I believe in encouraging people to do things for themselves. SEO is a vital part of evolving a website yet many businesses struggle to understand what SEO means and how they can get to grips with it.

SEO is not a dark art, it is an incredibly intuitive process that encompasses many disciplines, from research to writing content and building social media presence. Nobody is a master of all of them but you can take control of key components of your SEO strategy, helping you focus spend on areas where you need the greatest help.

That’s not to say that investing in the services of a dedicated SEO partner (freelance or agency) isn’t a good thing – if you don’t have the resource or inclination to do this properly, then paying a specialist can be a commercially sound decision. SEO is a long-term commitment, you can’t treat it like a toy to be played with for a few months, then thrown to the back of the cupboard. 

This post outlines the top six things that you can do in-house to improve your website optimisation with links to free online tools to help you on your journey.

Set up Webmaster Tools

If you don’t know what this is read the Wikipedia summary of Webmaster Tools. If you haven’t got this set-up, do it immediately – all you need is a Google Account and to add a simple piece of verification code onto your website (either XHTML or HTML meta tag). You can follow the Google instructions.

Key features that Webmaster Tools gives you:

Webmaster Tools Dashboard

  • Ability to submit and verify sitemaps (html & XML).
  • Ability to run diagnostics such as identifying broken links.
  • Audit of crawl errors that you can address.
  • List of most popular search terms that are driving organic traffic.
  • List of the weighting of keywords on your website to help you see how your keyword optimisation is working.
  • List of other websites that link to yours – great when planning your linking strategy (see 6. below).

Webmaster Tools is free and by using it for 30 minutes to an hour per week so can start to make improvements to your site optimisation. A great example is having visibility of broken links so you can feed this back to developers to ensure your site is kept clean.

Develop a content strategy

You need a coherent content approach to ensure that whatever journey a customer takes, the information they find is consistent and helps them achieve their browsing goals. This involves mapping the different types and levels of content you need on your website to cater for the various customer groups and browsing needs. The richer the content, the greater its impact on your search engine visibility for relevant searches.

Start from the top by planning page content to cater for the most savvy web customer, those who are time conscious and just want to find something, take action and leave. Architect your site content to deliver them an intuitive customer journey, then ask yourself what additional content would help visitors who have more questions and want greater product/service detail.

Start to add this content around your core content, using on-page textual and image links. Don’t kill pages with too much content scrolling, use tabs and overlays to manage the customer experience.

If you have a complex product/service and you envisage large amounts of additional information, it might add value to create a knowledge centre that can be accessed in your global navigation. You can then create links on relevant pages to the knowledge centre and integrate the content into site search results.

Below are a few pointers:

  • Define the voice and tone you wish to convey in your content.
  • Identify what different types of content you want to use – product, text, image, video, pdf etc.
  • Integrate all content into site search results.
  • Map your internal linking requirements – how each page links to other pages on your website – and optimise anchor text.
  • When displaying additional content on a page, use overlays to maintain the customer journey – this will help control bounce rate.
  • Use tools like social bookmarking to encourage content sharing.
  • Support user generated content such as customer reviews – use search friendly formats such as RDF to generate this content.

Whenever you are creating content and internal links, relate the copy back to your keyword research to ensure you are maximising your keyword density. However, bear in mind that any content visible to customers must be written to engage them, not just to serve your SEO program.

Keyword spamming will not only irritate customers but will risk the likes of Google thinking worse of your pages.

Carry out keyword research

To know which keyword phrases you need to optimise your site for, you need to understand current search trends.

You want your website to be visible in search results for relevant searches, so avoid using your brand and product expertise to choose the keywords – often this can lead to the selection of sub-optimal keywords.

Using a keyword planning tool you can identify which keyword combinations are attracting the greatest traffic globally and locally. The approach I would recommend is:

  • Take each page of your website sequentially starting with your homepage, then prioritising key product/service pages.
  • Enter keywords and keyword phrases that are relevant to the content of the page you are optimising.
  • Evaluate keyword suggestions and look at the traffic volumes and level of competition.
  • Refine your keyword hitlist to two or three primary keyword combinations.
  • Run searches in Google for those combinations and learn from what other people are doing.
  • Ask yourself if these are the most relevant combinations based on what customers would expect to see when they search for those terms.
  • Keep refining your keyword targets until you are happy you have a relevant selection.
  • Maintain a master database of all the keyword combinations at page level.

Please be aware that keyword research is not a one-off activity. Search trends evolve continuously, so what customers search for now might change in six months time.

The challenge with SEO is to establish your pages in search engine results, then fine-tune your keyword strategy over time to maintain listings for relevant searches and increase conversion by improving your targeting. I would recommend you revisit key pages every three to six months to review and update your keyword strategy, depending on your product/service type.

There are a few useful free keyword planning tools:

Optimise your meta and page content

Meta content relates to the html tags that inform a search engine what a website page is about. They aren’t visible to customers on-page but are important elements of SEO. See below for an html snapshot of a page using the “View source” command that highlights where the meta tags sit:

Meta tags in html

You should base your meta content on the keyword combinations you identified in the keyword research stage. Write your meta content page by page and make sure it is relevant to the purpose of the page in question – don’t fall into the trap of producing a generic set of meta tags and applying them to every page on your site. All the search engines will see is identical content.

Some guidelines to follow:

  • Your meta title should be no more than 60 characters, 70 as an absolute max – you can enter more but the major search engines won’t read the rest.
  • Your meta description should be between 150 and 250 characters – this description should contain your primary keyword combinations but be written with the customer in mind as it’s this text that customers will read on the search engine results page (SERPs).
  • Meta keywords are not as important as they were a few years back but they still add value – use a maximum of 8 to 10 keyword combinations on a single page, don’t try to cram in every possible keyword.

These guidelines are based on my latest understanding from respected SEOs and industry forums – if anyone has an update please drop by and add a comment – SEO is always changing, so happy to learn from others.

Generate sitemaps

The XML sitemap is the most important. Whilst html sitemaps are not as valuable as they once were in the eyes of search engines, they are still useful additions to your website; for the minimal effort involved, I think it is a worthwhile investment of time. Here’s a good example of an html sitemap.

It is important that the sitemaps you create are dynamic such that they automatically update as and when your website changes i.e. deleted pages are removed and new pages are added. This is essential because the XML sitemap tells Google what pages are on your website, so if it contains obsolete links you’ll be indexing non-existent pages and searches will return errors, not good for your SEO or brand presentation.

If you have an extensive product range and large number of website pages (thousands) then it is worth getting your developers to create the XML sitemap, provided they ensure it is dynamically generated to reduce admin cost. Get them to put it on the URL www.mysite.com/sitemap.xml. If you have a small product set and simple website structure, you can use one of the free online XML sitemap generators (just search “xml sitemap generator”), then download the file and add it to your site. However, make sure you regularly update the file and add the latest version to the site. Here’s an example of a retailer’s xml sitemap.

If you use WordPress as your blog engine, it has neat sitemap extensions that you can plug-in to create both hmtl and XML sitemaps. Once you have created your sitemaps, make sure you register them in Webmaster Tools.

Start a link building program

Getting external links from websites with authority is vital to driving your SEO program and search engine visibility, arguably one of the most important elements. The challenge is to identify relevant 3rd party websites and build your links over time, making sure you focus on quality websites and not just volume.

If you get links from poor websites or turn to link farming (which, despite the many contrasting views in forums, is generally considered to be akin to link spamming unless professionally delivered), you could end up damaging your brand.

A few pointers when starting out:

  • Research online to find relevant 3rd party websites and industry voices, bloggers, PR peeps etc with whom you can build relationships.
  • Start joining in forums, discussions, contributing to blogs, submitting articles etc and ask website owners where possible for a link back to your website (note that many blogs use the “nofollow” rule for links which means you’ll not get any SEO benefit other than increased exposure).
  • Optimise your link anchor text for relevant brand and generic keywords – try to vary the anchor text so you have links for a wide range of keywords to gain greater SEO benefit.
  • Audit the external links of your competitors – you can do this using the Yahoo search tool and type in “link:www.mysite.com” – this will show you links to that website – you can then click through and pick out relevant targets.
  • Don’t be shy at contacting website owners, explaining why you would like to work with them and giving them a reason to link to you – think about how you can add value to their website, such as generating free content.

Hopefully that gives you a flavour for how you can make inroads into the wonderful world of SEO using nothing more than your own time and free online tools.

I personally think that companies should be closely involved in their website optimisation strategy, not just leave it to 3rd parties no matter how experienced they are. You need to understand what makes search engines and customers tick; digging into SEO is one way to achieve this. SEO also permeates into other areas of the business in relation to content strategy, PR, marketing etc so it really should be driven internally to ensure there is a coherent approach.

That said, if you need support and don’t have the resource to do this properly, then there are many SEO specialists out there who are incredibly good at what they do and can add a lot of commercial value to your online business. Just make sure you know what you want and have clear goals before you jump into bed.

Recommended reading is Peter Cullen from Interleado’s blog on tips for getting started with link building. 

I would love to read people’s comments so please drop by and add to the discussion.