If you're just getting started with search engine optimization, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the information and all the details getting thrown around on blogs and discussion forums around the web. While good optimization skills take time to build, it's quite simple to get started.

(SEM Bootcamp articles are no-frills content designed to bring small business owners up to speed on the concepts and techniques needed to market their businesses online.)

Taking a quick read through these five steps and following the links to articles that share more in-depth information can go a long way toward helping you build a good understanding of what organic optimization is all about.

Step 1: Build a Site the Search Engines can Read

I'll be absolutely honest with you. Nothing else you read in this article is going to matter if you don't follow step one. Nada, zip, zilch.

Can't stress it enough.

closed.gifThe single most important thing you can do when it comes to achieving organic success is to make sure the search engines can actually read and index your content. It seems so simple, but it gets ignored so often. If you're preparing to launch a new site or to redesign an old one, the absolute first thing you should do is sit down and make sure your entire team understands the very basics of indexable content.

Your team should understand common SEO problems created by technologies like all Flash sites, Javascript, Session IDs, too many parameters, poorly written robots.txt files and so on.

Not taking search engine friendly design into account before building your site is akin to building your store in the middle of the desert and turning the lights off if a review happens to stumble by. Sure, you may still get traffic, but you'll be shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to reaching your full potential.

That said, it's not as simple as making sure the engines can read your site. You'll need to take steps to make sure your site isn't just readable, it's optimized.

Step 2: Understand Keywords

keywords.gifThe next step you need to work on is deciding what keywords and keyword phrases you want to target with your site. It doesn't matter if the engines can index your site if you aren't serving up content that targets keywords and phrases. Sure, you'll end up pulling some long tail traffic no matter what you do, but as with step one, you severely limit the potential of your web site if you don't work on understanding and targeting the proper keywords.

You'll need to to start by brainstorming the types of words and phrases people might use to describe your products and services. From there, you need to use a keyword research tool to find out what variations people actually search for. Next you need to look at your keywords in the context of the keyword buying cycle to see what the intent of a searcher might be when using those phrases.

Finally, you'll want to break your list of keywords down into categories so you can work on a plan to integrate them into your web site.

Step 3: Create the Right Content

Once you've figured out which keywords you plan to target and you've segmented them out into groups, consider which keywords can be worked into your existing content and which keywords will require you to write new content.

writing.gifKeep in mind the need to mix keyword friendly content with user friendly content. It won't do you any good to increase your rankings if your copy isn't compelling to your visitors. There are plenty of great articles out there offering up advice on how to integrate keywords into your content.

For those who have studied the idea of the keyword long tail, you can rest assured that good, natural language writing mixed with an understanding of keyword phrases can result in legions of well qualified and highly engaged site visitors.

Step 4: On Page Optimization

Basic on page optimization can go a long way toward helping improve your rankings and search traffic. Learn what Title tags are and how to craft better ones. Avoid common problems like having the same Title tag on every page of your site, or simply using your business name as your Title tag without any other content.

titletag.gifUnderstand when meta tags can be useful (description tag) and when they're practically worthless (keyword tag.) Learn how to properly use the ALT attribute to gain some search benefit, but more importantly, to service visitors who will rely on it. Learn how to identify and deal with canonical issues, especially if you run a site that can be reached via multiple domain names.

If you run a large site, consider exploring the use of nofollow for PageRank sculpting, but proceed with caution as doing this wrong can cause a lot of damage to your site.

Step 5: Build a Reputation by Earning Links

Once you have your site up and running, it's absolutely essential that you work on building links. A good site with good content will attract links naturally, but you'll often need to do something to get the ball rolling. Registering your site with some of the more respected directories is a good start, as is submitting it to local search sites if you run a brick and mortar store as well.

links.gifBeyond that, it's a good idea to build a list of contacts you'd like to approach about gaining a link and to consider what you have to offer in exchange for that link. Great content, free tools, reciprocal links, blog coverage and even your own profile on social media sites can be a great way to get the ball rolling.

While it's a good idea to learn a bit about what the search engines value in a link, it's mostly common sense. Build lots of links from respected sites that serve audiences similar to your own and you should be fine. While you're at it, remember to build links to your internal pages, not just your home page.

(Keep in mind, if you plan to purchase links, you need to be aware of Google's requirements on nofollow and should make your decisions according to how much risk you are wiling to take on.)

July 11, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Wow Jen,

Great beginner post. I was just having a discussion with my team on search friendly navigation.

The client's web designer had put all the navigation in Javascript so when our writer who was working on on-page optimization went to work from a list of indexed pages they only had about 1/4 of the site.

So now we have to first change their whole navigation structure -- then on-page.

Oh well -- another day...

Love the use of graphics in this one, nice write-up Jennifer

Great article...except, *most* search engines can now read the text within flash content and soon will be able to read dynamic content as well - hooray!

Jack, you said:

"*most* search engines can now read the text within flash content"

Two things I'd respond with.

1.) Can and DO are not the same thing.

2.) Even with the announcement that Flash will be *more* readable, there are still quite a few other issues with Flash sites, especially ones that reside at a single URL and simply swap out content instead of leading to unique URLs for each area of the site. The fact that search engines can and may do a better job of indexing the content does not mean Flash sites will suddenly be on par with HTML based sites when it comes to organic optimization.


How much did Robert pay you to leave that comment? He's always after me to work harder on my graphics. ;)


Forgot to address this as well. Re: dynamic content. Search engines have no problems reading and indexing dynamic content now, as long as it's served up in a way that leads search engines to access it. (not locked behind passwords or requiring the use of forms and dropdown boxes to create it.)

The issue with dynamic content isn't usually the content, it's the method of delivery for that content.

Nicely done. Organics success is a long-term strategy with short-term gains I always say...

Great comprehensive post, thanks!

Page optimization is certainly important for organic search results. However, it is the lesser part of the equation. The real key is one-way inbound links to your site. The number and quality of those links is what determines your ultimate search engine rank.

These are good basics Jen. Nice job! I think I would have left out the PR sculpting thing though. I know you put in a disclaimer, but the majority of sites just don't need to worry about it. Heck; I don't worry about it for any site as it's not worth the effort.

Thanks for the very informative tips on building an excellent website.......I will try to use some of these in the future.............

Outstanding article Jennifer, great high-level overview with a drill-down to more detail. One comment and one question. The comment: nofollow tags are evil. A link is a link. If the W3C won't drop this from the HTML standard, then Google should at least ignore it.

The question: I've read a lot of posts on both sides of the issue of using absolute vs. relative links for internal links on a site. My conclusion is that it doesn't really matter. Your thoughts?


I agree with you that NoFollow is evil, but Google isn't going to ignore it. In fact, they are the driving force behind it with their new paid links crusade.

As for absolute verses relative links, Stoney had a great article on this last month. I'd suggest you read it as he covers the issue far better than I could here in the comments. :)


@John Spohr

"Page optimization is certainly important for organic search results. However, it is the lesser part of the equation. The real key is one-way inbound links to your site. The number and quality of those links is what determines your ultimate search engine rank."

a. this is a begginer post.. beginners shouldn't do links, they can seriously get a client's site banned if they don't know what they are doing.

b. you are completely WRONG. Google PR rank 0 *(actually not indexed in PageRank system, hence links don't mean poo poo, too many people like you abused that SEO technique), anyways, PR 0 or no PR at all ranks #1 out of 52 million or #4 out of 472,000,000.

c. beginners to SEO... forget about all the link crap you read.. PROVIDE GOOGLE WITH UNIQUE CONTENT THAT DIRECTLY REPRESENTS YOUR KEYWORD TERMS.

d. proper meta tags DO work...

Incredible post! I love how you pointed out that you needed to sit your whole team down and make sure they understand SEO. If your web designer doesn't understand that CSS is read better than tables- then your whole site can be designed in the wrong way. Great post! Thanks!

I love your article about organic success. It's really great.

We just put together a list of success links on our website. If you would like to be added just send me an email.

Take care!

These are great SEO tips.......more webmasters should read this article.

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > SEM Bootcamp: Five Steps to Organic Success