manage your search profile, are they doing all that they can? These are questions that anyone who manages a website should be asking. Unfortunately, the tools for shedding light on these queries aren't as well known among SEO-neophytes as they should be. So, we asked several SEO experts to give us their quick, easy tips for spot-checking SEO.
Work with the search engine
When you hear novices talk about SEO, they often complain that search engines like Google are working against them, as if Google has decided to punish their site specifically. But that's the wrong mentality, according to David Rahmel, chief research officer and EVP for SEO at The Search Agency, who advises all site operators to sign up with Google's Webmaster Tools.
"The data that Google provides is invaluable," Rahmel says. "The tools will tell you what keywords you are ranking for, which keywords are driving traffic to your site, which pages are in the Google index, who is linking to you, and if there are problems on your site."
What does your link text say about you?
Do you want to be the No. 1 website for the phrase "Next Page?" Of course not. But then why are you linking that phrase?
"When you link from one page to another, the search engines use the words in the link text to determine which keyword phrase to look for in the content of the page that the link is going to," Rahmel explains. "Link to your 'strawberry jam' page with the link text 'strawberry jam.' The search engines will confirm that 'strawberry jam' appears in the title, description, and body content of the page that you are linking to and award the page with rankability."
What do inbound links say?
You want all the inbound links you can get, but what really makes the difference, according to Sean Tiner, engagement coordinator at Trinet Internet Solutions, is to make sure that the linked copy from the other website includes a term that people would naturally search for, rather than the name of your website.
Here's Tiner's example: "A cosmetics website can identify key terms, such as 'beauty products,' 'discount cosmetics,' and 'lipstick.' Then, the website can encourage outside websites, including blogs to link on these terms instead of the name of the cosmetics website. Over time, the website will start to position itself on these key terms and improve its search engine positioning."
404 Errors are something to worry about
When a user encounters a 404 error, it means they won't be able to see the content that was once housed at that location, but when a search engine finds the same error, it has no idea what to make of the valuable links that continue to point to that content. When that happens, your site won't get one ounce of credit for the link, says Daniel Riveong, head of search marketing at e-Storm International.
According to Riveong, the solution is to use 301 redirects -- something Google's Matt Cutts also recommends -- to "capture" these bad links and point the user and the search engine to the right page.
Watch your "www"
Does your site display as both YourSite.com and www.yoursite.com? The difference can be subtle to the human eye, but to a search engine, that "canonicalization" can be a death sentence, says Brad Dixon, internet marketing manager at uShip.com.
"A URL is the unique identifier to a search engine," Dixon explains. "You want to chose one way that a search engine sees your site." You should do this in two ways. First, create a Webmaster Tools account, verify your domain as instructed, and then choose whether or not you want Google to index your site using the www or not. Then implement a 301 redirect to the non-preferred URL so that it will forward that name to the preferred one.
"It's somewhat like changing your email address," Dixon says. "You are telling the search engine that Page A has "permanently moved" (301 is the code) to the other official URL."
Keep an eye on the index
You probably add new pages all the time, but how do you know if they're being indexed? According to Jay Bhatti, co-founder of Spock.com, a search engine specializing in people, the answer is to do a weekly spot check of the index.
If you enter the site "YourSite.com" in Google's search box, you can see how many pages have been indexed by the search engine. This tactic helps you tell if your pages are going unranked (something you can determine by checking the index number against your content management system statistics). But checking the index will also tell you how your pages rank in relation to each other. According to Bhatti, many people might be surprised to find that "About Us" pages and other identifiers may rank higher than other content because that's information search engines place a greater emphasis on.
Check your ranking on multiple search engines
Yes, Google is synonymous with search, but Yahoo and Microsoft do account for a lot of raw traffic, and a sound SEO strategy must include multiple search engines, according to Quentin Muhlert, lead SEO strategist at 6S Marketing.
While Muhlert says you can check your rankings on each engine one by one, the process can be rather time consuming. Instead, he relies on tools like Authority Labs for some quick, easy, and free comparative analysis of his site's SEO profile. Another similar tool, recommended by Harry Brooks, director of search marketing at Network Solutions, is Rank Checker by SEOBook.
But no matter what third-party ranking tool you use, many SEO experts agree that those who fail to do comparative analysis on their rankings do so at their peril.
See what the search engine sees
The old rule against Flash-heavy sites is changing since Google starting working with Adobe to make graphics searchable. But search remains a text-focused medium, and that means it pays to see your page as the search engine sees it, according to Steve Gavette, managing director of the search agency Visible.
To do that, Gavette recommends looking at your site in a browser like Lynx. Or, you can click on the "cached" link in Google search for your site and then follow it to the "text-only" link, says Chris Wallace, founding partner and COO The SuperGroup.
Either way, both methods will give you better insight into what the search engine sees when it looks at your website. If you don't see anything at all in the text view, you definitely have a problem, according to Gavette. But according to Wallace, a Flash-heavy site will be just fine, provided that each page's content (Flash or otherwise) is located in a universally accessible location like an XML file.
Give each page special treatment
In most enterprises, it's important to see the forest through the trees, but when it comes to SEO, one needs to be cognizant of both. If the forest is your whole site, the trees are individual pages. But according to Ted Rooke, director of search engine marketing at Nurun, both the individual page and the whole site are equally important because you never know which will drive the user to you.
For Rooke, that means choosing your keywords wisely and then making certain that they appear on each page.
"There is no hard-and-fast rule on what the 'right' keyword density is, but a general rule for each 200-250 words of text is that each target term should be repeated two or three times," Rooke explains. "More importantly, however, is where and how you incorporate your keywords. Be sure the target term appears in the following places within the page: title tag, H1 tag (on-page header tag), and text link within the main navigation."
Title tags say a lot about you
Most sites do a good job of putting relevant keywords in the title text of a page, the trouble is many sites enter the same text over and over again, says Alex McArthur, VP of search for OrangeSoda.
"Spend a minute and look at the title tags of every page on your site and see if you have accurately described the page with your title tags," McArthur advises. "A good title tag will include the keyword you are trying to rank that page for, [but] don't forget to add your company's name [as well]."
But McArthur warns that brevity is also a virtue because many search engines -- Google among them -- will truncate your title tags after 65 characters, including spaces.
If you've ever wondered why some websites have a full-blown directory in the Google results and others offer only a lonely link, the answer is in the meta data, according to Angela Hill, president of the Incitrio agency.
In the example below, Coca-Cola has taken the opportunity to position itself as a worldwide beverage company. OK, that makes sense. We know what it does and what it's about. But what about other websites?
According to Hill, marketers need to be cognizant of what story that information tells a prospective visitor to your site, and that means entering useful copy in your site's meta data that will inspire the user into actually coming to your site to hear more.
Ask about relevance everyday
If you're not asking about relevance, you're definitely failing at SEO, says The SuperGroup's Chris Wallace. "Much like a credit score, no one knows exactly how specific factors affect rankings," he adds. "But as a general rule of thumb, always ask yourself: What more can I offer the users who I want to attract? How can I be the most relevant website on a particular topic? This means an abundance of informative content, and a diversity of content that a user might be interested in. Don't just load your site down with text. Make sure to include PDFs, videos, and even links to outside resources that would be helpful for your users. Do anything you can to make your site extremely relevant and useful for a visiting user, even if that means providing links to outside resources. This will rank you higher in search engines."
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
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