This post deals with on-site search engine optimization. There’s also such a thing as off-site SEO, that we’ll deal with in another article!

What does a search engine robot look at to evaluate a page?

Page Title
This is the title that appears in the browser tab, and also the title that is used in Google Search results.

Meta description (not “meta keywords”)
A meta description does not appear on the page itself. Rather, it functions as a suggestion to search engines as to what summary to include along with the page title in search results.

Section Headings
Organize the content on each page into a logical structure. Every page should have a single primary header (<h1> tag) that includes your keyword(s). You may then use any number of secondary (<h2>) headings beneath it, and tertiary (<h3>) headings beneath those, as necessary.

For example, the primary heading of this document is On-site SEO in a nutshell, and its subsections include What does a search engine robot look at to evaluate a page? and What does it miss?

Body copy
This is the general text of the page. Your keyword(s) needs to appear here at least once. A little more can be better, but don’t go overboard! You want to look as if you are supplying quality information on the topic, not just trying to create bait for search engine robots.

The alt and title tags of images
Robots are blind, and can’t look at pictures. But if you provide alternate text and a title for your image, these items will get evaluated.

What does it miss?

  • Images without alt and title tags
  • Videos
  • Audio
  • Flash-based anything
  • Meta keywords tag

Okay, so that’s where they look. What should I be showing them?

It is best to choose one keyword per page on your site. Yes, really; just one. If you have hundreds of terms that you want to compete for, you will need a different page for each keyword and something interesting or useful to say on the topic. That blog is starting to look like a great idea, isn’t it?

When choosing keywords, try to imagine what someone might type into a search engine when they are in the market for your product or service. If you needed you, what would you search for? Are there common questions or problems that your customers commonly run into that prompts them to seek out your help? You may want to use those questions or problems as a starting place to develop your keywords.

Specific vs. general

It can be very tempting to choose generic keywords, such as the name of your industry. However, generic keywords are the start of a losing battle:

  • Generic keywords tend to be highly competed over, creating an uphill battle you may not have the time, energy or “gravitas” to win
  • People searching generic terms are often still in the research phase of their process, and not yet ready to buy. Guess who is more likely to purchase something in this scenario: Person A, who types “TV” into Google, or person B, who types a specific manufacturer, model number and optional features into Google?
  • Instead of a generic term like “Acupuncture,” you can increase the odds of getting in front of clients who want what you offer and decrease the competition you face in ranking for that term by getting more specific: “Japanese acupuncture in Portland”

You can often be more competitive by adding “how to” “why” or other question words to your keyword phrase, as many people talk to google like they are asking it a question.

Whatever you do, avoid single-word terms if at all possible.

Do your research

After you have brainstormed a list of possible keywords, there are a number of tools that can help you decide which ones are going to be your strongest contenders.

Google Keyword Tool can sometimes offer an overview of what sort of competition you will face for a particular keyword, vs. how many people actually search for that term both globally and locally every month. It will even give you some suggestions for related keywords you might want to target.

Some more advanced (often pay-for) keyword tools will show you a rating called a KCI. This is a measurement of supply versus demand. If you are viewing KCI for your brainstormed keywords, you want to find something with modest demand, but low supply. These are fights you can win, and rewards worth fighting for.

  • A KCI of .5 or higher is a high value, low risk target
  • A KCI of .1 to .49 is a B grade target
  • Anything lower is not typically a reasonable target unless there is no competition at all

Common mistakes in selection of search terms include targeting:

  • Single-word terms
  • Terms that are way too broad, and not focused on what you offer
  • Terms that are too specialized, which nobody searches for
  • Terms which are unpopular
  • Highly-competitive terms which you can’t hope to rank well for

Do not force it

If you can’t make a keyword fit into a sentence naturally, don’t try to force it. Every page on the site should be targeted at human beings first. If you are making the site dreary or difficult for human beings to read in an attempt to look more appealing to robots, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face. What’s the point of ranking highly in search if humans can’t stand to read your page once they get there?

So put your effort first into producing high quality content, even if you sometimes can’t get as many keywords into that content as you’d like. Don’t worry too much. Written content is good! You will naturally attract traffic even with poorly optimized content if you have enough and it is well written. People will search for phrases you have never thought of, and even the best optimized sites will tend to receive the bulk of their traffic from keywords you are not specifically targeting, or targeting to a lesser extent.

Also remember that consistency means a great deal to many search engines, and that sometimes, simply existing for a long while can lend credibility to your name and boost your search engine rankings over time.

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