1. Commit yourself to the process. SEO isn’t a one-time event. Search engine algorithms change regularly, so the tactics that worked last year may not work this year. SEO requires a long-term outlook and commitment.
2. Be patient. SEO isn’t about instant gratification. Results often take months to see, and this is especially true the smaller you are, and the newer you are to doing business online.
3. Ask a lot of questions when hiring an SEO company. It’s your job to know what kind of tactics the company uses. Ask for specifics. Ask if there are any risks involved. Then get online yourself and do your own research—about the company, about the tactics they discussed, and so forth.
4. Become a student of SEO. If you’re taking the do-it-yourself route, you’ll have to become a student of SEO and learn as much as you can. Luckily for you, there are plenty of great web resources (like Search Engine Land) and several terrific books you can read. (Yes, actual printed books!) See our What Is SEO page for a variety of articles, books and resources.
5. Have web analytics in place at the start. You should have clearly defined goals for your SEO efforts, and you’ll need web analytics software in place so you can track what’s working and what’s not.
6. Build a great web site. I’m sure you want to show up on the first page of results. Ask yourself, “Is my site really one of the 10 best sites in the world on this topic?” Be honest. If it’s not, make it better.
7. Include a site map page. Spiders can’t index pages that can’t be crawled. A site map will help spiders find all the important pages on your site, and help the spider understand your site’s hierarchy. This is especially helpful if your site has a hard-to-crawl navigation menu. If your site is large, make several site map pages. Keep each one to less than 100 links. I tell clients 75 is the max to be safe.
8. Make SEO-friendly URLs. Use keywords in your URLs and file names, such as yourdomain.com/red-widgets.html. Don’t overdo it, though. A file with 3+ hyphens tends to look spammy and users may be hesitant to click on it. Related bonus tip: Use hyphens in URLs and file names, not underscores. Hyphens are treated as a “space,” while underscores are not.
9. Do keyword research at the start of the project. If you’re on a tight budget, use the free versions of Keyword Discovery or WordTracker, both of which also have more powerful paid versions. Ignore the numbers these tools show; what’s important is the relative volume of one keyword to another. Another good free tool is Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool, which doesn’t show exact numbers.
10. Open up a PPC account. Whether it’s Google’s AdWords, Microsoft adCenter or something else, this is a great way to get actual search volume for your keywords. Yes, it costs money, but if you have the budget it’s worth the investment. It’s also the solution if you didn’t like the “Be patient” suggestion above and are looking for instant visibility.
11. Use a unique and relevant title and meta description on every page. The page title is the single most important on-page SEO factor. It’s rare to rank highly for a primary term (2-3 words) without that term being part of the page title. The meta description tag won’t help you rank, but it will often appear as the text snippet below your listing, so it should include the relevant keyword(s) and be written so as to encourage searchers to click on your listing. Related bonus tip: You can ignore the Keywords meta tag, as no major search engine today supports it.
12. Write for users first. Google, Yahoo, etc., have pretty powerful bots crawling the web, but to my knowledge these bots have never bought anything online, signed up for a newsletter, or picked up the phone to call about your services. Humans do those things, so write your page copy with humans in mind. Yes, you need keywords in the text, but don’t stuff each page like a Thanksgiving turkey. Keep it readable.
13. Create great, unique content. This is important for everyone, but it’s a particular challenge for online retailers. If you’re selling the same widget that 50 other retailers are selling, and everyone is using the boilerplate descriptions from the manufacturer, this is a great opportunity. Write your own product descriptions, using the keyword research you did earlier (see #9 above) to target actual words searchers use, and make product pages that blow the competition away. Plus, retailer or not, great content is a great way to get inbound links.
14. Use your keywords as anchor text when linking internally. Anchor text helps tells spiders what the linked-to page is about. Links that say “click here” do nothing for your search engine visibility.
15. Build links intelligently. Begin with foundational links like trusted directories. (Yahoo and DMOZ are often cited as examples, but don’t waste time worrying about DMOZ submission. Submit it and forget it.) Seek links from authority sites in your industry. If local search matters to you (more on that coming up), seek links from trusted sites in your geographic area — the Chamber of Commerce, local business directories, etc. Analyze the inbound links to your competitors to find links you can acquire, too. Create great content on a consistent basis and use social media to build awareness and links. (A blog is great for this; see below.)
16. Use press releases wisely. Developing a relationship with media covering your industry or your local region can be a great source of exposure, including getting links from trusted media web sites. Distributing releases online can be an effective link building tactic, and opens the door for exposure in news search sites. Related bonus tip: Only issue a release when you have something newsworthy to report. Don’t waste journalists’ time.
17. Start a blog and participate with other related blogs. Search engines, Google especially, love blogs for the fresh content and highly-structured data. Beyond that, there’s no better way to join the conversations that are already taking place about your industry and/or company. Reading and commenting on other blogs can also increase your exposure and help you acquire new links. Related bonus tip: Put your blog at yourdomain.com/blog so your main domain gets the benefit of any links to your blog posts. If that’s not possible, use blog.yourdomain.com.
18. Use social media marketing wisely. If your business has a visual element, join the appropriate communities on Flickr and post high-quality photos there
Be bold. Use the <b> </b> tags around some of your keywords on each page. Do NOT use them everywhere the keyword appears. Once or twice is plenty.
Deep linking. Make sure you have links coming in to as many pages as possible. What does it tell a search engine when other web sites are linking to different pages on your site? That you obviously have lots of worthwhile content. What does it tell a search engine that all your links are coming in to the home page? That you have a shallow site of little value, or that your links were generated by automation rather than by the value of your site.
Become a foreigner. Canada and the UK have many directories for websites of companies based in those countries. Can you get a business address in one of those countries?
Social bookmarking. Make it easy for your visitors to social bookmark your website, creating important links that the search engines value. There are plenty of free social bookmarking widgets available. We offer The Bookmarketer
Newsletters. Offer articles to ezine publishers that archive their ezines. The links stay live often for many years in their archives.
First come, first served. If you must have image links in your navigation bar, include also text links. However, make sure the text links show up first in the source code, because search engine robots will follow the first link they find to any particular page. They won’t follow additional links to the same page.
Multiple domains. If you have several topics that could each support their own website, it might be worth having multiple domains. Why? First, search engines usually list only one page per domain for any given search, and you might warrant two. Second, directories usually accept only home pages, so you can get more directory listings this way. Why not a site dedicated to gumbo pudding pops?
Article exchanges. You’ve heard of link exchanges, useless as they generally are. Article exchanges are like link exchanges, only much more useful. You publish someone else’s article on the history of pudding pops with a link back to their site. They publish your article on the top ten pudding pop flavors in Viet Nam, with a link back to your site. You both have content. You both get high quality links. (More on high quality links in other tips.)
Titles for links. Links can get titles, too. Not only does this help visually impaired surfers know where you are sending them, but some search engines figure this into their relevancy for a page.
Not anchor text. Don’t overdo the anchor text. You don’t want all your inbound links looking the same, because that looks like automation – something Google frowns upon. Use your URL sometimes, your company name other times, “Gumbo Pudding Pop” occasionally, “Get gumbo pudding pops” as well, “Gumbo-flavored pudding pops” some other times, etc.
Site map. A big site needs a site map, which should be linked to from every page on the site. This will help the search engine robots find every page with just two clicks. A small site needs a site map, too. It’s called the navigation bar. See how the second navigation bar at the bottom of Last Minute Florida Villas is like a mini-site map?
Thanks to Matt McGee and David Leonhardt.