There are lots of tricks and tips rumored to improve your site’s rankings in the search engines, and plenty of tricksters happy to take your money in return for “search-engine-optimizing” your website, but does any of it really work? Can inserting a keyword here and a picture there really make your website jump to the first page of search results, even when you’re currently eight pages down the list? Yes…and no. You see, it’s complicated. Every search engine, from Google to Bing, is slightly different, and has their own way of deciding how highly your website should rank in their results. Luckily, it doesn’t take underhanded tricks or expensive SEO gurus to improve your site’s rankings, nor do you have to become a search-engine expert; all you have to do is know what to do, what not to do, and then actually do it. Want to know how? Then read on.
Learn Google’s Mysteries
Much like KFC’s colonel, Google uses a secret recipe to make their search results finger-licking good. Also like that fictional old gentleman, Google guards the secrets of their proprietary mix jealously. But despite their decisions often being cloaked in mystery, Google has given out plenty of clues that will help you improve your website’s rankings.
The biggest and most important factor impacting your website’s search results is simple: content. Content refers to the words, pictures, and videos that provide information to visitors on your site. The more relevant, quality content on your site, the happier the search engines will be, and the better they’ll rank your site. Google (or Bing, or whoever) looks at your site’s content, decides how relevant and useful it is, and then decides how your site should rank in their results. So the best thing you can do to not only improve your website’s rankings, but also offer superior usefulness to your visitors, is to have great content, and plenty of it.
But before you can add all kinds of wonderful, unique, and useful content, you have to know what it is, right? Let’s look at content a little closer. Imagine you breed and sell purebred kittens; what kind of information would your customers consider useful? What would build your reputation as an expert and trustworthy businessperson? Content! Include lots of text on your site explaining things like what makes your breed of kittens special or desirable, provide information about the breed, their history, their care and feeding, and anything else that visitors (and in turn, search-engines) would find valuable.
Pictures can be great content, too, but here’s where things can get a little tricky. You see, Google is essentially a robot, and while it is getting smarter every day, it currently can’t look at a picture and understand what it means like you or I can. This means all those fancy images you uploaded might be worthless for improving your rankings; after all, how is a robot supposed to know that your picture is of a Bengal kitten unless you somehow tell it?
Thankfully, there is a way to let the search-engines know what a picture is about. It’s called an “alt tag”, or maybe a “meta tag”, and modern content-management-systems like WordPress, Joomla, and many others have this functionality built-in. To create a great description for an alt tag, pretend you’re describing the picture to the visually-impaired; describe what it is and what it means. This allows both Google and visually-impaired visitors to your site a way to understand what the picture is about even if they can’t see it, and increases the amount of quality content you provide, both helping your site rank better and offering more utility to those with disabilities.
Keep It Simple And Get To The Point
Content is extremely important, but it’s not the only factor that can boost your website’s rankings- usability and clarity are also incredibly important. A website should be easy to navigate, and finding the information a visitor wants should be fast and simple. How do you know if your site is easy to navigate? The best way is to find someone unfamiliar with your site, have them look it over, then ask for their feedback. A fresh set of eyes might find problems or mistakes you’ll look at a hundred times and never notice. Even if you don’t have a willing assistant, you can still improve your site’s usability by putting yourself in the shoes of your target market/audience. Why did people visit your site; what are they looking for? Is it easy to find, or do they have to dive deep into endless menus in hopes of getting their questions answered? If the content on your homepage doesn’t make who you are and what you do immediately apparent, you’ve failed, and probably helped your competition at the same time.
Sitemaps could also offer you a boost in the rankings, especially if you have lots of pages, links, and content. A sitemap is, get ready for it, a map of your site. It tells search-engines how your website is structured and what links go where. With this, they’re better able to understand the full extent of your site, and how everything is put together. For example, if you have a site devoted to cats, but it has dozens of links to human nutritional supplements or dog toys, Google will rank your site lower than a site that focuses exclusively on cat-related topics. Some CMS’s will automatically generate sitemaps, or you can find a number of sites online that will generate one for free. Simply submit your sitemap to Google, Bing, or whoever, and after they index your sitemap, they’ll have a deeper understanding of your site’s makeup, and be better equipped to accurately rank your site for any given search term (like “cats”, or “dogs”).
Get With The Times; Get Responsive
Do you have a smartphone? Probably; everybody seems to have one these days. In fact, people are using small-screen devices like tablets and smartphones to surf the web more than ever before, which means potential customers can visit your site any time, from anywhere. But just because they can visit your website doesn’t mean they can see it, or even use it.
Here’s a tip, if you’ve never looked at your website on a mobile device like an iPhone, try it out; you might be surprised by what you see. Are the text and links so tiny you need a microscope to interact with them? Does your content, like text and pictures, get cut-off at the sides? If so, your website is non-responsive, which means it’s not optimized for the wide variety of devices people explore the internet with these days, and Google doesn’t like that any better than your visitors do.
If your site doesn’t display properly on devices ranging from tiny phones to giant TVs, you need an update, and the sooner you do it, the sooner Google will stop penalizing your website for not being “mobile friendly”, and the sooner people will stop fleeing from your site’s mobile version. You can fix this by finding a responsive or “mobile-friendly” theme for your website, writing lots of new CSS code, or finding a competent professional to take care of the grunt work for you.
Having a responsive site means everyone, from your visitors to the search-engines, will have a much easier time understanding and using your site, even on a wide variety of modern devices.
Links In The Chain To Success
Link building is one of the biggest factors deciding how your website ranks in the search-engines. Basically, it indicates how important or useful other websites (or blogs, or social media, etc) find your site to be, and increases your search-rankings accordingly.
Here’s an example: A used car dealer says he offers the best deals in town, and insists all his cars are rock-solid. Would you consider him trustworthy on his word alone? Now imagine that fifty friends and coworkers all swear by him- would that impact how much faith you’re willing to put in him?
Google treats links leading to your website the same way you’d treat recommendations from friends; the more people that have linked to your site, the more useful and high-quality it must be. So building up an impressive number of links to your website is one of the best ways to increase your site’s rankings.
Getting these back-links, though, can be tricky, and there are a few ways to go about it. Perhaps the easiest is to have friends, partners, or anyone else willing to help post links to your site wherever they can, like on their Facebook or Linkedin page, or even their own website. You can also write or commission content; if others find it useful, they’ll likely provide their visitors with a link leading back to where they found it. Another potential source of back-links can be industry-specific forums; if you’re in the construction trade, answering questions and sharing ideas with others on a construction-focused website/forum/blog could be a great way of not only earning new links to your site, but possibly even new business from those you’ve helped.
Stay Off Google’s Naughty List
So far, we’ve focused on things that can help your rankings in the search engines. But did you know there are things you might be doing that can actually hurt your rankings? Several techniques that used to be acceptable, if not encouraged, are now considered red-flags for the search-engines, and if they catch you doing things like keyword stuffing, using invisible text, or link-farming, they could decide to take you entirely out of their search results. As you can imagine, this can be a disaster if you’re trying to have any kind of online presence.
Stuffing is great in turkeys, but bad in websites. Keyword stuffing is when you put a bunch of words on your website that don’t necessarily have anything to do with your business, in hopes it will trick the search-engines into ranking your site more highly. This practice used to be so common the search-engines have learned to watch out for it, and will now penalize your site if they catch you doing it. So don’t; stick to terms that describe only the products and services you offer, and avoid adding keywords that have nothing to do with you. This will keep Google from getting angry, and keep you from getting stuck several pages back in the search results.
Invisible text is also a no-no. It’s an extra-sneaky form of keyword stuffing that involves changing the color or position of text so that humans can’t see it, but search-engines can. You’re probably not doing this, but a results-driven, “SEO-wizard” might, so make sure you are clear with them about what is, and what is not, acceptable.
Another practice considered naughty by the search-engines is link farming, where different websites all agree to link to one-another, even when they bear no relation to one-another. Members of a quilting club linking to each other or suppliers and distributors is fine. Link farms, on the other hand, try to trick the search engines into thinking they’re important by having hundreds, or even thousands, of backlinks leading from and to a variety of sites, whether they’re related or not. This defeats the entire concept of using backlinks to determine the relevance or usefulness of a site, and the search-engines strictly penalize this kind of behavior. So avoid link farms, and stick to links from related sites. If you sell puzzles, linking to and from puzzle-related places online is a great idea, but linking to auto-repair or healing-crystal sites could land you in hot water.
The Do’s And Don’ts Of The Internet, Condensed
When it comes to improving your website’s rankings in the search-engines, there are a number of things you should always try to do, and those you should always avoid. Make sure you understand how Google determines a site’s quality, and ensure your content is clear and useful to both visitors and search-engines alike. Ensure visitors on any device, from a phone to a big-screen TV, and those with visual disabilities, are able to use your site as intended. Spend some time working on building solid backlinks, and stay away from black-hat practices like keyword-stuffing, using invisible text, or participating in link-farming activities. Instead, focus on what makes your products and services unique or desirable. By keeping these rules of thumb firmly in mind, you’ll be able to not only improve your website’s rankings in all the major search-engines, but also bring you additional success at the same time.