I’ve found that pretty much all my self-employed clients know they need a website, regardless of how tech-oriented they are. But not all my clients are aware of how people will find their website. If you’re hoping that random strangers are going to find your website, then you should also be proactively helping search engines like Google or Bing find and accurately understand your website, aka SEO. In this article I’m going to streamline the vast world of SEO for precisely what self-employed non-techies need to know.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. The goal of any search engine is to deliver search results that are exactly what the searcher is looking for. Since a search engine is just a computer program, it analyzes all the web pages it can find and tries to guess what each page is about and what search requests would relate.
In the early days of the internet it was very easy to trick the search engines into thinking a page was about something it wasn’t. This didn’t meet the search engine’s goal, so they’ve gotten much better at guessing what a page is about and identifying if they’re trying to be tricked.
These days, rather than tricking the search engine, the best strategy is make good content that is easy to understand, that people like to read and share. Since search engines are trying to deliver what people like, don’t cater to the search engine, cater to the people. It’s a strategy with greater longevity.
On Page, Off Page
SEO has two components: things that exist on your page, and things that happen off your page. This article is going to go in depth about On Page SEO, but I want you to be aware that these aren’t the only factors. Off Page SEO includes what people have clicked on in search engine results, what other sites link to your site, and the content and credibility of those links. There are ways to enhance your Off Page SEO, but they won’t be covered in this article.
On Page, Under Your Control
On Page SEO is the place to start because it is directly under your control, completely free, and the foundation of all the rest. The following 5 things you should consider for every page of your website and every blog post you make in order to ensure they are accurately understood by search engines:
1. Write good content!
You have interesting things to say, so say them! And do it clearly! Think back to when you were in school and dust of every rule of good writing that a teacher ever told you. Simple, clear, easy to understand writing is what to aim for.
Your “assignment” is to write a 400-1,000 word essay for each web page and blog article. While not doing this won’t prevent you from graduating, the truth is that less than 400 words and the search engines are going to struggle to understand what your page is about. You need to find more to say, or, as my 4th grade teacher instructed: ELABORATE. On the other end of the spectrum, if you go over 1,000 words, then you risk going beyond the attention span of most internet users. Break a long topic down into multiple more specific topics, each on it’s own page.
Each page should be on one cohesive topic. This means when the English teacher in your head asks you what you’re doing your paper on, you can say the answer in one word or a short phrase. Clarifying what you’re writing about is key to being understood by people and search engines a like! Refine your topic until you have only one (you can always save material you’ve written for supplemental blog articles down the road) and elaborate on that topic sufficiently to meet length requirements and ensure your audience understands what you’re talking about.
After writing your page, make sure you take time to review and edit it. Use your spell check and grammar checker. Read slowly to catch misused words or typos. Review for run on sentences, and epically long paragraphs. Use tools like the Hemingway App to point out overly complex sentences and instances of the passive voice. Your page doesn’t need to pass muster with a PhD in grammar, if you aim for a B in high school English, your page will do just fine.
2. Have a Focus Keyword
“Keyword” is a total misnomer, they should be called “key phrases.” Your page should have the same keyword appear on it more than once in order for the search engines to understand it as a keyword. In other words, each page should have a single focus keyword.
A focus keyword should be at least 2 words, and as many as 7. The phrase has to appear in the exact same order and word tense, though punctuation can be ignored. For example, each bullet below contains the same keyword of “cats love fuzzy booties”:
- Cats love fuzzy booties in the winter time.
- These are the things that cats love. Fuzzy booties can also be worn by dogs.
- Why, you may ask, do cats love fuzzy booties?
However, these are NOT the same keyword as “cats love fuzzy booties”:
- fuzzy cat booties
- cats loved fuzzy booties
- cats love fuzzy bootie
- cat loved fuzzy booties
- fuzzy booties that cats love
- cats love fuzzy blue booties
In each of the examples above the keyword is not identical enough for a search engine to recognize it as a match.
Hypothetically, any page on a focused single topic should naturally have a related keyword. However, our English teachers taught us to vary our writing and not repeat the same words too much because it sounds repetitive to the reader. Making content that humans want to read is paramount, and secondarily are the search engines, so we need to balance these seemingly opposing forces of a repeated keyword and varied language.
The good news is, these aren't actually opposing forces. The search engines have figured out that people don’t like reading the same phrase a ton of times, so they will ding you if you use your keyword too frequently. (Also known as “keyword stuffing.”) Search engines have also gotten smarter and do have some understanding of words similar to or related to your keyword. Write solid content that humans like to read, give a little polish around your focus keyword so that it shines, and the search engines will pick up additional context from the rest of the page.
My preferred strategy is to write a good page, and then work a keyword in later. In fact, you don’t even have to know they keyword before you start writing. I write, and when I’m done, I use a text analyzer to tell me what words and phrases are coming up often. I look for phrases that are coming up often that are also related to what the page is about. Sometimes I luck out and a frequent phrase is also what the post is about, in which case I don’t need to make any changes.
More commonly, a phrase comes up a couple times but not often enough, or the phrase that comes up most often is not related to my topic. In this case, I’ll try to work a related phrase into the page a couple more times. For a 400 word page, I’d want the keyword to appear 2-4 times; for a 1,000 word page, I’d want it to appear 5-7 times.
3. Give it a Page Description
The page description is an additional area you can use to help clue the search engines into what your page is about. The page description lives behind the scenes and sometimes goes by slightly different names. Since it isn’t readily seen by website viewers, it can easily be overlooked. This is also the text that search engine often use when displaying search results, so you want it to be presentable. It should be a brief 1-3 sentence summary of what that specific page is about. Your focus keyword for that page should appear in the page description. Here’s where you can find the page description in various website platforms:
- SquareSpace - includes a site description and page descriptions
- Wordpress - requires an SEO plugin (unless you'd like to learn some HTML code)
4. Use Headings
Pretty much all website platforms have preset font selections called “Heading 1”, “Heading 2” and “Heading 3.” Some platforms force you to use these presets, while others will also let you change font size and style however you want.
Here’s why you WANT to use the presets: search engines use headings to help the understand what they page is about, and they’ll ONLY understand a heading as a heading if you use the preset! You also want to use headings because it makes your page easier to read by humans.
Your page should have only one bit of text that’s “Heading 1” and ideally it incorporates your focus keyword. “Heading 1” sometimes also appears as Title or is a default part of your web page, which is fine, the people who made your website platform or template made sure that big title part of your page will be understood as “Heading 1” by the search engines.
If you’ve already written your page and you’re at a loss of where to put some “Heading 2”s, look at the paragraphs and think about what a title for each paragraph would be. You *don’t* need a heading for each paragraph, but this is a good way to brainstorm headings. For a 400 word page, you’d need about 2 “Heading 2”s; for a 1,000 word page, you’re looking at 3-5 headings of this level.
“Heading 3”s are completely optional. Use only if it’s called for, and don’t venture into the realm of anything more diminutive like a “Heading 4.” If you find a need for a “Heading 4” or 5 or 6, you’re either writing too much (so break that page into two or more pages) OR you’re going heading crazy, so look for opportunities to group concepts under broader headings.
Headings at level 2 and 3 will also benefit from containing your keyword, BUT not ALL your headings should contain your keyword. The search engines have figured out that doing that is an indicator they’re trying to be tricked and might think your page isn’t written for humans. Because, let’s get real, how natural is it to read the same phrase in every heading in an article? Aim for less than 2 out of 3 headings with the keyword, and more than 1 out of 5, across all your headings.
5. Give it a Picture
This isn’t just an aesthetic issue. Search engines look at the name of the images on a page to further understand what the page is about. From a human standpoint, you want pictures because images speak to people, breaks up long pieces of texts, and helps the visual learners coming to your page.
On website pictures have a couple different attributes, which vary by platform. At minimum, they have a file name aka a meta title, but there are also image title, image description, alt text, meta keyword, and mroe. Familiarize yourself with how your website platform treats each of the attributes for an image.
- Wix - single image or image gallery
- SquareSpace - note that if the alt text is the file name, the words in the file name should be separated by hyphens.
If you have pictures on your site but they’re all named things like “IMG0100.jpg” that’s not helping your SEO. Give the image a file name and/or title that incorporates your focus keyword. Image caption is typically visible, and the image description is typically read by screen readers for the sight-impaired, so make sure those read well for humans, and don’t worry too much if the keyword doesn’t appear there.
While you’re thinking about images on your site, why not make them Instagram and/or Pinterest friendly? Learn more in my article 5 Things that Help Others Promote Your Blog on Social Media.
Woah, That Was a Lot... Now What?
I know this was only 5 things, but it is also a lot to take in. If you write a blog regularly try doing one of these 5 things with your next post. Add in more things with subsequent posts. If you’re not blogging, try reviewing one page at a time and enhancing it.
Any change is an improvement, not just because of the change but because an updated webpage looks good to search engines. Also keep in mind that search engines only review your web pages every 6-12 weeks on an irregular schedule, so your changes won’t be noticed immediately, but you will see positive growth in natural search traffic over time. Also, if you use paid search engine advertising (like Google Adwords) you’ll see your prices start to drop as your natural search engine results improve.