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SEO 101:
Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Myths & Facts
  • Submission and Spidering
    • Submission
    • The spider keeps on comin'
    • Removing barriers to spidering
  • Keywords
    • Avoid single-word terms
    • Avoid terms that are too broad
    • Avoid terms that are too specific
    • Avoid terms that are unpopular
    • Avoid highly-competitive terms
    • Mine your server reports
    • Target word variants and word order
  • Ranking Factors
    • Content is King
    • One-page factors
    • Page Weight
    • Dead Links
    • META tags
    • Unknown Factors
  • NON-Ranking Factors
    • META Keywords
    • ALT text
    • Title attribute
    • Web Standards
    • Dedicated IP address
    • Changing hosts or IP's
    • Adsense
    • Resubmitting a site
  • Penalties
    • Over-Optimization penalties
    • Non-WWW penalties
    • Black Hat SEO penalties
    • Paid Links penalty
    • Duplicate Content penalty
    • Why did my site disappear?!
  • Black Hat SEO
    • Invisible text
    • Cloaking
    • Keyword stuffing
    • Doorway Pages
    • Orphaned Pages
    • Spam
  • Links
    • Anchor Text
    • Links in the body copy
    • Internal Links
    • PageRank
    • Backlinks
    • Reciprocal Links
    • Link Farms and Directories
    • Buying and Selling Links
    • Pages not passing PR
    • Link Age
    • Relevance and Authority
    • Suspicious Activity
    • Splitting PR (removing or forcing theWWW)
    • Summary of link factors
  • Changing domains, and renaming pages
    • Move a whole site
    • Move a directory to a new domain
    • Move specific pages
    • Advanced Redirecting
  • Hiring professional help
  • Summarized recommendations
  • Further Resources

How to get good search engine rankings

<< Part 3: Submission & Spidering

Part 4: Choosing good keywords

Part 5: Ranking factors >>

Keywords are the words you want to rank well for. "Keywords" is somewhat of a misnomer, since when we say keywords we're actually talking about multi-word phrases.

You may want to put some thought into the keywords you want to target. Yes, I've said ad nauseum that you should just focus on building a good website and not worry about the SEO. That's true, but you can cross that line just a little bit by thinking about what phrases you hope your page will match for when creating that page.

Long tail -- search queries that individually aren't searched that often, but all of which together account for most of your search traffic.

A common misconception is that most of your traffic will come from a handful of 2- to 3-word "money phrases". But on a good information-rich site, you'll get traffic from all many of searches that you never thought of, many of them 4+ words in length.Yesterday the top 5 searches into my site comprised only 14% of my total search traffic. The top ten comprised only 20%. Does this concern me? Not at all. If the only traffic I could depend on were the few money terms I optimized for then I wouldn't get much traffic. I love the fact that I get

Traffic -- the visitors who come to your website.

tons of traffic for phrases I didn't specifically target. This is known as getting the long tail. Jakob Nielsen demonstrates this in graphical form by showing how most sites could easily enjoy more traffic simply by adding content.

Even though a good site will get most if its traffic from the long tail, it doesn't hurt to eek out better performance by targeting some specific keyword phrases, and that's what the rest of this page is about. But as you read, bear in mind that the keywords you're targeting are not the be-all and end-all of how you expect visitors to find your site.


Keywords in general

The best keywords are 2- to 4-word phrases that accurately describe what you offer using everyday language that searchers are likely to type in, and which aren't so competitive that you have no chance of getting on the front page. If your keywords are too general then they'll likely be too competitive, and even if you rank well on them your traffic might not convert well, since searchers are usually looking for something specific. But if your keywords are too specific then few people will search for your terms and you'll get few potential visitors.

Note that since the engines rank pages, not sites, you will target different keywords on different pages. You might go for a more general term on your home page, and more specific terms on your inside pages.

Common mistakes in selection of search terms include targeting:

  • Single-word terms
  • Terms that are way too broad, and not focused to what you offer
  • Terms that are too specialized, which nobody searches for
  • Terms which are unpopular
  • Highly-competitive terms which you can't hope to rank well for

We'll explore each of these in detail. And note that in the discussion that follows, when we say "optimize", we're simply referring to putting the keywords in the <TITLE> tag and in the body copy of the page.

Avoid Single-Word Terms

SEO -- Search Engine Optimizer, a professional skilled in getting websites to rank well. Also stands for search engine optimization.

The term SEO is somewhat of a misnomer because improving ranking these days usually takes more than just optimizing the actual text on a page, it also involves getting a lot of high quality, relevant inbound links.

Single-word terms are usually a poor choice for optimizing. That's because they're too broad, and they're too competitive. Most SEO's won't touch single-word terms for this reason. Two- and three-word phrases are not only easier to rank for, they send you much higher quality traffic.

When we're searching for something ourselves, most of us know that one-word searches aren't very useful for getting the results we want. Think about it: When was the last time you found what you were looking for by typing a single word into Google? Probably the first time you ever tried a single-word search you got a list of results that weren't what you wanted. You then added another word or two to try to refine your search. After having the experience of not finding what you were looking for with single-word searches a few times you began automatically typing at least two or three words in when doing searches. (Either that, or you're spending your time wading through irrelevant search results for the single-word term you typed in.)

So it's funny that when it comes time to pick search terms for our own site, many of us magically forget that we don't use single-word terms in our own searches. But to have a successful website -- or a successful business for that matter -- it's important to put yourself in your customers' shoes, and think like they do. And most of them won't be using single-word terms. Those few who do will be lost among the others who are searching for that same term but had something else in mind besides what you offer.

Besides the fact that single-word terms are too broad, they're also almost impossible to rank well for, because there are too many competing websites. If you want to rank well for "writer" then you're competing with every site that uses the word "writer" anywhere on the page -- and there are 11.6 million of them. But target "real estate writer" and your competition plummets to only 1.2 million. Go with "freelance real estate writer" and now you're down to 48,700. You get the idea. (Of course, you don't want your search terms to be too specific. We'll cover that in a minute.)

Avoid single-word search terms because they're generally too broad and too competitive.

Avoid terms that are too broad

Terms can be too broad even if they're two or more words. But we'll use a single word in our example, because it's a pretty good example.

Let's say your business is decorating cakes in Portland, Oregon. You decide you want a top 10 ranking for "cakes". Will that be good for your business? No, because the overwhelming majority of your visitors searching for just "cakes" aren't potential customers. They're more likely looking for recipes or nutritional information. Even if they're looking for a cake decorator they're probably not looking for one in Portland. The bottom line is, it's not how well your site ranks for a given term, or even how much traffic you get from your ranking; it's how many potential customers visit your site. A thousand random surfers aren't worth as much as one qualified lead. Ignore the number of raw hits; you want visitors who are actually interested in what you have to offer. The raw number of visitors is meaningless. For you, one visitor searching for "cake decorator portland" would be worth more than 1000 people searching for "cake".

And not only is "cake decorator portland" more valuable to you as a keyword, it's easier to get a good ranking for. That's because there's less competition. The more specialized your keywords are, the less competition you'll have. A search for "accountants" on Google yields over 1.7 million results. Yet a search for "naked accountants in albuquerque" yields only 115. (And no, none of those results are for actual naked accountants in Albuquerque, but you get the point.)

In fact, adding the city name where your business is located to your web pages is one of the quickest ways to bring in more qualified traffic.

Going back to the cake example, and the idea of ranking well for the one-word term "cake" even though most people searching for that aren't potential customers, is there any harm in having visitors who aren't potential customers? Sure there is. You waste users' time if you put a highly specialized site in front of them when they were searching for something general. If you've ever been frustrated by having to wade through irrelevant sites to find what you were looking for, then you can appreciate that it's common courtesy to not put your site in front of users who likely have no interest in it.

Getting visitors you don't want to your site also increases your bandwidth, and possibly your webhosting bill, and might even slow down your site down so much that potential customers are frustrated and click off your site. These are less likely consequences, but they're possible.

It's not how many people go to your site, it's how many actually buy something. It's important to stop focusing on the number of hits you get and start focusing on the quality of hits. This is hard for many site owners to do, but it's essential nonetheless.

Back when it was easier to improve your site's rank (before the search engines started weeding out all the tricks), many site owners would get their sites to rank well on porn keywords, even if the sites had nothing to do with porn, figuring that searches for porn were very popular. Well, they were right, but all that traffic they got was useless, since the visitors clicked off those sites just as fast as they clicked on. What did the site owners think would be going through the visitors' minds? "Well, I was looking for sex pictures, but now that I'm here, I think I will refinance my mortgage!"

This is so important it bears repeating: Untargeted traffic is useless. The number of visitors you get is meaningless. It's the number of qualified visitors you get that counts.

Avoid terms that are too specific

As we saw earlier, the more specific the search, the less the competition for the search term. And the less the competition, the easier it is to rank well on that term. Expanding on our example from earlier:

Number of Google Matches





real estate writer


freelance real estate writer


freelance real estate writer los angeles

But of course there's a catch: The more specific the search, the fewer people actually search for that term. Which is another way of saying that as competition goes down, so does the popularity of the search term. We can graph this concept like this:

Avoid unscrupulous SEO's who don't consider the popularity of the terms they suggest. Anyone can get a front-page ranking for "cheap freelance real estate writer in hollywood california". But since nobody searches for that, your #1 ranking would be useless.

Terms must be specific, but terms that are TOO specific are useless because nobody searches for them.


Avoid terms that are unpopular

If you pick unpopular keywords, your effort could be wasted. As an exaggerated example, just because the phrase "quadraphonic bluejay" is only two words long doesn't mean anyone's going to be searching for it. Ranking #1 on terms that nobody is searching for is just as bad as ranking #300 for terms that everybody is searching for. You can't get the traffic if people aren't using your search terms, no matter how well you're ranked.

That doesn't mean you should avoid optimizing for lesser-used keywords at all. As long as a rare keyword search brings in some qualified traffic, then it's useful to your business.

Of course, it might not be possible to find popular search terms if what your business offers isn't very popular itself. If your business is refurbishing pogo sticks, you can't expect to find a search term that's both relevant and popular. (Though if refurbishing pogo sticks is your only business, you've got other problems.)

There are many online tools that can tell you how many searches are being performed for specific keywords, as well as suggesting related keywords to optimize for:

  • Keyword Discovery. (recommended) The best service, uses data from 180 engines including Google and Yahoo, endorsed by a slew of the biggest names in SEO. $50/mo. or $400/yr.
  • WordTracker. Similar to the above, but uses data from fewer search engines, and doesn't include Google. $50/mo. or $244/yr.
  • Google Adwords. Adwords is Google's pay-per-click advertising program. In setting up an ad, you type in a list of keywords that should cause your ad to be displayed when a user searches for those keywords. Google then estimates how many clicks per day you can expect your ad to receive. By comparing which keywords Google thinks will generate more clicks, you can see which keywords users are more likely to use for their searches. You don't actually have to make an ad go live, and if you don't then it's free.
  • Google Trends. A free tool that lets you compare the traffic that two different search phrases get.
  • Overture Keyword Selector. Only Yahoo data, but hey, it's free.

Make certain your search terms are popular, or at least as popular as possible given what your market is.

Avoid highly competitive terms

You might have found a term that's both popular and highly relevant to what you actually offer. But if too many other sites are competing for that same term, you might not be able to rank well for it, or you might rank lower than you'd like.

Let's look at a practical example. Back when I did SEO-for-hire, one of my clients who makes hand-crafted personalized wedding gifts wanted to rank well for the term "wedding gifts". I advised that "wedding gifts" was ultra competitive and that we should also target "personalized wedding gifts" to have a better shot of getting onto the front page of Google. Well, as it turns out, I was able to get "wedding gifts" onto the front page after all. But "personalized wedding gifts" ranked #2 while plain old "wedding gifts" ranked #10.

So even if you can get on the front page for a certain term, you might be able to rank even higher on the front page for a less competitive term. And of course some phrases are so competitive you won't be able to get onto the front page at all. In this case your solution is to find a less competitive term, usually by making it more specialized by adding another word or two to the search term.

Summing it up

Putting it all together, the trick is to find search terms that are highly relevant to what you offer, popular enough that they'll result in decent traffic to your site, but not so competitive that you can't rank well for them. So how do you find out where all these criteria these intersect? How popular is popular enough, and how competitive is too competitive? If you don't think you can figure those things out on your own, this is exactly the kind of thing a good SEO consultant can help you with. He or she can evaluate your search terms and find those with the best fit for your website.

Tip: Mine your server reports

Server reports are a good source for keyword research. If you have a decent webhost such as Dreamhost, they allow you to access reports showing such things as how many people visited your site, which pages they visited, and what search terms they used to find your site. The most popular reporting software programs are Analog and Awstats. If your host doesn't use one of these, ask if they will install it for you. If they don't offer it, and they won't, and the statistics they offer aren't as detailed and easy to use as Analog's or Awstats, then this is an important enough issue that you should consider switching webhosts.

Your server reports will show what search terms people used to find your site. You will probably discover that they used terms that you hadn't thought of, and that you happen to have a fair ranking for those terms, perhaps on page 2 or 3, or maybe near the bottom of page 1. Once you discover these terms, you can optimize your pages for them to get a better ranking for them.

Here's a real-world example. I run a site about Las Vegas. One of the pages was about roller coasters in the area. When I created the site I wasn't careful to write good <TITLE> tags for the pages. In checking my server stats I found that a few people were finding the site through a search on "las vegas roller coasters", though my ranking for that term was mediocre. But knowing I was at least on the radar for that particular search, I put that phrase in the <TITLE>, and soon got a #1 match for "las vegas roller coasters".

Tip: Consider word variants, and word order

Most search engines treat plurals different from singular. A search for "wedding gift" returns different results than "wedding gifts". If you have the resources, optimize for both versions. If you optimize for only one, then in most cases you'll pick the plural version, since that's more popular among users. Likewise, make certain to optimize for variations of compound words. For example, to Google, "web site" is different from "website".

Word order matters. A search for "personalized wedding gifts" returns a different set of results than "wedding gifts personalized". Again, if you have the resources, optimize for all variations. If not, pick what you think will be the most common term.

Related articles


Now continue this series below...

<< Part 3: Submission & Spidering
Part 4: Choosing good keywords
Part 5: Ranking factors >>

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