Your client has a web site, but doesn't have the traffic he wants. Here's what I do. …
Let me state my bias up front: I believe websites are for people, not for search engines. In the main, I act as if search engines did not exist and make the site useful for visitors. Competent search engines recognize and reward such behavior.
Working in order of importance, we will proceed thus:
- Confirm the substantive and technical quality of the site
- Add a sitemap
- Peek through the search engines' eyes
- Add the site to major directories
- Add the site to specialty directories and search engines
- Add relevant outbound links and encourage inbound links
- Confirm again that the major search engines have no issue with the site
- Review keyword performance and refine as required
- Optional: Submit a product data feed
- Optional: Purchase paid ads
There are a few things you need to do before you can even get in the door. First and most importantly, have a compelling site that is worth visiting. If the site is merely a brochure or is of obviously inferior quality, then it won't matter if by some black magic you get a PR9 and are #1 in your keywords' SERP: people will not return to or recommend it. Imagine yourself as a disinterested visitor seeing the site for the first time and ask yourself:
- Was it worth your time to visit it? Would you return again?
- Would you recommend it to (friends, co-workers, others in your industry, whatever)?
- If you had a related website or blog, would you spontaneously link to it without being asked?
- Is it as professionally done as similar or competing sites?
If the answer to even one of these questions is no, then address it, now, before continuing.
If you are the site owner, developer, or copywriter, it may be difficult to distance yourself from your creation enough to answer these questions dispassionately. Seek outside opinion if appropriate.
Insure that each page has a unique title and description. Using similar titles or descriptions on multiple pages isn't very helpful when those pages appear in the search results.
Jot down for reference the information you will need for site promotion. Every case is different, but commonly requested data includes:
- Site name and URL
- URLs of a small site logo and a small illustrative photograph
- Site contact name, email address, physical address, and telephone number
- Keywords (no more than 10)
- Site descriptions: short (90 characters or so) and long (250 characters or so)
- URLs of any related sites (e.g. the owner's blog on a separate domain)
- Latitude and longitude of physical presence
If the site is multilingual, some of the information above will be needed in each language. For example, you will require a separate set of keywords in each language.
When a site contact email address is requested, sometimes what is wanted is that of the site owner and sometimes it is the email of you the site promoter that is wanted. I accommodate both needs by creating a forwarder recipe in the site owner's name (e.g. email@example.com) that forwards to me. I use it for site promotion purposes. When finished, I re-point it to the site owner's email address. This way I can deal with any technical or promotional questions right away, and future business-related inquiries go directly to the site owner.
Keywords are the words and phrases that, if entered into a search engine, you want to be highly ranked for. We shall revisit keyword selection, but for now just brainstorm with the client what keywords you imagine that potential clients will likely use.
Use keywords in your site descriptions. Conversely, important words in your site descriptions — your unique selling proposition, for example — should probably figure in your keywords.
Finally, review the site text and insure that it is keyword-rich. Don't overdo this, however. We've all seen and laughed at lame website text like "The widgets of Acme widgets are the finest widgets known to widget wholesalers, widget retailers, widget resellers, widget traders, and widget buyers throughout the widget industry." Write for people, not for search engines.
CREATE A SITEMAP
Go to xml-sitemaps.com and follow the instructions to generate a sitemap. Edit as needed, looking for issues such as:
- pages that were not automatically found
- repeated pages
- URLs that are malformed or do not follow your preferred form (e.g. with or without the www)
Upload the corrected sitemap to your docroot, giving it the name sitemap.xml. Then specify the name and location of the sitemap in the site's robots.txt file, using the form:
PEEK THROUGH THE SEARCH ENGINES' EYES
If you haven't already, sign up for the webmaster's tools available from leading search engines Google and Bing. (Yahoo, continuing its death march, killed off Site Explorer in 2012.) Follow the instructions to add the site to your accounts. In the case of Google, additionally go to Site Configuration – Settings – Preferred Domain and specify if Google should use example.com or http://www.example.com. (Apparently Bing does not offer this setting.)
Insure that your sitemap has been found and address any issues you find. These are useful tools that we'll be coming back to again as we continue.
Check the site in the SEO Text Browser. Enter the site's domain in the "Whois lookup" field at domaintools.com and press "Search". Click on the "Site Profile" tab and review the information provided. In particular, note the relevancy values given for title, description, and keywords: ideally they should each score 100%. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on "view SEO text browser". The SEO Text Browser will launch and give its first suggestion. Perform the suggested improvement, upload the modified page, and refresh the SEO Text Browser. Repeat as necessary. Returning to the Site Profile page (refresh it if required), confirm that the relevancy values have improved.
SUBMIT TO ODP AND YAHOO DIRECTORIES
Back in the day, two human-edited directories had their ten minutes of fame. Both have fallen out of favor with users and have become largely irrelevant. They remain indirectly influential in some niches, however, so go ahead and spend a few minutes to submit to them.
Google draws upon and takes as authoritative the Open Directory Project (ODP, a.k.a DMOZ), an independent volunteer-run directory. Follow the submission instructions and wait.
Yahoo maintains its own in-house directory — indeed, it was the company's first product. Find the most appropriate category and press "Suggest a Site". Noncommercial submissions are free; commercial submissions cost $300/year and in my opinion are a waste of money.
For both directories, horror stories abound of submissions taking months to be approved, or getting lost, or being rejected out of hand, and invariably without feedback of any sort. Their behavior is reminiscent of a couple of has-been entertainment divas from the 90s who long ago lost their talent, their looks, and their fans, but haven't lost their pretension. Rather than obsess over their bad behavior, I submit once and forget.
If you have tried and failed to get ODP to correct an inaccurate listing, Google suggests that by adding the following metatag to the site's pages, conforming search engines will not use ODP data in their index:
<meta name="robots" content="NOODP">
There are other general purpose search engines and directories, but their market share is minuscule and your time is better spent by moving on now to specialty directories.
SUBMIT TO SPECIALTY DIRECTORIES AND SEARCH ENGINES
There are thousands of specialty directories (a.k.a. niche directories or vertical directories) and search engines of widely varying usefulness. Common themes of specialty directories include user language, geographical area, ethnicity, industry, personal interest, or hobby. Indeed, there are so many that submitting to them all would be a fool's errand. Set a limit to begin with, perhaps two or three good ones. Depending upon your particular circumstances, you can always revisit this decision and add more later.
Finding relevant and useful specialty directories usually takes much longer than the actual submission. There is no one size fits all solution to this problem, but I usually get good results proceeding in this order:
- Consult the site owner. He is probably more knowledgeable than you are about relevant industry associations, special interest publications, and similar entities likely to maintain specialty directories. Often these directories accept submissions from members or subscribers only, which is another reason to work with the site owner on this step.
- Search the web using keywords such as (for example) "yoga retreat directory".
- Consult a directory of directories such as Directory Critic.
Specialty directories often charge for submissions. Again, the site owner probably has a better feel than you do for what is considered authoritative in his field and how much a listing in an authoritative directory would be worth, if anything.
ADD RELEVANT OUTBOUND LINKS AND ENCOURAGE INBOUND LINKS
I do not share the common perception that gobs of links are necessary or helpful. It is true that one factor that search engines consider when ranking your site is what sites link to you, essentially expressing their confidence in the usefulness of your site. It is also true that encouraging such natural, relevant inbound links is a good idea. However, I do not believe that the common practice of reciprocally trading not very relevant links make your site more authoritative, or that 100 not very relevant links are better than two or three relevant ones.
My counsel is to provide unasked any outbound links that you believe will be genuinely useful to site visitors. Then send the other web site's webmaster a brief note thanking him for his good content and mentioning your link to it, but don't demand a link in return. You'll hope he links back to you, naturally, but let your site's good content speak for you.
Often those outbound links are best worked naturally into the site text rather than placed on a links page. I only counsel having a separate links page if the nature of the site or of the outbound links makes it logical to have them separate from the site text. If you decide to go this route, note that outbound links should be relevant even if they are on a page of their own. Keep relevancy forefront in your mind by giving the links page a name that underscores their usefulness to your visitors: "Widget Industry Information", "Elsewhere in our Community". Don't call the page "Links"; you might as well name it "Search engine gaming page not for human consumption".
Of course, you should have relevant incoming links. Your first ones might be from the specialty directories you found above, and you may well consider revisiting that task and finding additional directories.
A good source of inbound links can be yourself. One of my clients has a commercial site promoting her business, and a Blogger account where she regularly posts non-commercial musings about her industry and her professional growth. Her commercial site links to her blog, and her blog of course links to her commercial site. I then promoted her commercial site in commercial directories, and her blog in noncommercial directories. The end result works very well for her.
Another of my clients regularly writes articles for online publications in her field, and it is common to "pay" the author with a byline that contains a clickable link back to her website. Web Marketing Today has additional tips on how to promote your site by writing for online publications.
The most important source of inbound links, however, comes naturally with time as others discover and link to your good content. Please stop thinking that there is some magic substitute for good content. There is none.
CHECK SEARCH ENGINES' WEBMASTERS TOOLS AGAIN
When you first added the site to the webmaster tools of the major search engines, perhaps you noticed a number of items for which no data was yet available. After a week or so has passed after first adding the site, return and check again for issues needing your attention.
This step is low on our list of things to do, but not because it is unimportant. Rather, some issues take time to reveal themselves. Consider this step an important one.
REVIEW KEYWORD PERFORMANCE AND REFINE AS REQUIRED
Your original keywords reflected your best first guess of the words and phrases potential clients will use when searching for a site like yours. Now that some time has gone by, let's see how well you guessed. There are many ways to view the search queries people entered in search engines to find your site; a few I've used are:
- Your web server statistics report. Your web host should provide reporting software, which you should be taking advantage of. For example, Analog — my favorite — has a Search Query Report.
- Google, Bing, and Yahoo all show you the top search queries in their respective webmaster's tools.
Compare your keywords with observed search queries and consider revising your keywords and site text appropriately to increase the frequency of searched-for words and phrases.
If you want to peek at competitors, you can do that, too. Ask the site owner for known competitors, or find related sites yourself at Domain Tools. Look up your site, then click on the "Site Profile" tab and look in "Related Sites".
OPTIONAL: SUBMIT A PRODUCT DATA FEED
If the site is selling products, submit a data feed of those products to Google Product Search.
OPTIONAL: CONSIDER PAID TEXT ADS
These are the text ads you see on some web sites, as well as what appear at the very top or right hand side of the page when you search on Google or other search engines. This is the most expensive approach — don't even consider it unless you have at least US$1,000 to play with — but of everything I mention it is the only one that gets quick results. Many small businesses that use paid text ads do so only briefly to jumpstart their business or as a temporary measure while they await the longer term results of the other, more substantive measures I mention above.
Background information on sitemaps
clickz.com: Vertical Directories for Local Search