Common-Sense SEO

By , July 27, 2009

Search-Engine Optimization is probably the single most profitable “marketing strategy” for most e-commerce retailers. The reason is simple: if your SEO strategy works well, you’ll draw traffic and generate sales, without paying anyone for that privilege. But every day, I find retail e-commerce sites that ignore (or fail at) this critically important strategy. That’s very sad, because in my opinion, effective SEO requires very little more than common sense. (Most other marketing strategies are also more effective if the site is optimized for search engines.)

First, walk in the consumer’s shoes.  If you sell widgets, then imagine that you are a prospective customer, seeking to buy widgets.

— What would they search for? Maybe they’ll search for widgets (“blue widgets,” “discount widgets,” “widgets overnight delivery”). But maybe they’ll search for something else: they’ll describe the problem they need to solve, or the task they’re trying to complete.  Start building your keyword list, but always considering the “needs” and “interests” of the consumers you want to reach.

— What does the consumer want to see in search results, and on your landing page? Relevant, useful information. Usually, they want their question answered or their need met.

Second, put yourself in the shoes of the search engine’s staff.  They want to provide relevant, useful search results to consumers. To achieve this goal, they’re going to “tweak” the algorithms used to select and sequence the results that will be displayed to the consumer.

If your landing page isn’t relevant and useful, then neither the consumer nor the search engine will want to include it in search results.  You might find some “technical tricks” to push up your ranking in search results for a while, but if it’s not relevant and useful, it will probably be pushed down.

Third, you must make sure that your preferred “landing” page for each search phrase is relevant and useful.  At the same time, you must avoid creating “duplicate content.”

Your primary focus should be on meeting the needs of consumers who search for that keyword. I really need to emphasize this: you should not focus primarily on “technical” strategies (such as “keyword density,” or “meta tags,” or “inbound linking” and “page rank” — you can’t ignore these, but “useful and relevant” is always the primary goal).

This isn’t rocket science: if you want a consumer to come to your web site, you should seek to meet their “wants and needs,” hopefully including their desire to buy something that you sell.  But if they’re not quite ready to buy, you should try to meet their “intermediate” needs and desires.

Fourth, start focusing on the “core tasks of SEO.”

— Build a list of search phrases (keywords). “Grow” the list by identifying variations that consumers might include in search phrases (from “widget,” consider “buy widgets,” “widget specifications,” “blue widget,” “widget replacement,” “cheap widgets”).  Building and growing the search-phrase list is an “iterative” process, aided by a wide range of tools (including your own log files and various “keyword discovery tools”).

— Assign priorities to each search phrase. Some search phrase variations may have a “negative” priority (“widget repair,” if you don’t repair widgets; “cheap widgets,” if you sell only the best-quality at appropriate prices; “widgets overnight delivery,” if you can’t meet this need).

— Consider how to “mix and match” search phrases on landing pages. You’ll almost never create a unique landing page for every search phrase, because you won’t want to trigger “duplicate content penalties.”

— Identify the information that would be “relevant and useful” for each search phrase (or grouping).

— Your “useful and relevant” content should be well-written, grammatically correct, and “readable” by the target audience for that search phrase.  This may mean that some landing pages will use more technical jargon, while others will be simpler, but you should strive to maintain a consistent “voice” throughout your site. (Yes, some sites can benefit from having two or more “voices.”)

— Choose images that will be useful and relevant, and use “alt” tags and captions that may allow the images to be well-ranked in “Google Images” and other image search engines. (This means you should also consider how an image might appear when “out of context.”)

— Use robots.txt and “canonical tags” to avoid duplicate content penalties.  With some marketing strategies (especially PPC search), it sometimes makes sense to create a unique landing page for every single search phrase (even singular/plural variations) — but those pages could trigger “duplicate content penalties” if they’re indexed “normally” by search engines.  There are two “special strategies” to avoid this: First, you can set up your “robot exclusion file” (robots.txt) to allow certain pages to be indexed for PPC search purposes but not for “regular” search-engine purposes. Second, you can use the “canonical tag” to identify a single “primary” page, so that other similar pages won’t be indexed.

— Create and maintain a useful and effective site map. (You may also choose to create a special site map in the format specified by Google Webmaster Tools — but I also encourage you to create a “human-readable” site map.) Ideally, any site maps should be auto-generated (dynamic) so that they change as the structure of your site evolves.

— Don’t forget the “fine-tuning,” such as insuring that your URL file names, page titles and “meta descriptions” match your content, and optimizing HTML/CSS so that the relevant and useful content appears first in the HTML file, with menus and other content pushed to the end of the file, even if they visually appear “above” the more important-content.

SEO can be a lot of work, but the most important parts of SEO are just common sense.

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