SEO Training Course
This is a SEO training course, to help you get your business on the front page of the three major search engines.
Search engine optimization (or SEO) is a technique that optimizes your site for visibility and accessibility to search engines. Generally, this means optimizing a site for a set of keywords wherein your site will rank nearer the top of the search engine results for those keywords.
The basics of SEO are pretty simple, but there are many different theories and techniques that are taught. We try to avoid the theoretical and otherwise useless talk and just get down to what has worked for us in the past. Before we do that, we should talk about how search engines operate. We’ll focus primarily on Google, as it is the most popular, but the same goes for almost all other search engines.
The Anatomy of a Search Engine
A search engine is a portal. It hosts no content itself and it only indexes the millions of pages of content across the world. An index is just a database of web pages. As you can imagine, Google’s datacenters hold hundreds and thousands of terabytes of information in the form of their main index.
This method of collecting and indexing pages is called crawling.
A crawler is a computer program that visits many thousands of pages in a day and places them in the index. This index is kept sorted and cataloged so that when a user comes along and asks for pages about “florida oranges” Google can efficiently find the best, most relevant pages.
Google uses a proprietary algorithm to rank these pages by importance and relevance and shows them in descending order. That way the best result is usually first on the list and the second best is second and so on.
Just so we’re on the same page, a crawler surfs the internet at high speed and places web pages in a massive index. A searcher comes along and enters a keyword.
The algorithm sorts all pages about that keyword by importance and relevance and displays them to the searcher. Got it?
So, in a nutshell, SEO is convincing the crawler to place your page in the index and convincing the algorithm to rank your web page higher for whatever keyword you are interested in.
This sounds simple but in reality, can be very difficult (especially for highly valuable and competitive keywords). So, how do we do it?
The number one rule in SEO is unique, relevant and high quality content. That means content that isn’t copied from another website and is important and of high quality (no spelling or grammatical errors). It also means that it is relevant to your keywords. I can’t stress how important content is.
If you mess this up, you aren’t going to rank for anything as Google will just assume you are some sort of spam site.
The number two concept is links. This is especially if you want to rank for something even remotely competitive. The idea here is that Google thinks of links as votes.
The more votes you get, the better your rank will be. However, when getting links, these things are important to consider:
- Quality of linking website
- Anchor text
- Relevance between the two sites
Basically, the problem most people run into here is a very common one: good links are hard to find. You need to look for high quality websites within your niche and convince them to vote for you with a link. This is difficult.
One way to do efficiently do that is to provide quality content no one else does. Then all you have to do is bring your site to their attention and they may be willing to link to you just to share your content. Otherwise, you might have to resort to other methods.
The number three concept is on-page optimization.
This usually refers to designing your website to be easily crawled by Google and placing your keyword in important, strategic places. For example, you should mention your keyword several times in your main content and at least once in the title tag (the pages heading). However, a key aspect here is to be very careful about your appearance.
You do NOT want to appear unnatural to Google. They are very good at detecting unnatural content and will penalize you for this in a heartbeat.
WAIT JUST A SECOND! We highly recommend a quick detour from reading straight through. A quick stop at the appendix to this chapter (found at the end of the chapter) will give you a nice overview of some of the metrics used in SEO.
Off-Site Optimization Tips
Off-site optimization is a catch all term for any optimization that relies on other sites to provide you with value. A good rule of thumb is that once you finish on-site optimization, you’ll be spending about 95% of your time with off-site optimization. You can read more about on-site tips below, but we’re going to focus primarily on off-sire optimization for now.
Links, links, links.
I hope you remember concept number two from earlier, as we’ll be spending a lot of time talking about links. Just remember that a link to your site is a vote for your site. You want as many high quality websites voting for you as possible.
But, before we talk any further about link building strategies, I want to introduce you to the concept of anchor text and nofollow. When building links, both of these attributes play a huge role in the effectiveness of the links you gather.
- Anchor text is the text that makes up the link. Usually a link might say something like Click here to visit the website. That anchor text does absolutely nothing to tell Google why this site is voting for you. A better anchor text would be Purchase Coldplay Tickets Online. This gives a very obvious reason for the link’s existence. This is important!
- Nofollow is a HTML attribute on links that effectively nullifies the link in Google’s eyes. These are very common in blog comments and forum posts because pretty much anyone can add a link. As far as Google is concerned, this link doesn’t exist though they still may be valuable if users will click on them. A regular link’s code looks something like this:
<a href=”http://example.com/”>Example Site</a>
But a nofollow’d link’s code looks like this:
<a rel=”nofollow” href=”http://example.com/”>Example Site</a>
The reason this is a big deal is that you don’t want to go through a lot of hassle to obtain a nofollow link as they will not help you achieve any SEO success.
Another important thing to consider is how natural your backlink profile looks to a search engine. Backlink profile is the number of links you acquire over time and how dispersed across the web they are, in addition to where they point on your domain.
In a perfect world, your backlinks would grow linearly (IE: in a straight line). They would also be from many numerous unique domains. And finally, they would point mostly to your homepage, but a few would point to other sub-pages.
All of these things look natural. Basically, does it look normal to the crawler that you just got a bunch of super keyword rich links from a forum you found that doesn’t employ nofollow links? Use common sense.
So, how can you get these links we’ve been talking about? Sounds easy right?
Well, maybe, but here are some common routes you can take:
- Pay for them (like a text ad)
- Earn them naturally
- Ask other sites for a free link
- Trade links with relevant sites
Paying for Links
Why even read this SEO training course if you are going to pay for links? The practice of paying for links is actually extremely common although Google’s official stance is that paid links are very, very bad and frankly, they don’t want you doing this. However, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between naturally earned links and paid links. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to rank for highly competitive keywords without resorting to paid links.
The fastest and most effective way to find sites that you might propose a link deal is to do a search for your target keyword and just go down the list visiting each and every site and looking for a contact form or email address.
In the past, I’ve found collecting these URL’s in a large Excel file to be extremely efficient. At the end of the day, I just email all the addresses I have asking for some sort of a deal.
A few things to remember though:
- Don’t be surprised if the majority of sites do not respond.
- Don’t reveal your primary site or real name in the first email (wait for a response first).
- Don’t name a price in the first email.
- Expect a few sites to get upset with you or try to report you (which is why you don’t reveal your real site or name until you know they are interested).
Once you finally hear back from a site or two, now is the time to review their site. Is it of high quality? Is the content unique? Does it appear to be legitimate? If you seem wary of the site in question, perhaps you should move on.
Too many links from shady sites can hurt your legitimate site in the eyes of Google.
After you determine the site is legitimate, now you need to consider its relevance and what keyword you want in the anchor text. The majority of these links will probably be pointed at your homepage, but don’t be afraid to point a link or two at your blog posts or another page on your site. Just remember, you want the link to appear natural.
Don’t put a link to a dog kennel website from a tech blog or vice-versa.
Finally, you need to decide on price. In order to really understand what to offer, you should install some sort of SEO toolbar to read some stats. Check out the appendix to learn about what an SEO toolbar is and how to use it.
Basically, how many sites link to the domain that will link to you? What is there page rank? How many visitors do they get? A site with 0-10k backlinks and a PR of 1-3 will usually fetch about $50-$100 a year.
Sites with over 100k backlinks and a PR of 6+ can cost $1000 a year or even more! I advise starting small and offering to raise the price during negotiations, especially if it is a small site with an otherwise amateurish appearance.
Earning Links Naturally
This is also an effective way to build links but requires a little more time. This strategy revolves around have engaging content and encouraging others to link to your using incentives or to simply share the knowledge. One of the more popular and extremely effective (but difficult) techniques is the use of viral or link-worthy linkbait article or content.
Viral content is usually very funny or unique content with a twist. Users want to link to it to share the entertainment value. Linkbait is a term used to describe articles that are especially easy to digest and read and easily spread.
A common theme for linkbait resources are top ten lists, how-to articles, interviews or useful, free tools.
Both viral and linkbait content are extremely efficient methods for gaining links when they hit. However, a majority of the time you’ll find yourself with a miss.
For a great example of linkbait articles, visit OkCupid’s blog. They regularly post articles with superb graphs and statistical content about the online dating scene. This content is extremely interesting and encourages readers to spread it.
Asking for Links
This is much like paying for links as you have to go out and reach webmasters across your niche of sites. Instead of offering them money right off the bat, suggest a specific article you wrote and ask for a link from a relevant article they wrote. The more personalized the message, the better.
One of my favorite techniques is to start off with a personalized message asking for a link and if they give the link, hooray! I just thank them and move on to the next site. However, if they say no, I offer to purchase a link or “ad” on their site.
This usually maximizes your return as you get a greater response rate and about a third of the sites you reach will give you a free link. Another third will take you up on the paid “ad” link offer and the other third will just say no to everything.
Be very, very careful about trading links. This is extremely easy for Google to spot. A good rule of thumb is no more than 1/3 of link acquisitions should have a reciprocal link. It’s just too dangerous.
All Google has to do is connect a few dots and you can lose your ranking in one fell swoop.
More Link Finding Strategies
Another great way this SEO training course recommends is to dig deeper and find great links is to visit your competitors, and using an SEO toolbar (read up on this in the appendix) find all the sites that link to them. Now, go through that list of sites and email those asking if they wouldn’t mind replacing the link to your competitor to your site instead.
This works especially well if your site is inherently better than your competitions and serves two purposes: (1) it gains you another link (2) it deprives your competition of their links.
Once again, never use your real site name or address until you get a response from the site in question. You never know who they might contact or tip off to your activities. Anything you can do to keep a low profile should be done. Remember, it only takes one big screw up to ruin all your work in SEO. So be very paranoid.
While off-page optimization is what gets you the major rankings, failing to do on-page optimization will only doom your efforts in the long run. In fact, a domain with good authority (high page rank, wide range of backlinks) can begin to rank for low and medium competitive keywords with simple, effective on-page optimization with only a few or even no backlinks.
Unique and Relevant Content
I know you’ve already read this from earlier, but it could use repeating. Without content that is unique to your specific page, you can get in big trouble in the eyes of Google. One thing you should never do is copy content from another website.
Generally, you want quite a bit of high quality, unique content; at least a dozen or so pages. Now, that isn’t to say that some pages can rank without any real content. For example, say you’re a photographer and you have an ultra-minimal website design with very few words and just a handful of photos.
With enough powerful links, you could still rank for pretty much anything.
However, if you have backlinks with radically different anchor text keywords from what keywords you are displaying on-page, you can get some major penalties from Google. However, if the keywords are all complementary or at least somewhat interrelated, Google will generally make the connection and not penalize you.
One area of confusion that leads to some very common mistakes is that you should keep repeating your keyword in your content. This may have worked in the late 90’s, but keyword density is largely a thing of the past. Get over it. A good rule of thumb is that you should mention your keyword only as often as is natural to speak about it.
We’ve had more success using ancillary or related keywords more often than the primary keyword in content.
We highly recommend using a service like TextBroker.com to create content that is unique. Just make sure you are specific and detailed in your explanations of what you need.
They’ll write the content for you and you only have to pay a certain price per word. However, this helps free you up from the sometimes monotonous task of content writing. If you need to save money, by all means, write the content yourself.
Remember: unique, high-quality, relevant.
Title Tags and Descriptions
Title tags are still a very large part of SEO rankings. The title tag is the little bit of HTML code that resides in the tag as its own tag. Generally, we like to see the primary keyword as the phrase in the title tag.
So if your top keyword is “buy sandals” a good title tag might be “Buy Sandals for Cheap at SandalsHut.com!”
Remember, not only does Google use the title tag as a factor in your ranking; they also display it on the results page.
So you need to come up with a title that has your keywords in addition to enticing searching users to click through. Additionally, the description tag has the ability to lure people into clicking your result over the others.
While the description tag doesn’t do nearly as much to increase your ranking, it is extremely visible to searching users on the results page.
Don’t forget that Google also highlights the search term in both the title tag and description on a results page. Notice the screenshots from above of the first result for “mens leather sandals” in Google and the source of the destination’s page? Look at the highlighting and the title and description tag from the HTML and compare.
This is also an important aspect, though it isn’t a deal breaker if done incorrectly. Basically, we are worried about two things in a URL:
- Non-descriptive URLs: http://example.com/products.php?id=8973549
- Duplicate URLs: http://example.com/products.php?id=8973549 and http://example.com/products.php?id=8973549&source=utm are the exact same
The first problem can be very difficult to solve, especially for those without much of a technical background. Usually, it involves mod_rewrite, which is an Apache module.
A quick search will tell you all kinds of confusing stuff about mod_rewrite, but basically, it redirects URLs on the front (from a user) to a different URL on the back. The nice thing about mod_rewrite is you can write rules and fancy scripts to do the URL rewriting for you. However, this is difficult to do.
Basically, you want http://example.com/products.php?id=8973549 to become something like http://example.com/products.php/black-mens-leather-shoe/ or even http://example.com/products.php?slug= black-mens-leather-shoe. The first involves mod_rewrite while the second involves new PHP code and database revisions.
Another thing to worry about is your software generating duplicate URLs. This usually happens as users navigate across your site and the software appends new variables to URLs that don’t play any role in changing what content is shown. The easiest way to fix this is to employ a canonical tag in the header with the most simple and stripped down URL.
This simple little code looks like this: <link rel=”canonical” href=”http://example.com/products.php/black-mens-leather-shoe/” />. What this does is tell Google to consider the current copy of the page to be the same as the linked page. Google then just forwards whatever link juice or authority to wherever the canonical tag says.
Valid HTML/CSS (no tables!)
Finally, this can be the worst thing to happen to your site: the HTML code gets mangled to the point that a crawler can’t read it. However, this is also a rather easy thing to fix. All you have to do is run it through W3’s HTML validator and fix whatever errors it gives you. Once you do that, everything should be just fine once again.
However, make sure you are using the best practices for designing HTML. That means if you are using tables for page layouts, STOP! Your site needs a redesign using standard HTML dividers and CSS.
Crawlers have been known to have trouble organizing sites that use tables because they have very peculiar ways of displaying in browsers. Remember, a crawler is not a human, it’s a computer.
It wants the data in a sensible and readable format, and while tables can sometimes do that (it is especially good at displaying raw data and is its intended use), all too often it just mangles it beyond recognition.
Using Adwords/PPC to Research
The problem with SEO is that it takes lots and lots of time and effort to rank for your keywords. However, using a service like PPC is extremely fast and easy to use to get fast results.
We generally like to take advantage of the speed of results that come from PPC to plan out our SEO campaigns. For example, say we were considering a couple dozen keywords. Instead of fighting our way to the top with whichever keyword we think will work well, we put those dozen keywords in PPC and try them for a couple weeks.
After the couple weeks are up or we have a decent sized sample pool, we can compare the keywords’ statistics and determine which keywords will be the best targets for an SEO campaign.
If we find a single keyword has the highest conversion rate of the bunch, we might revamp our homepage to focus on that keyword, or at least put up an additional page.
Advanced SEO Tips
Domains with keywords & exact match
One thing you may notice when searching for domains is that almost nothing is left anymore. The reason is this: domain resellers snatch up anything with a remote promise of being useful and try to resell it for a massive markup.
Usually they do it exclusively for keyword rich domains. Keyword rich domains are domains that contain the keywords you are going to rank for. For example, for the keyword “leather sandals” you might want a domain like SandalsHut.com.
A domain like this will give a slight boost for SEO purposes because of its obvious connection to sandals.
Another permutation on the keyword rich domain is the exact match domain. Exact match domains are extremely powerful, especially for Google. For example, let’s say the keyword is “mens leather sandals”.
The exact match domain in this case would be MensLeatherSandals.com, .net, or .org. In the real world, the extension .com, .net, or .org doesn’t mean much for SEO. However, .com is always the preferred domain if you ever need to resell the site or business. An exact match domain can often rank #1 with just a few strong links (or none at all!).
Satellite sites with exact match
A very common strategy with exact match domains is the idea of creating satellite sites around them. For example, your primary site could be something more brandable like SandalsHut.com but still grab lots of domains like MensLeatherSandals.com, WomensLeatherSandals.com, etc…
You can then leverage those domains’ ranking power for the keyword to funnel visitors or even 301 to sub-pages on your main site. A 301 is a permanent redirect.
So, let’s say you get WomensLeatherSandals.com to rank #1 for “womens leather sandals”. You could now redirect that domain to SandalsHut.com/womens-leather-sandals/ and enjoy a boost in rankings.
However, you must be careful about not doing this too often because some can consider it shady and it could hurt you in the long run. A safer bet would be to use the satellite sites to drive traffic and not 301.
Keyword rich anchor text
This tip is an extension of the ideas behind building a strong backlink profile. You want your anchor text to be keyword rich, but not 100% keywords. For example, its unnatural to have all your anchor text to be:
Buy Sandals, Mens Sandals, Leather Sandals, Buy Leather Sandals, etc… Instead, try mixing in some more natural links like Sandals Hut dot com, SandalsHut.com, and Sandals Hut or even Leather Sandals at SandalsHut.com or Mens Sandals at Sandals Hut.
While they won’t carry as much specific power as pure keyword only anchor tags, you’ll look much more natural in your backlink profile and retain a long-term SEO advantage.
Nofollow sculpting can be very dangerous and should be considered an advanced technique. If you are unfamiliar with website coding or layouts, I’d recommend not implementing this strategy.
It basically involves very carefully places Nofollow tags within your own site, usually on links that point to pages you do not care to rank with. For example, pages with contact info, legal information or login pages.
The key concept here is controlling which of your pages get link juice. If you can imagine a page as a bucket where backlinks fill the bucket and links on your own page empty the bucket, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how link juice works. The more full your bucket is, the better it can usually rank for something.
So, Nofollow sculpting attempts to plug the holes that drain into pages on your site that don’t rank for anything useful.
Scalable links via widgets and themes
This is another extremely popular and powerful tool. However, it assumes you already have some sort of traffic that you can use to spread your widgets. Widgets are small pieces of HTML that contain some sort of customized information that users can display on their own blogs or websites.
Along for the ride with those widgets are links to your website with keyword rich anchor text. The key here is to make the widget something that would appeal to the user and entice them to put it on their page.
Perhaps you can show off their stats in some game or they can take a quiz and earn a badge. Be creative!
Alternatively, another option, especially if you can design HTML and CSS, is to create a WordPress, Joomla! or Drupal theme and release it for free. In the footer of that theme is a link with keyword rich anchor text.
If a user likes your design and installs it on their server, your link is along for the ride. Hopefully they’ll even become super popular and your link will be extremely powerful. The key here is to design for a popular platform and make the design as common and widely received as possible.
You want lots of people to like it, so stay away from fancy design and keep it simple and attractive.
Additionally, Google adores up-to-date content. A wise choice may be to implement a blog with regularly added articles that are also featured in blurbs on the homepage. This gives the appearance of an active and current website which is high on Google’s list of important factors.
However, don’t get so wrapped up in uploading content regularly that you resort to copying content or creating content that isn’t relevant. You don’t want the search engine to begin to widen the subjects it considers your site to be a resource on. Stay specific.
Appendix: SEO Toolbars
There are several useful metrics for measuring the SEO value of a website. Unfortunately, they aren’t very easy to view without first installing a little piece of software.
Before you even get started worrying about the SEO toolbar, make sure you are using a browser like Firefox. You can get Firefox at www.mozilla.com/firefox/ and it’s 100% free! If you already have Firefox, well, by all means read on!
There are several different SEO toolbars you can install and utilize to research SEO statistics for domains while surfing, some are listed below, in the same order as the screenshot below, and all are free:
- SEOBook: While this requires registration to download and install, it is one of the more useful toolbars. From the left, there is a fast and simple info button that gives you a popup of some of the more common metrics, PageRank, Yahoo!’s backlinks (both domain and page), Majestic SEO backlinks, DMOZ links, etc… This toolbar is recommended for most users.
- SEOQuake: While not as popular, SEOQuake is extremely powerful and offers some great features. You’ll notice the first couple metrics are all the same, but there are a few more to consider (plus a bunch more tools off-page). This toolbar is recommended for most users with a little more desire to dig deep into the metrics.
- SEOmoz: This toolbar uses some proprietary metrics and is heavily tied in with the very useful OpenSiteExplorer.org and SEOmoz’s Pro tools. This toolbar is a must-have if you have a SEOmoz subscription and access to their industry leading toolset.
The Metrics Themselves
There are several considerations when viewing SEO based metrics. You can view these metrics on your site or competitors’ sites and compare. You can also dig deeper into your stats and find out a little more.
Let’s cover the metrics, in descending importance.
Backlinks are the links from other sites that point to your site. Like this SEO training course mentioned before, backlinks are among the most important things in SEO. If you look at the screenshot above, you’ll notice that both SEOBook and SEOQuake have two Yahoo! numbers. These numbers are generally approximations of the number of backlinks the Yahoo! crawler has found and has in their index.
The curious among you may be asking “why aren’t they using Google’s index of links?” This is a great question without a real solid answer. The problem is that Google doesn’t provide access to its full link portfolio.
This is probably due to the way Google chooses to fight the dark, spam driven side of SEO.
Additionally, there are alternative link index sources. Sites like Majestic SEO or OpenSiteExplorer.org run their own crawler for the sole purpose of collecting massive link profiles of the internet.
Often times they try to sell access to these indexes. In my experience, none of the new and upcoming link indexes are as thorough as Yahoo!. However, there many who believe that Yahoo! will soon stop sharing its link index with the world, leaving us to rely on private, paid link indexes.
Another thing to consider is that you can click on the Yahoo! buttons in the toolbars to get a list of sites that link to you. This is useful about finding out who and why people are linking to you and is a great way to spy on how and why people are linking to your competition.
Generally, strong sites have more than 40k backlinks and extremely strong sites have more than 100k backlinks. However, sometimes you will find a site with only 1k or 2k backlinks that has much, much more authority that another with more backlinks.
This is due to the fact that not all links are made equal. Links from sites with high authority and backlink counts count for much more than sites with the opposite.
PageRank is an interesting metric. Some think it counts for a lot, and some think it counts for almost nothing. Strangely enough, it seems both are true. PageRank is a metric awarded by Google for quality and authority.
That doesn’t mean a site with a better PageRank will always beat other sites of lower PageRank, because if that were true Whitehouse.gov would rank #1 for everything (it has a perfect 10 PR)!
Instead, think of PageRank as a quality and trustworthiness metric. A higher PageRank means you’ll have a spot in the index and that you may have an edge in ranking for keywords overall, but it doesn’t give you any sort of specific edge.
You need well done on-page and off-page SEO in order to rank for keywords.
One of the best uses of PageRank is to make sure Google still respects a site. For example, say you find a site with 120k backlinks. And what’s more, you’ve emailed the wedmaster and he’ll let you buy a link for $5 a month! What a deal! However, you notice his homepage has a PR of 0. That sounds fishy.
Chances are he got banned from Google for doing something sneaky and that link you might have bought will be wasted (and may possibly hurt you). So, the moral of the story here is to make sure all the parts look compatible before you jump in.
Both Compete.com and Alexis.com attempt to track traffic to domains across the web. However, they don’t do this with widgets on site, but with toolbars that users install (for searching or otherwise).
They then estimate what percentage of users visit a certain site based on their small sample size and then extrapolate across the millions upon millions of untracked users.
This method is crude and inaccurate, especially for sites with low to medium traffic. The error rate is just way too high to be reliable.
While it can be fun to watch your metric fluctuate or compare across competitors, just remember that it doesn’t really tell you that much. However, once you get into the top 1000, the error rate is much less noticeable and it can be somewhat reliably used to track changes.
The verdict here: ignore.