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The Pillars Of Strategic SEO & A Primer On Website Design
Every serious business website must be built around relevant, business-critical keywords and phrases, and done in a strategic manner. This begins with careful analysis of the ground realities, and then moves on to technical nuances, as we will soon see.
Analysis – The Bedrock Of Strategic SEO
Every business exists to serve a marketplace while working towards a purpose. Gaining clarity on these core elements underlies every strategic SEO initiative.
What is the purpose towards which your business is moving? With this clearly defined, it is easy to measure the impact every step of your website design has upon it, and intelligently plan the entire process for best results.
To identify your ideal keywords, and guess at the intent behind them, you must intimately understand your target users and how they fit into the broader target market that your business is trying to reach.
Armed with this knowledge, you can then set goals for what your website visitor will do on each section of it.
- Will your website give more information?
- Will it try to close the sale?
- Will it generate enquiries or leads?
- Will it directly bring in revenue?
Only after this analysis is complete can you take the next step, which is to plan the technology.
Technology – The Nuts & Bolts Of Your SEO Strategy
Several components of your website’s design depend on your technological preferences and choices, which are in turn driven by the purpose your website serves and the nature of actions you want visitors to carry out.
Which platform will you build your website on? Off the shelf CMS tools like WordPress and Joomla have their own advantages (and drawbacks) depending upon how you will use them.
- What programming language will you adopt?
- How scalable must your set up be?
- How will you encourage audience interaction? (forums, live chat, help desk etc)
The scripts and applications you need and site performance metrics, acceptable server response time, and the speed at which your webpages load are all a function of the technology behind your website. All of these components have a bearing upon your website design and structure.
But all of this is the “easy part”. The psychology behind SEO and website structure takes some more effort to nail.
Understand Your Business Goals & Targets
Many website managers and/or business owners are not good at defining goals and conversion points at each section of their website. Every page on your site should serve a purpose. Along existential lines, you must ask yourself:
Why is this page here?
Depending upon the answer, each page should have strong call to action. If there is no specific goal for this content, does it even belong on your site? Ask this critical question of all your content. Only after this is clearly defined should you roll out a silo-structured website that incorporates targeted calls to action.
By then draping the piece of art (website design) crafted by a talented usability expert and designer over your solidly structured framework based on information architecture, you will build a foundation that lasts for years. It’s like constructing your tower on a granite base instead of quicksand.
Consider Your Content Hierarchy Carefully
Every well structured website has content organized by taxonomy, or common shared characteristics.
Ideally, your content will be planned keeping in mind the broader context within which individual pages reside.
An online shoe store might sell different kinds of shoes like running shoes, pumps, and sandals, for both men and women. At a certain point, it becomes important to separate or organize these different types of products in an ordered fashion.
A theme- and silo-structured content hierarchy makes it easier for users to find relevant content. But all silos are not made equal. There are versions of this system which are touted by hype-driven SEO sharks that work very poorly (if at all) over the long term.
Well planned, themed websites will place related content into virtual silos where they are only associated with closely connected information. Such a structure can be created through smart internal linking.
By broadly classifying all of your website content under ‘Categories’, ‘Sub-Categories’ and ‘Topics’, it is possible to have a streamlined layout that follows the order:
Home – Category – Sub-Category – Topic – Content
Internal links from each level can be planned to maximize the delivery of ‘link juice’ to the most useful sections of your website. The technical part of this is easy. What isn’t so simple is choosing the appropriate concepts and terms that your target customers use and understand easily.
Craft A Compelling User Experience
Planning user experience goes hand in hand with your content hierarchy. While you may want visitors to navigate your website in a particular sequence, your visitor can arrive through any ‘back door’ and land on any page in your site.
Given this reality, there are key elements of an optimized website design that will enhance the user experience:
1. Help them get oriented. When new visitors arrive on your website, they’re wondering, “Where am I?” A confused visitor is a poor prospect. So you should help them get oriented right away and show them how to navigate your website.
2. Make it quick and easy to move around. As a rule of thumb, see that they can hop over to any page on your site with no more than 3 clicks (the fewer, the better).
3. Don’t over-optimize. Google recommends building pages for users, not search engines. Over-optimizing your site by loading it with keywords can disrupt the user experience, and cost you sales.
Strategic SEO and considered web design is about organizing your site intelligently, taking care to preserve the attention of a user and nurture trust, gradually guiding them to do what you want them to… and making sure that when they do it, your business will reap the benefits.
Which Content Is Really Most Important?
When you analyze your website data, you may be surprised to find that the page with the highest traffic is not your homepage. In fact, your homepage may not even be in the top 10 most visited sections of your site!
So it pays to analyze every section of your website to identify those ‘long tail keywords’ that could be responsible for a large share of your revenue. It can be smart to turn your website “upside down” and look at what to improve on those internal pages.
If your initial analysis correctly identifies mission critical keywords for your business, then the sum of generic and long tail keywords (and synonyms) related to them (even if they do not contain any reference to your brand) can be a real goldmine.
Yet, as an SEO consultant, I often see clients trying to optimize their homepages only for their top industry keywords, believing it will rank more easily because of the ‘authority’ their home page enjoys.
The reality is optimizing a single page for several keywords creates confusion. Visitors who land on it from different search terms get distracted. Their first impression is that it’s a “messy” site where it is hard to find what they’re searching for.
They’ll back to search results and go to another site. You’ll lose sales, risk your brand, and hurt your overall business objectives.
Keywords – The Fuel That Drives Your Strategic SEO Engine
When it comes to effective SEO, keywords take center stage – but other aspects about them also matter.
- Are your keywords local or global?
- What language are you targeting?
- How optimized is your content for specific keywords?
- Is your content presented in logical order?
- Are you laying it out in silos or hubs?
- Do you have an optimized URL structure?
- Are your keywords in alignment with user logic?
- Is there scope to scale, if your business takes off?
- Are your keywords a part of anchor text of internal links?
- Where are they placed on your page?
- How are they related to other content and links?
- How fast are you building external links back to your site?
- How consistently are you doing it?
- Do your navigation links include keywords?
- Where are they placed?
- How much do they influence your on-page keyword density?
The Craft Of An Optimized Site Structure
Now that we’ve looked at the strategic significance of planning your overall information architecture and website structure, let’s get to the action steps you’ll take to craft an optimized site.
1. Title Tag
Ensure that your title tags are descriptive and informative. Often, this is what shows up on search results as the headline that attracts the click. Making it keyword rich can help in ranking, and a powerful promise or appealing headline makes it compelling enough for users to bookmark and return to later.
When visitors arrive at your website, the title tag also helps orient them to where they are on the site.
2. URL structure
Planning your URL structure to be keyword rich can help with ranking individual pages higher, and also aids users with orientation and navigation around the site.
3. Category names
Making category names and titles keyword rich is another way to optimize your site structure. Look to Amazon.com or Zappos.com for examples of how to plan categories this way.
4. Sculpt internal PR
Directing high powered links from your most linked pages selectively to specific internal pages can help them gain PR. This helps maximize the way ‘link juice’ is spread over your entire website.
5. Content-rich internal pages
Every internal page of your website is a potential landing page for visitors coming from outside. Each page should be content rich, with optimization for relevant keywords being a primary focus of the on-page content.
6. Build deep links
As part of your link building campaign, point some of the external links to inner content-rich pages, rather than having all links go back to the home page. Not only is linking to many different pages a signal of website quality, it also helps search engine spiders with crawling.
7. Harness social media
Social links, serving as a ‘vote of confidence’, are growing in importance as a signal of quality content. Gaining social votes for specific landing pages on your site will help attract more visitors and also gain your site higher ranking.
Don’t Blindly Follow SEO Trends
They can lead you down a treacherous slope. Instead, focus on building a solid structure for your website which is scalable and ultimately, structure your site for users. Conversion rates drop when you cannot develop trust with visitors.
Don’t lose your customer because they:
- Did not find your site (you chose the wrong keywords, or your website pages are not properly optimized)
- Did not find the information (your landing pages are not optimized for the specific search term and provide generic information, or too many options)
- Did not address their real issues (you don’t understand the buying cycle or they are in ‘research’ mode, so your landing page is not suitable)
- Did not focus on them (you only listed a catalog of products and some self-serving boasts about how good you are!)
Look, at this point, you are dealing with an unknown entity. You don’t (yet) know the visitor’s intent that underlies the search keyword.
She may not be ready to buy a car. Or she may not have decided what model to buy. You don’t know if she needs a station wagon or a Porsche. You’re not sure of her budget, or age, or other important information that influences her buying decision.
All of this data plays a role when it comes to converting a casual browser into a paying customer.
So stop mirroring your own needs and talking about yourself and your business. Reach out to understand the customer’s needs and study their psychology. Bring out solutions that explain how your product or service will add value, enhance their life, make things better.
Conversion rate optimization is an important component of SEO. You can’t simply bring on more traffic. It’s like running ads for a 5 star hotel when you only have crackers and candy ready to serve. Maybe the kids will be smiling, but the adults (with the money) won’t.
You must first understand their typical needs and problems, and then have options available that solve them. Only then will more traffic equal bigger profit.
So… Why Strategic SEO?
- Your business website is important.
- Search engines are responsible for the lion’s share of your website traffic.
- Organic search brings in the most clicks (and for free).
- High rankings for the most valuable keywords is achieved through SEO.
SEO is at the heart of your business. Without SEO, your business may die. Yet SEO consultants are often ignored (or called in too late, and paid less) because those in charge of buying decisions for companies are unaware of the importance of SEO.
Effective SEO is about applying insight and knowledge to convert traffic into sales (or other desired results). Sure, it’s nice to be ranked on a keyword or search term, and report back with impressive traffic numbers to the board members (who often have barely passing knowledge about SEO and online metrics) – but if that doesn’t translate into bottom-line profit, was the traffic of any value?
If SEO consultants want to be taken seriously, and be given a budget to develop a revenue generating website that works 24/7 and will remain bullet-proof for years, they must focus on results – not incidental benefits. As a business owner, this is what you must focus on, too.
Here’s why strategic SEO based on information architecture and website structure will help you get there:
- Strategic SEO will help in your business development. You’ll find the “niche within the niche”, on a keyword level. That’s what guides you towards building your website targeting the right terms, stocking the shelves (categories and sub-categories in each silo) with the right content that people are seeking and willing to spend money on.
- Strategic SEO is an investment – one that pays your business back several-fold. As a business owner, you know (at least approximately) the value of your website per visitor. If you don’t, find out. This is a high priority. Organizing your website on a silo structure makes it easier than ever before to measure performance granularly.
- Strategic SEO leverages rich customer data – and helps you turn it into new profit centers. When you measure metrics and apply Web analytics data to mine the value hidden in your website, you will tap new opportunities and find potential income streams that can be turned into profitable content.
- With a good information architecture and URL structure in place, your website will be every user’s dream. It will need less tinkering and manual configuration as it grows and scales.
- Web analytics are easier to monitor with a clean URL structure and a site structure that is segmented into topics and sub-topics.
- With the correct structure and architecture and by setting up Web analytics for each silo, you can see which sections are not spidered or indexed and take corrective steps to ensure they are seen.
How Costly Is Strategic SEO?
Strategic SEO isn’t expensive. You don’t need a bigger budget. By using Web analytics smartly, you can find out which tactics are working best, and which ones are not.
Focusing on the effective strategies and moving some investments into the SEO budget can multiply your returns.
Just as you would consult with an architect before laying the first brick of your house, it is wise to discuss your SEO strategy with a specialist (experts at SEO, usability, information architecture and web design) before you start building your website.
Trying to fix it later will restrict your outcome and be much more expensive, especially if you are forced to rein in your plans for expansion. You may have saved some money upfront on consulting fees, but in reality you’ll probably lose a whole lot more from missed opportunities.
Would you build your home in a quagmire, or on property that frequently gets flooded? No?
Then why would you even consider building a website without first finding a safe spot for it? Your market research, keyword analysis and domain strategy will direct you to the right niche. Information architecture and website/URL structure will become your secure foundation.
That’s good reason to incorporate strategic SEO into the DNA of your website structure and information architecture, rather than trying to slap it on later like icing on a cake, when it’s too late to make any meaningful difference to the outcome. The few dollars saved on SEO consulting charges will be wasted several times over as a penalty for having an under-optimized website that leaks money in the form of abysmally low conversion rates and lost sales.
The real “cost” in strategic SEO is in not harnessing it to your Web development and information architecture – right from the beginning!
Image credits: Crestock, Trond Lyngbø
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.