Search Engine Optimization Principles
Website development involves a number of skills gradually amassed by the developer and his team. Some are almost bolt-on, like Flash development, where the finished product – banner, animation, whatever – as a contained object is placed within the site markup (excluding entire Flash sites) in a discrete container. The website will function with or without the technology (provided it’s done properly, i.e. accessibly). It is not (or should not be) core to functionality.
To separate content from the presentation we use CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) which, if disabled, has arguably the most impact on site look and feel but which, again, should not devalue the content of the site, the copy, if switched off by the user or incomprehensible to some text-based or archaic browsers.
Each of the elements above may be disabled of replaced without great detriment to a website’s core content and can be added piecemeal as components to the development toolkit, expertise for which may either be learned over time as a developer gains competence or recruited as a project resource within a development house.
SEO is Different
Search engine optimization is different because no element – including the markup containing it – may be viewed in isolation. SEO is the sum of the whole. And modification to on-page elements, images, multimedia, CSS, markup tags, will affect the overall performance of a site within the SERPs (search engine results pages). However, don’t expect stunning images to substitute for strong, readable copy, the single most vital contribution to a well-ranked web page.
And it should not be learned in isolation and simply plugged in after the build (although this is how most dedicated SEO and marketing companies generate revenue, once clients recognize their mistakes). Good SEO is inextricably weaved into website development. This is not to say optimization must take place during site construction – it is a skill in its own right – but development under the SEO umbrella gives a website greater opportunity for high SERPs visibility and eliminates much of the SEO costs overheads incurred in post-build optimization since it establishes the markup templates and procedures for future reference as more content is developed and added to the evolving web presence.
Key Components of Successful SEO
For the purposes of this article let us assume a virgin build, a new website commission, and examine some of the key considerations for successful search engine pick-up, assimilation, and ranking.
There are a number of phases to optimization and marketing: research, development, release, and ongoing. The following phase-categorized pointers offer a summarised overview of key activities and, since SEO is largely subsumed within search engine marketing, covers the ground more usually associated with website marketing.
Know the client’s business, their target audience(s), budget and promotion longevity, examine their competitors and their strategies, strengths and weaknesses, take a long, hard look at marketplace competitiveness for openings, research the costs of PPC (pay per click) campaigns, and, importantly, understand the client’s optimization and marketing expectation and goals. This will permit a realistic appraisal of costs against budgetary constraints and establish targets against which to compare metrics once the initiatives get underway upon site release.
Head-to-head visibility bidding, e.g. PPC in a highly competitive market can put enormous strain on budgets and can easily get out of hand unless you can master a niche market or can comfortably accommodate the drain within existing profit margins. Automated bidding software can go some way to help offset this but the real winners will always be the advertising engines like Google (with AdWords) or Yahoo! (Overture). Tightly targeted traffic with a strong conversion rate is a better way to go.
Remember, high traffic levels mean nothing if visitors leave without buying. This is especially critical with PPC campaigns as resources will dwindle dramatically for little ROI if the target audience is not clearly identified and fed the appropriate keywords and the landing page is not properly designed to encourage visitors to click through to purchase.
Even with a sustainable, viable campaign – especially with a perennial market – it is always necessary to nurture a strategy of organic growth, i.e. ensure increasing search engine visibility without the direct costs of PPC marketing or through use of automatically generated pages and other software based keyphrase and ranking aids.
Google Suggest A competitive market can easily be identified by Googling for potential keyphrases. Tools like Google Keyword Planner are handy for a quick appraisal of keyword saturation and will (rather speedily, to my continued satisfaction) dynamically generate lists of suggestions as characters are entered, returning possible words or phrases and their likely volumes by use of its search technology. Yahoo!’s bing webmaster tools (found under the Tools menu) does similar but delivers a static list of words of keyphrases. Where the two differ is in identifying actual search frequency. Google returns likely popularity volumes based on aggregate search history and other factors – likely to be its Page Rank technology; Yahoo! shows prior month search levels, the actual number of searches performed.
One other keyword tool that deserves mention: SEObook keyword tool. It performs a similar duty to Google Suggest but also derives data from it’s own proprietary search results, taken from a growing user base of some one million click-stream users. More on key phrase tools later.
Don’t confuse competitive with voluminous. Holidays (vacationsfor Americans) are intensely competitive but return far less SERPs than ‘website development’, with keyphrases breaking down to market-specific arenas, ‘Cyprus holiday’, ‘holiday in Spain’, ‘Bahamas flights’, ‘cheap holidays’, ‘cyprus hotels’ and all the associated markets and paraphernalia of accommodation and travel. Put simply, there are many more web developers and references to the activity on the Web than there are holiday firms but far more people want holidays than website development. Most marketing generally boils down to supply and demand. Remember that. It lends perspective.
Competitor market analysis
Even armed with a good understanding of your target market and a selection of key phrases, it is important to examine your competitors to see what they’re up to and, where time and/or money permits, understand their marketing strategies. This will include analysis of backlinks (websites linking to their sites), paid directory placements, PPC campaigns, banner or featured advertising — in short, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their campaigns and the effectiveness of their keyphrase visibility across the search engines.
The analysis should include not only direct competitors selling identical products or services but be widened to indirect competitors who, perhaps, have equitable offerings or who provide lifestyle solutions where no single product encapsulates and delivers quantifiable consumer satisfaction. Such an example would be birthday gifts, with an almost infinite range of products or services satisfying the whims and wishes of a planet-wide audience. A more obscure example might be a company offering speed boat trips. Their indirect competitors might be any one of a number of water rides or exhilarating experiences on a holiday island who will be vying to attract visitor attention – and spending power.
Finally, there are future or potential competitors whose strategies may converge on your market. But we’re treading too far from the path …
Now turn your attention to your competitors’ sites. Look at their traffic conversion strategies. Are these aggressive, incentivised (immediate booking or expiry date promotions), step driven (step-1, step-2, purchase)? Are they intuitive for the customer? Or do they promise and not quite deliver to expectation? A slow loading site in a price dependent, mass product retail market will fall by the wayside, as may one with clumsy navigation or poor search facilities, or where lack of clear contact information does not lend confidence to purchase. There may be many areas where your competitors’ sites fall short; examine, identify, do better.
Why bother with the analysis? Keyphrases. Quite apart from a firm insight into the competition and the market you’re about to enter, you will gain a clearer knowledge of the direct keyphrases for your market segments and those which may offer a niche to be exploited.
Keyphrases researched for PPC campaigns may not necessarily be the same as those identified for organic SEO. PPC keyphrases correspond to paid or ‘sponsored’ search results and may not even exist on the target URL (uniform resource locator) or, in common parlance, web page. Those used in organic development support the page itself. Why the difference? PPC can be used to exploit a dynamic, evolving or niche market, with key phrases specifically tailored to match search dynamics. And, critically, they can be updated instantly, with the results visible almost immediately.
Frequently and more usually by businesses with limited marketing budgets, PPC campaigns are used to kick start a new website or promote a new initiative on an existing site to begin building visibility and garner bookmarks. Long term PPC campaigns do exist but these must be carefully monitored and justify the expenditure. Larger businesses run protracted, broad-spectrum campaigns and can support the budgets associated with saturated, high-visibility, brand building where monthly PPC spend hits the 10 or 100 thousand pounds mark.
But back to small business reality. With a limited budget sufficient for web development and little else, the costs of a PPC campaign is usually prohibitive beyond that of a few weeks, and key phrase/word selection is best selected for organic site growth.
To be continued …