Search Engine Optimization Tips
How To Tweak Your Site
To be able to make changes to your site, you’ll need to be familiar with:
- Basic HTML coding (to change the code)
- FTP software (to upload the code to your server)
All this information is available on the web–that’s mostly how I learned it. If you enjoy computers and like learning new things, go for it! Here’s a good HTML tutorial. For FTP sotware, I recommend Filezilla or Fetch.
The Power of the Homepage
All things being equal, a homepage will have more potential to rank well in search engines than other pages. So the following advice pertains just to the homepage of your site. It’s good to optimize pretty much every page of your site for a different keyphrase, though. Once you’re done optimizing your homepage, you’ll probably know enough to be able to tweak the rest of your site.
Homepage Title Tag
The title tag is the text you see at the top of the browser window, above the address bar. It’s the most important spot on your site to put your target keyphrase–Google gives it more weight than any other kind of text on your site.
Terry Schafer, a guitar teacher in Naperville, Illinois, is currently ranking #1 in Google for “Naperville Guitar Lessons” primarily because that’s what’s in his title tag. It’s also the name of his domain, though this has a much smaller effect on rankings. He wrote to me, “[My wife and I] figured that’s what people would type in to find guitar lessons in Naperville. It worked. I get a lot of competition now and the economy has taken it’s toll, but I’m still doing well.” Here’s his website. Terry asks that you please respect his copyrighted material, including his lovely logo.
How people-friendly should your title tag be? On one hand, few people notice your title tag while they’re visiting your site. On the other hand, it’s the most prominent text in Google’s search results, so it shouldn’t look too spammy. It’d be nice if title tags could be both well-optimized for Google and enticing to humans, but the two are often mutually exclusive.
Note that while Google indexes title tags of any length, it snips ones longer than 66 characters in the search results. Bummer. Users will miss out on the text that was cut off, and it looks messy. I recommend 66 characters or less.
Include your business name in the title tag. People want to know where they’re headed, and introducing yourself right away with a business name sets you apart from those who don’t have one: It says, “I’ve got my act together.” One exception would be if your business name is huge (over about 30 characters). Even then, see if you can shorten the name while still keeping the important bits (e.g. I could shorten “Heartwood Guitar Instruction” to “Heartwood Guitar”).
After the business name, I like to use a pipe symbol (|) as a divider.
Finally, add your primary target keyphrase.
Here’s what my title tag looks like:
Heartwood Guitar Instruction | Seattle Guitar Lessons <-- 53 characters! It all fit!
A “heading” is text that’s been designated in the site’s HTML as big and important. Google appears to give a little more weight to keyphrases found in headings than in other kinds of text. Feel free to re-order the words in your keyphrase a bit–“guitar lessons in Chicago” is probably just as good as “Chicago guitar lessons,” and easier to fit into a sentence.
Heading tags are ordered from h1 to about h6, with h1 being the biggest and most important. If you can, use an h1 heading, but any will do.
By default, headings are bigger than normal body text, though this can be changed to fit the aesthetic needs of your site using CSS (here’s an excellent tutorial). Even so, you shouldn’t try to camouflage headings by making them look identical to the body text. Very clever, but Google is on to you.
Sometimes adding a heading to your homepage looks obnoxious no matter how you style it, and if that’s the case, just skip it.
For example, the heading on my homepage says:
Looking for guitar lessons in Seattle?
Homepage Body Text
Your target keyphrases should come up once or twice in the body text of the homepage. It can be hard to do without looking spammy–do your best.
Homepage Meta Data
Back when Al Gore designed the internet, meta tags were supposed to help search engines index sites. But–surprise, surprise–spammers filled them with irrelevant keywords to boost their traffic. Now most search engines ignore them when calculating rankings.
The meta description is still important even though it doesn’t affect search rankings. It’s usually listed under the title tag in Google’s search results, so it’s a great chance to clearly describe what your site’s all about (if it’s not clear in the title tag), or perhaps entice users with some snazzy marketing language.
The meta description can help make up for a keyword-stuffed, user-unfriendly title tag. Think of the title tag as an antisocial rock star, with tons of fans, but who’s always punching reporters and arriving at the Oscars loaded. The meta description is its PR agent.
For example, the title tag of the Handbook’s main page is:
Guitar Teaching Handbook | How to Teach Guitar
Lots of great keywords in there, but not exactly a line of poetry. But my meta description is:
Share music. Spread joy. No starvation required.
The meta description’s straightened the title tag’s collar and wiped the coke of its nose. It’s ready for the public!
Meta keywords have gone the way of the yellow pages, the measles, honey bees, hand-written letters, and stand-alone bowling alleys. The dominant search engines ignore them, and you shouldn’t give them much thought.
If you’re worried about showing your hand to your competitors, just leave meta keywords out of your code. Otherwise, it won’t hurt to include them, and who knows–maybe some day dial-up modems will be cool, people will flock to drive-in theaters, the milkman will come to your door every morning, and the search engines will change their minds about meta keywords.
So what keywords should you use? The ones in your target keyphrases, plus some names of neighborhoods near you, if you like. Each word should be separated by a comma.
Done! Or, if you dare continue…Experts Only…
Completing the steps listed above makes about 90% of onsite changes that an experienced SEO would make. The other 10% is pretty technical, not that important, and if you screw up one of the following steps (the Canonical Link Element), you risk creating a black hole that will destroy all of creation. But if you have the skills, here’s what you can do….
Many versions of a URL can lead to the same page:
The problem is, Google treats each of those URL’s as a separate page when it gives you credit for your inbound links. For example:
In this case, your strongest URL just has 200 links. If you consolidated your links, you’d have 280.
One way to avoid diluting your inbound link juice is to make it hard for users to visit more than one URL for a given page. This is most important for your homepage URL. Choose one canonical (“original” or “standard”) version, and always use that when creating internal links.
If you’re using relative links, link like this:
instead of this:
Canonical Link Element
Google and the other major search engines recently agreed upon a new link element that identifies canonical URLs. Awesome! They still recommend using other methods, but this is a good backup.
Put it anywhere in the homepage <head>. Replace the blank with your canonical homepage address.
<link rel="canonical" href="http://_____"/>
<link rel="canonical" href="http://www.heartwoodguitar.com"/>
Image Link Alt Text
Google treats the alt text of image-based links similar to the anchor text of text-based links. If the alt text of an image is “Jabba the Hut,” and that image is linked to another page, Google will associate that target page with the keyphrase “Jabba the Hut.”
Most websites have a logo in the navigation bar that links to the homepage. If yours does, it should contain the homepage’s target keyphrase or keyphrases.
Note that the alt text is what appears when a browser can’t render an image, and software for blind users reads the text aloud. So you want it to be user-friendly, too.
alt="Homepage | Seattle Guitar Lessons"
A quick and easy way to fix this is to add redundant navigation (using basic html text) to the bottom of every page of the site. I know your middle-school teacher told you redundancy is bad in writing, but on websites it’s often a good thing, because it gives users more than one way to find your informaition. So it’s not only good for SEO, it’s good for usability, too.
Continue to Instructions for Monitoring Your Site’s Traffic