X-ray SEO: how to super up your site’s search ranking

Superman: man of SEO (Image source: DC Comics)Getting your site noticed online can feel like putting a needle into a stack that consists of hay, straw, pins, paperclips and other needles – many of which look identical to yours – and then hoping that someone will inadvertently find it. In fact, if you don’t know what you’re doing, your users will need the online equivalent of Superman’s X-ray vision to find your content.

Don’t give up, though. Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising – something I will cover in a future article – will get you into the sponsored section of the Google results page, but even a basic understanding of the principles of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) will go a long way towards placing your site at the top of the ‘organic’ search results.

What is SEO?

SEO is about making a website relevant to your desired audience by writing content tailored to how they search on sites such as Google, Yahoo, Bing or Baidu.

Depending on who you ask, SEO is either a method that can be applied to a site or simply something that depends on good design. In actuality, it is really a combination of the two: good SEO is built into a site from the moment of conception, but really good SEO never finishes. If you fail to change, update or improve your site, other sites will quickly push it down the search engine rankings.

How do people search?

You may have heard the term “keyword” bandied about. A keyword is an important word that someone might use in a search on Google. However, “keyword” these days is something of a misnomer, because people don’t search using single words.

For example, as a comic book fan, I know that there is a very famous article by Larry Niven about certain problems Superman and Lois Lane might face. A simple search for “Superman” will get me nowhere on Google: there are thousands of sites dedicated to the superhero, and there are other uses of the word that may also be found.

Most people use multiple word searches: “buy superman comics”, “how does kryptonite work”, “where does superman get his power”, “superman films christopher reeve”, “superman lex luthor relationship undertones”, and so on. For the article in question, we might type the following into Google: “superman lois lane larry niven kleenex article”.

Of course, we don’t all search in the same way. I could rephrase my search to “how do superheroes have sex?”.

Using key phrases

All of this is why good SEO doesn’t think in terms of “keywords”: it uses “key phrases” (or “semantically-related keywords“). For a Superman site, “superman” is still an obvious keyword to use (and you should use it!), but you might also consider “man of steel”, “clark kent”, “how kryptonite works”, and so on.

While you’re designing your site, it is a good idea to put together a list of the key phrases that you feel are appropriate for your subject matter, and that you think people are likely to search for. Google’s keyword tool is great for this purpose. Spend some time on this list, and whittle it down to the most relevant to your subject matter. Once completed, you should use this list to create your content and – later – as a starting point for a PPC campaign.

How do I make my site relevant?

Back in the old days, the best way to make a site relevant to any given subject was simply to use keywords and key phrases as much as possible. For a Superman website, for example, you’d just make sure that your whole site was littered with mentions of the man of steel. Many sites even hid keywords in invisible text at the bottom of the page (and some bad SEO agencies still stand by these tactics, despite them not working any more).

Search engines have, of course, wised up to the routine; a page filled with sentences such as “superman superman superman superman man of steel superman” will have your site blocked by Google in a matter of hours. These days, when a search engine is judging relevancy, it is actually judging a number of factors, including:

  • Frequency or density: The number of times a key phrase is used on a page. This is usually given as a percentage. For example, best practice guides generally suggest that 5-10% of your text should be made up of key phrase content.
  • Page length: Linked closely to density, because a longer page will generally need lower density percentages in order to remain readable for real people.
  • Positioning: Where are your key phrases? They should be higher up on the page, and preferably used in header tags and links.
  • Synonyms: Don’t just use the same words over and over. This isn’t just bad for SEO; it’s just plain bad writing.

Not just for search engines

Something that often gets missed in SEO guides is the fact that even the most optimised site will not retain visitors if the content isn’t readable. You can put in as many key phrases as you like, but if the words don’t make sense no one will ever bother to read them.

Good writing is often the best approach to SEO. If your writer knows what they’re doing, all of the SEO concepts above should (mostly) fall into place without too much effort.

It’s still important to build a list of key phrases and to use it properly. And, as I said above, a good SEO process doesn’t finish when you launch your site. You need to keep an eye on your traffic – in particular, on what people are searching for to find your site – and adjust and update your content on a regular basis.

There’s a bit more to SEO – ideas such as metatagging and link-building play vital roles for the true SEO superheroes – but for now I hope this has been of help. If you feel you need help with your SEO or online content, then don’t hesitate to get in contact!