In two previous posts I wrote about why you need to optimize for search engines and what that means. In this post I give a series of checklists for what editorial, marketing, and technology needs to do to boost readership using SEO.
SEO Part 3: How To Do SEO Right
SEO is often delegated to the technology team, with the instructions “just optimize the site for SEO.” There are certainly technology best practices in SEO, but they tend to be easily implemented by any reasonably good dev team.
The bulk of SEO work is actually in marketing, content production, reporting, and analysis. You can’t just hand SEO over to developers expecting them to drive more search traffic to the site, or to magically raise the page rank. A lot of the responsibility belongs to marketing and editorial.
Since this is a blog and not a book, I’ve broken out the “How to SEO” into three sets of simple checklists, for editorial, marketing, and technology:
Search engines use programs called “crawlers” or “robots” to analyze your site. These crawlers are not very smart; they don’t look for Pulitzer prize-winning stories. They only check for new pages, see what pages have been updated, and most important, they look for keywords and rank content by keyword relevance.
- Your stories have to be tagged; tags are your search keywords, and are important both for readers, who search using keywords, and for robots, who index you in a search engine using those same tags.
- Make sure that tags reflect actual page content. Remember all proper nouns (People, Places, Things, Events), synonyms, and even common permutations. Some clever taggers even include common misspellings (not necessarily a good idea when tags are prominently displayed in a list next to your story, like HuffPo does).
- Remember that keywords are the words a person might type into a search engine; don’t choose phrases no one would ever actually type, and don’t pick phrases that are popular but would cause them to be dismayed that they linked to you. So if the story isn’t really about Lady Gaga, don’t add her as a tag, even if it might drive crazy traffic to your story. (Note that I did not use her as a tag for this post.)
- Write in a way to optimize keyword density without making it sound stupid. Ultimately, write for people, not robots.
- Write something meaningful; sales copy rarely ranks as high as generally informative copy because fewer sites link back to it.
- Search engines love rich content, especially video and images. So think about adding a photo or two, appropriately tagged.
- Optimize content for keyword density (within reasonable editorial bounds): you want your most important keywords to appear prominently in headings, body text, and image title text.
- Think about the SEO impact of your headings and headlines; in search optimized publishing systems, the headline of your article will also become the title tag and URL string.
- Include cross-references to other relevant content. It not only drives more clicks, it helps cross-index your site.
- If you use a metadata-friendly CMS, remember to add as many tags (keywords) to your content as possible, especially to pages rich in video or images.
- Remember to include potentially important meta-data in your article, like topic, geographic area served, author, publish date, last updated. Many publishers leave this out of their story templates, so people hitting the page from a search engine have no idea when it was written.
- Keep producing or revising content; robots hate stale sites. User-generated comments help keep static content alive.
- Most important, avoid “black hat” techniques like keyword-cramming (with popular but irrelevant keywords) that may work in the short term but will get you de-listed by the search engine when you are caught.
One of the most important things you can do to increase page rank (besides continuing to produce quality content and waiting patiently) is to increase the number of links pointing back to your site.
Link-baiting is the practice of sharing reciprocal links with reputable partners and bloggers, encouraging them to link back to you. There are many link-baiting schemes that are considered “black hat” and will cause site blacklisting; these almost always involve hiring link baiting services that will post links to your site on “rings” of irrelevant sites. Avoid such services; they are evil.
Here is a good summary from Wikipedia on Link Baiting:
“The quantity and quality of inbound links are two of the many metrics used by a search engine ranking algorithm to rank a website. Link bait creation falls under the task of link building, and aims to increase the quantity of high-quality, relevant links to a website. Part of successful linkbaiting is devising a mini-PR campaign around the release of a link bait article so that bloggers and social media users are made aware and can help promote the piece in tandem. Social media traffic can generate a substantial amount of links to a single web page. Sustainable link bait is rooted in quality content.”
And now for the checklist:
- Maintain a master keyword list of hundreds of keywords (perhaps even a few thousand) and if you can, rank them for relevance and popularity. Keyword lists (called a “controlled vocabulary”) can be used by a newsroom CMS to help journalists tag faster, more consistently, and with fewer misspellings.
- Regularly review the tags used in stories against the master keyword list. Add new tags as they occur. This can be dull work, which is what interns are intended for, right?
- Take advantage of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) tools, like those built into Google Adwords or Bing, to determine which keywords are more popular in the world at large. Then pray that editorial writes articles that use some of those keywords. (For some mysterious reason, “naked” has always been a popular keyword. Does that mean I should tag this post with that word, now that I’ve used it?)
- Do competitive analysis to see how you fare with these keywords vs. your competitors.
- Impress your tech team by double-checking that important keywords appear in every URL, title, heading, and alt/title tags. Engineers secretly love being told by marketing that they are missing some key optimizations.
- Impress editorial by reviewing which headlines went viral, and which were search duds. Journalists secretly love being told by marketing how to write better headlines.
- Implement a link-baiting strategy to get inbound links from relevant sites with high page rank. Look at sources like Alexa to monitor success.
- Since links back to your site are so important, keywords in your domain name also improve the SEO of these back links.
- Drive traffic to the site using campaigns, viral marketing, and social media. Include Facebook “likes” and Twitter feeds.
- Moderate comments and participate in forums. Comments keep the page “fresh” to a search engine, but reader engagement is an even better reason to encourage commenting. Some news sites omit comments, much to their detriment; successful news sites encourage reader participation.
- Know what keywords are driving traffic, and the quality of that traffic. Quality metrics include time-on-site, pages per visit , and loyalty (return visits).
- Continually monitor both keyword and page performance. There are lots of analytics tools for this.
- If you can, perform A/B and multivariate testing and make adjustments and corrections. This means driving some portion of traffic to alternative versions of a page, such as new page templates, rewritten headlines, adding new features and widgets, and test which ones performed better. Always testing means always improving.
- And remember, avoid “black hat” techniques like “link-rings” that may work in the short term but will get you de-listed when you are caught.
Search Robots (crawlers) do the site indexing, so make your site “robot-friendly.” Google and Bing have great online tutorials, but most developers just need an SEO checklist to tick off these important basics. Try not to miss any, or you’ll have to answer to someone in marketing who read the previous section.
- Create an XML site map (not just robots.txt) and make sure you update it every time content is added or refreshed (preferably using automated methods).
- Use title tags for your most important SEO keyphrases.
- Always use H1 tags for main headlines or titles.
- Use H2 and H3 tags for subheads or any secondary and tertiary headings.
- Keyword and Description Meta-tags are less important than they once were, but they are still helpful (the Description tag isn’t used by the engines, but it is displayed to users, so it affects whether they will click through to your site).
- Expose relevant keywords wherever possible, especially in images and video, using alt and title tags and video teaser text or captions.
- Use relevant keywords in URL rewrite strings, including headline-based file-naming conventions.
- Avoid parameterized files (searchstrings that drive page content); these can often be overridden with smart URL rewriting.
- Flash can now be SEO-friendly, but you have to remember to SEO your Flash content.
- Design for numerous internal cross-references (to drive the robots deeper into the site).
- Remember that robots view the site based on its code, not on its visual look, and they get “bored” easily (there is a content length threshold), so place relevant keywords as early as possible within the code.
- Note that owning multiple domains that are essentially pointed to the same content (mirror sites) can harm page rank. When possible, use redirects to maintain one domain. Google Webmaster Tools also enable you to set a “canonical” domain as well as SEO redirection.
- Most important, avoid “black hat” techniques, such as invisible (white-on-white) clear text keyword stuffing, that may work in the short term but will get you de-listed when you are caught.
Building a good user experience, clean HTML code, leveraging rich content, and managing it all in a well-designed newsroom content management system (CMS), will deliver a good foundation for increased visitor traffic through search.