Search Engine Optimization - be your own SEO master
I wanted to write a short article on 'being your own SEO master' for a number of reasons. Firstly, to many SEO is black box. It is misunderstood and it's complexity is perceived to be far more complex than it actually is. Yes there are more complex elements to it, however lets not worry about these just now.
The web is littered with pages on hints and tips. What works and what doesn't. So how do they know what works and more importantly, how do we know it still works? This is an important point. In fact, most of what you read is the generic stuff, the things that are pretty fundamental, and will likely always be part of search engine algorithms. What you don't get to hear about as much are the little things which make a difference. First and foremost, the sites that do list some of these things, fail to make the point that their article is a snapshot in time. It may have worked then, it might not now.
As i said in some of my previous articles, each search engine has their own algorithm. Their own unique fingerprint. This is a program which looks at many different factors and determines the order that their results are displayed. They continually change it so that they stay one step ahead of the game. Imagine if everyone knew what the algorithm was looking for? The search engine results would be interesting. It's important to understand that given enough time, a competent SEO analyst would get closer and closer simply using a process of elimination.
So why is all this important?
We know SE algorithms are the key in SEO. We also know that they look for certain things (non technical description!) when determining where to place any one web page. Let's call these 'things' parameters (that will be as technical as i get). So our aim is to find out which parameters are important and which aren't. Difficult to know where to start. This list can be as large as you want to make it (more being better). Remember the more things you check, the more likely you will find things that work and other things which will not be so important, at least for the time being. Let's start with a shorter list of 15 things:
- number of words on the page
- keyword density
- link density (how often keywords are included in links on the page)
- link prominence (where keywords are used in the links, how high up the page they are)
- prominence of keywords (not links) on the page (how high to the top of the page they are)
- use of keyword variations on the page
- number outbound links on page
- number of inbound links to page (see my guide on the importance of building links and who to link with)
- Use of keywords in Title
- Use of keywords in meta data
- Are keywords in bold / underlined / italics / different colors
- Use of H1 / H2 / H3 tags
- Rotation of keywords in external inbound links (how frequently keywords are used in the anchor text)
- Connection of page to social media sites (.i.e. Facebook / twitter / Digg etc)
So now we have a list of 15 things. The fact that i have used a few examples that in know are are important, is irrelevant. Of the ones that are important, how do we know which ones are more important than others? Which ones do we focus on? For the purpose of illustration, let's assume we don't know which ones are important.
SEO is about analysis. This is an area i understand well. I manage software testers within a large UK bank (go easy on me - my 'bonus' wouldn't buy you a good night out). Training someone to be a good software tester requires the individual to have good analysis skills, and SEO is only different in as much as you don't have technical documents telling you how the algorithms work. That's not to say we can't find out. We merely need to reverse engineer the process.
In the testing world, we would have the requirements, the design and the build before we tested. We would then need to find out whether he results were in line with expectations. In the SEO world, we have the results. We just don't know what the requirements or design looks like.
When we look at a website that is in the #1 spot on any of the search engines, they are there because they are the best fit, at least according to the algorithm. We could say their configuration of parameters has resulted in their page being ranked #1. I keep saying we don't need to re-invent the wheel, and the same is true here. Understanding what the configuration looks like is the first step to understanding what works and what doesn't.
Jumping on the analysis bandwagon
Don't be put off by the word 'analysis'. It may sound dull and cumbersome but we do it every day. Most of us compare prices before we buy something in the same way we might look to see which route is best to get from A to B. It's all analysis.
Now let's go back to our 15 parameters we selected above. Let's also give ourselves an example keyword, for the sake of illustration. Let's assume we are trying to rank for 'Edinburgh Car sales'. We stick it into the search (whichever search engine) and we see our top listed site. We now need to collect data for each of our 15 parameters. For instance, how many words do they have on the main body of their page? What's their keyword density? How many outbound and inbound links do they have? There are tools for most things (for instance keyword and link prominence) online however it might be a good idea to invest in an SEO analysis tool, especial if your serious about SEO. Now that you have your data collected on the top ranking site, move to #2, then #3 and so on. Do the top ten sites (or more) and record the data on excel (or something similar).
From there it's about identifying trends. Seeing what works. Some parameters won't be as important as others, and you should be able to spot these, given enough data. Remember that all parameters are not going to carry the same weight or importance. In truth there is no conclusive way to accurately determine the order of importance, but you can get close. As part of this analysis, you can't underestimate the importance of backlinks to your web page. It is hugely important. Sometimes you will see the top site that has a very high keyword density (a density you think is way too high), has not followed most of the SEO logic that everyone seems to say is so important, and yet their ranked #1. Often these sites will have a large number of links to their page from relevant sites. Something that they are doing is to the liking of the algorithm. Keep looking. If they have a high number of backlinks, that could be it. Check the logic across other keywords. If your logic holds true, we know that volume of quality backlinks is more important than keyword density.
That doesn't mean we should ignore keyword density. It might not be 'as' important but could still make a difference. I will always look at the number of backlinks to a page in line with everything else. Often i will go down the results to find a page that is ranking and doesn't have a lot of backlinks. These are the sites that you get a cleaner picture of what works as they are there for many of the smaller things they have done. See what they have done and do the same yourself. If they have a keyword density of 15%, make sure your keyword density is 15%. Remember, the algorithm is a program. It is looking at thousands of different things. The closer you match things to a web page that is ranked well, the better you will rank (which stands to reason).
Remember to keep a track of your rankings before you undertake any work. You should look to then periodically check your rankings to look for improvements or things which might have negatively impacted your results. Remember, the best way to see if something works is via results. It is wise to keep backups of your files so that you have the ability to be able to revert them back, should there be a need.
You should also be keeping a track of the links that you build.
SEO isn't a one off activity
I'll finish up here by reiterating that SEO is not something you do once, then sit back and reap the rewards. The search engines change their algorithm fairly frequently, which is why you see results that always seem to be on the move. Identify which things are important through your analysis and record them. All subsequent analysis will be reconfirming that the things you have identified previously (known as regression testing in the testing world) are still important. Some will be and some won't. To keep ahead of the game, expand your analysis (look at more things) and do it often. The sky is the limit. The more parameters you analysis, the better your results are likely to be, if you apply your findings to your web page (or site). It's up to you to decide how far you go. You are your own SEO master.