Search engine optimization—SEO—is one of the top ways to attract visitors to your website. Millions of people use search engines like Google and Bing each day, and if your site isn't optimized for search, you're missing out on countless potential customers.
By doing some SEO—think of it as PR for search engines—you boost the odds that your site will be found, and increase your product or service's visibility. Ready to get started? Here are seven essential steps.
1. Keyword Research: People are searching for your products and services, but they may be using words you're not anticipating. That's where keyword research comes in. It allows you to understand the ways your customers are searching. For example, if you sell footwear, you might assume people are searching for your products using that word. But are they also using other words?
The Google AdWords Keyword Tool can show you this. You can enter a word and see how often people search for that word and related ones. Using the tool, I can discover that people do search for "footwear"—30 million searches per month for that word. But nearly 70 million are using the word "shoes." That's important to understand, because if you're only talking about "footwear" on your site, you may be missing all those people interested in "shoes."
2. Good Content: Once you understand what people are searching for, you can then ensure you have quality content that matches. For example, say that you sold strollers and saw that there was interest in an "all-terrain" type. Do you have a page about them? If not, that's content you might want to create.
That doesn't mean you make a page called "All-Terrain Strollers" and just fill it with nonsensical copy, such as:
Looking for all-terrain strollers? We have the best all-terrain strollers you'll find. All-terrain strollers are like regular strollers, only they work on all terrains. All-terrain strollers are popular, which is why we sell them.
Would you want to read that? There's a difference between just using a word over and over in copy and having great content about a topic. Great content adds value, and helps inform and guide readers.
Just having a dedicated page listing your all-terrain strollers might be enough. That's as much SEO as writing copy for the page. But you can go beyond merely selling or listing items by offering advice that may help you gain search engine visibility.
Consider this page for "all-terrain strollers" that's top-ranked on Google:
You'll find that this page uses the term "all-terrain strollers" several times, but it never feels forced or excessive. It's a natural part of talking about the subject, a compelling read for anyone looking to make this type of purchase. This is good content, and the type of content that search engines say they want to reward with high rankings.
3. Accessibility: Once your content is online, can the search engines actually find it? Search engines need to be able to "crawl" your website and locate pages that they can add to their searchable "book" or "index" of the Web. It's possible to block them without realizing this. Here's a fast, easy test to tell. Search for your website on Google or Bing by using the site: command ahead of your domain name, like this:
If you don't see any or only a few of your pages, you might have an indexing problem.
Another issue is whether your pages are heavy on images or multimedia content. Search engines like text. Whatever you can copy-and-paste from a page and put into a program like Notepad or TextEdit, that's what they're going to "see."
Don't get me wrong. Images and multimedia content can be great to include on a Web page. But don't let them be the only thing on your page. Have textual content too. Search engines will like this, as will your human visitors.
4. Health Check: Closely related to accessibility, there are ways you can check on the "health" of your site, in terms of SEO. Two leading ways are free and trustworthy, offered by the search engines themselves.
Google Webmaster Central is a toolset and advice resource offered by Google. Bing Webmaster Tools is a similar resource offered by Bing. Enroll your site in these services, and they'll alert you to site issues such as whether you've been hacked or if your site is having crawling problems. They also provide data on things like how people are linking to you and the top terms people are using to reach your website.
5. Build Links: One of the primary ways search engines decide which pages should rank well is by looking at links to those pages. Content that has high-quality links pointing at it gets a boost.
Unfortunately, when people hear this, they often go about building links the wrong way. They think it's all about getting many links, rather than important ones. They may try to buy links, assuming that's an easy method. They may try building sheer numbers of links themselves, by dropping them in comments on blogs or into forum posts, regardless of whether they're relevant.
If you find a supposedly "easy" way to gain links, such as submitting a guest post to a site that accepts them from anyone, those are links that won't help you much. Search engines want to reward sites that gain "hard links"—links that took an effort to gain. A guest post in a publication with a high standard, one that doesn't let just anyone write, might be an example of a hard link. So might getting a high-quality site to link to you from a relevant article or page on its site.
The type of site where you might want to earn a link is one you and potential customers regularly read. Build a relationship with the site. Discover who runs it. Understand what type of content they publish, how they tend to link to external sources. Using that knowledge, suggest your site in an appropriate manner.
6. Be Social: There is one legitimately easy way to earn those hard links—by being social. Get your site on Twitter, Facebook and especially Google+. Share your content through these and other appropriate social channels. In turn, your followers may share it with others. All that sharing is a "social signal" that search engines are beginning to use to help understand what's good content.
RELATED: Should You Join Google+?
7. Be an Author: Google has a system called "Authorship" that allows you to link a page back to your Google+ account. Why bother? For one, it allows you to have your image appear next to stories you've authored. It also allows you to see how popular stories are on Google that you have created across a wide range of sites. In the future, authorship might even turn into an "Author Rank" way for Google to understand which pages are from trustworthy, respected people and thus should rank better. To learn more, see both this authorship guide from Google and one from my own Search Engine Land site, The Definitive Guide To Google Authorship Markup.
More SEO Tips and Resources
There's so much more you can and should do beyond the broad-stroke essentials I've listed above. For example, it's important to have unique HTML title tags on each of your pages. Making use of "microdata" meta tags can help you have "rich snippets" in Google. If you're a local business, being registered with Google and Bing can help you better control the information they know about your business, which can lead to improved rankings.
Need more resources to help you out with SEO? I recommend Google's own SEO guide, which talks through many of the key things Google wants from site owners. The Google Webmaster Academy is also a helpful series of videos. At Bing, it's worth looking at the Bing Webmaster Guidelines. For even more resources, Search Engine Land has a comprehensive page about SEO, with links to resources across the Web, plus a 3-minute intro to SEO video and the "Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors," which breaks down the complexity of SEO into important and digestible broad strokes.
Don't feel like you have to do everything at once. Cover these seven essentials, and you're well on your way to SEO success.
Founding editor of Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan has been helping webmasters, marketers and everyday Web users understand how search engines work for nearly 20 years.
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