Search Engine Optimization: 5 Steps for Initial Setup

Search engine optimization is the art and science of trying to rank higher on, well, search engines. If you want to get your website to show up on the first page, or as the first result, when people search for your type of service, search engine optimization is the way to go.

Because Google is used for 92.47% of web searches, SEO is really just a Google game.

SEO traffic is classified as “organic traffic”. Organic traffic is any traffic that doesn’t come from paid advertising. Obviously, organic traffic is highly sought after, because it does not have any advertising costs.

However, it is naive to assume that there will be no cost at all associated with search engine optimization.

Search engine optimization—the Google game—is competitive, and consequently is an incredibly challenging game.

Many well-meaning business owners ask us if anyone “did the SEO” on their website—assuming SEO is something that is “done” or “not done”.

This is similar to asking if an athlete “did exercise” or “didn’t do exercise”—assuming that if they exercised once, they will win competitions. Like exercise, SEO is something that you must continually reevaluate and optimize.

One executive we recently met was upset because his website didn’t show up on the first page of Google for the search terms he wanted—the day after launch. This is understandable if you don’t know how SEO works, but it is similar to being upset about not winning the Olympics because you trained for them that morning!

The reality is that search engine optimization, like any sport, is fiercely competitive.

And the more competitive the search term, the more difficult it is to be the top listing for that term.

Companies who get good results organically generally invest in regular SEO work. This may include:
Blogging, to continually add relevant, fresh content for Google to index.
Keyword / keyphrase optimization, which makes sure you’re ranking the right pages for the right terms.
Backlink profile optimization, a strategy where you try to get other websites to link to you.
User experience optimization, where you work on optimizing people’s experience on your website so that they stay longer, and consequently, you get better “ratings”.

There are so many things that can be done regularly to build on your SEO. But, what initial SEO optimization can be done to ensure that you are set up for success?

Here are our top 5 recommendations to optimize your website.

1. Optimize the Speed of Your Website

One of the things that Google and other search engines take into account is how fast your website is. Obviously, Google is interested in giving the best experience possible to their customers, so that they continue to use Google services.

So, Google ranks websites in part based on their speed. Good speed optimization requires some significant technical knowledge.

You can check a website’s speed with a tool like GTMetrix or Google PageSpeed Insights. Keep in mind that some of the best performing websites in the world have a very low speed index, because these tools can grade incredibly harshly. Getting a 100% speed score on Google PageSpeed Insights in particular is nearly impossible. A website that could get that score may be either incredibly expensive to produce or incredibly boring, since it may not be able to include a lot of dynamic elements that slightly slow down the page speed but are interesting for the actual users.

SEO optimization is always a game between providing something that the robots, in this case Google, and the actual users both find useful. A technically perfect speed score may require optimizing past what the law of diminishing returns would suggest is fruitful. However, it is still incredibly important to try to get the best score possible.

How can you optimize your website for blazing fast speeds? Hare are a few of the components we recommend.

1.1. Compress all images on the site.

Properly compressing and sizing all images is a must. The average website we work with has wildly incorrectly sized images. Additionally, most images on the web are not compressed properly. Poorly compressed images mean that they will take unnecessarily long to load.

You can compress images using a variety of tools, including compressing directly through Adobe Photoshop. The trick is to make sure that you select the correct type of compression.

Using the right image type is important. PNG images use lossless compression, meaning the image does not lose information on a single pixel. PNG format should only be used if the image is partially transparent or needs to maintain lossless image quality for some reason.

JPG images can be compressed, but should be tested on a retina screen to make sure they still retain enough quality to look good. You want to find a good balance of quality and compression. JPG image compression can result in “graininess” or blurriness if you compress the images too much.

Any image that can be vectorized and turned into an SVG should be. SVG stands for “Scalable Vector Graphic”, and these image types are generally the smallest images because they are built of points and lines rather than individual pixel data. At the very least, your logo should be an SVG image.

When identifying proper image sizes, it is often best practice to provide different image size options for browsers. @1 (normal size), @2 (double size) and @3 (triple size) versions of the images can be specified. These will be shown on different size screens so that the appropriate image size matches the resolution. This is a time consuming process but results in the best loading speed per device.

Getting your image sizing right is one of the most basic things you can do to ensure that your website loads quickly.

1.2. Implement caching to make everything load faster

Good speed optimization requires using a technique called caching. “Caching” is a relatively advanced concept within the development world, but also one of the most critical. Caching speeds up the internet by a lot, and is an important part of your initial website speed optimization.

When your browser loads a web page, it is assembling a collection of data from many different places across the internet. It may be getting a picture from your web server, HTML code from a folder, a stylesheet loaded from another website entirely, a custom font from Google’s site, and a few records from your database.

All of that has to compile into the web page you finally end up viewing. This process can take a while.

Caching speeds up this process by saving a preloaded copy of the already-assembled page. Then, rather than gathering all the assets and compiling them, the browser can just load the pre-assembled version quickly.

In theory, this should be very simple. However, like most things in web development, it is actually incredibly complicated.

Good caching must be developed with great care not to influence the user’s experience. For instance, some components can be cached, and some can’t. It’s important not to cash a cart or checkout page, for instance, because these need dynamic data that refreshes right away.

There are many different types and levels of caching, and to get a good page speed score, you must configure them carefully. This is best done with a carefully-optimized plugin (if you are using WordPress), or with the oversight of a very skilled developer.

1.3. Minify and concatenate your code files to make them load faster

“Minification” and “concatenation” are big words, but they refer to very simple principles that can speed up your website. The code written for a website must be human-readable and computer readable. In the end, computers today only really understand binary code. This means that every piece of code written for a computer eventually ends up translated into ones and zeros.

Of course, it would be physically impossible for a human being to program in binary code – their lifespan may not even be long enough to be able to punch all the numbers in!

Humans must write in code that is readable to them, using computer programs to translate this into binary.

As a result, human beings write code that requires spaces, line breaks, and other such formatting so that they can read, understand, and modify the code.

All of this formatting reduces the speed with which the code can be run.

In order to fix this issue, we use something called minification. This means that on the server side, we have your website minify its code—cutting out all of the extra spaces. In the minification process, some long variable names may even be shortened into single letters. This makes the code very challenging to read from a human perspective, but able to be processed and loaded by computers more quickly.

Another important method of speeding up your site is concatenation. Concatenation refers to combining files. Human programmers need to store their files in an organized, structured manner. They divide different files into folders and separate them out by function or logical groups. However, the browser and the server run all of these files in a matter of milliseconds, and they don’t need the files to be organized into neatly categorized folders and subfolders.
Concatenation takes like types of files and combines them. For instance, all your jQuery files may end up consolidated into a singular jQuery file, so the browser has to search for less total files. However, concatenation is very dangerous to the functionality of your website. It is highly possible that something will stop working in the process. So, it should be done by an expert, and tested carefully.

Usually, concatenation can be done with a carefully configured plugin or library. This way, humans can continue to edit the individual source code—then minified, concatenated files are generated and used by the actual website.

With these speed optimizations—and some additional miscellaneous speed optimizations we don’t have space to go over here—your site can dramatically increase in its loading speed, increasing your SEO ranking significantly.

2. Perform good keyword research and identify your key phrases

Keyword research and key phrase optimization are some of the most misunderstood yet vital components of SEO.

Properly optimizing your content for the right key phrases is the difference between showing up for the terms you want to, and being completely irrelevant.

When web developers refer to “doing keyword research”, they are usually talking about finding the right keywords (or really key phrases) to rank for.

This process has changed a lot. In the early days of the internet, web developers would do something called “keyword stuffing”. Keyword stuffing basically meant that you would find terms that were popular (such as “Furbies”, “Justin Timberlake”, or “Friends”) and stuff them into your website, regardless of whether they made any sense to your content or not.

Over the years, Google has made many changes to its algorithms, and they now punish keyword stuffing. If you keyword stuff, your site can get dinged or blacklisted. “Getting dinged” refers to getting a negative mark on your SEO ranking, and getting blacklisted refers to being removed from Google’s index altogether. You want to avoid either of these things at all cost!

Google has optimized their algorithms to try to provide the best content possible to their users. What this means is they are looking for “topical content authorities”.

A topical content authority is just like it sounds—an expert on a particular topic.

Topical content authorities are websites that have lots of relevant, useful content centered around the same topic, that are regularly interacted with by users.

In order to become a topical content authority, you need to plan your key words—or really key phrases—around the topic you want to optimize for.

In modern SEO, you are not looking for keywords so much as you are looking for key phrases. A key phrase is an actual term that users search for. For instance, “counseling” is a keyword, but “counseling near me Dallas Texas” is a key phrase.

It is important to research which keywords are searched often and how you can optimize for them. You want to find key phrases that have good search volume. Search volume refers to the number of people who actually search the term on a regular basis.

If the search volume is only 10 people per month, that key phrase, no matter how well you optimize, is not going to bring you a lot of traffic. Even if you show up as the very first result, the total traffic you will get per month will obviously be 10 people or less.

However, simply going after the highest volume key phrases is a poor strategy as well. Key phrases can be incredibly competitive. If you pick a key phrase that is too competitive, you may take years to reach the first page, or you may never reach it at all.

“Keyword difficulty” refers to how difficult it is to rank highly for a particular keyword. This is a numerical scale that has been invented by SEO strategists to better understand which keywords to optimize for. Good optimization means finding key phrases that are relevant, have enough volume, and are possible to compete on.

This research can be done using a variety of search engine optimization tools that analyze Google data.

Once you have identified the key phrases you want to rank for, you must assign them each to a page on your website.

You want to assign each key phrase to a unique page on your website. Otherwise, you can end up with something called “keyword cannibalization”. Keyword cannibalization is when you cannibalize yourself—eating your own search engine ranking by competing with yourself on the same term. This would be similar to opening two burger joints on the same street, both owned by you. Each burger joint, because it has to compete with the other one, may not survive. Similarly, if your pages are competing with each other, they may not rank for the top slot on Google.

Getting your keyword research and your focus key phrases right is vital to having a good SEO ranking. I’ve worked with many companies and organizations that have had hundreds of pages with absolutely zero foresight into which key phrases to optimize for. I’ve referred to this as “a powerful cannon pointed the wrong way for battle”.

3. Greenlight / optimize your pages

Once you have done keyword research and identified your pages and their key phrases, you can begin a process that we affectionately call green lighting. “Green lighting” is a term that comes from the famous Yoast SEO plugin in WordPress, but you don’t need to use WordPress or Yoast to handle green lighting.

What green lighting really refers to is optimizing each of your pages for its focus key phrase. Your focus key phrase should be intelligently distributed throughout the page so it is clearly identified as the topic of the page. This means placing it in headings at multiple levels, placing it within the content, and inserting it into meta tags and ALT descriptions. Keep in mind that you want to be very careful about keyword density. If your key phrase appears too often, it will look like you are keyword spamming, and you can get dinged on Google.

Each page needs to be carefully optimized to declare its focus on its key phrase. During this process, you will optimize your meta descriptions and keywords to ensure that each page looks good when it comes up in search results.

Once you’ve green lighted all your pages, you’ll have a good shot at competing for your chosen topics. Keep in mind that this takes time. As a good rule of thumb, it often takes a month for your SEO results to begin to show. Sometimes they show faster, in a week, or just a few days, but it all depends on how quickly Google indexes your site.

4. Set up analytics and tracking

“You can’t improve what you don’t measure”. Peter Drucker first famously said this phrase (actually, it was “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”, but, close enough), and it rings true in SEO as well as in the rest of life. Setting up good tracking can help you understand how to manage your SEO results.

Most people know that they should set up Google Analytics. Google Analytics is Google’s tool to help you understand how your web traffic is performing. With Google Analytics, you can see your number of page views, the way users flow through your pages, and more.

But there are more important tools to set up.

Google Search Console is similar to Google Analytics. It is a tool that helps you understand how your website is doing, particularly in regards to its organic search. This helps you receive and understand data about how your website is being accessed coming off of users searching.

Ideally, you will also set up Google Tag Manager. Google Tag Manager places tags on different actions on your website. For instance you might have a tag on your checkout page. Having a tag on your checkout page or check out action means that when customers check out, Google Tag Manager, and consequently Google Analytics, will know that you have made a sale. This can help you to understand your conversion rate, the rate which your viewers convert to sales. This is the most important metric in achieving profitability with your website.

Finally, we like to set up something called HotJar or FullStory. Either of these tools accomplishes the same thing—recording user sessions. This is optional, but it has proved invaluable time and time again for us. We use these programs to watch user behavior.

Yes, you can actually watch users interact with your website in real time! Their personal data is blurred out, so you won’t see credit card information or any other identifying data that they type into input boxes, but you can see the path that they take through the website. Filtering these views – for instance looking at all the people who visited a certain page and then went to the checkout page but did not click pay – can be a great way to learn about your users behavior and about possible bugs with your site.

5. Build a backlink profile with good directory listings

One of the most important components in determining your website’s SEO ranking is your backlink profile. A backlink profile is a fancy way of saying, “other websites that link to you”.

When we begin working with a new website, we like to optimize the backlink profile.

Optimizing your backlink profile can be incredibly powerful. For instance, we sometimes work with websites that have toxic backlinks. What this means is that websites that have been identified by Google as spammy or questionable are linking to your site. In this case, we will “disavow” the backlinks, which means that we are telling Google that we don’t associate ourselves with this site and they should not consider it as part of our backlink profile. It’s a way of declaring that you have nothing to do with that scammy site, and Google shouldn’t connect you when it considers your domain authority.

Sometimes, a single backlink can be incredibly powerful. We recently worked with a local business owner who was frustrated that he had done everything right in the SEO space. However, he still wasn’t ranking on the first page for his industry. He declared it a mystery, and asked us if we could look into it.

It took a while to find out the difference between his site and other sites that were performing better. In many cases, he actually had better SEO optimization than the other sites! Yet, the other sites were still appearing higher on Google.

Then, we discovered the secret – every single other site in his industry was listing their staff members on a local college’s directory. This campus directory had such a good authority score with Google that it was the difference between websites that were on the first page and websites that lived in anonymity.

We quickly called up the college and found out the requirements for getting listed. Within days we were listed and within just weeks, this business owner’s website shot to the first page.

So, backlinks can be incredibly important. When we optimize your backlink profile, we like to submit your website to as many directories as possible. We find directories across the internet that have a good authority score with Google, and submit your website to be listed. This is a great way to get a massive backlink profile quickly. Typically, we will submit your site to 50+ directories. Once your site is on these other websites, you will have a rich backlink profile that will help you gain SEO authority quickly.

In Conclusion

Each of these components is extremely important to a good SEO ranking. Everything we’ve mentioned here is part of initial optimization. It is, of course, true that search engine optimization is not a one and done thing. It is important to keep working on your SEO, because it is an incredibly competitive process. Just like you need to keep training to win sporting events, you need to keep working on your SEO. This is best done by blogging, continuing to build your backlink profile, doing regular keyword research (at least every 6 months), and continuing to optimize everything you can.

However, the initial setup components that we have described here will get you off to an incredible start. We hope to work with you, but even if you decide to work with someone else or do the work yourself, we hope that this overview was educational and informative!