This is part II of a four-part series on Interactive Testing. Read Part 1, Forms & Data Collection here.

For many people SEO is a subject that is shrouded in mystery, but it is one of the leading factors in having a successful website presence. The importance of SEO is well stated in this finding by Forbes 2009 Ad Effectiveness Survey. [PDF version here.] For online marketing, the survey states, “The tools seen as most effective for generating conversions were SEO (48%), email and e-newsletter marketing (46%), and pay-per-click/search marketing (32%).”

Making things more complicated is the fact that the SEO landscape is littered with shady providers, which can make it a difficult task to tackle well. Still, there are a lot of things you can test for, and best practices to help guide you.

Building and Evaluating an Optimized Site

1. Good Content

One of the best pieces of advice we’ve read on SEO states, “Don’t build your webpage for SEO, build it for people. If they like what you have, then the search engines will find you.” So, the real truth is that you need to have great (read: relevant) content and an effectively to share that content with others, but after that there is very little you can do.

SEO copywriting is used to reinforce your pages with keywords so that search engines give more credibility to your content. It’s wrong to believe that putting popular search terms on your website will improve the ranking of your content. Adding a keyword like “kittens” on your website selling drywall is a bad idea — even if you believe your drywall customers really like kittens. Content unrelated to the topic should be avoided.

We’re not going to cover content development here, or how to figure out which keywords to optimize for, because those are topics deserving of their own post. But, they are two key elements of a good SEO strategy.

2. Inbound Links and Anchor Text

Your ranking (where you appear in search results) will rise as other websites link to yours. When lots of other websites link to yours, you will see the greatest boost in search result rankings. This is where social media, done properly, acts as a powerful tool for promoting your business. The more people who interact with your company online and refer to your website (in tweets, blog posts, news stories, etc.), the higher your pages will rank in search results. Links from more popular sites will result in more of a rankings boost. (So, a link from CNN will do more for your rankings than a link from a local blog.)

We recently saw an e-commerce site launched by an interactive firm that uses a separate Blogger page for news reporting and media outreach. The problem with that approach is now they have moved their social networking off-site, meaning that people interacting with the news and sharing information about it are establishing links which raise Blogger’s search engine rankings instead of their own. In the long term, their main website loses the benefit of inbound links created by the community interacting with posted news and website promotions.

The text labels (anchor text) used on the links which refer to your website are one of the most powerful tools for establishing which keywords will return your webpage as highly ranked. An example of what not to do is the copywriting tragedy known as “Click Here.”  If someone links to your website and the anchor text they provide is “Click Here,” it lends no keyword value to your pages. On your own site, be careful how you link to and reference your own content as well. If you sell awesome t-shirts and want to rank highly for those search terms, links to your sites should be labeled awesome t-shirts.

3. Content Layout

The following is an example of good content layout for a company that sells t-shirts in Minneapolis. This company has an established client base and wants to expand into the online market to improve profitability. If a customer performs an internet search using the keywords “buy t-shirts”, it is unlikely this Minneapolis-based t-shirt company will show up. Even with the best SEO, the competition for the keyword “t-shirts” simply makes this impossible for a new online presence. But, if the customer searches using the keywords “buy t-shirts in Minneapolis”, this t-shirt company wants to be at the top of the results page. Let’s take a look at the example of a blue t-shirt with sparkles sold by this company.

Things a search engine looks at when scanning your site:

  • Domain: www.minneapolis-tshirts.com
  • Path to page: www.minneapolis-tshirts.com/buy/blue-tshirt-with-sparkles.html
  • Page Title: “Buy Blue Sparkle T-shirt”
  • Meta Keywords: “Minneapolis, t-shirt, tshirt, blue, sparkles, blue tshirt, shopping, buy shirts, buy t-shirts”
  • Meta Description: “Minneapolis Shirts sells the latest in style and fashion with its blue sparkle t-shirt”
  • Headers H1 and H2: Header on the page in H1 or H2 tags: “ Blue Sparkle T-shirt”
  • Page Content: (product description, pricing information, add to cart action) — product description contains information about this being a blue sparkle t-shirt.

When the search engine looks at this page, it finds:

  • the domain contains references to t-shirts and Minneapolis.
  • the page path contains references to t-shirts, blue, and sparkles.
  • the meta keywords refer to t-shirts, blue, sparkles and Minneapolis.
  • the meta description  contains references to buying blue sparkle t-shirts in Minneapolis.
  • the markup for a page title that uses headers H1 or H2 for the content.
  • the page content refers to buying blue sparkle t-shirts in Minneapolis.

The search engine is going to increase its confidence in this page because the domain, page path, title, meta-keywords, meta-description, headings and content are all about blue sparkle t-shirts in Minneapolis. When someone searches Google for “buy t-shirts, Minneapolis,” this page has a good chance of being found and displaying closer the top because all of the content (both the stuff that customers see in the browser, and the behind-the-scenes code that only the search engine cares about) is in harmony.

In terms of testing, when developing your web site you (and your Interactive and SEO partners) should be thinking about SEO throughout the project. Take a look at your own site, and that of your Interactive agency (and the websites that they have built for others) and look for the following:

  • Domain: Does the domain contain the company name, location, or area of specialization?
    • Good Example: http://minneapolis-interactive-design.com
    • Bad Example: http://m-i-d.com
  • Page path: If they have an e-commerce site, look at their product descriptions.
    • Good page path: /buy/tshirts/sparkle-blue-tshirt
    • Bad page path: /products?product=1825
  • Meta data: (Right-click and select “View Source” ).  Good page source: Between the <head> and </head> tags you should see two tags:
    • <meta keywords=”these, are, keywords” />
    • <meta description=”this is a meta description” />
    • The values should be relevant and change to be descriptive of the content for each page.
  • Header Tags:
    • Good headers: <H1>Page title here</H1>
    • Bad Headers: <div class=”heading” />Page title here</div> — div, span or anything other then an H1 or H2 tag is usually not helpful.
  • Content: 
    • Page content should be concise and on topic.
    • Content should relate to the page path (Contact Information on the /contact/ page)?

     

4. Flash

Finally, you should avoid mostly Flash websites.  While Flash-based sites are attractive and eye-catching, any website designed almost entirely in Flash is going to have SEO problems.  It’s not impossible for search engines to find and rank content within a flash website, but it is far from an optimal experience and will usually not have the best results.  References: Flash SEO Indexing and Flash is still a problem for SEO.

Summary

SEO is rarely used to sell websites, but is one of the first things you should think about early and often.  Make sure that you will have the tools to easily update your page content, sitemap, and the meta-data on your web site.  You should have the ability to build higher ranking and marketability easily for things that in many cases may seem less relevant without careful SEO considerations.

Next up in the series: Security.