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Website SEO: Search Engine Optimization 101 for Brands and Businesses

Written by Shannon R

SEO, the acronym for Search Engine Optimization, superimposed over an image of a computer keyboard
As a digital marketer and content strategist who has been practicing search engine optimization, or SEO, since the pre-Google era of the late 1990s, I've seen a lot change from the Web directory-driven days to the now hundreds of factors considered by Google's algorithm.

The one constant is that website SEO, and all that it entails, seems to mystify business owners and marketers, regardless of their background. So, it's no wonder that millions of brands and companies still do not use SEO, despite an abundance of analytical data that has proven its effectiveness and potential ROI.

One reason businesses have been slow to adopt Website SEO is that many, who don't understand the strategy, view it as some sort of cheap gimmick. Another reason is that, for the inexperienced, it can be quite confusing.

While getting started and staying ahead of the proverbial curve in harnessing SEO's game-changing power can be challenging, it simply requires a basic understanding of how SEO works and a commitment of the time and the effort required to get results.

So, exactly what is website SEO? In short, search engine optimization is the process of communicating the purpose and relevance of the pages on your site in a way that helps search engines find and present them to searchers. The ultimate goal of SEO is to get your website ranked high on search engines when people search for terms related to what you do.

To give you a firm foundation, here are the most important starting points for good website SEO:

Page Titles

Title tags are typically the most weighted on-page elements, so I always start by writing a descriptive, accurate and engaging title for each page of a web site. Page titles should be both reader and SEO-friendly, meaning they are easily understood by potential site visitors and search engines indexing your website.

Think of the title tag like an ad headline, since it will not only help your page to rank in search engines, but prompt people to click the blue link on the search engine results page.

Expert tip: Avoid the dated tactic of using ‘keyword phrase one - keyword phrase two - keyword phrase three.’ Instead, write something interesting and relevant that will entice users to click through to your website.

Meta Descriptions

Although the meta description tag found in the header section of a website's HTML web page may now have less bearing on how search engines rank your page, they are still vital. Since these bits of descriptive text often still appear on the result pages of search engines like Google and Bing, they can make the difference between a click-through or a Web user moving on to the next result.

Expert tip: I have found the best traffic-generating meta descriptions to be brief (under 160 characters), incorporate keyword phrases, use active verbs like “shop” or “visit,” and include a call to action that asks potential customers to buy or do something specific.

Headers

In the interest of providing the best possible customer service in the form of accurate search results, search engines want each page on a website to have clearly organized content. In the old-school era when I started (from the late-90's up until several years ago), search engine bots crawled sites seeking only a single H1 title tag and a predictable hierarchy of header tags. This is no longer the case.

Expert tip: I recommend using keyword-rich headers that accurately describe a given Web page's content, especially if your page has a clear topic. Also include several descriptive header tags, including H1 tags.

Alt Text

Including the appropriate alt tag text in images can help your pictures, graphics and illustrations to appear in image results on Google and other search engines; it is also required under the American Disabilities Act to provide access for visually-impaired users.

Expert tip: I advise taking a more detailed approach to helping websites achieve better rankings in the search engines by using more specific alt text that associates keywords with exactly what appears in images. For example, the typical alt text for a picture of coffee often reads

URLs

Your website's URLs should be keyword-rich and unique (but brief). You should focus on three parts of the URL: the domain, the sub-domain and the slug (i.e. https://subdomain.domain.tld/slug). The domain is your website's name. The subdomain is the third level of a domain's hierarchy. And the slug is the part of the URL that describes a particular Web page.

Expert tip: Using an important keyword in your domain name can be useful for SEO. Although still a part of your site, Google and other search engines may treat a subdomain as a separate entity, so be careful how you use them. When it comes to slugs, on content management systems (CMS) like Wordpress they could include anything from the year, category or title of a blog post. Be sure to separate the words in each slug with hyphens, and to remove words like "an" or "the." And at all cost, avoid using any keyword more than once, since Google hates keyword stuffing and will penalize your site for it.

Content

Content is one of Google's top ranking factors, so it's important to fill your website with unique high-quality, informative and valuable content. While the types of content to create will depend on your audience, quality content not only builds brand authority, it increases SEO, making it easier for people to find you on the Web. Conversely, poorly written and irrelevant content can negatively impact your SEO ranking.

Pro tip: I use Google Analytics to determine which pages on websites get the most and least traffic. If there are Web pages that get little traffic, consider consolidating them into a parent page, which will help it rank higher for SEO. Also, keep in mind that repetitive content can also be detrimental to your SEO.

For example, businesses often try and rank highly in suburbs surrounding a certain city or in major cities in a state by having similar pages for each location. While there are ways to target individual cities without hurting your SEO, when done improperly Google considers it manipulative and duplicate content, and you'll face penalties.

Structured Data Markup

Structured data markup is what helps search engines identify product information and other relevant content on your website. Plus, search engines could display some of the information in search results, potentially increasing your click-through rate.

Expert tip: Schema.org is the most common approach to creating structured data markup for SEO purposes. There are a couple of options for adding structured data markup, but I prefer JSON for Linking Data or JSON-LD structured data snippets (so does Google). Structured data is easy for Web developers to work with and to integrate into your site templates.

HTTPS or HTTP/2

Search engines prefer secure websites and rank them above a non-secure one when all other ranking factors are equal. It's easy to understand why. Above all, search engines want to protect their users from intruders tampering with communications between websites and users' Web browsers. Some attackers have truly malicious intent (to steal information for identity theft, for instance), while others want to place ads on your Web pages to increase their own revenue.

Expert tip: If you haven't already done so, I urge you to transfer your website from HTTP to HTTPS (HTTP/2 is even more secure) to protect all communications, keep user information private and help your website rank higher in search results.

Crawl Errors

Crawl errors happen when a search engine bot tries to reach a page on your site to index it but fails at it. Site errors (including DNS errors, server errors and robots failure) and URL errors are crawl errors that indicate pages on your site are unreachable, for whatever reason. Correct these errors and better indexing and SEO ranking should follow.

Expert tip: I like to use the Google Search Console, a free service that lets you to check the indexing status of your site, which provides a crawl errors report that I identifies when the Google search bot is having difficulty reaching any of your pages—something that could help identify deeper technical issues.

On-site SEO

Above all, building a sound SEO strategy requires a strong foundation on your site, such as:

  • Unique content on each page
  • Internal link architecture
  • Search bot accessibility
  • Good Sitemaps
  • Sound URL structure
  • Server HTTP status response codes

Expert tip: Although these tech terms sound intimidating, they're everyday speak for experienced Web developers. Hire a competent professional to perform a comprehensive audit of your website and make sure you have a rock-solid foundation.

Conclusion

Website SEO can humble even the most seasoned site owner or marketer. Not having a firm grasp of it can holds back any site from reaching its true potential of ranking higher on Google and elsewhere. With tactical know-how and proper planning, you can leverage SEO to get better results on search engines, which is a vital part of online success.

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