Search Engine Optimisation Guide
“How can my business website rank well on Google?” is one of the most commonly asked questions we get from local business owners. The topic of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is a huge one, with a seemingly unending set of rules that are ever-changing – but there are some key fundamentals that are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
In truth, the 80/20 rule applies – if you do the basics well, you’ll probably be ahead of your competitors. And when it comes to SEO, all you need is to have to edge over your competition – particularly for a local businesses looking to rank well for local searches.
Let’s start by stating the obvious. Google is very clever. Search engine optimisation is not about trying to trick search engines – it’s about maximising the likelihood of your site ranking well when someone searches for what you do. In short, it’s about establishing relevance, trust and authority.
Some aspects of search engine optimisation are easy to do. These are the things that you have direct control over, largely the way your site is built, structured and the content. Other aspects are harder to do as they include things that are largely outside of your direct control – such as getting other websites to link to yours.
Typically this is referred to as on-page vs off-page SEO.
In the short term, you should ensure that the basics of on-page SEO are done – both when building your site and when you update it or add content to it (hint: this is a good thing to be doing!).
In the long term, over time you can start to build your site authority by focusing on off-page SEO. This aspect of search engine optimisation is harder to do but that shouldn’t put you off – plus it’s far less likely that your competitors are doing this well.
SEO experts claim that off-page search engine optimisation is where the gold is – however, as long as you get the on-page search engine optimisation done, you’ll be ahead of the competition.
The key to good SEO is to provide a good user experience.
The more relevant and useful your site content is, the longer visitors will stay on your site and the more favourably Google will look upon your site. So your primary focus should be on creating the very best original content (that is not duplicated on other websites). You should keep building your content over time – gradually this will enhance the authority of your site.
In this guide, we’ll focus on three key aspects of search engine optimisation in a logical order:
Basic website optimisation
In this section we’ll cover off the key technical aspects of how your site and pages are built for ideal search engine optimisation. These are things that you would typically focus on getting right at the time your site is built or refreshed.
This is simply how your site pages are organised. A logical site structure or hierarchy explains to search engines what your site is about and indicates what the most important content is. A big SEO tip is to not think about getting your website to rank on search engines but individual pages, since every search engine result links to one page (which may well not be the homepage).
This is why each page of your website should focus on a particular keyword/phrase. The site should have a pyramid-shaped structure, with related content grouped together.
Your site should have a clear structure and navigation menu that guides users to relevant pages easily. Try to keep your menu uncluttered, ideally with no more than 7 top level sections. If you have a very large site, consider having two or even three levels of navigation.
This is a list or index of all the pages on your site showing how your content is organised. It helps search engines to properly crawl and index your site. The Yoast SEO Plugin makes creating your XML sitemap easy. The sitemap should be submitted to Google using Google Webmaster Tools.
Typically around half your site traffic may be coming from people using a mobile device. Mobile friendly sites – sites that automatically re-size depending on the size of the screen – will rank higher for mobile searches. You can check if your site is mobile friendly using the Google Mobile-Friendly Test.
If your are using a content management platform such as WordPress to build your site, it’s worth installing plugins such as Yoast SEO. These make it easier to implement many of the on-page search engine optimisation tips covered in this article.
Keywords, Content and Page Optimisation
This section is all about the actual content. When it comes to search engine optimisation, content really is king. This should be the primary focus of your SEO efforts – both when creating your site and adding content to it on a regular basis.
This is perhaps the area of greatest confusion when it comes to SEO. Keywords are not just words – they are the most common phrases that people search for when looking for your product or service. Let’s call them key phrases for clarity.
These phrases should be used and prioritised within your site content – but don’t artificially overuse them, you should keep the language natural and aimed at the reader, not search engines. Definitely avoid content that looks spammy (known as ‘keyword stuffing’).
Focus on one primary key phrase per page – remember, search engines will index and link to individual pages rather than the site as a whole. Include variations of your primary key phrase within the page content.
How to brainstorm for key phrases to use:
- describe your services in the language that your customers actually use
- focus on the problem your product or service helps solve
- for local businesses, specify the areas (local towns and villages) you serve
- Google Keyword Planner can help (you need to have a Google Adwords account)
- look at competitor sites for ideas
This is the actual content of your pages. As explained above, it should include your key phrase (typically at least 3 times) and variations of it. Longer articles are more likely to rank well, so aim for at least 300 – 400 words for pages that you are trying to rank – and longer if you can (Yoast SEO recommends 900 words).
Tip: If you really want to go the extra mile, create cornerstone articles (such as this one). This is long-form content (around 1000 – 2,500 words per page) that focuses on your most important topics. What you are trying to achieve is a level of authority within your area of expertise.
This is the page link that shows in the browser. It should include your main key phrase for that page, with individual words separated by a hyphen. The URL should also mirror the site structure – e.g. www.domainname.co.uk/section-heading/specific-page-name.
In WordPress the URL is called a permalink and you can specify the default permalink structure of your site (you should use the Post name structure). You should avoid the URL being too long, short URLs are better so keep them tight.
This is the <title> tag (or name) of the page and appears the top of the browser window (when you hover over the page tab) and on search engine results. Your page title should be descriptive and include your primary key phrase. Try to keep it to 50 – 70 characters in length. Every page should have a unique page title.
Tip: if you have a WordPress site you can manually set a title tag in the Yoast SEO plugin.
Page Headings and Sub-Headings
As in any document, these are headings and sub-headings that structure your content for easy reading and scanning. Technically these are specified using H1 and H2 tags. You should always include your primary key phrase in the main heading (<h1>heading</h1>) and variations or related keywords in sub-headings (<h2>heading</h2>).
This also naturally ensures your key focus terms are included near the start of your content, which will help.
Tip: only have ONE H1 tag per page and make this your primary key phrase.
Internal and Anchor Links
Internal links are links from one page to another within your site. Anchor links are links to content on the same page. You should include both liberally where relevant and they should use descriptive text.
Pages with similar or related topics should be interlinked. If you have created cornerstone content, ensure related pages link to that content.
Generally you don’t want to direct people away from your site, but carefully selected links to high quality third party websites will improve your search engine optimisation rather than detract from it.
Tip: make external links open in a new tab.
This is a brief summary of what the page is about and is only visible to search engines. It is the content that Google uses when listing your page in the search results. The meta description doesn’t directly impact on SEO, but it will impact on the likelihood of people clicking through to your page (CTR – click through rate) so there is an indirect benefit.
Each page should have its own customised meta description that includes your key phrase for that page. Keep it to a maximum of 156 characters and make it as enticing as possible so that people will click through to your page.
Image Alt text
This is ‘alternative text’ or alt tags that describes to search engines what your images contain. It is one of the many factors that search engines use when ranking your site. Add descriptive alt tags for images on your site that include your key phrases.
How to keep improving your SEO
Search engine optimisation is not a tick box exercise – there are things that you can keep doing to maintain and improve your search engine optimisation once your website has been built. Much of this is classed as off-page SEO and can take longer to achieve – especially backlinks.
A growing site that is regularly updated with fresh content will keep your site SEO healthy. Using a content management platform like WordPress makes site updates easy to do yourself.
Tip: maintain a regularly updated blog section and focus on evergreen content that won’t become outdated.
How fast your site pages load is one of the signals used by Google’s algorithm when ranking your site – and also impacts on the overall user experience. There are plenty of technical aspects that affect your site speed – too many to cover here – but you can test your site speed using Google’s PageSpeed Tool.
Installing a security certificate can give your site a minor ranking boost – however they are not free. It’s an area to keep an eye on developments – at the time or writing, it is reported that the Chrome browser will start to label all non-HTTPs pages as “not secure”.
These are inbound links (other sites linking to your site pages). You should try to encourage legitimate backlinks, including relevant local directories and social media platforms. PR can help achieve high value backlinks.
You can check your website’s inbound links at the Moz Open Site Explorer.
These are online references to your business’s name, address and phone number (NAP). They are particularly important for local businesses and should be accurate and consistent across the Internet (i.e. exactly the same). This will help establish the authority of your site.
The longer a website has been around, the higher it’s likely to rank. However, as this is outside of your control, there’s not much you can do about it! Just bear in mind that SEO improvements take time to happen, so your patience will be rewarded.
Google My Business
Be sure to claim or create your business listing at Google My Business and then optimise your listing as explained in our article Is your business optimised for Google My Business?
Google Analytics is a tool to help you monitor your website traffic. This will inform you what your websites most popular content is (which is a good hint for what to focus on when adding content to your site). It will also tell you where the traffic is coming from – and plenty more. Be sure to check your site analytics regularly.
You can set this up at Google Analytics and if you have a WordPress site you can use a plugin like Google Analytics Dashboard for WP to access a simple version of your analytics from within your site Dashboard.
This is the number of people only looking at one page of your website and then clicking back – typically having done a Google search. A high bounce rate is bad for search engine optimisation, so you need to try to ensure users spend longer on your site and click through to pages within your site by having useful content and making it easy to navigate, with plenty of calls to action.
These are internal links that link to deleted pages. You should avoid this to ensure healthy site optimisation. If you have a WordPress site you can install a Broken Link Checker plugin to find any of these and fix them.
This is quite technical, but rich snippets are a structured data markup language that is added to HTML content to allows search engines to better understand the content. This can be used for example for testimonials – these should adhere to the reviews schema. Using tools such as ReviewsMANAGER can help make this easier.
These are links to products that earn you commission if people go on to buy. They can potentially be harmful for search engine optimisation, so to safely use affiliate links, they should always be nofollow.
Here ends the Search Engine Optimisation Guide!
This article is not intended to cover every single ranking factor – since there are hundreds of them. It is a guide to some of the most important things you can do to ensure your website search engine optimisation is up to a decent standard.
Here at Hotspot Marketing we include the factors detailed in parts 1 and 2 when building a WordPress website for our clients.