It’s a real pleasure to guest blog here on Wicked Sexy Smart. I hope this blog helps readers understand a couple key components in beginning to optimize a website for the search engines. When it comes to improving and maintaining your search rankings, there’s no one magic bullet. Search algorithms, and search results, are ever shifting. We’ve noted in the past that Google looks at an estimated 200 factors in determining a website’s relative “value.” These can include everything from how long it takes pages to load to the quality and number of backlinks to the very URL itself. This means that SEO is more than a marathon—it’s an ultramarathon that never ends.

web search
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SEO takes stamina—so what can you do if your budget only affords you a sprint? Here are the two areas that are absolutely vital to your site’s SEO efforts. If you don’t have the time or money to handle anything else, prioritize these two factors whose importance has stood the test of time (and constant algorithm updates!).

Page Titles

The SEO experts over at Moz call your page titles (also called title tags) “the single most important on-page SEO element.” The page title isn’t necessarily the same as the first major heading that appears on the page. Page titles are what appears in the top of your browser window—if you use tabs, as here, it’s what shows up as the “name” of the tab.

page titles
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Okay, that seems like it’s handy for keeping track of your tabs, but why are page titles so important for SEO? Well, it’s because      your page titles are also what show up as the heading for your page on search engine results pages—they’re what’s in bolder (and sometimes larger) text above the summary of page content.

This means that page titles are vital for search—and not surprisingly, search engines reward page titles that help users find relevant content by accurately identifying what’s on the page. To be effective, titles should be interesting but succinct (no more than 60 characters, or around 512 pixels wide). It’s important to have the keywords that are most relevant to the page included in the title, but you need to avoid “keyword stuffing.” If your page title is just a list of keywords, search engines recognize that you’re trying to game the system and you’re likely to be penalized with lower rankings.

Let’s say for example you’re an arts and crafts store in San Marcos, and we’re looking at the page of your site that describes your yarn inventory. Search engines would look upon something along the lines of “Shop yarn for knitting, crochet, and crafts – San Marcos, CA” more favorably than “Sale discount yarn knitting knitter crochet wool cotton San Marcos San Diego.”

Page Content

Bill Gates claimed that “content is king” back in 1996, and nearly 20 years later, that line still holds true. It doesn’t matter what vertical you’re business is in—original, robust content is vital to your search rankings. Why do search engines care what your site has to say? It’s because having quality content makes your site more valuable to users (and at the end of the day, search engines are more focused on serving web users than websites). Strong content brings visitors to your site, reduces your bounce rate (people who leave your page immediately after landing on it), and builds your audience. Thin content, on the other hand—info that’s skimpy, uninformative, or copied from elsewhere on the web—does just the opposite.

Thin content doesn’t just cause web users to bail on your site. Google has also taken an aggressive approach to dealing with thin content, using Manual Action Penalties to combat sites that are using sneaky or spammy techniques to try to boost their rankings. You can find out whether this has happened to your site by logging in to Google Webmaster Tools. If you’ve run afoul of the search giant, you might see a message like this under Search Traffic:

manual action penalty
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Here’s an explanation from Matt Cutts, Google’s former head of spam, on what you can do if your site has been flagged as having thin content:

 

If your site gets a Manual Action Penalty, your pages are going to pay the price with lower rankings. Even if you haven’t been caught, it’s still critical to make sure that your webpages have content that is original and would be legitimately helpful to someone who’s just landed there. Put yourself in the mindset of someone searching on the web. Your homepage might not be the first page they see—if a web user were to land on any given page on your website, what would they want to see? What do you think they’re looking for? What can you tell them about that will get them to stay on your site? You don’t need to overhaul every page of your content at once—instead, tackling one page at a time and really putting yourself into the mind of a web user is a good tactic for fattening up thin content.

There’s no shortcut to making it to the top of search engine results pages—SEO is a sustained effort that both needs time to build and has to be continuously maintained. That said, if you make the effort to ensure that your site has pertinent, original content and your pages have strong, accurate titles, you’re giving your site a better chance of not winding up buried on page 2 (or even further back).