SEO for 2014: Easy on-page optimization tips
“What’s so fascinating and frustrating and great about life is that you’re constantly starting over, all the time, and I love that.” – Billy Crystal
Search engine optimization is a never-ending headache for many ecommerce entrepreneurs. Regular algorithmic changes with Google, Bing, and Yahoo can mean that the efforts you make today could be undone tomorrow, particularly if your SEO strategy is gimmicky and based on trying to “trick” the engines to liking you. Plus it seems that no matter what you do to improve your content and design, there is always something left that could still be done to make things more effective.
With the start of a new year right around the corner, though, it is a good time to sit down once again and take a look at your SEO strategy, particularly if you’re a solo entrepreneur that manages his or her own SEO efforts in-house.
The Holy Grail of SEO is high PageRank backlinks (i.e. inbound links from other websites to yours), but they are hard to get, are driven by quality content, and take months or years to culture. Creating quality, user-valued, brand-centered content should always be the cornerstone of your SEO efforts, but there are simple, easy on-page things that you can do to make your website’s pages more attractive to search engines.
Revisit Keyword Research
You’re likely already well aware of the important search keywords on which you would really like to rank strongly. Still, it never hurts to do a bit of fresh keyword research to insure that your list of target keywords is up to date.
It’s unrealistic to think that the vast majority of relatively small websites are going to rank well on thousands of keywords. It isn’t unrealistic, however, to rank well on several dozen keywords, particularly if many of them are not too competitive to start with. And just because a particular keyword isn’t all that competitive doesn’t mean that it isn’t lucrative.
For the longest time, Google offered a great, free keyword research tool – called (unsurprisingly) the Google AdWords Keyword Tool. You could use this tool even if you didn’t use AdWords. The replacement for this tool is the Google Keyword Planner, which is available under “Tools and Analysis” in your Google AdWords account.
Even a few minutes with a keyword research tool might be of value in focusing your attention on new opportunities for keyword “strategy,” whatever that might be.
The goal is to get together a list of anywhere from 100 to 300 keywords and key phrases that you believe are directly related to the products that you sell and that are descriptive of the sorts of things in your web store. Some of these will no doubt be “short tail” and generic (e.g. you sell garden hoses but want to rank on “gardening”) but most will be “longer tail” and more specific and oriented to particular products and categories (e.g. “expandable lightweight garden hoses”).
Formulate a Landing Page Strategy
From there, the next step is to build a simple spreadsheet with your targeted keywords in the first column, one keyword per row of the spreadsheet.
In the next column of the spreadsheet, go ahead and list the page on your website that should be the preferred landing page for someone who searches on that term.
Imagine that you sell birdhouses, for example. An important keyword for you might be “brass birdhouses,” in which the landing page for that term might be your category page for brass birdhouses. The term “cedar birdhouses,” by contrast, would be targeted to your category page for cedar birdhouses.
A more particular search like “small barn wood birdhouse” might target a particular product page that closely fits that description. Likewise, a branded search for a particular product (“Dunwood Classic Redwood Birdhouse”) should target that particular product page.
One implication of this exercise might be the discovery that a term that you think is important doesn’t have an appropriate landing page on your site. For example, imagine that your birdhouse web store currently only categorizes products by the materials from which they are made.
Nonetheless, imagine that you’re interested in targeting visitors who search according to the size of birdhouses (e.g. “large birdhouse,” or “small birdhouse”). In that case, you should consider creating a new set of product categories that correspond to the keywords that you care about. In addition to the value in terms of SEO, presenting your products in terms of the categories that consumers are considering can really influence conversion rates and time-on-site.
Another possible outcome of building this spreadsheet that might surprise you is that you find that you’re almost always targeting the home page of the site. Although it is tempting to want visitors to always come through the front door, the truth is that landing on a relevant interior page on the site is going to be more effective as a selling tool for many, many searches.
It’s also easier to optimize an interior page for a particular longer-tail search term compared to trying to optimize the home page for every term you care about. And optimizing interior pages on various related long-term search terms will have the added benefit of potentially raising the overall visibility of higher-level pages on broader term searches.
Optimizing Page Titles
Now it’s time to add a third column to your spreadsheet. Go ahead and type out the current page title for each website page that you have listed in your spreadsheet.
Page titles are important to search engines, and they are relatively easy to optimize. The question at this point is simple: Is the current page title adequate to your SEO goals, given that you’re trying to rank for that particular keyword?
Minimally the page title should be descriptive of the content of the page, and include usage of the exact keyword you’re targeting. For example, if you’re trying to get a category page to rank on the term “brass birdhouses” then the title of that page should include the term “brass birdhouses.”
Ideally, the term should also appear early in the title. “Brass Birdhouses for Your Feathered Friends” is going to be more effective than “Birds Love Brass Birdhouses” – though I doubt either of those page titles are all that great.
Lastly, take a look at the length of the page title. It’s tempting to use lots of words in the page title, but hold the length to 70 characters. Search engines will use your page titles in the search engine results page when they serve your page up as a result. But the engines will truncate the result if it goes more than 70 characters.
Good titles will be keyword-rich, but not keyword-stuffed, descriptive of the content on that page, under 70 characters, and encourage a user to click on that result, if it showed up on a search engine results page. Do yours?
What goes for the page title often goes equally for the page’s URL. Although there is a debate about what impact dynamic URLs have on search engine results, the fact is that most web stores can control their URLs, and product and category pages that have simple static URLs are easier to optimize.
As with page titles, use of your critical keywords in the URL can have benefits. In fact, you can make a good case for using your page titles as, essentially, your URLs. For example, if your category page title is “Brass Birdhouses” because you’re targeting that keyword, you can make a case for the URL being www.thebirdhousestore.com/brass-birdhouses.html.
But don’t just go changing all your URLs on a whim. Unless you are developing a brand new website, those pages are likely already indexed by Google, Bing, and other search engines, and just changing the URL will be disastrous for your existing search engine rank on those pages (searchers clicking on search results will get “Error 404″ page not found errors).
You can change your URLs, but for every change you’re going to have to create a 301 redirect. Almost all web store builders have an easy built-in menu for doing this. This is a time-consuming process, but vital.
Furthermore, consider the fact that the value that a well-written URL brings is actually rather marginal, overall. If a page is ranking poorly and you’re trying to make it better, then this is a trick worth trying. But if a page already ranks well with the existing URL, it might be best to just leave it alone.
Optimizing Meta Data
Next comes the page meta data. From an SEO standpoint, the “easy fix” meta tag to be concerned about is the “description” tag.
In the next column on your spreadsheet, paste your existing description meta tags for each page on your website that you’re targeting.
You might be surprised to discover that pages that are critical to your SEO strategy are actually missing this meta tag completely. It’s easy to overlook adding that bit of meta data when you’re building out a site.
There isn’t a “trick” to writing good description tags that isn’t part of writing good page titles. Look at the descriptions as they are today. Do they use the keywords that you’re targeting for that page? Are those keywords used early in the description itself? Are the page descriptions actually descriptive of the content of the pages to which they are attached?
As with page titles, there are limits to what the search engines will display in terms of the search results snippets. Hold the complete meta description to no more than 156 characters, ideally, and get those keywords featured early in the description, as this can enhance click-through rate as well.
Lastly, just as page titles should be unique, so should page descriptions. Don’t use the same page descriptions for more than one page on the site. That should actually follow naturally from your overall strategy, as the keywords you’re targeting should also be different for different pages.
Optimizing Page Content
What goes for the other elements in your on-page SEO strategy, go equally for the actual page content on your site.
This likely will not end up as a column on your spreadsheet, but look at the pages that you’re targeting and ask yourself the same old question: Do your targeted keywords for each page actually show up on the pages themselves?
There are useful easy-to-implement strategies for calling a search engine’s attention to particular keywords on a given landing page. Simply using a keyword more than once is a strategy, though you should avoid “keyword stuffing” — the practice of using a particular keyword too much or in awkward ways that are clearly designed to “trick” a search engine but provide no user value.
Another strategy is to use the keyword on the page within the context of your H1 (header) tags, in essence, noting to the search engine that the keyword is in the page headline. As with page titles, use the keyword early in the headline, and don’t use more than one set of H1 tags on the page (that’s what H2 through H6 are for).
Beyond that, keep in mind that retail websites often suffer from the problem that category pages and product pages are image-heavy and text-light. This is good for the user, actually, but the search engines can’t do anything with a picture directly. The best that they can do is to rely on the images ALT tag, which should go with every picture.
Because you want your use of keywords to be proportional to the rest of the text on the page, this probably means that you’re going to want to do some writing. Try to craft at least 50 to 100 words worth of good, descriptive written content on every page of your site, including category pages. By doing this, you’re adding enough content overall that the keyword usage will be statistically proportional.
As an aside, but an important one, it’s tempting to rely on manufacturer’s product copy when considering what to put on a product page. From an SEO standpoint, however, this is almost always a mistake as that same copy will be used often across the web, leading Google and other search engines to regard your store as offering nothing particularly novel to the user in terms of content.
Beyond that, another strategy is to add some highlighting — such as bold or italics — to keywords. Don’t expect this to have much of a dramatic impact, but every little bit helps.