Friday, July 16, 2010

Search Engine Optimization: Plug Your Nose and Fix Your Site

Today's columnist is Emma Jane Hogbin from HICK Tech. Emma writes:

This week I was almost completely consumed by search engine optimization (SEO). It's the topic for a chapter in my new book on building Drupal websites and it's the subject of an SEO class that I'm teaching at the beginning of August. As a result, I was studying the competition and comparing search results for phrases like "php drupal" and "php drupal help" and I was obsessing with click-through and conversion rates.

And then I got side tracked.

Using Google, I looked up the following terms:

If we compare the results of these four searches we'll see most people use the term "software" with occasional forays into "program" and that the most popular regions for any combination of these terms are from India, South Africa, New Zealand, and the UK.

GIMP ranks well in all four search phrases, but only the first link yields a top-ten result for Inkscape. What's up Inkscape? Why aren't you in the top ten and how can we make you do better? SEO to the rescue! Before you get covered in hives and think that SEO is just for marketing wonks, let's take a look at how all projects, products, and businesses can benefit from a little bit of site optimization.

What is SEO?

One of my top-favourite SEO specialists over at RankStudy defines SEO as "the process of enhancing both the content and the reputation of a Web page in order to improve search engine rankings and meet your top prospects at their immediate point of need." This definition gives us four key areas of focus:

  1. Content: this is the quality of the words and phrases you use on your site, including the semantic value you give that content. Headings are more important that plain text; page titles are more important than headings.

  2. Reputation: this is the quality of incoming links, including the key phrases used in the link text as well as the popularity of the sites who link to you.

  3. Top prospects: who's got the potential to become a user, a developer, or a raving fan that gives presentations at user groups? You want to create content to attract the people who will do the most for your project.

  4. Match visitor needs to site content: this is the pairing of your "most wanted outcome" with your visitor's "point of need." If your visitor needs a tutorial to help them with their user group demo and you want them to become a developer there's a mismatch between what you want and what your visitor wants.

Seeing Your Site Through a Search Engine's Eyes

Every single page of your Web site should have a purpose with an intended audience and a most-wanted outcome. Whether you're trying to attract users or developers, take a good look at every page on your website and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What's the point of this page? Who needs to read it and what should they do after reading it?

  • What are the key phrases or keywords for this page?

  • What's the Wordle for this page?

  • Does the Wordle have the key phrases it needs for the right type of visitors to find this page?

  • What are key search phrases that visitors are currently using to get to my site? (If you're not using some kind of analytics package, shame on you! If you're looking for an open source alternative to Google Analytics, take a look at Piwik. Their demo looks amazing.)

Find out what keywords your competitor sites are using. You can "view source" of individual pages to look for the meta tag that holds the keywords for that page, or you can have Google scrape out the keywords they think are important using one of their free tools:

Not only will you get a list of terms, but they'll also tell you how popular the term is and how heavy the competition is for that keyword. Find terms that are high on search volume, but low on competition.

Need even more ideas? Try the suggestions that Wordtracker gives you.

Making Your Site Better

You should now have a huge list of all the key phrases you should be using and it's time to apply them to your site. Here are the steps to getting your site ranking highly in search engines so that you can find more top prospects at their point of need:

  1. Add keywords from the mega list to relevant pages.

  2. Give your pages unique titles and juicy keywords. Inkscape: this is a cheap win for your site. Make those page titles unique and I bet your key phrases will (almost instantly) jump way up in the search engine rankings.

  3. Add markup to content to improve the semantic value of your keywords. Break your page into content that has headings and otherwise emphasizes important text.

  4. Monitor your site's stats for search phrases people are using to find your site.

Give it a week or two and then re-test your search engine ranking for the key words and phrases that are important to your top prospects.

With these few simple tips, any open source project can help propel their website to a higher ranking in search engines. It will help you attract new users and keep your existing users happy.

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