Only the search engine and web spider developers know for sure what factors they use to determine search rankings and how these are weighted. Search engine algorithms are continuously evolving as their designers refine their models and attempt to combat the efforts of black hat SEO practitioners. There are several website and page characteristics which are clearly beneficial to search engine optimization; and these also enhance search engine marketing (PPC and other paid search programs). In roughly descending order of importance, here are several things you can do to improve your SEO and increase traffic and conversions.
1. Lots of good fresh content containing your keywords. The primary goal for your website is to attract human visitors who like your content and want to return. Rich informative content is the mantra espoused by the search engine companies – and it’s true. Amazon, CNN, Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube don’t have any problem showing up in the search results.
2. Judicious keyword selection. Online marketing and SEO have become highly competitive, and this has made it extremely difficult to rank highly for short-tail keywords (common 1, 2 or 3 word search terms). It’s much easier to make page one of the search results for long-tail keywords (more specific 4 or 5 word search terms). Using keyword research tools like the Google AdWords Keyword Tool or Wordtracker, you can find short-tail keywords which precisely characterize your company and products, gauge how much traffic these keywords produce and evaluate how much competition you’ll be up against. The best keyword strategy is to employ a mix of short-tail and long-tail keywords.
3. Effective URLs and URL structure. Put your keywords in your URLs. All else being equal, Shoes.com is going to do pretty well in searches for ‘shoes’. Multiple websites enable you to dedicate a domain to each major keyword. Search engines don’t like multiple delimiters (/, -, _, etc.) in URLs; more than two is a red flag. To simplify navigation and enhance search rankings, websites should be ‘flat’, i.e., no more than two clicks from the homepage to any other page. Like human readers, search spiders have trouble with content located deep in your website hierarchy. Search engines also seem to be biased toward .gov, .edu and .org domains; and .com domains get more respect than .info.
4. In-links from relevant high quality (PageRank) sites. More is better; but quality is most important, and these should come from a diverse group of sites. Paid links, link exchanges, and links from content farms should be avoided. Ideally the anchor text for the link will contain the keyword (or a synonym) for your target page. Special Case: Your navigation menu and other hyperlinks within your site create self-referencing in-links, and there’s no excuse for these not to contain your keywords. Search engines particularly favor main (level 1) navigation menus containing keywords.
5. Keyword in page Title and Description. Search engines give a lot of credence to the page title and Description meta tag (although this is declining now that overzealous SEO practitioners have stuffed too many keywords in these). Keywords used in the Title and Description should also be present in the page content, along with synonyms and other contextually relevant material.
6. Keyword in page body text. Each page should emphasize a single keyword (phrase), and that keyword should appear several times in the page. Keyword appearances near the top of the page are generally thought yo be more highly regarded than those at the bottom. SEO experts disagree about the ‘ideal’ keyword density (percentage of the words devoted to keywords) -- or even if there is one; it’s best to read the page to ensure it doesn’t seem repetitive. Along with the keyword, synonyms and related content should also be included. And, since your page is about the keyword, it’s natural to have your keyword in the page headers (H1, H2 and H3 tags) – in large font and bold/strong -- although most search engines don’t give much credit for this any more.
7. Lots of content. Size matters in SEO, and search engines seem to prefer larger websites and lots of words on a page – up to a point. The number of pages on your site will tend to give it a higher quality/authority ranking, and each page should have between 200-400 words. If your subject requires more than 400 words, you’re better off splitting this into two pages. Although more is better, web spiders easily identify and penalize duplicate content; so this should be avoided.
8. Quality Out-links. Although these present an opportunity for visitors to leave your website (so all out-link pages should open in a new window), search engines – and human readers -- value links to relevant high quality (PageRank) authoritative websites. Here more is not better; it’s best to have just one or two out-links, preferably located in the first two paragraphs of the page.
9. Avoid SEO ‘tricks’ or other Black Hat practices. Yes, you can probably get away with these for a while; but the search engines are highly motivated to detect and penalize these methods – because they spoil the search experience for their users and reduce the value for advertisers. These methods are unnecessary, and the potential penalties (from algorithmic changes, manual downgrading or removal from the index) far outweigh the prospective benefits.