The realm of search engine optimization and marketing is vast. In this land, Google is king. There has been pressure from Sir Bing and crazy old Yahoo!, but King Google seems to have control of the empire for the foreseeable future. Navigating this realm is confusing, partly because the rules are always changing. King Google starts enforcing a new decree. Suddenly the home you worked so hard for near the peak of Mt First Page has been wiped out.
But enough metaphor. As a designer and web developer I’m often asked to assist companies with making their sites search engine friendly. And without getting into too much detail, here is a simple system I’ve started using for small sites. This is for the benefit of designers who barely understand the basics of SEO and aren’t that interested in studying beyond them. Obviously there are paid solutions such as Google AdWords, but here we’re looking at the bare minimums you should be doing that cost nothing apart from your time.
The individual elements are nothing new. The big three are the title tag, the meta description, and the visible page copy. They’re all related and need to be developed with that thought in mind. So below I’ve outlined a progressive way to go about the process.
1. Get a list of keyword phrases from your client. They know their business better than you do. Have them specify which ones they consider as the top five to ten. Then take the remaining steps for each page of the site.
2. Read the entire page. Write down all words or phrases that you would consider to be the topic of any sentence or paragraph. You may end up with a long list.
3. Compare this list with the list of keywords supplied by the client. Do they generally match up? Don’t get too picky here, but if none of their top keyword phrases are on this page, that’s a problem. Suggest copy changes that will introduce their keyword phrases. Any keyword usage should sound natural. Don’t make it sound forced and don’t overdo it. Google will punish you if they decide you’re keyword stuffing.
4. Upon copy approval, update your list of keywords from that page. Write your meta description based on this list. Your description should stay below 160 characters. Note that meta descriptions are not taken into account by Google for page rankings. However, if your list of keywords truly reflects your page content and you’re using the keywords naturally, your meta description will be accurate and helpful. So why do I consider the meta description important if it’s not used for page ranking? Let’s say you’re listed on the first page of results. Great! But you still need people to decide to click through to your site. Google will usually display your meta description as the description or “snippet” of your page in their search results. Making it accurate and appealing will improve the chances of people clicking through to your site—people who are most likely to be interested in what you’re offering.
5. Finally, create your title tag. This is the single most important element in your search engine optimization process. Take the meta description you wrote in the previous step and simplify it until it is a maximum of 70 characters. You now need to truly focus on keywords. This does not need to be in sentence format. Include the most important keywords at the beginning of the title. If you choose to include the company name in every title tag, put it at the end. Do you need to include LLC or INC in your company name? If not, get rid of it. Every one of those 70 characters is precious!
There you have it. That’s a simple method for determining your primary keywords, making sure your website content is on target, and tying it all together with simple search engine optimization practices.
What’s that? What about meta keywords? Don’t bother. No really, don’t bother. No, really. I know this is difficult to accept. Meta keywords have been used for years and many of your clients base their whole understanding of search engine optimization around meta keywords. Convincing them not to bother will be a challenge, but no major search engine uses them to increase your page ranking.
According to Google Software Engineer, Matt Cutts, “We don’t use the keywords meta tag in our search ranking.” And again, “We don’t use that information in our ranking even the least little bit.” See for yourself.
And to back up what I said earlier about meta descriptions, here again is a quote from Matt Cutts: “Even though we sometimes use the description meta tag for the snippets we show, we still don’t use the description meta tag in our ranking.”
Search engines handle a daunting task. They’re sifting through a bunch of materials created by people marketing themselves. They’re trying to determine validity in the sea of self promotion. You have to be really clever to successfully use deceptive practices these days. My advice: don’t bother. Understand basic search engine marketing practices, clearly state what your website is about, and accurately reflect your content in all aspects of your site.