This post was originally published on the WebMarketCentral blog in October 2008.
In an ideal world, SEO would be taken into consideration from the earliest stages of a new website design process, and “baked in” to the site from the start.
(Okay, I take that back; in an ideal world we’d all have movie star looks, be in Olympic athlete condition, and have the net worth of Larry Page, so none of us would worry about arcane things like SEO. But I digress.)
In the real world, however, SEOs are often called in to optimize an existing site, after all of the URLs are created, the navigation is already in place and all of the content is written. While that obviously reduces flexibility and makes certain steps impossible, the site’s search performance can still be improved using this 12-step process.
1. Compile an initial keyword list
This involves two independent activities. First, generate a list of keywords based on the content of each page. Second, ask key individuals in the company (sales, top executives, etc.) for their lists of key search phrases. It’s not unusual to turn up several important 2-4 word key phrases that don’t even appear on the website!
2. Expand, verify and prioritize target keyword list
Use SEO keyword tools to expand your initial list of key words and phrases from step one, then prioritize the list based on search term popularity as well as value to the business. In other words, ask two questions for every key phrase: 1) how popular is this term among searchers? and 2) how likely is it that a searcher using this phrase is looking for what we have to sell?
3. Match keywords to pages
Once the keyword list is established, search terms should be mapped to specific pages. Each page can support, ideally, one “core” key phrase as well as 2-3 long tail variants. So, for example, a page optimized for a high-volume two-word phrase like “blue thingamabobs” could also be the target page for “screaming blue thingamabobs,” “blue thingamabobs sales” and “screaming blue thingamabobs sales.”
An excellent way to start matching keywords to phrases is to use Google Advanced Search. Enter your key phrase in the box for “this exact wording or phrase:” and your domain (in the form company.com) in the “Search within a site or domain:” box. If no good matches are found, you may need to rewrite an existing page to target the key phrase or even create an entirely new page.
4. Review URLs / Modify content and meta tags
Modifying URLs on an existing site is much more painful than using a search-friendly URL in the initial design, but can be worth the effort if the initial URLs were chosen with no regard for SEO. For example, if you sell call recording software, then a URL like call-recording-software.html is much more likely to get you ranked highly by the search engines than is a URL such as products.html.
In addition to URLs, perform other on-page SEO work to optimize each page for its corresponding set of target key phrases by optimizing title tags, on-page headings (h1, h2 etc. tags), use of key phrases in bold and italic, and a target keyword density of 1.5% to 4%.
5. Perform initial SEO check (baseline)
With on-site SEO tasks completed, it’s time to perform a baseline SEO check. This is like the “before” photo in a weight loss ad. Run you final list of key terms through an automated tool such as the SEO Chat keyword position tool or the SEOBook Rank Checker tool. The results probably won’t be pretty, but they are important, so save this check and back it up.
6. Re-submit site to search engines / Create and register Google site map
It’s true that unless you somehow have managed to create a site that absolutely no one links to, there is no need to manually submit your site to the search engines; they’ll find it (eventually). However, this step doesn’t hurt, it can get your re-indexed more quickly, and it only takes five minutes to hand-submit a site to Google, Yahoo and Bing, so there’s no real reason not to do this.
Next, create and submit an XML site map for Google. Again, there’s no guarantee this step will improve your search engine positioning, but it will help Google to index more of the pages on your site.
7. Identify sites for linking: by keywords and competitors
Perform searches for your top key terms as well as competitor names. Compile a list of sites for link-building efforts based on these searches.
8. Build external links
External links are a critical component of SEO. In addition to getting your site linked from appropriate directories and social media sites, undertake an effort to get your site linked on sites that show up well for searches on your key search phrases (such as blogs, publications, portal sites and specialized directories) as well as on sites where your competitors are listed. In this post you’ll find several more tactics for SEO link building.
9. 30-day SEO check and report
These on-site and off-site SEO efforts should begin to show results within 2-3 weeks, but give it a month to be safe. After 30 days, run an updated search position check. Normally, this will show a mix of significant improvement in search engine position on some terms, more moderate improvement on others. The results will indicate for which terms additional efforts are needed.
10. Ongoing content edits
Based on the results of the 30-day SEO check, make additional content edits to improve search engine positioning for your “challenging” terms. These include title tag modifications, image alt tags and image file names, internal in-text links, on-page headings and page content.
11. Ongoing link building
Link building is a process; over time, you’ll discover new sites and blogs to approach for links, develop new link bait content (articles, podcasts, video etc.), and establish new relationships that can facilitate links.
Make sure to maximize the link-building value of your PR efforts as well by writing SEO press releases with keyword text links. (Here are more tips for writing search optimized press releases.) Use social PR practices to get your news linked from blogs and social bookmarking sites.
12. Monthly SEO checks / Ongoing reporting, analysis and optimizing
Monitor and analyze the results of your SEO efforts on a monthly basis, so you can bask in your successes and focus continuing efforts where needed. Review critical website analytics each month such as sources of traffic, top-performing keywords and navigation paths through your site. SEO isn’t just about driving more traffic, it’s ultimately about producing ROI, so focus efforts on getting visitors to take a desired action (purchase a product, sign up for a free trial, download a white paper, or whatever). If, for example, you’ve written a keyword-rich article on “Exciting New Applications for Screaming Blue Thingamabobs” that’s drawing a lot of organic search traffic, maximize the benefit of the page by linking to relevant white papers, demos and other materials on your site.
There you have it. If you’re relatively new to SEO, I hope you find these 12 steps helpful. If you’re an SEO pro, feel free to improve on this list by leaving a comment.