We are starting a new web-series, called SEOlutions Guides, that will cover a range of SEO-related topics, from link building to website optimization and other host of important subjects.
This initiative to compile some of our knowledge into easily accessible articles was spurred by the perpetual steam of emails we receive on a daily basis from customers in need of help with their on-page optimization, keyword research and an evaluation of their overall site portfolio. We find it all too common that many individuals/businesses and sometimes even big corporations dive into link building and purchase backlinks packages at random without even having a basic understanding of the fundamental principles of SEO and link building.
Without an understanding and use of these principles, your foray into SEO is likely to be met with lacklustre results. This series will serve as a medium to cover these fundamentals and allow you to reference them whenever you want in order to achieve maximum results with your SEO and link building campaigns. We hope you will enjoy the information compiled. Make sure to check back regularly for new articles.
Everything you need to know to properly set up and optimize your website
This will be the first installment of our SEOlutions Guide series. Today we are going to fill you in on the basics of a well-optimized site. To make things easier for you, we will cover all the work we put into our own site(s) before we start any link building campaigns. Now, it may look like a lot, but the steps are absolutely vital if you are building a long-term (brand) website. Let’s get to it…
Basic Site Setup
First of all you need a reliable and fast webhost. We use several hosting companies, depending on the size and purpose of the site. We tried a lot of hosting providers in the past and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. But after carefully evaluating all providers, we shortlisted which we believe are the top thosting providers.
For really large brand sites with custom scripts and the works, we generally buy a new VPS or in special cases we even opt for a dedicated server. We always choose great speed and impeccable customer service over the price – it goes without saying that you need to pay accordingly for a great service. We can recommend KnownHost for reliable and fast VPS servers and LiquidWeb for awesome and insanely fast dedicated servers.
Now that you have your hosting set up, you need to decide on the platform for your site. The usual choice is WordPress – it’s free, easy to install, has a lot of customization options and there are millions of themes, plugins and add-ons available on the net.
Most of the hosting providers already offer options to easily install and set up several different CMS (including WordPress). In all other cases, you can normally contact the customer support of your webhost and they will set it up for you within no time.
Here’s quite a comprehensive guide on how to set up WordPress on your webhost by using Fantastico: http://www.optiniche.com/blog/187/wordpress-tutorial-one-click-installation-with-fantastico/
If you are using WordPress or any other open source CMS, then you should always (!) use a responsive theme for your site. Mobile traffic is growing larger by the day and you really don’t want to pass on mobile searches as a viable traffic source. So make sure you use a well-coded, fast and responsive theme for your website.
As stated above, we solely use WordPress for our sites or Magento if it’s an E-Commerce website – but the general idea applies to any CMS. To give you a few ideas, we will list a few themes that we really love and use on nearly every branded website (with small customizations).
Of course these two are premium themes and you have to spend a few bucks to purchase them – but the investment is well worth it. If you really don’t want to shell out $50-75 for a premium responsive theme, then you can find a lot more (free) responsive themes that might fit your preferences on http://www.simplethemes.org/tags/responsive – most of them work very well and require no additional coding, i.e. Bones
After you found a theme that you like, installing it on your (WordPress) site is a trivial matter. Additionally, you should go and buy a simple and minimalistic logo that makes you stand out as a ‘real’ brand – you can find cheap and quality logos at Fiverr.
Once your theme is installed, we can proceed with some of the critical plugins that you should almost always use for your site(s). The plugins we recommend won’t clutter or slow down your site. No worries. Below is a list of the plugins we use and what’s sufficient for nearly all websites:
- Yoast SEO – http://wordpress.org/plugins/wordpress-seo/ This is an all-in-one SEO plugin that will streamline the on-page SEO of your site. It will help you to optimize the on-page of all the pages on your site, your content, images, meta descriptions and other important factors.
- Search Meter – http://wordpress.org/plugins/search-meter/Search-Meter records what people are searching for on your site. Based on these statistics you can adjust certain pages and optimize them for a higher conversion rate.
- XML Sitemaps – http://wordpress.org/plugins/google-sitemap-generator/ Pretty self-explanatory. The XML sitemaps plugin will create a sitemap of all your pages and posts and submit it to all relevant search engines.
- Caching – http://wordpress.org/plugins/w3-total-cache/ A plugin that drastically improves the performance and speed of your site. More on that comes later in this article.
- Google Analytics – http://www.google.com/analytics/ Fairly easy to install and provides a lot of useful information on the visitors coming to your site. There are also some great alternatives, if you have reservations about using Google Analytics, like Piwik and Clicky .
That’s it – you don’t need any additional plugins for your basic site setup, unless you want some advanced customization. Don’t forget to activate all WordPress plugins in your WordPress interface and install necessary updates where needed.
Now that framework of your site is complete, you need to add a few mandatory pages. If you have read the (leaked) “Google Quality Guidelines” from March 2013 (a Google search away), then you should be aware that every site must have the following pages:
- A Contact Page
The contact page should include a simple form that forwards messages to your email. This is important because your visitors need the opportunity to contact you at any given time. Furthermore, you should add your full address to the contact page if possible (especially important if you plan to sell something on your site). Including a real phone number is also recommended. You can get a cheap or toll free number at Google Voice, Skype or several other services. It’s advisable to noindex this page to prevent it from showing up in Google search results, unless you want to be spammed to death by bots. You can also list your address and phone number in a small embedded image on the page. This will prevent this information from being scraped by any bots.
- Terms of Service & A Disclaimer
If you are in the US, it’s always a good idea to include an extensive disclaimer on your site that is in compliance with FTC regulations. Our company is located in Germany, so we use a custom-written disclaimer that is compliant with the European Union and German regulations. Such a disclaimer will ensure you stay on the correct side of your country’s laws which govern online activities. On top of that, you should include a simple, straight to the point Terms of Service (TOS) page. We have a custom-written TOS on every site we own and manage – but there are some decent generators available on the net as well – though we generally do not recommend using those, as every website and niche is different.
Of course you don’t have to include these pages if you don’t want to, but we highly recommend to do so for your own peace of mind. It is also worth noting that having these pages on your site will make you look like a real brand and an authority within your niche. These pages can also be noindexed.
As the now famous, but often incorrectly used, saying goes, “Content Is King!”. If you want to achieve and retain high rankings in competitive niches then you need engaging, interesting and well-written content. It goes without saying that the content should be well-optimized for your link building campaigns (more on that later), but still provide value to your visitors/readers.
Having said that, if you just want to ‘rank & bank’ for a short time with a small site, then you can easily get away with a single 1000-1500 word homepage that is well-optimized and includes the additional mandatory pages mentioned above. But be aware that such strategy is shortsighted. We prefer to build sustainable branded sites that serve as an authority within their respective niches and provide a long-term income stream. Such sites are an asset which you will benefit from and can expand upon for a long time to come.
Now, let us start by saying that it is incredibly time consuming to write engaging content. As a webmaster and/or a business owner, your time is better spent elsewhere. You should strive to outsource all of your content creation. Finding a talented writer that can consistently provide you with well-written articles is also not easy, but time well spent.
Once you have found the right writer (or a whole team of them), he (they) will be an invaluable asset to your site’s success. Here are a few things which you need to look for in a competent content provider/writer:
- Quality: It’s imperative to find a writer that knows how to write engaging content that compels your visitors to keep reading. Articles solely meant for search robots have no place on your site if you want to develop a brand.
- Frequency: Your writer(s) need to be able to meet your demands when it comes to volume. Nothing is worse than being left hanging, waiting for your articles to be delivered.
- Consistency: This goes without saying. Consistency is crucial. Many times writers produce great initial content when they first acquire you as a client, only to deliver poorly written (sometimes even spun) content later on, either because they have become too comfortable with you or cannot meet your volume demands. So make sure to have proper quality control checks in place to ensure you are not being duped by your writer(s). A great tool to check whether the content your writer(s) produce is unique or not is Copyscape.com.
- Guidelines: Be as specific as possible with your writers when it comes to the type of content you want from them. Failing to be precise often results in useless fluff content which provides no informational value whatsoever. Instruct, instruct, and then instruct some more until they get it right.
As you can see the amount of work and researched involved in finding good writers is quite considerable. One piece of advice we can give you is to try out different content providers and power through the pain and stress until you find the perfect writer(s). The effort spent will be well worth your while. Once you have found your (hopefully awesome) wordsmith(s) and he has begun churning out articles, you need to publish your content. On a new website, which you plan to turn into a big brand, we usually start out like this:
- Publish one very informative and well-written 1500-2000 word article on the homepage of your website. We generally like to target 2-3 primary and very high traffic keywords and 1-2 additional heavy long tail keywords with this article/homepage. The article will be stickied and stay on the homepage permanently. Due to the design of our sites, we will also like to give visitors easy access to our additional categories/pages/posts. Additionally, we often include a nifty slider, an updated blog feed and a testimonial page, all of which are easily visible and accessible on the homepage. This makes your website aesthetically pleasing and keeps all of the useful information at the fingertips of your visitors.
- After the homepage is ready, we gather the articles for all of our short- and long tail keywords that we want to target individually on single pages/posts. We start off with 100 articles – one article per short/long tail keyword – and publish 75 of these right away and set the remaining 25 articles to be published over the next 40-50 days.
After this you can repeat the cycle with a new batch of 100 articles. Gauging your current income from the site once all of the original articles have been published and traffic begins to find its way (following some link building campaigns of course) to your site, as well as making future income projections, will help you decide whether the site is worth updating with more content. In short, always be mindful of your (potential) return on investment (ROI) before committing more resources to a site.
These are purely recommendations based on our vast experience in this field. You are encouraged to deviate and experiment in this area to find an optimal approach that works for you. But we strongly advise to at least start off with 1000-2000 words of content for the homepage and 750-1500 word pages for your additional main keywords.
If you need some superb, high quality content, you can contact us under: email@example.com
Basic On-page Optimization
At this point, your site should be shaping up nicely. The homepage has some content, all of the mandatory pages have been created, the plugins are installed and several articles that target some short- and long tail keywords have been posted. Now it’s time to optimize these pages for the search engines. This is referred to as on-page optimization.
Having well-optimized pages is paramount to the success of all future link building efforts. Slapping together some content without any optimization at all and then proceeding to buy several link building packages will not provide anywhere near the same level of ranking results as properly optimized on-page paired together with a link building campaign. This important, yet often overlooked, part of SEO can be the difference between a site climbing to the top of search engine results for its choice of keywords and one slumming around in the dumps of the SERPs.
Simply put, proper on-page optimization along with a solid link building campaign make up the path to higher rankings. With that introduction out of the way, let’s cover some of the basic on-page optimization principles
All of your pages and posts should have well-structured headers. These should include your target keyword for that particular page and serve as a headline for the included and subsequent paragraphs of the article. Below you can see an example on how some of our published articles usually look. You see three headers (h1-h3) that segment the article into three paragraphs, allowing for easy reading and taking care of this particular part of on-page optimization at the same time.
Make sure that your headlines sound natural. If you don’t think you can fit your keyword into each of the headers without them sounding awkward, then leave it out of the h2 or h3 headers – but try to include it in the h1 header at least once. You can also include some easy long tails in the h2 and h3 headers instead. This will allow you to target your primary keyword as well as some additional long tails with that page at once.
Bold Keywords & Natural interlinking
Make sure to include your keyword at least once in the first paragraph of your article and use a bold-tag on the phrase (see the image above). In addition to that, it’s always advisable to use natural interlinking to your other inner pages if the content allows for it.
Also, if you take a look at the screen above, you will see that we included an outgoing link to Wikipedia at the end of the article (usually cited as a source). Linking out to other authorities within your niche like this is generally a good thing to do, but do so sparingly. Since we are trying to build a big brand, we should not be afraid to link out to other relevant brands/sources within our niche.
Images with proper titles and alt-tags
Research shows that an article with an embedded image or a video is perceived as more valuable than just plain and conservative text. In addition to the added user value, an image can also help improve your on-page rating. Adding your keyword phrase to the title, the alt-tag and/or the file name of your image will help, but exercise moderation. We do not want to go overboard with plastering as many images over our content and having them all use the same keyword as alt tags. The image below shows what we mean:
When it comes to keyword density, some people think that more is always better. However, after the Google Panda updates from 2011 and 2012 and some of the latest publicized modifications to the Google algorithm, it’s not advisable to exceed a keyword density of more than 1.5-2.0% per page. We personally stick with a ~1% keyword density for any given page and thus far it has proven to be most optimal. If you optimize your pages well, the search engine will know what keywords you are targeting, without you having to stuff the keyword into every possible spot within your content. Be rational about it and don’t slather your content with your targeted keywords excessively. There is absolutely no need to exceed a keyword density of 2%.
Using Yoast SEO
Let’s now configure that Yoast SEO plugin we installed earlier. Filling out the fields supplied by Yoast SEO is quite straight-forward but you will need to repeat the process for every page. You simply have to fill in your target keyword(s), your website title (include your most important keyword for the page here), your meta description (include your keyword at least once) and check your content for keyword density. You will then see an overview of your on-page metrics provided by Yoast SEO for the page you are working on.
As you can see from the the image below, the keyword we are targeting in our example is included in the header of the content, the title, the URL, 4x in the content, resulting in a keyword density of roughly ~1%, and in the meta description.
As far as basic on-page optimization goes, that is pretty much it.Use proper headers, edit your image alt-tags and titles, pay attention to keyword density and fill out everything you can in the Yoast SEO plugin for every page on your site which you want to rank and you’re done. Applying these simple on-page principles will make any link building campaigns exponentially more effective.
Obviously if you are using a different CMS than WordPress then the amount of work involved in properly setting up your on-page optimization will be slightly higher due how much of the process is streamlined by Yoast SEO (and similar WordPress plugins). But the overall approach and principles remain the same regardless of the type of CMS you use.
Optimizing The Site Speed
The site is practically ready to be launched, but there is still one more thing we recommend to fine tune. The overall performance of your site is very important when it comes to your visitors interacting with it. A slow-loading site will have a very high bounce rate, which is obviously not something you want. A fast-loading site on the other hand is a pleasure to browse and helps to keep your bounce rates low and visitor retention rates high. To check the overall performance of your site you can use several tools, but we solely rely on Pingdom (http://tools.pingdom.com/fpt/ ) and Google’s Pagespeed Extension (Extension – https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights_extensions).
So how do we improve the speed of our site? Read on.
Step 1: PingDom Test
Go to the Pingdom website, enter your root URL and run the test. In the settings tab you can choose from several datacenters, pick the one that’s the closest to you. After the test you will see a result like the one below:
Let us shortly explain the different results:
- Requests: This is the number of request by your site. The perfect range would be something lower than 20, unless you have a lot of scripts running that require more requests.
- Load Time: Anything above 800ms is not acceptable for a blog/simple website. For e-commerce sites, the loading time may vary, but should not exceed a few seconds either.
- Page Size: Try to reduce your page size to a bare minimum. The lower your page size, the faster your site and the better the overall performance.
You should now have a general idea on how your site is responding. But we need to run one more test for some additional data:
Step 2: Google PageSpeed Test
Install the PageSpeed Extension in either Firefox or Chrome. Hint: You will also need Firebug (http://getfirebug.com/) to use this extension with Firefox. After the extension has been installed, go to your website and run the PageSpeed test. Right click >> Firebug >> Go to the Page Speed tab and click “Analyze Performance”.
Below you will see an example of a well-optimized website and a website that can use some improvement in certain areas Well-optimized:
In need of improvement(s):
Step 3: Optimize with W3 Cache
The Pingdom and the PageSpeed tools will give you a rough idea on what needs to be optimized. Barring some critical improvements suggested by Pingdom/PageSpeed, in most cases it is usually enough to install a simple caching plugin to significantly increase the speed of your site. To this end, we will now configure the previously installed W3 Cache Plugin using this very awesome and extensive tutorial here: http://themeid.com/help/discussion/736/how-to-get-99100-on-google-page-speed/
After you have configured your W3 Cache plugin, run the Pingdom and PageSpeed tests again and see how much the performance has improved. If your site is still not above the aforementioned performance ratings, then it’s time to optimize things further.
Step 4: Optimize your images
First of all, it’s always good to use JPG as opposed to PNG. The former image type is a lot smaller and the quality loss is only marginal to the human eye. If you don’t want to use JPG’s at all, then using the PNG-8 format is also a good option.
Step 5: Optimize with CloudFlare
CloudFlare is a completely free cloud-based service that helps to speed up websites. It works by distributing content around the world so the data is closer to your visitors. Go to https://www.cloudflare.com/ and register an account.
After registering, follow their guidelines to install CloudFlare for your site. If you have any problems to configure CloudFlare, just follow this quite comprehensive tutorial: http://www.comfuge.org/2012/12/setup-CDN-setting-on-your-domain.html Run the Pingdom + PageSpeed tests again and see where you are at. The speed should have improved significantly, thus improving the overall performance and quality of your now fully-configured website.
You should now have a fast, highly optimized website with all the right big brand signals: a beautiful theme, all the mandatory pages that are needed, vast amounts of engaging and well-optimized content and perfect performance ratings. Now that you have built a solid foundation for your site to grow on, you should begin looking into link building to get your newly created website ranked for your chosen keywords and open the flood gates of traffic. We hope that you have enjoyed the first installment of our web-series.
We look forward to any and all feedback. If you have ideas on a topic you would like to see us cover as part of this web-series, feel free to let us know. Do not forget to share this with your friends and colleagues!