This article is for clients and coders who are not yet up to speed on modern coding techniques.

Modern SEO Best Practices

Writing code for Web sites is easier than it’s ever been. Modern HTML is shorter, less cluttered and more sensibly structured, making it easier for search engines to understand and rank the content of your site. By the time you finish this article, you’ll be an SEO grand-master. More importantly, your site’s ranking will improve within days.

The following are all white-hat techniques. They’re good for the health of your site and for the Web as a whole. For a discussion of black-hat techniques that can result in your site being demoted and even banned from Google and Yahoo! see the Black Hat SEO Blog.

In approximate order of importance, here’s what you need to know…

1. Key phrases in your title tag

Single best thing you can do. Get your key phrases in that tag. Simple and powerful. Here’s a bad example…

  • Welcome to our home page.

Don’t waste precious characters on words like “welcome,” “home” and “page”. Provide useful meaning, based on whatever the page itself contains. Examples…

  • Best SEO Techniques, Search Engine Optimization Tips
  • John Smith – Family Doctor – New York City, Manhattan

2. Key phrases in h1, h2, h3

Under the hood, all Web pages are structured like legal documents: a title, followed by headings, sub-headings, and chunks of body text. This isn’t some arcane aesthetic whim. It’s meaning.

Heading level one

Some introductory text might go here.

Heading level two

You can have as many level two headings as you like. They are the main section headings in any document.

This is a level three heading

More text would go here.

More text would go here.

This is a level three heading

More text would go here.

More text would go here.

Here’s another level two heading

More text would go here.

More text would go here.

This is a level three heading

More text would go here.

More text would go here.

This is a level three heading

More text would go here.

More text would go here.

Search engines give far more weight to key phrases when they appear between heading tags. Write meaningful headings populated with your key phrases.

Obviously, this looks ugly and not at all like most Web pages. Nonetheless, this is how all Web content is formatted in HTML. The visual presentation of Web pages is a separate matter, controlled independently via CSS. So you can relax: the above plain list of headings and content can be styled to look however you please.

Further Readinga primer on h-tags and some associated issues.

Warning—use only a single h1 heading on your page. Google treats the h1 tag as the most important piece of text after the title tag—and will penalize you heavily if you inadvertently try to game their spider.

3. Key phrases used in in-bound links

In-bound links are links on other sites; the links on other sites that bring people to your site. The exact words that are linked are used by Google to determine the relevance of your site. For example, a link that looks like this…

…carries some weight, but not nearly as much weight as…

Mostly, you don’t have any say over the words somebody uses to define a link to your site. If you do have any control over what words are linked, exert that control, baby—exert!

4. Key phrases further up the page

Not the page as it displays in your browser—the raw HTML. Search engines give more weight to key phrases when they appear early in the HTML of your page.

For example, with some clever HTML and CSS it’s possible to place semantically deficient navigation lists after your key-phrase-rich body content.

5. Web standards compliant code, rather than tables-for-layout rot

Clients—Talk to your Web developers about modern Web standards. Ask for table-free layouts. Demand the elimination of font tags and inline styles. Watch for a glassy, terrified expression.

Designers—Still using tables for layout and font tags for styling text? Maybe you’ve outsourced some styling to CSS but haven’t yet climbed the grand edifice of CSS-for-Layouts. Well, it’s time to poop. Honestly, reach out and touch that CSS nerd you know. Ask him about floats and clearing divs. In a week or two, you’ll be up in that nasty old edifice’s face. You’ll feel better, you’ll lose weight, and you’ll never go back. Seriously. Friends don’t let friends table their layouts.

6. Key phrases peppered throughout your p tags

They carry some weight and help a little. No harm done.

7. Key phrases in link title tags and image alt tags

Not crucial but stick ’em in, anyway. Everything helps.

Important subtleties…

8. The keyword meta tag is worthless

Yeah, yeah, I use it in the HTML of my own site but only for historical/habitual reasons—and MSN which, at the time of writing, is the only engine dumb enough to give credence to the keywords meta tag. Quite sensibly (because the tag was so abused by keyword spammers) all other engines ignore it. Of course, compiling a list of key words and phrases has to happen. From there, how hard is it to throw in a meta tag that might help some poor dunce who thinks MSN is the happening spot?

On the other hand, the description meta tag is still alive and kicking. It won’t improve your page ranking but the text you include there is what Google and other engines will display under the clickable link on a search results page. Keep it short. Ten words. Fifteen words at a stretch.

9. Single keywords are not enough – phrases rule

People almost never search using single words. Mostly, they use a combination of two or three words. For example, nobody searches for just “doctors”. They search for “doctors manhattan” or “doctors new york city”. These are the kinds of phrases to pepper throughout your site as described above.

The final word

Always keep this one word at the front of your mind: credibility. Make sure your pages supply useful content. It’s the only surefire way to draw true high-quality traffic.

Further reading

16 Responses to “Simple White Hat SEO Techniques”

  1. Boris Mahovac - Your Ezine Coach

    Just saw a link to this from LinkedIn Answers.

    Pretty good advice for beginners (designers, web geeks) but even better for actual web site owners who’re doing their own site design and/or maintenance. With little effort great results are possible.

    If I may add: find a way to incorporate an offer and/or a “call to action” in either your TITLE or DESCRIPTION tags – because they will be displayed in organic search engine search results.

    E.g. title “Ice Wine at Half Off – Call 888-123-4567 “

  2. Dave Stewart

    Really great common-sense round-up of the main points. Well done for cutting through the BS! It’s taken so much persuasion of a client recently who’s been reading one of those SEO books that it’s actually incredibly easy to do it in the first place, and the end of the world is not nigh. I want to slap all these people who makes such a big deal out of it. Sometimes the things they argue about is like arguing which kind of polish makes your car go faster.

  3. Sean

    Search Engine Optimization Firm Sued, Required to Pay More than $100K in Fees

  4. web templates package

    Truly great in explaining the points so vividly!! I had queries regarding proxy. The Black Hat tools provided me with a thorough know-how on proxies. Thanks.

  5. Totonet

    Full article. great seo optimozation tutorial. This have to help me to get better position in the search result. Thank for sharing this tutorial.

  6. Don

    I’ve been reading Website Optimization by Oreilly press and they pretty much stress the same things you mention here.

    It seems like common sense advice, but people always think there’s some voo doo magic worth paying big money for. Not the case.

  7. Doug Motel

    Some great stuff here. It is important to point out though that business owners need to continually focus on getting fresh content onto the site. Make your site look like a useful one for the user and the search engines will treat it like one eventually.

    Also, Google is ESPECIALLY interested in who is linking to you so you should do everything you can to get other trusted relevant sites to link back (preferably without you having to provide a link to their site).

  8. Alberto Villalobos

    Great article actually my sites suffered of contain seven h1 tags, after read this i changed all that, thank so much for this incredible post

  9. Gary

    Good common sense pointers that I have caught myself doing. I had thought about a few of the ones mentioned and now I think I will implement them. Thanks, I needed a wake up call.

  10. GreenAppleMedia » Blog Archive » 7 Ways to Kill Your SEO Consultant

    […] is a simple over view of SEO best practices provided by Design – ICU noting crazy new but nicely laid […]

  11. dan

    Thank for sharing this tutorial.

  12. Web Site Developers New York

    Thanks for sharing this informative article. Good work.

  13. Sean

    Great article via BoingBoing.

    “The problem with SEO is that the good advice is obvious, the rest doesn’t work, and it’s poisoning the web. Search Engine Optimization is not a legitimate form of marketing. It should not be undertaken by people with brains or souls. If someone charges you for SEO, you have been conned.”

  14. Andrew Hickey

    This is a comprehensive list that covers the basics of optimizing a site, but there’s a huge hole in this approach. First, for the sake of transparency, I own a small internet marketing firm that provides SEO services. Second, I agree with almost everything in this post. SEO has been hijacked by an army of jackasses who have inexplicably adopted the sales techniques of door-to-door salesmen. There’s a ton of bullshit being slung out there. I would add that not all sites (or businesses, brands, products) are good candidates for SEO (and, for obvious reasons) most SEO firms won’t tell them that.

    I would, however, argue that SEO is more complex than you make it out to be. The list you provide is a basic checklist, but there are dozens and dozens of other minor and major tweaks you can make to a site for a more complete optimization. Do some of those things appear to be frustrating or useless minutiae? Sure. But consider this – what if you implement all of the basic methods you mention above and so do all of your competitors? Theoretically, you are all on even ground and it’s a zero-sum experience all around. But if you start restructuring your URLs to make them keyword rich and implement a sensible cross linking strategy within your site (and your competitors make no changes), your site will eventually rank higher.

    The point is, the basics are a great place to start, but depending on how competitive your market is, you’ll need to do a hell of a lot more.

  15. Sean

    That’s a fair comment in the sense that the techniques you’re recommending are decent white-hat tweaks.

    But I’d still advise clients to worry more about, and invest more in, generating new, relevant content, perhaps even starting a blog (Google loves sites with blogs), and generally to put time and energy into building value for their audience. There’s an obvious place for SEO in any business mix, but a strategy based on providing value will outperform nerdy link tricks every time.

    Of course, the more educated clients can become about the real world limits of SEO, the better they can direct their own strategy.

  16. Sean

    Paul Boag fleshes out the case against investing so heavily in SEO “Let me say it one more time – I am not questioning whether SEO works. However … I believe investing in your users brings a substantially better return. It increases conversion, encourages word of mouth recommendation and ultimately improves your ranking through links back to your site. My recommendation to clients is that we build their websites to be accessible to search engines but tailored towards users not search engines.”

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