You’ve got your website. Now all you need is for people to find it. You can email links to people till the cows come home, but the way most people are going to find you is through a search engine.
Spend any time trying to do business on the internet, and you’ll come across the acronym SEO. It stands for Search Engine Optimisation, and it pretty much does what it says on the tin. It’s a strategy for optimising your website so that search engines will favour it over other, similar sites.
In other words, if you run a record label that sells ambient electronic music online, you want to be at or near the top of the search engine results when anyone types the words ‘ambient’ or ‘electronic music’ into Google or any of the more than 200 other search engines around these days. Even if you’re the only game in town — say, an avant-garde remixer of 1930s bluegrass recordings — you still want to be found by your niche audience.
Fortunately, there are some very proactive things you can do so that when somebody types the name of your band into a search engine, your band is what they find. I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 things that will affect your SEO — in no particular order.
1. Meta tags
In the code of each page of your website, between the <head> and the </head> tags, is a place to put metadata information. Metadata is information about the information that can be found on your website.
There are three main categories of web page metadata: Title, description, and keywords.
The title metadata on your page is crucial. That’s what shows up in the blue bar at the top of your browser and it’s what your browser’s bookmarking and navigation remembers. To a search engine, that is what your page is essentially all about. There’s a real art to writing a good search-engine-friendly title.
So… knowing this, it should come as no surprise to you that having the same title on each page of your website is a complete waste of time. If the titlebar of your browser doesn’t change as you click from page to page in your website, it needs fixing. You need title metadata on each page.
This is particularly important if you have a record label, and each page is about a different artist. If the name of the record label is all that shows up in the title bar on every page, you can be assured that people are searching for your artists by name in Google and not finding them on your site.
Search engines will use the description metadata as the text it uses to describe your page in its results. This also counts toward the overall relevance of your site for the topic in question.
The keyword metadata is where you should put a list all those things (including misspellings) that you think people will be searching for when they want to find your page. For this page, I’d use terms like ‘SEO‘, ‘top 10 SEO‘, ‘music website‘, ‘web help‘ — stuff like that. I’d tend to use other terms for other pages that are about other topics.
Overdoing the metatags can be counterproductive though. Google knows when you’re just trying it on. Go for half a dozen to a dozen really relevant keywords. Think about the kinds of searches that your website would be a good answer to.
2. Header tags / bulletpoints
Search engines are pretty clever. They’re not just looking at the keywords and metatags to figure out what the important terms in your site are. They’re also interested in anything that is a header of some description — either with an <h1>, <h2>, <h3> descriptor tag — or even just something that’s in bold or italics.
Headings, subheadings and emphasised words are a good indicator that this is what’s important on the page, and so that’s what the Search engine algorithms remember. You should bear that in mind when composing a page on your website. Ask: “what are the most important phrases, and would they be the kind of thing I’d like people to have been searching for when they found me?”
Again, word has it that overdoing the emphasised words can be counterproductive. A good rule of thumb is five per page.
3. Link text
What you link to is very important, as it connects you to a network of other similar sites. While you may not wish to help your competitor by linking from your site to theirs, bear in mind that it helps you as much as it does them.
More importantly, carefully consider the words you use to link to the other sites. Using the phrase click here or this link is next to useless, because it contains no information other than the URL itself. However if you link the words Birmingham punk label to an actual punk record label in Birmingham, then you’re giving good information, for which you will be Googlingly rewarded.
4. Site map
This requires a bit of extra expertise in the web design department. You have a website, and it has sections, pages and subpages. One of the most helpful things you can do for your website visitors is to provide a sitemap like this one at Flickr. It helps them find their way around, and locate the content they want easily.
Better still, it helps the search engine ‘spiders’ (software that crawls through websites, indexing the pages for the search engine) to do the same thing. A sitemap is an addition to your website that will improve your findability, and increase the profile of each individual page on your site.
Wikipedia has a good, brief article about sitemaps — and, more importantly, some good links to places that will generate a sitemap for you with little or no effort at all. There’s also a good sitemap plugin for WordPress — the blogging software I use on this site.
5. Relevant inbound links
This one, of course, is a little more tricky than most — but it’s the pot of gold at the end of the SEO rainbow. This is when websites other than yours link to your pages with helpful linking keywords. To the search engines, this is evidence of relevance, authority and reliability. The more inbound links you have, the more reliable your site will appear to Google & co. — and up the rankings you will go.
This is where your distributed identity will come in handy. All those membership pages you have that link back to your real website count towards this. As do all those relevant, intelligent and insightful comments you’re leaving in other blogs that link back to your site. All good stuff.
Even more importantly, people need to be clicking on those inbound links. If my site sends a person to your site, your search engine rankings improve. You become exponentially more trustworthy the more sites link to you. After all, if 1000 people are linking to your website, you must really know all about that topic that’s described in your keywords — and so, you’d better go right up the top of those results.
Here’s the one thing you probably have more control over than anything else: the words on your site. If your website only has 20 or so words on each page, and the rest is made up of images, mp3s and videos, then there’s not too much a search engine can do with that. Likewise, if you have screeds of dates, venues and times, but no actual descriptive information or narrative, there’s no real meat for a search engine (or a human brain, for that matter) to grasp hold of.
Having said that, images can be of use to you if you remember about the ALT tags. That’s the alternative text information that shows up if the image doesn’t load, if your visitor is using a screen reader (for the visually impaired, usually) or even if the visitor just hovers the mouse over the image. Make your ALT tags descriptive and keyword-laden.
7. Choose the right keywords
It’s all very well writing great headlines and putting good metadata in. It’s great that you’re linking relevant-sounding phrases to the pages that will be helpful. But, as you know, people are a problem. They’re unpredictable. They’re likely to choose poorly when searching for sites like yours. I think that a good search term that should help you find this site is ‘online music business‘. In fact, far more people will search for ‘internet record label promotion‘. Having the right keywords is a bit of a guessing game, and something of a juggling act.
There are some websites online that will help you find the keywords that people are using to search for sites like yours. Most of them will charge you money. You can search for them online if you want to use them — but my rule of thumb would be to anticipate unfocused thinking, and you’re probably about 80% there. And you can keep your money.
8. Updating content
It turns out that having good, relevant content is not enough. Nor is having large quantities of content. As far as Google is concerned, a far more worthy indicator of relevance is how regularly updated that content is (this is why blogs are so great for SEO).
You could create the perfect website and not want to touch it for years because you think it does and says everything you want it to. Give it a few months, and Google will think it’s a ghost town and not send people there any more.
Write and post often. If your website doesn’t change every week, you’re not doing something right. Daily is even better.
9. Beware Flash & Java
If pages with animated Flash intros have to have ‘Skip’ buttons on them, why would you bother with the Flash animation in the first place? In fact, if you ask me, Flash is of limited use other than for distracting web games and video embedding. Search engines can’t read your flash animation, so they’re just ignoring it. If that’s where all the good content lies, then it might look great — but you have successfully hidden it from the outside world.
You want to use text, and you want to use images. Sparingly.
10. stick with your domain name
While it’s true that newly updated content will result in smiles and benevolence from the search engine people, your site itself should be well established. The older your site, the more trusted it seems to the search engine people. This is why changing your domain name is never a decision to be taken lightly. You’ll have to build up that track record from scratch again. Sometimes that’s worth doing — but hardly ever.
Bonus tip: Google’s pretty smart about tricks. Putting in lots of keywords, generating hidden text (white on a white background) with screeds of SEO-facing keyword-riddled content or making links on all your social networking sites and clicking on them hundreds of times each will only result in a downgrading — if not an outright ban — of your site on the search engines. After all this effort, that would be a disaster.
It might seem back to front, but if you write with your target audience in mind, rather than try and play the game to get noticed on the search engines, then you’re probably going to be far more successful with SEO for your website.
Do it right, but just make sure you do it. No point spending all that money on a website if you’re just going to hide it like that, is there?