Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has become one of the key ways to market you and your business online. As a fast evolving area it and can take time to learn how to achieve effective results. However, once you’ve learnt some of the key principles that search engines are rewarding, you will start to see results.
Most people start the SEO process with a bit of online research. It can quickly become apparent that the mountains of, often conflicting, information online is just too much to take in. SEO can then feel like a daunting and time-consuming task. But fear not, it doesn’t have to be complicated or a chore.
Many people don’t want or need to know the very specifics; just the SEO basics. A summary, a quick checklist or better still some underlying principles to rule future decision making.
This post will reveal our top ten SEO principles for those needing simple, future-proof ways to play and win the Google game.
Defining the goal
Our definition of ‘search engine optimisation’ is fairly broad:
Strategies employed to improve both the quality and quantity of potential consumers visiting your site from an online search.
This definition isn’t all about achieving a number one ranking and it isn’t purely focused on numbers of visitors. The goal of any SEO strategy is to attract more potential consumers to your website. Ideally they are also the people who are most likely to want your product or service. 10 loyal customers from 100 click-throughs are more valuable than 100,000 visitors that arrive and leave within the blink of an eye.
Without precise targeting your site will be like a busker playing guitar in the narrow corridors of an underground (metro) station. Many people will walk past the busker throughout the day; less than half will really listen to the music, and only a handful will appreciate the music enough to drop some money. Similar proportions of people can ‘bypass’ your search result; read and click through to your site; or click, interact and consume your website’s offerings. Fine tuning your on-page SEO can improve the proportions in your favour.
OK, get a pen and paper ready, here we go with our top ten SEO principles…
SEO Principle #1 – Don’t try to outsmart Google
Now what I mean by this is, Google is a lot smarter than most people think. Since the major search algorithm updates of 2012 (Panda & Penguin et al.), Google has grown wise to outdated and unfair tactics that were used to artificially boost a page’s search rank. Google doesn’t want the race to the top spot to be wholly determined by how clever you can be with optimisation. Google wants to reward quality, and is constantly looking at ways to improve the quality of their search results. Any underhand tactics that may work now have no guarantee of working in the future.
Some website owners are resorting to contacting other site owners to remove links to their sites in order to get out of the Google ‘dog house’ for bad, ‘link-spamming’ behaviour.
So our first and foremost principle is, don’t try to fool Google like it doesn’t know what you’re doing. Your on-page optimisation efforts should read as ‘natural’ prose with most emphasis paid to your readers’ user experience. Additionally, inbound links should come from reputable and diverse sources in your niche.
With Google now utilising teams of ‘human quality raters’ to determine high quality content factors, your best chance of ranking highly is making sure your page ticks as many ‘quality’ checkboxes as possible.
So what determines a high quality website? The answers are below.
Principle #2 – Put your users first
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Maiden SEO attempts are producing web pages that are so crammed full of keywords that the page just becomes illegible, ugly and confusing. Putting user experience first can help to reduce those optimisation urges that become more detrimental than helpful.
Ask yourself: does my page content look natural or artificial? If something looks and feels like it is only there for SEO purposes, revise or remove.
Your next question should be, does this benefit the end user? The simple answer is: if in doubt leave it out …but if you’re really not sure, ask for a second opinion or more. ;)
Another common SEO mistake is attempting to optimise a single page for too many keywords or key phrases. Be brave and stick to one per page; there I’ve said it. Pages will obviously get traffic from a variety of search terms, but as a general rule or principle; the best chance of getting a page to rank well, especially for competitive search terms, requires a discipline to focus on one narrow and specific keyword or phrase. The aim is for consistency and self-reinforcement without sounding repetitive. Your page won’t then become littered with conflicting phrases and instead be filled with contextually relevant content. Aim for cohesion and avoid a scatter-gun approach. This puts your user experience first and pleases Google. Tick, tick.
Choosing the right keywords to target is also very important. A lot of people may tell you to use tools like Google Adwords Keyword tool. However, this can be extremely flawed and is unlikely to give you accurate suggestions. I’d recommend using a combination of Google Insights plus the super simple, staring-you-in-the-face solution – the Google autosuggest feature. Google’s suggestions will be both fresh and insightful.
Principle #3 – Write great content
OK, writing great content is a major cliché I know. But it is one for a reason. There are obviously many subjective factors that determine ‘great’, but here are a few to consider.
- Avoid ‘thin content’. This means having no less than 500 words in the main content. My suggestion is to aim for way more, say a 1000 word minimum. Keep the belief that your efforts will be rewarded.
- Always double check your spelling and grammar.
- Make your content useful, fun, inspirational or surprising. Encouraging strong positive emotions may in turn encourage audience participation.
- Write with ‘real’ passion and enthusiasm for your subject matter. If you’re struggling; get help by finding someone who is. Inner positivity is a powerful and infectious force that will almost always leak into a writing style and in turn project onto your readers.
- Make your page visually appealing. Clean, elegant designs are easier on the eye than those with adverts crowbarred into every available space. Consider adding illustrations, infographics or video content to embellish your message.
- Hold your audiences attention, reveal a little, hold back a little, reveal a little more… etc. Like a suspense thriller every answer to a question should raise another question or three.
Principle #4 – Secure your page foundations
The foundation of any webpage is in the core structure. A page’s URL, title, meta description and content headers are the most influential elements in any SEO foundation. Binding these elements is one of the most important things to get right with any page you want to rank well.
Each of these four areas should clearly describe what the page is about in a consistent and self reinforcing way. They should all ideally contain the primary keyword or phrase you would like the page to rank for. This page for example is targeting ‘SEO Principles’. The phrase is in the URL, the page title the meta description and the H1 tag. Now quantity doesn’t mean quality so don’t be tempted to throw the key phrase in as much as possible within the body text as well. A light and considered approach is best.
Here are a few things to consider:
Keep your page URL and page title short and sharp. Avoiding using too many stop words like and, the, of etc.
Limit your page title to 70 characters (including spaces). This limit is determined by the maximum characters shown by Google. Other search engines like Bing may show more characters but this is the safe limit for Google.
Your page title is your headline to the world as it is the first thing people see when they read your listing on a search engine. Does it make people want to click?
Next, ask yourself, does the page deliver what is being promised from the title? You want to meet and exceed those expectations. Remember, Google will reward honesty and integrity.
Page meta data is widely misunderstood by many novices. Due to its mis-use in the past with keyword stuffing, meta keyword lists are effectively obsolete. Instead focus your attention on the meta description.
A page’s meta description should be 1 or 2 sentences that describe in a bit more detail the main content of the page. Try to elaborate on your title, but don’t repeat yourself word for word. Add secondary ‘contextual’ keyphrases that reinforce the first. Your character limit is approx. 156 characters (including spaces). But, be aware that Google can decide not to use your meta description and instead pick a relevant section of body text, depending on the search performed.
The last thing on the list is headers. Header text elements partition and organise the body text of a page and can be categorised as either a H1, H2, H3, H4, H5 or H6 header.
H1 being the most
Most pages will only need 3 or 4 types. The H1 element is used for the on-page content title and should contain your keyword or phrase. For pages with a lot of body text, H2 sub header elements should also be used and need to contain a secondary set of reinforcing keywords and phrases.
As with all these elements correct spelling and grammar is imperative to get right. Nothing will prevent a link being clicked more.
Principle #5 – I feel the need… the need for page speed
The way Google ranks web pages in their search results is a closely guarded secret formula. This algorithm is made up of hundreds if not thousands of variable and search-term dependent factors. Experts in this field have found that an emerging factor of influence is page speed.
So put simply; the faster your page loads the higher your page may rank. Now there are many technically advanced methods of doing this with code simplification and reducing the amount of calls to external resource files. But without doubt the one thing that affects speed the most, is something most people can control – image compression.
Pages can easily become bloated without correctly compressing image files so that they are small and quick to load. To optimise your image files (this includes background images), always use the ‘Save for Web’ command in Adobe Photoshop.
For jpeg files, the quality setting should not need to be more than 70. Image compression tools in many other applications just aren’t up to the job. Don’t think using Adobe Lightroom’s compression slider in the export dialog box is enough – it isn’t.
Now before you start shouting, ‘What if I don’t have Photoshop!’ – don’t panic, you can thank me later. For perfect ‘web ready’ lossless compression try Smush.It™.
Principle #6 – Attention retention
Pages that rank well keep an audience’s attention for a long period of time. Google tracks user activity and will know if they’ve returned back to the search results within a short period of time. The frequency of this occurence is called ‘bounce rate’. Lowering your page’s bounce rate percentage will make Google happy.
Some preventative steps have been mentioned before.
- Your website doesn’t have to be a head-turning masterpiece of beauty and design, but ugliness, poor design and clashing colour schemes can do more harm than you think. Need some colour scheme inspiration? Try colourlovers.com
- Invite audience interaction if possible. Ask them to write a comment, rate a recipe, share your content or buy a product.
- Make it easy for visitors to discover other areas of your site that may be of interest to them. As well as having site links in a menu bar or sidebar try (when relevant) including links to other pages on your site within the body text of a page.
- Avoid thin content.
- Spell check your content.
- Add images or embed videos to embellish and illustrate your content.
Principle #7 – Link Juice
It has been a major optimisation factor from the very start and there is no evidence of its power dwindling. Link juice is best thought of like the flow of river tributaries from one place to another. They only go in one direction and the wider and deeper the flow, the more ‘juice’ there is. The idea is to capture as much of this ‘juice’ into your ‘lake’ (website).
An inbound link from another site to yours will pass link juice (exception – those given a ‘no follow’ command). Likewise you can pass your link juice to another site. A link from a powerful, authoritative and trusted website will provide a larger flow than a small, untrusted or relatively new website.
Again, quantity isn’t everything, but quality and relevance is. Link quality is determined by many factors including:
- The text that forms the link, otherwise known as ‘anchor text’, should be relevant to the destination page.
- The words surrounding the link text should also be contextually relevant.
- The link should ideally be placed in the main body text of a page. Sidebar or footer links have far less value.
- Link placement higher up the page is also best.
- The domain and/or page of the link source should be relevant to your niche.
- The higher the source domain’s authority, the better. More with be revealed at #8.
Now many of these factors you won’t have control over, but they are useful to bear in mind. It is also worth noting that any external link that can be manually added by yourself without approval by another, won’t provide a strong flow of juice, if any. This includes directory listings, comments and links from other domains you may own. Now I’m not suggesting that you don’t try gaining these sort of links as they do still provide very valuable traffic. Plus, link diversity is vitally important. Google expects most inbound links to be of average quality. Suspicions may arise if the evidence is contrary to norms.
There is now an obvious opportunity to be greedy and unsharing with your link juice. But greediness will be penalised by Google. If it finds you are hogging too high a percentage of the flow that is coming into your lake, and not giving any back, you may feel the pinch of Google. In fact Google doesn’t just penalise, it can reward selfless behaviour in linking to other sites. A flooded lake is no longer a potential beauty spot and won’t attract visitors. :)
Principle #8 – Authority: growing your gravitational power
One quality defining factor of a website is called ‘domain authority’. The higher the authority of a domain, the higher pages within it will rank in the eyes of Google. So it has an overall influence on your site as a whole.
Authority is closely linked with the perceived trust and value your website has in your chosen field. Trust can only be gained with time, effort and patience. It is not easily given and requires effort to maintain.
Like stars and planets in a galaxy, the larger they are the greater the gravitational pull and influence they have over the orbits of other objects. This is the same for websites in the world wide web.
So for our next guiding SEO principle, try to become a larger star or planet in your chosen galaxy or solar system.
Here are some key factors in nurturing your domain’s authority. They refer to your website as a whole, taking into consideration all your pages:
- Ranking highly for a variety of search terms in your chosen field
- Consistently creating high quality content
- Very few or no pages considered of low quality
- Creating a steady growth in the quantity, diversity and quality of inbound links
- Creating a steady growth in the volume of search traffic your site generates
- The age of your site (a mature site will be trusted more)
Principle #9 – Traffic growth
Okay, we’re almost there. The penultimate principle is that without traffic your site won’t rank. If people are not visiting your site, how could Google ever really know if your site has great content worth reading or consuming?
Traffic, like ‘link juice’ should be a consistently growing stream. If your traffic growth graph is on an upward path Google will notice and reward you handsomely. Google can even react to extreme spikes in traffic growth. This is where a piece of content or topic is deemed as ‘trending’. But like a splash of alcohol in a hot pan the effects are usually temporary and shouldn’t be relied upon for long term benefits.
Traffic can be improved by an area narrowly missing out on a place in our top ten. Partly because it’s not really about SEO and more about general online marketing. It’s called Social Buzz. In essense, the more people are talking about your site or brand on social networks like Facebook, Google+, Twitter etc the more inbound links you may gain and in turn traffic will follow. Get your website / brand out there and spread the word. Research the likely locations where your clients visit/watch/read/participate in and put your brand in front of these people with a clear, concise message.
This neatly brings us to the last principle on our short list.
SEO Principle #10 – Accept the limitations
Search engine optimisation should not be your sole focus when trying to bring traffic to your site. Although a lot of traffic can be driven through the search engines, very often your best and most loyal customers will come from a more direct source.
Google, Bing, Yahoo etc are not going to be your only ways of telling the world, “Hey! Here I am; take a look.
Word of mouth is the ultimate referral of trustworthiness. Social marketing has proven massively beneficial in gaining long term users and loyalty, not to mention email marketing and direct mail marketing. Each of these are much more personal than free online ads you’ve optimised for, in prime locations on a packed Google/Bing/Yahoo billboard.
Ouch! Hope that landing wasn’t too abrupt for you. Anyway, I hope you’ve made loads of notes and learnt something new today. I would love to hear your comments, questions or thoughts about this post. Maybe you have a principle of your own that we’ve missed out on our top ten.
I’ll reply to all worthy comments; thanks for reading.
Summary of Zaposphere’s SEO Principles
- Don’t try to outsmart Google
- Put your users first
- Write great content
- Secure your page foundations
- Page speed
- Attention retention
- Link Juice
- Domain authority
- Traffic growth
- Accept the limitations