Search engine optimisation (SEO)

This guide provides practical advice on how to improve your website content so that it ranks highly in search engines.

Guide

11 min read

1. Overview

Users often access websites via search engines rather than the web address. Search engine optimisation (SEO) helps improve website content to increase visibility.

The vast majority of people using search engines will not go beyond the first page of results. The higher you rank in a search engine's index, the more visible you will be. This means more visitors, who can be turned into customers.

This guide will show you how search engines work and provide practical advice on how to improve your SEO.

2. Search engines: how they work

Search engines allow users to search the internet for content using keywords. When a user enters a keyword or key phrase into a search engine, a search engine results page (SERP) is returned, ranking the found pages in order of their relevance. How this ranking is done differs across search engines.

Search engines use programs, often referred to as spiders, robots or crawlers, to search the internet. These programs are used by search engines to build an index of the internet.

In the past, search engines such as Google would rank how relevant websites were according to the high keyword density on the topic. However, some website operators used this knowledge to their advantage by overloading their pages with keywords to influence search results. This produced unhelpful search results for web users.

Nowadays, there are less ways to negatively manipulate search results to make a website rank highly.

There are different factors that influence search results:

  • The user's personal search history
  • The IP of the user located
  • Cookies containing personal information stored on the user's computer
  • The number of backlinks, ie links back to your website. See our page on search engine optimisation and links.
  • The number of backlinks, ie links back to your website. They also take into account the content on the page that makes the link and the ranking of the site that links to yours. See our page on search engine optimisation and links.
  • Your website's content.
  • Facebook likes and comments
  • Tweets

How often you update your website also has an effect on its ranking.

There are website criteria that affect search engine rankings. In the past, if your website had certain characteristics, such as a keyword in the domain name, search engines would rank it higher up. Nowadays, not fullfilling some basic criteria would still affect ranking badly. In general, shorter URLs and domains rank higher on Google and you will find on web analytics packages that your homepage usually performs better than other pages of your website.

Having several different types of content on your website - for example, an instructional video on how to use your product, or a blog - could impact on your chances of appearing on results pages and how highly you are ranked.

3. SEO and keywords

Keywords used in the domain name or URL used to be an important factor for search engine ranking. However, Google has made changes to its algorithm to combate web spaming. Web spaming includes websites with links from low-quality sources ("link farms") and "unnatural" link building. As a result, keyword links, such as backlinks with nothing but the keyword in the anchor text, is no longer relevant for search results.

It is still important to have a description, H1 and H2 titles on your web pages, which will affect your site ranking positively. Having keywords placed as close to the front in titles also helps.

Although Google no longer values "hard keyword optimisation" of links in terms of search ranking, keywords are still important. You still need relevant keywords in your web content, even though it is not necessary for them to be in the domain name or the URL.

Think about the keywords that customers will use to search for your website and which keywords best describe your products or services. For inspiration, you could look at the words your competitors are using, using free tools such as Google's AdWords Keyword Tool.

Plain English works best

It's important to use real sentences rather than just keywords in your content, and never sacrifice the quality of your page to fit in more keywords. If you are found to be keyword stuffing, ie using lots of keywords in an attempt to improve page ranking, search engines will penalise you.

It's also important to think of any content you put on your website as a business asset rather than something that is there for links. The best content engages your customers and makes your competitors wish they had thought of it first. You need to keep in mind that your content needs to connect with your target audience emotionally in order for them to care about it. This is when your content will have a chance of getting links.

4. SEO and links

One of the most important factors for determining a website's ranking in search engine results is the quality of internal and external links. The number of links pointing to the page, as well as the link structure of the URL itself, is important. Current thinking suggests that internal links should be "hard" links with keyword(s) and external links should be "soft" links, for example, with stop words and brand links.

Backlinks

Links from other websites to your site are known as backlinks.

The ranking of a website is affected not only by the number of backlinks but the backlink structure itself. This in turn is affected by other factors.

In order to be ranked higher, websites now require more backlinks than they did in the past. They also require higher quality of links than in the past. Studies have shown that well-ranked websites tend to have fewer backlinks with a keyword. "Natural" links are more preferable to the links that have been "artificially" keyword optimised.

A back link is most valuable when it comes from a respected site with a high page ranking of its own.

You could build back links by:

  • Joining a forum or social networking site and including links to your site in your posts.
  • Building reciprocal links with partner sites - ie they will include links to you in return for links back to them.
  • Submitting your site to online directories and resource lists.
  • Approaching media sites to cover stories or press releases that link to your site.
  • Link baiting - including attention-catching 'viral' content to encourage social media users to talk about your brand and link through to your site.
  • Employing an agency to build links for you.

Having high-quality content on your site will encourage others to link to it.

Avoiding linkspam

Because of the importance of back links, some people try to increase the number of links by any means possible, regardless of whether the linking is relevant - eg by commenting on irrelevant forums just to post links or by using link-building software.

Although Google has decreased the importance of keyword optimisation for ranking, these methods are still considered 'black-hat' techniques and should be avoided.

5. Mobile and video SEO

The way you approach SEO for mobile and video is different from the written content.

Video

Having video content that people want to share or embed on their own websites and blogs is a good way of getting links to your website. However, you need to make sure they are not just linking back to YouTube, or another video hosting platform. The video statistics tab on YouTube allows you to find out who has embedded your vidoes. Once you have this information you can ask that they link back to your website instead.

Currently, search engines are unable to see content within videos. Therefore they use information about videos - metadata - to determine where and what appears on search results pages.

It is said that YouTube is the second most popular search eingine in the world after Google. Factors such as metadata, date added, ratings and number of comments and shares affect your video's positioning on YouTube. However, you should keep in mind that most of these factors are not things you can control because they depend on your viewers' actions.

Mobile

You need to remember to look at your figures for mobile search and desktop search separately. These users will likely have different expectations and needs because searches on mobiles are different from the ones made on desktop. For example, certain aspects of your site, such as a store/restaurant finder, would be more inportant for mobile search. Therefore it is best not to assume that if your website ranks well in desktop search that it would rank the same in mobile search as well.

When looking at mobile traffic it's a good idea to understand your audience and their browsing habits using your analytics package. You'll be able to compare the differences between mobile and desktop searches and use this information to make your content suit your target audience.

6. Submit your new website to search engines

When setting up a new website, you will need to let search engines know about it. This allows them to start including it in their search results.

Registering new sites

You will only need to inform search engines of new sites with newly-registered internet domain names. You can do this by filling in search engine forms with the address of the home page for your site.

The webmaster programmes run by some search engines, eg Google's, allow you to submit maps of an entire site. This tells the search engine to start using programs called spiders, robots or crawlers, to index your website.

You will probably not need to do this for websites that are already established, because existing links from other sites will have already led search engine crawlers to your site.

Submit sites manually

Where possible you should submit your website manually, rather than use an automated tool. Use of automated submission engines can lead to sites being banned by search engines.

It can take up to a month for a site to appear in an index after it has been submitted. In practice the quickest way to appear in a search engine index is to be linked to from a site that is already regularly crawled by the major search engines.

7. SEO agencies

You can use a search engine optimisation (SEO) agency to handle all your site's SEO needs. An agency can help you with:

  • content for your website
  • site architecture advice
  • keyword strategy
  • integrating your search marketing activities

When choosing an agency, it is also a good idea to find out:

  • What others say about the company
  • If they have references
  • If they will work with you on a continuing basis. SEO is an ongoing process and any SEO partner should be willing to work with you over a long period.
  • How open they are by asking how they intend to promote your website and improve your search ranking. If they are unwilling to reveal this information it could be because they are using techniques which may harm your business.
  • How they will communicate results. The agency should provide you with regular reports.

It is also a good idea to do the following:

  • Ask to speak with an existing customer who has been with the agency for a few years
  • Meet with the whole team who will be working with you - it's important you find out who will be in control of your brand and whether any work will be outsourced. You may not have much control over work that needs to be outsourced, and this may affect your choice of SEO agency to appoint
  • Find out how long you need to sign up for, and if there will be a break out clause
  • Do they claim to guarantee high ranking? Any service offering this is to be avoided
  • Find out what you get for the monthly fee


You should also make sure that any contract you sign with an agency includes enforceable service level agreements.

8. SEO monitoring

Search engine optimisation (SEO) should be treated like any marketing campaign and tracking the results is a key part of the process.

Monitoring your site's traffic will show which aspects of your SEO programme are effective and which need to be changed in order to direct traffic to appropriate areas of your site.

Use your web server logs

Analysing the contents of your web servers' log files will show how a visitor got to your site, including any search terms used.

The results of log-file analysis can be used to refine the keywords used, and to improve the search rank of pages that are being bypassed by users.

Using web analytics

If you can't get access to your web servers' log files, you can use web analytics, also known as page tagging or tracking. A tracking code is added to each page of your website which collects user data. This can then be analysed with a free tool like Google Analytics which uses these codes to give you access to clear reports about how users are interacting with your site.

Get reports from SEO partners

If you use an SEO agency, it should provide regular reports showing how their optimisations are working, along with any plans to improve current search engine ranking.

Use browser tools for quick information

You can quickly see the effects of SEO on your pages using browser tools. Google's Toolbar for Firefox and Internet Explorer gives a basic view of the Google Page Rank of any page, while tools like SEO for Firefox and SeoQuake for Internet Explorer and Firefox can be used to analyse the search engine rankings of your site and your competitors' sites.

Benchmarking

Once you have collected your key metrics over a reasonable period of time (at least six months), you can analyse your site's progress and the effects of any changes you've made.

Business Gateway runs events on online marketing. You can also talk to an adviser by calling 0300 013 4753.

Get the support you need right now

You can connect with us through the contact form, call us or contact your local Business Gateway office

Contact Us Find my local office

You might also be interested in

Web design: best practice

When you’re designing your website, you should make sure that it's easy for your customers to find what they’re looking for. You also need to ensure that disabled people can access it.

Using social media

Social networking can help you build relationships with customers and other businesses online.

There's no spilt milk with cyber essentials

How Angela Prentner-Smith, the Founder and Managing Director of This is Milk, benefited from achieving Cyber Essentials.