If you have your own website, develop websites or deal with SEO on any level, you realize that search engine optimization keeps changing at a frustratingly difficult pace and it can be really hard to figure out what to do. You may even have given up and said, “SEO is DEAD!”
Back in 2007, I started really following web trends. I realized as more and more people were creating their own websites, competition for the top search results was getting tougher and people needed a solution to gain access to these coveted spots. As I really ramped up my business as a developer, I realized I needed to offer other services to stay ahead of the competition. One of those things was bundled SEO services. When I would put a bid in to develop a site, I would always add in site optimization as part of the deal.
Clean Code Then and Now
At the time, I offered to make the site compliant by doing a few simple things. The first thing I offered (and still do) was to create a well-designed site with clean, tableless HTML and a separate CSS file. I wouldn’t say this was “cutting-edge” or anything like that at the time. It was being done, but not on the scale that it is today. And tables were still king! Most clients didn’t care what the backend looked like. They cared what it looked like on the customer facing side. Designers who used Dreamweaver and Frontpage dominated the market with quick and easy sites and a very dense backside with a slew of on-page styling.
Those of us adopting hand-coded notepad style development strategies weren’t completely appreciated. I remember a major turning point with one of my clients. He wasn’t convinced about the new development strategy until I ran some keyword density analytics on his site. We compared a current page to one “clean” page with basic HTML and a linked stylesheet. The difference was enough for him to want to pursue a redevelopment of the backend. At the time, the point was to make the HTML more in line with the content that the consumer was seeing in the browser. When the search bots came around, they would basically be reading through content that appeared to a real user. The bots didn’t have to wade through style definitions such as colors, tables, fonts, etc.
How is this strategy different today? It really isn’t that different. A well designed site should still be one of your main goals. The only real difference is that more and more people are doing this. You can’t stand out as much if you are adopting HTML & CSS best practices, but I can tell you that you will stick out like a sore thumb if you aren’t doing this, and it will land you at the bottom of the search results.
Head Meta Tags, Title Tag , HTML Heading Tags and XML Sitemaps Then and Now
Defining the meta tags such as keywords, description and author were a big deal years ago. Again, this was one of those “must haves” and would really help your search results. Placing a good description and well placed keywords on each page coupled with a relevant Title tag could be a time consuming process, but could really pay off if you did it well. Today the Title tag is still very important and the description tag can be useful. Keywords are often omitted today because most search engines just ignore them. Properly structured heading tags <h1> through <h6> tags were important before and can have an effect on your site today as well. Again, these tags aren’t going to set you apart from your competition because most sites have adopted a clear heading tag strategy to help them clearly define topics and subtopics. The main thing you want to do with title, description, and heading tags is align them with your content so that they all complement each other. If you are using WordPress, you’ll want to make sure you download WordPress SEO by Yoast. It’s free and it will guide you through developing proper tags and content for your site. For example, if you are writing about butterflies, and you title your post “Stuff I Like” – the plugin will alert you that if you are trying to rank for butterflies, you’ll probably want to change the title to include that word in there too.
XML Sitemaps are tried and true that worked back in the day and still work today. Make sure you include one with your site.
Link Building Then and Now
Back in the day, link building was important too, but getting there was very different. A big chunk of the linking involved submitting your site to a countless number of mom-and-pop type directories. This was a good easy way to get those links started and it worked for many years. You’d find a category that fit for your business, write something descriptive, provide your link and just like that you had another relevant backlink for your site. Press Releases, Article Marketing and Social Bookmarking were a big part of creating those links as well. Some people also used link farms, reciprocal linking schemes and paid backlink options, but many of these techniques were abandoned as they began to hurt sites more than help.
Today, none of these techniques is particularly relevant and many of these old school options can actually hurt your site. Social bookmarking might still be a viable option if your site gets a lot of attention on a site such as reddit. People still use all of these options though, but most of these things will add little value. Today, the most effective way to create backlinks is to become a part of a community – forums, blogs, social media communities – and interact with those people. Leave comments, ask questions, help others and guest blog on relevant sites. The pattern of your behavior is all part of how you are viewed by the search engines. If you comment on butterfly and nature blogs, post photos of butterflies on your social media accounts and then blog about butterflies, you are more likely to rank higher with your blog than if you just create the post in a vacuum without any outside communication. Also, if your community sees you as an expert they are more likely to share your links on their own site and through social media. You can’t operate your site by throwing out a few press releases and calling it a day.
Social Signals Then and Now
Social media didn’t used to be the “big player” in search optimization. This was especially true six or seven years ago when social media was more for the teens and college kids and less geared toward business and adults. Even a few years ago when Twitter and Facebook took off for people of all ages and businesses of all sizes, search engines (especially Google) weren’t listening as closely to those social signals. Today the landscape is much different. A recent study showed that social signals accounted for 7 of the 8 most highly correlated factors associated with Google search results. If people aren’t talking about you, it’s going to be hard to rank and make your mark.
There’s no doubt about it, SEO is harder to “figure out” but it’s certainly not dead. Buying 10,000 backlinks or having bots create content for you, just doesn’t work anymore. There’s no easy answer – you can’t stomp your competition with a little known glitch or the latest black-hat tactic. Today, you have to work for your rank. You actually have to interact with people – participate in your field by blogging, using social media and helping others. Combine that with good original and quality content and a well-structured site (content & code) and you should be in a good position to start making it to the top of the search results. Hard work does pay off – even in the world of SEO!