I've always been a baby steps kind of guy when it comes to SEO. According to Google, they, and probably other engines too, look at over 200 different signals when it comes to analyzing pages for rankings. To attempt to optimize each of these signals perfectly would require a significant amount of work and continuous tweaking in order to find the "perfect" combination. Or let me put it another way, the task of creating the perfectly optimized page is darn near impossible.
Some of these "signals" that the search engines analyze are on the page, some are site-wide, and others are entirely off the page where the SEO has no absolute control, if any at all. The goal of the SEO however, is to try to make all of these things work together. They must leverage those things they do have control over, to complement and/or influence those things they have no control over. The idea then, is to create a synergy with the whole that truly is more than the sum of its parts.
I once heard it said about public speaking that if you have to write out your speech word for word then you don't know your material well enough. But if you can't write out your speech word for word then you still probably don't know your material well enough. The meaning here, in case you missed it, is that you shouldn't need to write out what you'll say but you need to be able to.
While looking at every last minute detail of SEO is advantageous, it is effective only to a point. One can't get mired into trying to get every last little detail right all of the time. To do so often comes at the expense other important things. Instead of focusing on the big picture, you're mired in the little things that don't provide the return you may have imagined.
Time vs. benefit
One of the big issues of obsessing over every last detail is the time / benefit ratio. Such minute obsessions rarely pay themselves back with appropriate dividends. Why? Because while search engines look at over 200 signals, I'd say that if you get any 50 of them right or close to right, you're going to be doing significantly well. Don't quote me on that, I don't know my material well enough, so I 'm just making an educated guess.
The key is to learn which signals provide the greatest benefit for the least amount of time involved. For the first five or so, this is fairly easy.
Title Tags probably provide the biggest time to benefit ratio. While you should consider your title tags carefully, it still doesn't require a whole lot of time to craft a 65 character title. If you know what the focus of any given page is then you make sure your title contains those "key words" along with other enticing information for the visitor.
Headings are another easy thing to utilize that can provide the search engines some strong signals as to the overall content of your page. While it isn't always necessary, I strongly recommend using proper heading tags and be sure to keep all your headings organized as you would an outline for a term paper. In other words there should only be one H1 tag and your H3 should not supersede your first H2. Keep things in proper hierarchal context and you'll do fine.
Content takes time, but like the title tag, it is hugely important. Without content, the search engines don't know what your page is really about, only what others say (see the Links below) about it. There is no magic number of words or keyword usage ratio that you should have to focus on, but you do need to write using your keywords and make sure the content is valuable for your site visitors.
Links allow the search engines to know not just what you say your pages are about but what others say about them. In very crude terms, more links mean your page is more valuable and links that reinforce your page topic tells the engines that your page is a valuable resource for that topic. In many cases the search engines place more weight on what other sites are saying via their links to your page, than what you are saying on your page, but both links and on-page content should reinforce each other.
Website architecture also speaks volumes about what pages of your site you feel are more important, or have the best content. A poorly implemented website structure can be one of the fastest ways to inadvertently tell the search engine spiders that they are unwanted. There is no easier way to lose all your site rankings than to screw up your robots.txt file.
This list could go on an on, but the law of diminishing returns starts applying pretty significantly. Is that to say that these are the only things you should focus on with your SEO? Not at all. These are just the first five things that I thought of as important off the top of my head. I'm certain some will disagree with this list or would have put swapped one of my items for something different. My point here wasn't to create an all-important list but to provide some insight as to a few things that should be considered as more valuable in terms of time and benefit.
I also don't mean to suggest that some of the other "signals" much further down the priority list should be ignored. But it is a matter of prioritizing. Get to the important things first, those things which provide the greatest immediate benefit, and then begin focusing on some of the smaller things which do make an impact, just not as great or immediate of one.
Rankings vs. usability
Some consider the rankings vs. usability argument to be akin to the old chicken or the egg debate. Without rankings then you won't get visitors anyway so who cares about usability? But if you focus solely on rankings then you'll get traffic that doesn't convert.
Let me put this into a slightly different perspective. Without good usability you won't be able to convert near the number of visitors that you should be able to. But without search engine rankings you can still get a whole mess of traffic, just from alternate sources. So which is better? Usability hands down.
Yeah, everybody wants to rank well, but we also have to realize there is life outside of the search engines. In fact, sometimes you have to wonder how companies ever got customers before the search engines existed. They did, of course. Just like businesses got customers before radio, TV, magazine and billboard advertising. Search rankings are just one more way to get exposure, not the only way.
But yeah, I get it. Search engine rankings are extremely powerful and I don't mean to suggest that we neglect that whatsoever. Just don't put all your eggs (or chickens) in one basket! Rankings are fluid and search engines make changes. If you rely solely on rankings then you're essentially at the mercy of the search engines. I don't know about you, but I don't want my livelihood to be at the mercy of any one thing that I largely cannot control.
But let's go back to usability. If you have multiple streams of traffic, you need to be sure that you are maximizing that potential. Finding even more streams of traffic is all well and good, but why not focus on getting more out of the traffic you already have. Converting traffic to paying customers is often times far easier than going out and finding another traffic stream. Both will increase your sales, but focusing on usability is far less expensive. Not to mention longer lasting. Traffic streams dry up, but good usability is simply good for business.
Baby steps vs. the big picture
As I said earlier, SEO is largely about baby steps. It's nearly impossible to create a perfect SEOed page all at once. But, over time, you can create a very near perfectly performing web page. Notice here I said "performing". Not all the 200 signals need to be perfect for a page to perform strongly. But how do you get a strong performing web page? By taking just one step at a time, analyzing what's been done, the effect of those changes and then determining what should be done next.
But never neglect the big picture. I'm almost certain that the perfectly SEOed page is one that is far from perfect from the usability side of things. And that's a bad thing. Every baby step you take toward creating a better optimized page should not be a step away from better usability. This means that many of the 200 signals being analyzed should never be optimized for at all. If a change toward SEO harms usability, then you may want to rethink it. On the other hand, if a step toward usability harms SEO, well, that's not always so bad.
There are a lot of factors that are in play in how a website performs at achieving its goals. Knowing and understanding those factors is important, but not everything is worth equal time and consideration. Like giving a speech, you don't need to obsess over every little SEO detail. It's the big picture that is far more important. But you do need to be able to. If you can't, you probably just don't know your material well enough yet.
Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.
If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.
Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.
Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.
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