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Many consider search engine optimization (SEO)—the process of enhancing your Web site's visibility in the search engines through ways other than paid search ads—a sort of black box. But once the essential features of a search-engine-optimal Web site are laid out in a concise list, SEO is not nearly as mystifying.

That's where this checklist comes in. I've designed it for Web marketers and Web developers so that they can easily understand search engine optimization and start tackling it.

Implementing the 15 best practices below (or at least some of them!) and avoiding the worst practices (as detailed in Part 2 next week) should offer you a straightforward approach to better visibility in search engines, including Google and Yahoo!

Best Practice Doing it now Will do it soon Won't or N/A
1. Are the keywords you are targeting relevant and popular with searchers?      
2. Do your page titles lead with your targeted keywords?      
3. Does your site employ H1 heading tags for content titles?      
4. Is your body copy sufficiently long and keyword-rich?      
5. Does the hyperlink text pointing to various pages within your site include good keywords?      
6. Do you have keyword-rich alt tags for all navigation graphics and all product images?      
7. Do you employ text links from your home page to your most important secondary pages?      
8. Does your Website have a site map with text links?      
9. Do the URLs of your dynamic (database-driven) pages look static?      
10. Does your site have a flat directory structure?      
11. Do your home page and other key pages of your site have high PageRank scores (at least 5 out of 10)?      
12. Is your site listed in Open Directory?      
13. Do your pages have keyword-rich meta descriptions with a compelling call to action?      
14. Does your site have a custom error page?      
15. Do your filenames and directory names include targeted keywords?      

1. Are the keywords that you are targeting not only relevant but also popular with searchers?

There is no point going after high rankings for keywords that no one searches for. Compare relative popularity of keywords using WordTracker or Overture's Search Term Suggestion Tool before deciding what keywords to employ on your Web pages. One drawback of Overture's tool is that it combines singular and plural forms together, along with popular misspellings, and only displays the aggregate number.

Despite the popularity of individual words, it's best to target two- or three-word phrases. Because of the staggering number of Web pages indexed by the major search engines, competing for a spot on the first or second page of search results on a one-word keyword will be a losing battle. This should go without saying, but the keywords you select should be relevant to your business.

2. Do your page titles lead with your targeted keywords?

The text within your page title (also known as the title tag) is given more weight by the search engines than any other text on the page. The keywords at the beginning of the title tag are given the most weight. Thus, by leading with keywords that you've chosen carefully, you make your page appear more relevant to those keywords in a search.

3. Does your site employ H1 heading tags for content titles?

In HTML, there are six heading tags, H1 through H6. The search engines consider H1 tags to be much more important than the rest of the body copy. Text within an H1 tag gets more weight than text within an H2 tag, which gets more weight than text within an H3 tag, and so on.

Some Web developers believe that H1 tags "look ugly"—big, bold text that sticks out like a sore thumb. That doesn't have to be the case. The H1 tag's font, size, color and amount of surrounding white space can all be defined using style sheets.

4. Is your body copy sufficiently long and keyword rich?

Ideally, incorporate at least 200 to 250 words on each page so the search engines have enough "meat" to determine the theme of the page. Include relevant keywords, particularly near the top of the HTML, as they will be weighted more heavily by the search engines. Be careful not to go overboard, to the point that your copy doesn't read well.

5. Does the hyperlink text pointing to various pages within your site include good keywords?

Google associates the anchor text in the hyperlink as highly relevant to the page being linked to. So, use good keywords in the link text to help Google better ascertain the theme of the page you are linking to. Keep the link text relatively succinct and tightly focused on just one keyword or key phrase. The longer the link text, the more diluted the overall theme conveyed to Google.

6. Do you have keyword-rich alt tags for all navigation graphics and all product images?

An alt tag is the text that appears in a small box when you hover your cursor over an image. Alt tags should contain relevant keywords that convey the key information from the image that the user would not receive if she had image loading turned off.

7. Do you employ text links from your home page to your most important secondary pages?

Text links are, by far, the better option (versus alt tags) in conveying to Google the context of the page being linked to. Alt tags may have an effect, but it's small in comparison with that of text links. If you have graphical navigation buttons, switch them to keyword-rich text links; if that's not an option, at least include text link navigation repeated elsewhere on the page, such as in the footer.

8. Does your Web site have a site map with text links?

A site map is good "spider food" in that it provides the search engine spiders (i.e., the search engine's computers that periodically explore your Web site) with a number of links to key pages to explore and index. Use text links, since they are more search engine optimal than graphical links, as already mentioned. Bear in mind that about 100 links per page is the maximum you should put on a page, according to Google.

9. Do the URLs of your dynamic (database-driven) pages look static?

Pages with URLs that contain question marks, ampersands, or equal signs don't have as good a chance of getting indexed by the search engines. Either install a server module/plug-in that allows you to "rewrite" your links, or recode your site to embed your variables in the path info instead of the query string; or, if you need to minimize resource requirements by your IT team, you can enlist a "proxy serving" solution such as GravityStream.

10. Does your site have a flat directory structure?

The deeper in your site you hide key content, the less likely search engines are to find it. Some search engine spiders won't go deeper than a certain number of subdirectories. A flat directory structure (where you minimize the number of slashes in the URL) helps ensure more pages of your site get indexed.

11. Do your home page and other key pages of your site have high PageRank scores (at least 5 out of 10)?

PageRank is Google's way of quantifying the importance of a Web page, and it's a key criterion for ranking pages. In very rough terms, PageRank is based on the page's "link popularity" (i.e., the number of links pointing to a given Web page), but with a crucial twist: links from more important (i.e., higher PageRank-endowed) pages are weighted more heavily.

That weighted "vote" gets divvied up among all the links on the page. Check PageRank scores using the Google toolbar, a free add-on to Microsoft Internet Explorer, available for download. Mouse over the toolbar's PageRank meter to display the numerical rating, an integer value between 1 and 10.

Note that PageRank is on a logarithmic scale; meaning that integer increments are not evenly spaced. Thus, garnering more links and gaining in PageRank score from 3 to 4 is easy, but from 6 to 7 is a lot harder.

A PageRank score for your home page of 7 or 8 is a laudable goal. PageRank is then passed on from your home page (which is typically the highest PageRank-endowed page on your site) to your internal pages through your site's hierarchical linking structure. Yahoo's importance-scoring equivalent to PageRank is called Yahoo! Web Rank.

12. Is your site listed in Open Directory?

If you aren't already listed in the Open Directory Web site, you should identify the category most relevant to your business and submit your site. A listing in Open Directory also ensures a listing in Google Directory and numerous other directories powered by Open Directory. Links from authoritative sites such as Google Directory improve your PageRank importance score and, thus, your rankings; they also drive visitor traffic directly from those directories.

13. Do your pages have keyword-rich meta descriptions with a compelling call to action?

A meta tag is hidden information tucked away in the HTML of a Web page for the purpose of providing search engine spiders meta-information about that page. One such piece of meta-information is a description of the page (e.g., its content and its purpose), known as a meta description.

Although defining a meta description will not improve your rankings, it is useful from the standpoint of influencing what text appears within your listing in the search results, in order to better persuade the user to click through to your site.

Yahoo will frequently employ the meta description as the description in your search results listing. MSN, in its upcoming new version of its search engine (MSN Technology Preview), is also displaying the meta descriptions in the search listings. Google may incorporate some of your meta description in to the snippet displayed in your search listing if keywords that the user searched on are present in that meta description.

14. Does your site have a custom error page?

Don't greet users with the default "File not found" error page when they click through from a search engine results page to a page on your site that no longer exists. Offer a custom error page instead, with your logo and branding, navigation, site map, and search box. No matter what the reason for the page's unavailability (e.g., discontinued product, site redesign, file renamed), you shouldn't be driving visitors away with an ugly error page that doesn't provide a path to your home page and other key areas of your site.

15. Do your filenames and directory names include targeted keywords?

This is a contentious issue among search engine experts. But if it's easy to do, why not? Separate keywords with hyphens, not with underscores. Don't put more than two or three keywords into a filename or directory name, as it could look spammy to the search engines.

A Final Word

If you've read this article and thought, "Hmm, that was interesting, but I didn't actually tic any marks on the above checklist," then you have extracted only a fraction of the checklist's value. The simple action of printing out the checklist and checking the appropriate boxes one by one is the first step to doing things differently. Remember: if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten.

Next week, we cover an even longer checklist, this time of worst practices that have the power to potentially sabotage your site's ability to rank well in the search engines. See you then!

Stephan Spencer is the Prof Expert of an upcoming MarketingProfs.com virtual seminar on Search Engine Optimization, based on this series of articles. To learn more about the upcoming seminar, click here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Stephan Spencer

Stephan Spencer is the founder of Science of SEO and an SEO expert, author, and speaker.

LinkedIn: Stephan Spencer

Twitter: @sspencer