Sweat Equity -Why you need to be willing to participate in your own site’s SEO initiatives.

Who this blog post is for:

  • You want to be found on the first page at Google.
  • You can’t afford to spend six figures on an SEO initiative.
  • You don’t want to throw good money away.
  • You’ve read my White Hat SEO Fundamentals page.
  • You’re not sure what to do first.

Fundamental site aspects for search optimization and when you need to participate:

  1. Site Design
  2. Site Navigation
  3. Keyword Selection
  4. Site Content

If you prefer, you can download a full copy of this blog post in Adobe PDF format here.

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I could easily spend hours of dissertation on how to find a quality developer or designer, or a real expert in search engine optimization that you can afford to hire, so I’ll leave that topic to another rant or six on another day. And I could easily spend just as much time getting into what makes a good web site from a marketing and sales/conversion perspective. In part I of the Sweat Equity posts, I want to focus on the core aspects of a quality web site as it relates to SEO, with a little non-SEO fundamentals thrown in because, personally, I’ve just seen too many common mistakes small business owners make when getting a web site.

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After managing web sites for small business owners for twelve and a half years (and several mega clients), I would like to think that I’ve got a fairy decent grasp of the way small business owners tend to deal with the process of establishing and then maintaining a web site, and how that understanding correlates to why so many site owners seem confused when their site doesn’t do well in the search engines.

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But I have a developer / designer / SEO consultant

While it’s really the primary responsibility of the site developer and designer to help educate their client in these issues, the fact, unfortunately, is that most web development companies and especially independent designers don’t know or realize how the search engines work, let alone have a firm grasp on basic traditional marketing principles to begin with.

Even when they do, trying to convince a business owner for the need to incorporate search optimization into a site’s design right from the beginning, at the proposal process can often be an impossible task. But why?

In reality you’ve got too many other things to think about, right? For most people, a web site is not their primary business focus, or their primary source of marketing, sales or leads. This is especially true for brick and mortar retailers or specialty service providers.

At the same time though, if you are considering establishing a web site or if you already have a web site and hope to ever be found at Google, Yahoo, or any of the myriad other smaller search engines, you’re going to need to learn to become comfortable with a few things. (believe me – it will be worth it!)

Unless you can afford to hire a seasoned web marketing expert or company at hundreds of dollars an hour – one that’s got a proven track record for quality SEO results over an extended period of time, and that doesn’t use nefarious methods (known in our industry as “black hat SEO”), you’ll need to have a willingness to at least learn the basics, invest at least some reasonable amount of time and energy in working with your web developer, up front, and then devote time on an ongoing basis to help ensure you get the best results possible.

Alternately, no matter how skilled they may be, even SEO experts and seasoned web developers don’t know your business as well as you do. So they’re going to need your assistance!

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Sweat Equity – Your time, wisely spent, will return untold dividends

Think of the energy and time you put into participating in the SEO process as sweat equity. As a small business owner surely you’ve heard the term before right?

I’m not talking about having to spend twelve hour days for six months here (although you’d be amazed at how big a payoff that can be), or that you’ll have to devote any more than five or ten hours a month in an ongoing basis.

The actual amount of time it takes to launch and maintain a quality search optimization initiative will be determined first by how skilled and experienced your developer, designer or SEO consultant is (if you’re working with one), second by how diverse your offerings are (the more products or services you offer that span a larger range of categories or topics or markets, the more you’ll need to work), how well your site is designed from an SEO perspective, how effortless it is to maintain the site over time, and how efficient you are at obtaining high quality links back to your web site.

So let’s say you’ve found a really great SEO consultant – someone who has gotten amazing results for other clients. And because they like you so much, they’re going to provide 50 hours of SEO consulting for a bargain basement price of just $500. – why do you need to take away precious time from running the business? Can’t you just trust that they’ll do the right thing? After all, you checked their references – glowing reviews all of them – and for the three sites they’ve given you keywords for their work really does show up in the #1 spot on Google. Isn’t that enough to just step out of the way and trust?

Well no.

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Who knows your business, or the mind-set of your customers?

No matter how skilled somebody else is at SEO, who knows your business better than you do? Who has more experience dealing with your clients? Who’s got a better understanding of how your customers or clients think? Hopefully nobody – ideally you already get it -an SEO expert doesn’t sell the products or services that you do. They don’t deal with your clients or customers on a daily basis.

So at the very least, you’re going to need to work with that person or company in a partnership mentality. Right from the beginning.

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So here, then, are the basic areas to begin focusing on

1. Site Design

Any quality site designer or developer will hopefully ask you up front to provide them with a list of other web sites, either in your industry or otherwise, that you like and that you don’t like. They’ll need to know at least basic information about what it is you do like on a given site and what it is you don’t. No matter how much Mary Margaret is known for her award winning site designs, if you yourself don’t like the look of a web site, you’ll not want to evangelize it once it’s live, and anyone with any business experience knows that we all need to promote our own web site ad-nauseum if we want to take advantage of free publicity right?

Yet there’s a much more vital reason for this – the process of stepping into your clients or customers shoes and thinking like they do when it comes to surfing the web and making buying decisions. People looking to hire a massage therapist will generally expect a different user experience on a massage therapist’s web site than people looking to buy $10,000 network servers expect when they visit a computer hardware web site. And someone who is considering hiring a life coach will want to experience something completely different than someone who is considering hiring a law firm to represent them in a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

But all of that is really about user experience – your preferences for what the site looks like combined with what your market base expects to see and find when they get to your site.

Now as for the SEO aspect of this – if you don’t have an SEO expert to explain the ground rules, here’s some key factors.

1a) A site created in Adobe Flash® has a much harder time being properly indexed at the search engines. While Adobe has come a long way to improve the SEO aspects of Flash, the hard cold truth is that they’ve got a long way to go. And sadly, many Flash developers aren’t aware of that reality, or they’ve bought into the hype that what Flash does offer for SEO is enough, which is simply not true.

Sure, having a small amount of Flash or individual elements on a page created in Flash is okay. At the same time, the vast majority of your site can not be in Flash if you want to maximize your search optimization opportunities.

1b) A site that has any significant portion of the text content generated in Photoshop® or Illustrator® so that you get pretty and fancy fonts has a much harder time being properly indexed at the search engines. If you hadn’t heard or read this a thousand times before, read it here – text that is created in a graphics program can not be read by a search engine indexing spider. It’s a similar issue from an accessibility perspective – visually impaired site visitors will not be able to get the full grasp of your site offering, if at all, when it’s entirely done in Flash.

Yes, each graphic element can and should have an alternative text tag element so you can describe the text, however if that graphic has an entire paragraph or more of text embedded in it, don’t think that you can then stuff that one graphic image’s alt tag with all that text. It’s just not going to be properly indexed. And even if all that text could be indexed, any text in the graphic that is emphasized through bold, italics, bullet points, larger fonts, etc. will just be treated as plain text in the alt tag, and this can cause your page’s value to suffer from an indexing perspective. (Not to mention that visually impaired site visitors will be prevented from getting the tone and energy you’re trying to communicate.)

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2. Site Navigation

When it comes to visitors maneuvering through your web site – what works for you may not work for your clients or customers. So think about what they would want to find when they come to your site – is it important for visitors to have access to your phone number? Then don’t bury it down on a “contact” page, have it in an easy to read font at the top of every page.

Same goes for your address and business hours if these are things prospective clients or customers come to expect in your market. That will save you the need to rely on a link to a contact page, unless you want to also offer a web based contact form.

When it comes to Customer Service information for retailers – ordering, shipping and return policies for example, don’t make your shoppers call you for info or download a PDF file – have a prominent link to a Customer Service page. Not only is this expected of quality retail web sites, that page is one more page the search engines can index, and thus it’s a great way to properly seed your most important keywords on your site for extra optimization value.

What other information do you think your prospective clients or customers would hope to find on your site, that you can then make a page on the site, and thus give you, in turn, one more place where your primary or even your secondary keyword phrases can be seeded?

Here’s just a few of the possibilities – opportunities for pages your visitors can navigate to where you’re both providing more quality information and thus helping your visitors see you as professional and customer oriented, and where you can stretch the search engine optimization to:

  • Privacy Page
  • About Page
  • Common Questions Page
  • Ask The Expert Page
  • Recommended Reading Page
  • In The News Page

These are just a few of the pages to consider having on your web site. Every one of them should be a primary or secondary navigation link throughout your site, not just on your home page.

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The next level – Search Optimization in Navigation Links

When it comes to the words you use to name those links – optimization needs to be considered. Having a link called “About” is all good and fine if you don’t need to maximize optimization. Having a link called “About Joe’s Luggage” is a great way to get your company name and one or two key words placed on your site in an element that’s high up on the value list. Main site links with keywords seeded in them are a very good thing.

Going OVERBOARD with these can be a trap you need to be careful of. While in some situations, such as in a blog, you can sometimes get away with rediculously long link text, most primary links should be kept short and to the point, without being so short that they’re the exact same links as everyone else’s site. F.A.Q. is notoriously common in many web sites, but “Luggage Q&A” is rare, and more valuable in optimization.

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3. Keyword Selection

In the navigation topic above I began to touch on the use of keywords – the fact is, this is such a massively important aspect of the SEO process it’s too extensive to describe in detail here, however I do a fairly good job of it on my “White Hat SEO Fundamentals” page. Here I’ll just say this – your SEO consultant or web developer may be able to tell you how many times a particular search term or phrase was actually searched in the past 30 days (based on one of several search term resources and only as reliably as those can be), but can they tell you what the most likely words are that YOUR customers or clients would use when looking for your offering?

Oddly enough – this is one of the most basic and important things anyone can and needs to do for SEO purposes, yet most business owners forget to once again “step into the shoes of your clients or customers” before rapid-fire listing the words or phrases they think are important.

So take the time to think this one through. Make a list. Sit on it. Ask people you know and trust, heck – even ask your existing customers or clients what words or phrases they would use! Then work with your developer to help refine or build on that list. (See my Fundamentals page for the entire bigger picture process).

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4. Site Content

There are two paths that most sites take when it comes to content. In the first path, from a creative mind-set, less is better. Just communicate the very basic information, and heaven forbid, never put so much information on a web page that would force the site visitor to have to scroll down. The second path, from a technical or analytic mind-set, the more, the better. Provide site visitors so much information that they could spend days on end at your web site, and not take it all in.

Well, both of these paths have value, depending on your market focus, and what you need to communicate. However in both cases, there are advantages and disadvantages from a search engine optimization perspective.

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Path 1- Less is better

In this path, the idea is to underwhelm your visitor from a content volume perspective, and overwhelm them with the emotional impact of the words you choose as they are presented in such a visually classy web page that they can’t help but be moved to wanting to contact you.

The advantage to this thinking is that you have no need to worry about the search engines perceiving your site as attempting to spam them with over-saturation of your keywords.

Beyond that, well, I’m really hard pressed to come up with any other true value from an SEO perspective, unless you are able to devote so much time, energy and effort in back linking, or you can afford to put gobs of money in paid listings or banner ads. And even then, because you may not realize how much many site visitors have come to expect more information readily available before they make buying or spending decisions, you could very well be getting a lot of site visitors and not converting them into sales by having too little content.

Yet you’re here to learn about search engine optimization, right? So obviously you are of the mind set, or at least opening up to the mind-set that you want maximum optimization value from your site. Which brings us to…

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Path 2 – More is better

When it comes to search engine optimization, there’s no doubt about it in my own personal experience – one of the easiest things I have ever done, consistently with many client sites, has been to increase the amount of content on their sites, with properly seeded well formed and intelligent use of keyword phrases, across multiple pages.

Now, I’m not perfect. I don’t always do a stellar job when it comes to writing content. And even when I do, my clients sometimes prefer to disregard my recommendations when it comes to how much content to use, or how their offerings are communicated.

And as much as I’d like to believe all my clients can afford to have professionally written content for search optimization, – if they’ve got thousands of products or dozens of very complex or technical services in multiple layers of categorization, or their focus is in an arena I have no clue about, I am not always the best person for this work anyhow.

So I do what I can to work with my clients to come up with the best content, the most content in their unique situation. With the most seeding of keywords without making the information on the site seem pitiful. Now, again, I can’t always do this – one site I work on in particular is one that I inherited the SEO responsibilities for. It’s got over 250 pages, with thousands of words on many of the pages. And it was written by someone who thought spamming pages with keywords was a good thing to do. In that situation, it’s an ongoing process to re-write reams of text.

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Balance is key

And that’s where this topic needs to focus on – how to find a balance between writing enough while saturating keyword phrases throughout every page, while not going overboard. So too much CAN be a bad thing.

Some people in our industry claim that there’s a magic number when it comes to the ratio of your keyword phrases to the total amount of text on a page. Well, unfortunately we’re not privy to the algorithms at the search engines. And every site can be affected positively or negatively in search result ranking value by dozens of other factors. So there is no one golden rule ratio.

Personally, if there’s enough information available on a given product or service, I like to see each word in each of the top phrases repeated at least five or six times in that content. And if three of my phrases on a page share one word in common (such as “designer luggage”, “affordable luggage”, and “luggage sale”) then that common word would then be repeated fifteen or more times.

For my most competitive clients – those who are in fiercely competitive business markets, it’s not unusual for at least one or two pages on a site to have so much content that one or more of the top phrases common words is repeated thirty or forty times. Again though, there is no formula with a set specific ratio of keywords to overall content.

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Write text for people, not search engines

What most of us do agree on though is this – write the text that becomes your content in as natural a way as possible. Use descriptive paragraphs as though you were talking with a prospective customer in person. Keep the most important information concise and up at the top of each page. If this process results in your keywords only being repeated a couple times on a page, don’t panic. It’s an overall complete process with too many factors to say that this would be a bad thing. Just be sure to really give it enough consideration before you move on.

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Group your keywords

If you’ve got a lot of phrases, break them down into groups – where you can use a small number of them on each page or in each section of the site. Having three, four or even up to eight phrases on one page, depending on how many phrases are relevant and can be fleshed out through that writing while not making the individual page confusing to your site visitor is a good guideline.

And if you’ve come up with 30, 50 or even 100 keyword phrases that you’ve determined really are relevant to your offerings AND all of those phrases have had enough activity at the search engines, then if you take an average of 5 phrases per page as a focal point (as just an example – some pages can have more phrases, while others need fewer for more impact)- do the math to determine how many pages you’ll need to get all of those put to use.

Given 5 phrases per page, with 30 phrases you know you need to include translates to at least six pages you’ll need. But don’t assume you can get away with your contact page being one of them. You may be able to, just be honest – how much quality content can you write on a contact page so that you can incorporate five different keyword phrases in the text?

At the same time, a wise way to go about it if you have more than a handful of phrases, and if you have limited time to devote to this, is to start with the most valuable phrases first. Get them properly seeded on the site. Focus on a quality site launch. Then, after you’ve got the site up and running, over time, you can consider adding more pages and more content and more phrases.

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In Conclusion – do what you can, to the best of your ability, within reason.

I’ve seen small business owners go out of business waiting to launch their web site because it wasn’t a mega-site, or they had hundreds of keywords they wanted to incorporate and do so with maximization of the optimization process in mind, but where they couldn’t afford to do it all up front at one time, and thus they delayed going live with their sites.

It’s much better to have a web site launch with a handful of very high quality keyword phrases implemented properly and with every aspect of the search optimization initiative maximized on that smaller site than it is to never launch a web site. So find a balance where you need to.

And remember – no matter what you do, there will always be room for improvement. Isn’t that life after all?

About Alan Bleiweiss

Just another guy. Who happens to have a lot of experience living, breathing and sleeping organic SEO. So that's my primary focus - high end SEO audits and consulting for sites ranging from thousands to tens of millions of pages. In my spare time I blog, rant, write eBooks, and speak at industry conferences.

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