Getting good website traffic is the major concern of any web developer. Recently I seem to be giving similar advice to different people asking me about it. So here are some very basic tips for improving your position in the search engines.
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This is a basic introduction. Like all posts at Namehugger, the idea is to keep the post open, to add tips and tricks over time. There are also more in depth resources you can go to – see our Web Development Links for further reading.
Choosing Topics and Keywords
While not essential, having a domain name that is the exact match of a highly searched term can do wonders for your search engine results. As an extreme example – an empty, parked name can be picked up by a search engine and (when there is little competition) start drawing considerable traffic. Recently a l-l-l.info (three letters with dashes .info) was found to bring in over $10 a day from such an approach.
To find highly searched terms, go to the Google Keyword Tool and type in some basic words, or phrases, you are interested in. Consider terms that you think will grow in the future (Google Trends can help here). Select “All countries and territories” (unless you only plan to focus on a local market). Make sure you select an “exact” match for your results, which is a more accurate measure of searches. Remember you will only ever gain a small percentage of this traffic, but also that you will necessarily get picked up by many different terms.
Type the alternatives given to you into a safe Whois check (like Moniker’s), and see what’s available, as an exact domain match. Remember to include hyphenated versions, as most of the most highly searched terms will be already taken.
I have heard it said recently to grab any .com that gets over 5,000 monthly searches. Personally, I don’t require a .com for my development plans, which means this a relatively easy task.
After finding good search statistics (anything over 1,000 searches a day is great), check out the competition on this term. Into a normal Google.com search inquiry, type in your chosen phrase (in “inverted commas”). A low incidence of the term (5,000 – 100,000 examples, say) will make your upcoming SEO tasks a lot easier. Also, type in your term(s) without inverted commas, and see what your competition’s site is. If you live outside the US, searching via a proxy can give you a less “regional” response here. Look out for sites like Wikipedia, government agencies, other exact match domains, or sites that appear professionally made to target your chosen terms. These will all be hard to beat. If, however, none of the sites seem optimized for your term – especially if you think you can do better in terms of design, content, or SEO – go for it.
Most big sites will go after a range of highly searched keywords, matching the content of their site. Domainers (and minisite developers) have the advantage of doing the opposite. Instead of choosing keywords to fit content, individuals can choose a single domain, that exactly matches a specific keyword – a big advantage. This approach is particularly used by developers going for a specific affiliate sale, or for highly valued keywords.
Choosing Your Domain’s Variation
There is some debate over the advantages gTLD extensions (like .com) have compared with newer, or ccTLD, extensions (like .info, .tv, and .co.uk). In my experience, local ccTLDs will more easily come out on top of their specific region’s searches (but lower for other regions’). My .info’s seem to do less well than my .com’s, .nets and .orgs (when little effort is put in), but can be brought up to parity with a whole bunch of work on them. My .TV’s do worst of all – but even then, there are some .TV’s that do okay for some search terms. Again, a bit more effort may be required. Surprisingly, my .me’s work very well – perhaps because “me” is a common word itself – and, also, as many highly searched keywords are still available. In general, stick to .com, .org, .net and/or your local ccTLD if you are starting out, and get fancy later on.
Don’t be afraid of using hyphens. Hyphens have no negative effect on search engines, and in some cases can help make keywords “pop out” for viewers, in reading search results. Some of my best performing names are hyphens (many people will tell you the same thing).
Also consider how an “.org” “.info” or “.net” will change the first impression of your site. Does it match what you will offer – in terms of content and style? Also, consider how memorable or “brandable” each name is. If you can’t remember your own domain after 24 hours, it is a safe bet that few other people will be able to. Another fairly common recommended test is to say the name to friends over the telephone, to see if it is “sticky”, in a memorable sense.
I’m a big believer of the visual “look” of a domain. I have even gone to the extent of taking screen shots of Google results, and Photoshopping in my alternatives – to visually judge which “looks” best. Perhaps this is a little extreme! But it is one way to makes the right choice crystal clear when deciding on a long term investment.
Also, buying a domain that is aged – or, better still, that comes with existing traffic already – is another great trick. Even if you already have a site, buying such domains simply to forward their traffic (and a strong link to your site) can do wonders.
Host Your Domain in the Right Country
Second to having a domain name matching your local area (geotargeting), is website hosting that also matches your audience’s location. Hosting from a local ISP is considered another search engine marker of local relevance. If you want to reach a UK market, it is a good idea to find a UK host, for instance. If you already have cheap hosting, this may be one of the later things to try, however it may be useful to keep in mind if choosing hosting for the first time.
Name Your Posts Well
Use your keywords in your post names, and set your site to include them in a SEO friendly form. This helps them be picked out by the search engines, and further helps indicate the content of your site.
For WordPress users, this means going to Settings >> Permalinks, and in the “Custom” section, typing “/%postname%” (without the inverted commas).
This will result in:
Which is much more SEO advantageous. This needn’t be the actual post title either – you can make each permalink anything you like, simply by selecting “edit” on the gray permalink (in Draft mode, directly under the post Title). If you can make them the same, SEO friendly post tiles are another plus – just make sure it doesn’t distract from the experience of your site.
Name Your Image
Any image titles (as well as image captions and descriptions) are another sign of relevance search engines use. You’d be surprised how effective this can be, as so many people simply name their images whatever is on their mind (like “Fido_Sticksmall6.jpg”, instead of the much more search engine effective “Dog-Training.jpg” or whatever your keywords are).
I often have a draft post I (open in a different window), that I can easily refer to, that contains the top keywords and their search numbers. This is a pain, but certainly worth the effort.
The next “frontier” of SEO has been considered search engine image optimization – mainly because so few people have considered it, and where an increasingly large percentage of searches are occuring. Granted, not all image searchers are looking for sites, but (particularly if you have on-topic content clearly visible) a certain proportion do browse through. Labeling your images well will pay off in capturing this new, untapped audience.
Name Your Links Well
When you add a link on WordPress, you are given the option of giving it a title. As above, title any links with reference to your keywords. I usually use low competition keywords for my links, or ones targeted elsewhere on my site already.
Use Your Keywords
Besides having your keywords in things like the link titles, image names, and post titles, including them in your text is also very important. A search engine mainly wants to know you have content relevant to what the reader is looking for. It is useful to mention your keywords in the first paragraph of a text, as this is the most searched section of a site. Beware of using it more than three times though, as you want a fairly natural use of language (you can just as easily be flagged as spam). You will find that many sites put their keywords in bold, and/ or make their keywords into links, to give them further search engine emphasis. Even the most respected sites (such as major newspapers’ online sites), do this as a routine.
One advantage of using WordPress, as a development platform, is that it is already beautifully set up for basic search engine optimization. Of course, make sure you remove the common phrases that come with it – such as “Hello World!” – and the “About” page blurb (this is ‘duplicate content’, see below).
You can add to the great basic features with a range of extra SEO plugins. The main one used is the All In One SEO pack, that helps set things like meta tags and other important things under the hood. It is also recommended you install a site map and other SEO features (also found on our Web Development homepage). Having a logical and clear link structure, through to every part of your site, is also a good habit.
Search Engine Killers
There are some basic dangers that you should be aware of. Beware of “dead links“, and try not to play with HTML and leave “loose ends” of code lying around – search engines hate them. There are websites out there that will analyze your site and report any errors – let us know if you have a favorite.
There are “stop words” (usually adult, swearing, or relating to illegal activities) that means a site can be blocked by search engines. Beware of these in spam comments, particularly. Also duplicate content (copying text already indexed somewhere else) is a no-no. Some people use software to make “unique looking” text, but in my opinion, such an approach is always going to be a short term solution, if at all. Google’s guiding philosophy is always going to drive them towards finding useful content for their users, and if you have a similar philosophy, much of the SEO work is going to be done automatically (as well as being future-proof). Besides, given the choice of leaving your reader happy or frustrated, you would be crazy to not choose the first option.
Also links from, and to, “dubious” sites are a big negative, as is having over 100 links on any one page. “Hidden text” (usually white on white) is also a no-no, as is excessive linking to your other, non-related sites.
An often overlooked part of gaining website traffic is the look of a site. This will only become more important as search engines (such as Cuil) offer thumbnail images of the site for readers to see before they select. Already, if your site is picked up on a Google Image Search, readers get a visual preview when they select an image.
Much of a reader’s first impression of a site is from subconscious cues. If you do not have strong design skills, look at sites that you admire, and try to analyze what it is you like. Do not copy things directly, but consider – is it the amount of white space? The size or spacing of text? The font? Or the layout or amount of options given to a reader? I am collecting free WordPress templates that look the most like “professional” websites – or offer the most options for domainers – on WordPressTheme.me. There are also modification tricks, and tools that can do handy things like analyzing your competitions’ fonts, colors, and templates.
Beautiful (and enjoyable to use) websites always get my attention – and repeated visits – ahead of ugly, plain annoying, or hard to read sites. I am also much more likely to link to them, for my own reputation and my for readers’ sakes. A simple, clean design is usually best. Don’t forget to include images whenever you post.
Write, and Write Often
The amount that a site’s content changes, and grows, is another factor used by search engines to determine quality. The return-to-effort ratio drops off sharply at some point (I forget the optimum number and length of posts) – for instance, this entry is way over what is considered a clever amount. I mainly write what I want to write, and let other factors make up for it, but if you are concerned, consider staggering long posts over several weeks. Posts can be set to “publish” automatically in the future, too.
Generally, the more content the better. Longer posts are more often referred (or linked) back to as benchmarks on a particular topic. Lots of content also increases the number of phrases that can be picked up by the search engines (who knows, someone might (and probably will) search for “phrases that can be picked up by the search engines” – hi if that is you). If you feel like recording your current thoughts, your website is a great place to do it – just keep what you write on topic for best effectiveness. I have had some weird terms being picked up via search engines (the “long tail” effect), these were always for terms I had no chance of predicting beforehand.
If you have 20, 30, or 40 sites, it may be difficult to write on all of these regularly, particularly if you are not working as a full time developer. This is another reason, in my opinion, to buy and develop websites based on topics you have an interest in. You are more likely to want to read, research, write and publicize sites on a topic you are passionate about.
Inviting comments is a way to get your content written for you by others – a great thought – comments are treated just as well by search engines as text written in the main body of a site. Inviting comments also helps people to build an active relationship with your site. Responding quickly to comments will also encourage people to return and see what has been said back. While leaving comments open will invite plenty of spam, plugins and captcha images can help block these, and it is a small price to pay.
I have experimented with revenue sharing arrangements (where people can write posts I don’t have the expertise, or time, to do myself). Also, paying for people to write posts is a fairly common strategy – forums like Namepros are great places to find inexpensive writers who produce original content. Running sections of paid-for texts through a search engine is important to check that you are paying for original content.
If you can’t write or pay for content, consider at least including a news feed on your site. Use your sidebar widget, and a feed from Google News, as a first step. To find relevant content, type your keywords into Google News, and see what comes up. You can play around with the terms used (using the “-subtract” symbol to remove unwanted results), until you find the right content for your audience. Click on the RSS button (on the bottom left hand side) and copy/paste the resulting URL into your RSS feed widget.
News feeds won’t count as unique content, but are brief so they won’t overly penalize you either, and it will indicate changing activity and interest on your site.
Make People Want to Return
Getting people to return to your site – for whatever reason – is the secret to nearly all long term, successful sites. It’s a little like the difference between regular interest in a bank account and compound interest. How you achieve your returning visitors (forums? new content? quality content? resources? tools?) is a question for you to find the answer for.
One key to the Google ‘revolution’ was their emphasis on sites with high quality, and a large quantity of inbound links. For measuring quality, the more ‘highly trusted‘ a site was doing the linking, the higher the “worth” of this link to the second site’s reputation. The total number of links to your site is also important. For this reason, signature links (for instance on forums, which can often have 1,000 and above posts – all potential links), is a great idea. Such links also pass a lot of eyeballs, and hence get interested clicks. Some people also include their sites as email links for extra free publicity.
Never miss an opportunity to have your site linked, particularly from good, preferably content related, sites. This might involve emailing, and asking for link exchanges or, more often, posting blog comments on other people’s sites. Remember to keep in mind that your “name” often stands for your link’s “name” – so remember to sign off as a useful keyword. Why not start off gaining a link by posting a comment to this article?
Also, don’t forget internal links on your site. It is good basic practice to have a back link to your home page on every internal page on your site. Label this link with a major keyword(s) and it will further garner the reputation of your site in relating to that term. Also link to relevant contentt between your posts and pages.
There are people who recommend deliberately linking to the sites ranking above them for a particular term, to indicate relevance of your site to the topic. Others advise against it – – after all, why give your competitors an extra link, if you can avoid it? If you have a view on this, let us know in the comments below.
Register Your Name For as Long as Possible
Another factor search engines look at, is how long a name has been registered for in the past – and how long it is registered for in the future. For this reason, if you’re thinking of making a site “one day” on a particular topic, it is worth getting the name sooner, rather than later. Get some content up and “age” your site before you start your full time developing. Others advise waiting, to take advantage of the “helping hand” Google is known to give to new sites in the rankings, and taking advantage of this period to becoming noticed as a valuable site.
Also register your name for as long as your budget will allow. Search engines judge the expiry date in your Whois results as also indicating quality. This is under the assumption that spammers will pick up a name for short term projects, whilst more “trustworthy” sites will invest for the longer term. While the opposite is often the case (spammers are usually the most SEO literate folk out there), it cannot hurt to show faith in your project to the search engines. Generally, six months after starting a site, if I am still happy with my name I then register it for at least three years. This also allows you to lock in cheaper domain renewal prices.
Do Social Networking
Always include the option for people to Stumble, Digg, and otherwise social bookmark your site – or spread it via email and Facebook. If no one else will Digg you, Digg your site yourself (which is allowed by Digg’s TOS). “Digging” once per useful page is a good guide. “Stumbling” through sites, and seeing all the content rich, but SEO, design, and domain choice poor sites nevertheless doing well is proof of the effectiveness of this strategy. I have even heard of people’s sites crashine due to the massive numbers resulting from a few good Diggs – though this is rare, and not a reason to fear using it!
Pay For Advertising
Usually a last resort on a (low) budget, many people swear by taking out limited Adwords (or similar) campaigns, or paying for online advertising in other ways. You should be able to rent a line of forum signature space for not much money – perhaps under a dollar per month. Link exchanges are another, free way of getting online promotion. There are many other ideas – let us know if you’ve had any success with these or other online advertising strategies.
Consider Offline Advertising
Many larger online sites will also use offline advertising – just watch the Superbowl ads, or look at ebay ads on bus shelters and taxis. On a smaller budget, consider buying business cards (you can give these out if your site comes up, or else “leave” them in likely places to be found). Selling merchandise on your site, such as caps, t-shirts, badges, and stickers mightn’t make you rich, but equals free advertising when they are worn or used. Why not stick a bumper sticker on your own car, or add a flier or poster to a free notice board that closely relates to your site’s topic?
Study Your Statistics
Finally, no strategy can be successful with regular review and fine tuning. A good, well set up stat counter (Google Analytics, or Statcounter.com) will not only tell you what approaches are having the most effect, they can also give you useful extra information, such as the nationalities and languages of your audience, your site’s major interest areas, and the most popular entry points to your sites. For instance, are you getting picked up for a search term you hadn’t considered? Or, is one sort of advertising campaign providing a disproportionately large chunk of your visitors? Consider the 80-20 rule, where 20% of your efforts will bring about 80% of your audience. Working on these positives, and reducing the weak points, will make your traffic snowball in no time.
You can also “audit” your sites for good SEO, with some free, automatic SEO audit websites. If anyone has recommendations for these types of sites, please leave a comment.
What is a “good” amount of traffic, and how much traffic do you need to be profitable? What sort of promotion do you do for your sites? And are there any key strategies you consider more important than anything else?
Any other tips or experiences are welcome. Leave them (with a link!) below.