5 Steps to a Search Engine Friendly Site

Creating a site that ranks well in search engines is a difficult task. This article breaks it down into 5 simple steps, and points out some key features that search engines are looking for. Follow these steps and you'll be ranking well in no time! (well, more like 3-4 months)

  1. Have something worth finding

    Search engines are looking for good content for people. If you have that, you’ve already solved most of your SEO problems. In order to be worth finding your site has to have something interesting, desirable, educational, engaging, controversial, or otherwise useful to people. It also has to be better than most of what has already been created on the topic.

    If you don't have something worth finding, then you may need to ask yourself why you have a site in the first place. If it's just for fun, as a hobby, for your friends or your mom to see, then that's fine. If it's not, then you're fighting a losing battle.

    Search engines are constantly revising their algorithms to make themselves more useful to people. If they didn't do this, they'd lose their primary audience: the people who use them to find relevant information. The easiest way to please them is to have something people want to find. Otherwise you're constantly working and changing tactics to get around their latest algorithm changes.

    Of course, sites that are worth finding in search engines are also worth linking to! We'll get to that later.

  2. Do some market research

    In order to have something worth finding, you need to know what's available on your topic. Do some sample searches, subscribe to blogs, and visit social networking sites to find out what other sites have become popular. Of course, if you know anything about your topic you should already know what is available on other websites! Try to identify opportunities – topics that haven't been covered by other sites yet, or things that could be improved upon.

    Keyword research is another activity that expert SEOs will spend a lot of time on. This may be more or less important depending on how competitive your topic is. There are many free and commercial tools available to help you with keyword research. When you're just starting out it may only be a matter of entering some terms into a search engine and seeing what comes up.

  3. Develop your site (on-site ranking factors)

    There are two types of factors that are important for SEO: on-site and off-site factors. On-page factors are things that you can do on your site itself to improve its search engine friendliness. Off-page factors are things that happen on other websites that affect the search engine rankings of your site.

    Important on-page factors include:

    • Unique, accurate, descriptive <title> and <h1> tags for each page, with keywords. You can include meta keyword and description tags, but they are not heavily used by search engines anymore.
    • Regular HTML links for site navigation, not JavaScript or flash. Search engines can't follow links that aren't in HTML. Avoid using flash, JavaScript, frames or other technologies that will prevent a search engine from following links around your site.
    • A good internal link structure, meaning that all your important pages are linked together, making them easy for search engines to find.
    • Keywords in the url for all pages if possible (i.e. The URL should be http://www.yoursite.com/name-of-article.html not http://www.yoursite.com/85151.html or http://www.yoursite.com?articleID=4315xy)
    • One URL per page – some content management systems (CMS) make it possible to access the same page with multiple URLs. Make sure yours doesn't do this. If in doubt, do a search for your CMS and ‘URL canonization’ or ‘multiple URLs’. You want to make sure that each page is only accessible by one URL. This includes the www and non-www versions of your domain. You can put in a 301 redirect to make sure all links point to one version of the site.

      If your content management system has either of the above two problems, do a search through their help area or across the web to find out if solutions are available. If there aren't, consider switching to another CMS.

  4. Add your content

    Content development is one of the most important aspects of SEO. The words you put on your page have to include the words that people will use to search for your site. However, they also have to be useful to your visitors as well. Write for humans first and search engines second.

    You may begin by writing your content for your users and go back to work in keywords for search engines later. Whenever you write a piece of content, think about what words a user would enter into a search engine if they were looking for your article. Make sure you include those words in your article – preferably in the title. Remember again to keep your users in mind – they shouldn't be able to detect that the words are there for search engines and not readers.

    We also need to think ahead a bit and consider what will make people want to link to you. People who can link are a little more savvy than the average user – they are looking for remarkable content. Content that is remarkable either because it is unique and interesting, or because it is better and more thorough than anything else available on the topic.

  5. Get some links

    Links are key to search engine rankings for two reasons. Firstly, search engines use them to find sites on the web. They quite literally "crawl" the web from link to link, scouring all the content they find a long the way. In order for search engines to find your site, all you need to do is get a link from an already established site. The bots will take care of the rest.

    The other reason why links are so important is because most search engines use links as a way to identify which web pages are most valuable. A link from another site counts as a ‘vote’ for your site. It tells the search engine that someone thought your page was useful enough to recommend to others.

    Types of Links

    There are two basic types of links that you can get: low quality links and high quality links. High quality links are one-way (not traded), natural (not bought or bargained for) links given voluntarily by writers and webmasters of other sites because they like your content. They are difficult to get, but can make a big difference in your search rankings and human traffic.

    Low quality links much easier to get but often have little or no impact on search rankings. These are links that you can post yourself, links that you can buy or trade for, and anything else that is not editorially given. They can be somewhat useful if your site is new and hasn't been crawled by search engines yet. However, they don't work very well if you're trying to rank for more common search queries and get even moderate quantities of human traffic.

    Specifically, low quality links include:

    1. forum signatures
    2. blog comments
    3. distributed articles
    4. most general web directories
    5. reciprocal links, especially site-wide reciprocal links, or links on non people-friendly link pages or off topic pages
    6. links surrounded by other links (the best links are embedded in content)
    7. anything that might look like spam

    How to get high quality links

    Getting high quality links is a difficult task, especially when you have a new site. Think about what other webmasters and writers on your topic would be looking for, and how you can get them to notice your content. The best way to do this depends on your topic and your audience.

    A few link building ideas:

    1. Network with webmasters of other sites related to your topic through forums, blogs, in-person events, and email. Go to where the link wielding people in your industry hang out. Participate, but be careful not to spam.
    2. Get links by giving links. Link to other content you find interesting and useful. If the other sites are tracking their incoming links, they may find you and link back. If you have a blog, use your blog's trackback feature to send a message to the sites you link to.
    3. Submit articles to high quality content sites on your topic. You could also offer to be a guest blogger or trade content with other sites. Most webmasters aren't going to refuse free content! Make sure you write up a short author bio and include a link to your site.
    4. Be creative! Think about a unique way to reach webmasters and writers on your topic.


Megan McDermott's picture

About the Author

Megan is co-founder and editor of A Padded Cell and administrator at The Webmaster Forums. She has been designing websites since 1997, with expertise in design, information architecture, usability, HTML/CSS, Drupal theming, and more. Megan is also a partner and co-founder of Woolwich Web Works: A small team that can do big things!