SEO for Normal People

Bing, Google, and AskSEO is short for “Search Engine Optimization,” and it’s an acronym you hear in almost every corner of the website-building universe.

Web content managers. Website owners. Content strategists. Web designers. Online community managers. Web developers. Social media consultants. People in these positions all should know something about SEO. And of course, there are people who solely specialize in  SEO. Entire companies and blogs only do SEO.

But there’s a big problem with a lot of SEO advice and analysis: too many tips speak to experts and edge cases. Having read these articles, I see new website owners cite advanced SEO strategies while skipping the basics of how you can make a website search-engine friendly.

What’s a “normal person” to do?

What To Do

Search engines like Google, Bing!, and Ask ((Just for the record, I looked it up, and Ask no longer searches the entire web. They probably fill in the missing spots with Google.)) (RIP, Jeeves) are very secretive about the exact formula they use to derive their search results. But through experimentation and the published guidelines from the search engines, there are many things we know about improving search rankings.

Write [Enough] Good Content

I think the following fact is never mentioned enough: Search engines WANT to find the best, most relevant websites for each search term. From that simple fact, we can infer a lot about how to make sites search engine friendly without too much extra effort. Start by writing good content that speaks to your audience.

When writing content for the web:

  • Comprehensively describe what you do. By itself, this makes your content instantly relevant to your field of practice. If you want to rank for a search keyword, you have to use it in your content. ((However, Google is becoming more aggressive about using synonyms so it can display good content that doesn’t match the exact search term.))
  • Just like in normal high-quality writing, avoid too many acronyms and technical jargon. Content written for “Average Jane” is more likely to contain the keywords that Jane searches for. If your organization’s name includes an acronym, make sure to spell it out somewhere!
  • Write enough content so that search engines have enough “data” to understand your site. On my old website, I had almost no content. It was enough to communicate with visitors, but search engines wanted more than 100 words. When I released the current iteration of my site, I immediately began to rank higher for terms like “nonprofit websites seattle“.

Format Your Good Content

Remember that search engines are machines. That means you should format your website so non-humans can understand—or “parse”—it. ((Making your content machine readable also addresses a number of accessibility concerns. See: Two birds; one stone.))

Machine Readable Content

There are lots ways to do this, but two of the easiest and most important are headings and alternative text. I’ve written whole articles about those, so I won’t rehash that information.

Here’s my definition of “headings”:

Headings give structure to a web page. This structure is both visual and technical, meaning that a human can see it…and a machine can understand it.

And here’s my definition of alternative (“alt”) text:

Alt text represents an image in any situation where it can’t be seen or displayed.

In addition, “microformats” and “schemas”–which I just wrote about–add an extra-fine level of detail to your content that search engines can understand.

For those three strategies, here’s what you need to know:

  • Search engines assume words that appear in headings are more important (i.e. relevant to your website) than words that don’t.
  • Words in alternative text create content on your site that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
  • Microformats get ultraspecific about the content you have on your website. That makes it easier for search engines to evaluate not just the words, but what context they’re used in.

Link & Be Linked

So far, I’ve only discussed ways to improve the likelihood of good search results by controlling your own website. However, your website’s content, formatting, and structure only determines half ((That’s a rough estimate. Results will vary and the true answer is a closely-held secret.)) of your search ranking. The other factor is links to your website.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Getting other websites to link to your website is good.
  • The search rankings of those websites influence how you’re ranked. Getting big, well-known sites to link to you is better.
  • The “anchor text” the other sites use to link to your site effects how search engines evaluate your site. If the link says “Apple Pie,” they assume your site is about apple pie. ((For more on link text, see “Think Before You Link.”))

Social Media

There are plenty of good reasons to use social media other than the search ranking benefits, but it has those too! Again, let’s take it to the bullets:

  • See above: When you link to your website on some social media sites, that counts as another website linking to yours. ((Be forewarned that many social media sites mark certain links—particularly in user profiles—as “nofollow,” a keyword to tell search engines to ignore this link. However, that’s not always the case and doesn’t negate this point.))
  • When other people share your content, that’s even more links.
  • If you use a social network owned by a search-engine…*cough*Google+*cough*…the information about your website on your profile influences search rankings.

Blog

I could file this under social media, but I’m separating it out because the benefits are for a different reason. Having a blog is good for search for two big reasons:

  1. Google likes fresh content. With a blog, I’m adding new content to my website on a weekly basis, ((Or at least weekly is the goal…I’ve stuck pretty close to that!)) and that content shows up not just on the blog but on my front page.
  2. You benefit from the “long tail” of search results. Millions of people are searching for millions of things every day. ((More precisely, 400 million+ Google searches per day.)) By generating new content that focuses on a very specific topic, you’re bound to get hits from people interested in the topics you care about. You might only get a few new hits a day from a blog post, but if you multiply that by 60 (this blog) or 100 or 500, that adds up.

Don’t Panic. Practice Moderation.

I had a professor in college who reminded the class every Friday to “practice moderation” over the weekend. He wasn’t talking about search engine optimization, but it’s still good advice for SEO.

There’s a lot of advice in the preceding paragraphs. What’s important is that you familiarize yourself with the factors that affect search rankings and then just do your best to merge those into your normal website management workflow. As I said at the beginning of this post, search engines want to list your website when someone enters a relevant keyword. Your job is to present your content in a way that the search engines can understand, and then let the machines do the heavy lifting.

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