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A Beginner’s Guide to SEO Basics

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Earlier this year, I wrote a post called “The Beginner’s Guide to Twitter Basics” about how to use Twitter if you’re brand new to the platform. Month after month, it is one of the highest-trafficked posts here on the BlogWorld blog. You know what that tells me? It tells me that sometimes I forget that a lot of people have no experience with blogging and social media and are craving 101-level posts.

So today, I wanted to tackle another topic that seems difficult from the eyes of a newbie: search engine optimization, or SEO. If you want to learn SEO from the experts so that you have the top rank on Google for any keyword you choose, this is not the place for you. However, I think that if you’re a blogger that doesn’t know a darn thing about SEO, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. If you just take a moment to learn the basics, you can get your blog in front of a lot more eyeballs! And no, you don’t have to jeopardize your content to do it.

What is SEO? Why Should I Care?

One of the first things I did as a new freelance writer back in 2005ish was google “What is SEO?” I had no clue, but a lot of my clients were asking if I was skilled in that department, and I wanted to be able to say yes! If you have no idea what SEO is or why you should care, don’t worry. We were all in that boat at one time.

Think about  how your website gets traffic. Some people come to your blog when others retweet or like or otherwise share your links through social media sites. Some people come to your blog when it is linked in another blogger’s post or sidebar. Some people are regular readers or perhaps even subscribed to you RSS feed. But chances are that a large percentage of your traffic comes from search engines. SEO (again, that stands for search engine optimization) is your way of making your blog as visible as possible on search engines so that the people who could most benefit from or who will most enjoy what you write actually find you.

You’ll hear the word keyword thrown around a lot when talking about SEO. This is essentially the word (or words) someone types into a search engine when looking for something. So, think about the keywords your target audience are using. When they search for those keywords, you want your site to pop up as high as possible on the results list. Makes sense, right? The higher you are on the results list, the more likely readers will click through to your site.

As an example, let’s say you blog about movies and you were writing a review of Toy Story 3. You might want to optimize your post so that people searching for “Toy Story 3 reviews” and “reviews of Toy Story” and maybe even “Pixar movie reviews” see your site on page one of their search engine results list.

Good SEO can mean a lot of traffic to your blog. Even just the bare minimum can mean that you show up in the search results on page one whereas before you were on page 17.

Fact: SEO advice is always changing.

One of the most annoying things about SEO is that it is forever changing. What worked back in 2001 isn’t going to work today, ten years later. Heck, what worked last week might not work today. Search engines change the way they rate sites (their algorithm) constantly because if they didn’t, people would just game the system as much as possible.

So if you’re reading this ten years from now…sorry, dude. I suspect the information here is a little outdated! The same might be true a week from now. But I’ve tried to include tips that are as evergreen as possible. These are the basics, the building blocks of good SEO. It’s the bare minimum you should be doing if you want search engine traffic.

Making Your Website SEO Friendly

First and foremost, make sure that your overall website is friendly for search engines. Have you ever seen what the code of your website looks like? If you don’t know HTML, it looks like a mess, right? Well, essentially, that’s what a search engine sees. Kind of like the matrix, but without Keanu Reeves. In other words, a search engine doesn’t see pictures or your fancy site design. Those things might be great for your users, but you want to make sure search engines can index your site as well.

If you use WordPress or another popular blogging platform, chances are that you don’t have to do much to ensure your site is visible and easily picked up by search engines. Make sure your navigation makes sense (something you want to do anyway for your readers) and avoid too much javascript or a silly flash intro that search engines can’t understand. Create a few static pages to serve as anchors on your website, include some sitemap options (like an archives page or menu), change your options so that your permalinks are “pretty” (i.e., not just a bunch of random letters or numbers), and update often. Pretty easy, right?

Oh, and when picking your domain name, think about SEO. Branding is important too, of course, but if the URL of your homepage has nothing to do with your site’s topic, SEO will be a little more difficult. There’s a reason why RealEstate.com is higher on the list than Zillow.com for the keyword real estate, even though both sites are extremely relevant to someone searching for that term.

Individual Post SEO

The easiest way to make sure your individual posts are optimized for search engines is to download a free plugin to help you do just that. I like the All in One SEO Pack for WordPress, but there are lots of options. Some themes also have an SEO option built in. These plugins help you easily change the meta information for the post – basically, what a search engine sees rather than what the reader sees. For a title, you want to write what the post is about in as few words as possible, using a keyword that makes sense for the post if you can. For a description, type just that – a description of the post about the length of a Tweet, that uses keywords. For keywords…type your keywords. That’s pretty easy too, right?

So, going back to our example of a post with your review of Toy Story 3, even though you might think up some kind of clever title for the actual post, you’d probably want your SEO options to be something like:

  • Title: Toy Story 3 Movie Review
  • Description: Movie review of Toy Story 3 with discussion of Tim Allen as Buzz and Tom Hanks as Woody. Should you see Toy Story 3 with your kids? Read Toy Story movie opinions.
  • Keywords: Toy Story 3, Toy Story, Toy Story 3 movie review, Pixar movie review, Woody in Toy Story, Buzz in Toy Story, movie reviews

Essentially, your keywords can be the same as your post’s tags. Make sure you include tags and also categorize your posts well, as this will help with overall site SEO.

As you’re typing your post, be conscious of the keywords someone would use to find your post and sprinkle them as it makes sense. You don’t have to change your writing style much and you definitely shouldn’t stuff your post with keywords (this could actually hurt you), but as you’re writing, just keep keywords in mind and use them where they make sense. People have written entire websites and books about how to best use keywords; but again, I’m not an expert and the rules change a lot, so unless you’re passionate about SEO and have the time to invest in learning it, start with the basics of just “using keywords where they make sense.”

A few other quick tips:

  • Name your pictures. Nobody is searching for “IMG1290812” but lots of people are searching “Woody in Toy Story 3.”
  • If the title of your post is something crazy that is interesting but does not include your keywords, consider changing the permalink. Instead of yoursite.com/super-awesome-kids-movie-that-is-lightyears-ahead-of-the-rest, change it to yoursite.com/toy-story-3-movie-review.
  • Link to old posts within your new posts. When you add the link, do so with a keyword that makes sense, not just “click here.” Don’t overdo this and link to dozens of posts in the matter of a a single paragraph, but try to link to yourself at least once a post.

SEO and Links

One of the best things you can do for SEO is something you should be doing anyway – write awesome posts. If your content is awesome, people will link to you within their own posts, on social media sites, in comments, and more, and links are extremely valuable. When a search engine sees a link on someone else’s site to one of your post, they think, “Oh, so that blogger found this post interesting/informative/worthy enough to add a link on their own site? It must be good!”

That’s how I imagine computers think, anyway, if we could hear their inner monologues.

Basically, it’s a vote for your site, kind of like a thumbs up on Facebook. The more “votes” your site has via links, the better! And if you write great content, you’re naturally going to have more people linking to you. So if you do nothing else, blow us away with what you have to say so people share your link as much as possible.

Hope that gets you started with SEO. If you’re experienced with this topic, I hope you’ll leave your best top for beginners below as a comment to help us newbies learn more!

What Google’s Crackdown on Content Farms Means for Bloggers

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Recently, Google announced major changes to their algorithm, which will mostly cut down on how often certain written content will appear in search results. This is being seen as a crackdown on content farms, notorious companies that fill their websites with as much content as possible aimed at pulling in search engine users. Most of the time, this content is low-quality or rewritten content optimized to beat out the same content found on original sites. These changes will affect nearly 12% of search queries, so its definitely not an insignificant change. As usual, Google didn’t go into tons of details about their search engine changes.

What does this mean to you as a blogger?

The hope is that it will only help you, as long as you’re dedicated to providing original, thoughtful content. Amit Singhal and Matt Cutts, from Google, have explained that this algorithm change will reward people who have high-quality content, since they will no longer be beat out by people who are copying their work or providing low-quality content to scam the system. So that’s a good thing, right?

Yes, in theory.

But, I could see some problems with the changes as well. For example, if your website is new-orientated, you might see your search engine traffic drop a bit. Take this post, for instance. The news that Google is changing their algorithm certainly isn’t original – I read about it on multiple websites. I rewrote the story for you all (in case you haven’t read it yet), as well as interjected my own opinion and thoughts (i.e. what I’m doing now), but the story itself can be found other places. So, will my search engine rankings be hurt because of that?

If I’m doing a good job, and I think I am, I shouldn’t have anything to worry about. I’m not just rehashing a story – I’m adding a lot of original content that isn’t found in other places. Google is pretty smart. I think their algorithm will likely take into account whether or not original content is added. But then, I do expect that some bloggers will have to change how they do things, at least a little, if they want to maintain search engine traffic. I also expect some mistakes to be made. No algorithm is perfect.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how this content farm crackdown will affect bloggers and the web in general. As a freelance writer, I’ve worked for writing companies in the past (some even being accused of being content farms, though I stand behind the work I did as original and high-quality). I also have friends who work for such companies, and the writers forums are buzzing. Overall, I think that Google’s changes are going to be an extremely positive thing for bloggers, but I guess only time will tell.

What do you think of Google’s algorithm changes?

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