What are the Best Practices for SEO?
Best practices for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) all revolve around great content, proper structure, quality links, relevance, and user experience. The core concepts are simple, but as in any other field, each concept is nuanced and mastering it takes a little space-time and mass-energy.
There are no shortcuts or cheat codes, but there is lots of great advice and a fairly clear-cut path to follow. Below I’ll use my decade of online writing experience to help you filter out the noise and set you on the right track. Also, by the end of this article, I hope to prove the point that “there are best practices in regards to creating search friendly online content.”
Let’s start by doing an overview of who to listen to and trust with SEO and who not to. Your best friend for great SEO advice is the Google team themselves.
SEO for startups in under 10 minutes (by Google). Let’s be honest, there is no better SEO expert than the folks who build the most popular bot. They don’t give away all the secrets, but you would be surprised how much “SEO” info is open source.
TIP: If you haven’t read this document (Welcome to Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide), it’s a must read and a good place to start learning about SEO. Also, read this: ranking factors for SEO list. I strongly advise keeping both these documents bookmarked for reference. At least at the moment, there are some important factors they cover that I don’t.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization. This means optimizing a website to ensure search engines like and rank your site, specifically the major two search engines Bing and Google.
Original Content is King
Original great content is the most important aspect of SEO. If the content is good, everything else will follow. SEO can be thought of as a guideline for presenting great content online. Best practices can be thought of as the best way to ensure search engines and readers can access your content easily.
SEO is Best Practices, not Tricks
Some people think SEO means tricks for ranking, but that isn’t right. Using tricks is the worst possible thing you can do. The truth is, SEO is simply best practices. Best practices (which include proper structure, great content, and not being evil) will help ensure the longevity and success of your website. Some best practices change year-to-year as technology evolves, but the core concepts are core to being a good human. We cover all aspects of best practices below.
Why Care About SEO?
Everyone wants to be #1, the only way to do that is be first or be the best. It’s 2016 and you aren’t first, so you’ll need to be the best. Plus, think about it, your search listing is a free ad that is featured 24/7 on the search engines. So even if you are #1 you still need to know how to ensure all your listings look great and are effective. For that matter, if you are #2 you’ll really want your listing to stand out.
Where to Learn about SEO?
Learn SEO from Rand Fishkin CEO of Moz SEOmoz.
I don’t suggest any other sources for a novice/intermediate (although there are a few other greats who I’ve linked to on the page), and I would never suggest spending money on learning SEO or basic SEO tools (but there are some paid tools from the aforementioned that I do suggest).
Yoast SEO – Yoast Step-by-Step Tutorial P12.
On this page, I compile everything I’ve learned over the last 10 plus years. While I may have a few unique takes, there is nothing you can’t glean from these three companies by searching around on their websites. So take what I teach, and then go there to continue your learning.
The COMPLETE 2016 SEO Guide – Basic to Advanced SEO Course. This is fairly long winded, but it seems on point.
You Must have Integrity Padawan
The path of SEO best practices is the path of light, it is the path of the Jedi, it is the path of the white hat (a tech term to describe a developer who uses best practices, as opposed to a grey hat or black hat). Even the darkest popular sites on the web have integrity because integrity is born from time, effort, and care.v
Intentions Matter; Provide Value
If your intention is to provide value to your audience, it will outshine any slip-ups you have. SEO isn’t just about getting search engines to like you, it’s about getting your users to return to your site, stay on your site, and share your content. This simple concept is one of the most important on the page.
Integrity, intention, value. . You aren’t the focus, your audience is the focus.
Websites are Easy
Websites are easy to create, but there is exponential growth on the web. The huge number of websites make it impossible for you to rank without being exceptional. These days, people can set up a WordPress network and auto-produce sites. They can farm content (buy content or have content auto-created), buy traffic, and essentially automate an entire web presence. You can even automate videos by grabbing other people’s content and having a bot read the words with some stock video in the background. A PHP script can replace everything about a website… except integrity.
Journalistic Integrity isn’t Always Easy
Journalistic integrity and keeping your mind focused on giving value to the reader will set you off in the right direction. Best practices are like good etiquette at a dinner party; if you are an interesting guest and you present yourself well, you increase your chances of being the life at the party.
If you take away nothing else, take away this one point: integrity and intention matter.
The Best SEO Trick of All Time
The only real “trick” to SEO is to understand that people don’t like to be tricked. People don’t like ‘click bait’ (like my H2 tag about the best SEO trick of all time); they don’t like ads that look like content; they don’t like being duped.
The only rule of sports, government, games, relationships, etc. is to treat people as you wish to be treated. People don’t like being cheated and conned; people love a great challenge and a fair game. If you break the rules, you could be banned in an instant. This is a core human trait; this is a core principle of games. I assure you it is a core trait of search engine AI (which is programmed by humans who are trying to make the internet a great place).
You can’t obtain and maintain a #1 ranking for anything important by cheating. Unless you have set your bar low and made it temporary, say it with me now “I will never buy traffic, outsource content to those who don’t care, or settle for bad ad practices”.
SEO Rule #1 Don’t Be Evil
Google says “put your best foot forward”. Google has also been known to say, “don’t be evil.” Why do we have to bother stating that we should avoid being evil? We have to state this because people think SEO stands for “trick search engines into ranking content”.
Steven Levy: Google’s “Don’t be Evil”. People like to laugh at ideas like “best practices” and “don’t be evil”, but wouldn’t you know… It’s sort of like a binary thing, like a core thing, like a thing that really actually does matter.
People don’t like being tricked, weak AI wouldn’t like being tricked if it knew it was being tricked and trust me strong AI is not going to like being tricked either. Besting someone within the rule set is glorious; besting someone by cheating is not. Tricking people is evil, caring about money more than your reader is evil, and let’s not even get started on the ads.
Actually, let’s get started on Ads.
Ads are Your Best Friend and Worst Enemy
Ads are potentially where all your money will come from as a content creator / web person. They are also a big sticking point for white hat sites as those with less than ideal practices jeopardize everything we work for.
It works like this: industry A is advertising industry, industry B is website and content industry. Both industries are like the Wild West. On both sides there are white hats, gray hats, and black hats… unfortunately, outside of a few select players, the ad industry tends to focus on the content side.
It’s a constant struggle between bad ads, ad blockers, and worst of all, bad advertisers. Ironically, those who can’t rank their evil sites, but are good-ish at business, take the sideways route and simply buy ad placements to feature lead forms and junk content, which simply spiral into more lead forms and junk content. This gives internet users an unpleasant experience and that, in turn, affects you directly or indirectly.
Know that you can’t just set and forget ads. You have to really think about your user’s experience. Your average user WILL NOT distinguish between a junk ad slipped into the ad stream and you. The ad broker is trying to make money, and they don’t necessarily do quality control for you.
If no one is doing quality control, ultimately you, the website owner, will take the heat. You are the face of the site; the advertiser will be just fine without you.
Ridding the World of Ads – South Park Studios.
User Experience and User Interface
Let me share one further point before we get to the part where I actually tell you how to build a website and structure your content. No matter how great your content is, people need to see it in order to know it’s great. If you have slow load times, flash, pop up ads, or broken HTML / CSS / PHP you may lose readers before you even have a chance to impress them.
This is its own area of study, but just think, if your mom, pop, and grandma can’t figure out how to use the site, other people probably can’t either. You aren’t there to walk people through the process, so simply consider using common structure used by the top sites. This luckily is basic WordPress / Twitter Bootstrap structure.
TIP: Your site must be mobile friendly AKA it must use responsive or adaptive CSS, which if you hardcode your site and don’t know is the ‘@media rule’.
Getting Starting Building a Website With Best SEO Practices
The main focus of this page is content, but here is a quick overview of how to go from nothing to a suitable and affordable website that can rank.
Buying a Domain Name
A domain name is your websites URL, for instance, ours is FactMyth.com.
Buy a domain name with the word that best describes your intentions. So if you are Sally’s Beauty School in Spokane Washington consider ‘SallysBeautySchoolWA’. Be literal.
Use Short URLs
The above said, with domains, short is always best. Short URLs are best for many, many reasons. Whether it’s telling a person on the street your URL, fitting it on your business card, or realizing that it takes up room on your search engine listing that could have been used to display your page name.
Long URLs are generally going to hurt your rankings and short URLs will generally help. So let’s refine our domain name to ‘sallyspokane’. Yes, that is good ‘sallyspokane’ (we took out the extra ‘s’ to avoid confusion). You could always buy both and use ‘domain forwarding’ to forward the double ‘ss’ to the single ‘s’.
TIP: There are lots of ways to go for Sally. If her content is good and her domain is a reasonable length she will be fine. For a small business or a pet project, you can’t really just care about SEO. You have to think or your audience, how your listing will look, and what your audience will look for. The hardcore SEO version is ‘beautyschoolspokane’, but as helpful as that would be it’s not always the right move. Maybe Sally has dreams of Seattle and so localizing the keyword will hurt her 5 years plan. Just check your intentions before buying a domain, switching it down the road is 100% possible, but a little awkward for rankings and customer recognition.
TIP: Doesn’t really matter where you buy your domain. I like Godaddy for non-experts because they have a great customer service team. If you are advanced then you can find more advanced solutions on your own. For a novice get your domain AND hosting from Godaddy, and let them know you want to run WordPress, and then have them walk you through setting up everything.
Buy .Com only
Unless you have a darn good reason, like you run an organization or network, you should never have anything other than .com as your main URL. NEVER buy anything other than .com or .org if you want to rank. Do a google search for anything, you tell me if you want anything other than a .com.
TIP: Yeah Twitch.tv worked, sure I’ve seen a .net out there, and if I was an app startup who didn’t want to rank maybe I’d be cheeky… but let’s be honest, .com inspires confidence. The rest of the URLs you can buy (aside from .org) don’t. So go with .com. (Ps. you can’t actually buy .edu or .gov).
Setting up a Server
A server is where your website lives. If you don’t know what you are doing, just get a basic package with a major hosting company. You’ll likely want to run WordPress on Godaddy. You should absolutely not go to one of the automatic site maker sites that I won’t name. You can’t really compete online unless you have your own hosted site either custom built or built on a WordPress platform. This rule can be broken, but for your own good, let’s not even go there.
TIP: To start you can use this year’s WordPress theme and the core plugins. Content should be your primary goal to start.
Tom DeMichele’s Perfect-ish Guide to On-Page SEO
Here is the part of the page where I tell you about things like keywords.
TIP: Computers follow a rule-set to perfection. It’s called being a calculator. If you are a calculator, then you aren’t a human. If you aren’t human, how can you compete with the great content of other humans? Even cognitive AI aims to think like a human. Any rules you learn should be broken, regularly, and to taste. Don’t sacrifice your integrity, but do give yourself the freedom to be true to you… even at the risk of not being #1.
TIP: Make sure you use YOAST (on WordPress) it will handle your metadata (the code that tells search engines your preferred site info like title and description).
Keywords and Keyphrases for SEO
If you searched for SEO and found this page, there is a chance that all you really wanted to know about was “keywords” and “key phrases”. So let’s define what that means.
What is a Keyword / What is a Key Phrase?
A keyword is a main subject. A key phrase is a phrase based around that subject. Each website, page, and sometimes paragraph should have a single core keyword (for this site it’s two: 1. fact 2. myth.) We could say they key phrase was “facts and myths” or “facts or myths”, or “facts and myths on…”.
Essentially I know I want a site about facts and myths (because I like truth and knowledge).
Likewise, we can say the keyword of this page is “SEO” and we can say the key phrase is “Best practices for SEO”. Sure we have lots of other “long-tail” key phrases in here like the title of this heading “Keywords and Keyphrases for SEO”, but I’m not going to concern myself with that (it just happens naturally when you create good content).
From here you just expand this concept. If you want a page about “animals, vegetables, and minerals” then those are your keywords. Then you may ask yourself, what do I want to say about those and what do people want to know? Now you write down a list of questions and phrases to cover. Just like you would an outline on a paper.
Now you answer those questions. As you build your page you will naturally fill your content with the proper ratio of keywords and key phrases.
No Keyword Stuffing!
The only thing to avoid is “keyword stuffing”. That means avoid using your keyword over and over in an unnatural way, use a wide vocabulary, and don’t be robot-y. Also, don’t try to rank for too many things at once on one page or section. Your animal, vegetable, mineral page may rank for “animal, vegetable, mineral”, but probably not for just “animal”. When you spread thin, you risk weakening one specific word.
See the Matrix
Ok last thing, think of your site as a system. You connect the nodes of the system by connecting good relevant information to good relevant information. By thinking about the connections of the whole site, rather than just a page, you strengthen everything. The easier it is for the user to jump around the matrix, the better.
TIP: Check out how the human brain works. You want your website to be a matrix of meaningful connections, just like the natural state of a healthy human brain.
NOTE: I personally find it very bad form (and thus not best practices) to laser target keywords for the intention of ranking for them. Keyword ratios are expressed naturally by using best practices. They are only important to know in the regard that you should understand what they are and how to formulate key phrases so you can structure proper titles, URLs, descriptions, etc.
TIP: If you want help figuring out what people are searching for: Sign up for Google Adwords and use the keyword too to see “bid prices” and “search traffic” for keywords and key phrases. If it costs tons of money, has high competition, and tons of search traffic; it’ll bring in lots of traffic if you do well. If it doesn’t, it’ll typically be easier to rank for. Again, though, you don’t want to make too many decisions based statistics and analysis. That is how calculators work. Writing is a soulful expression of creativity, and calculated tactics can suck the soul out of your work.
Best SEO Practices for Page Titles
Your page title is everything. Your page title is always the term you want to rank for, and then adjusted for the intention of the page.
For instance, on this page I want to rank for “SEO best practices” because I see SEO as “best practices” and I want to share my knowledge. However, FactMyth.com takes commonly held beliefs and fact-checks them, so in this regard, I had to title the page as an argument I could research. I went with “There are Best Practices for SEO” (which I have unsurprisingly found to be a fact).
The proper way to structure a URL is with ‘-‘ instead of spaces. So this page is ‘/there-are-best-practices-for-SEO’. If your WordPress theme tries to re-write your titles any other way adjust it in your WordPress settings.
The proper length of a title page is less 55 characters or less (often showing less). It appears different on different devices and keep in mind your domain name (or a message of your choice) can appear after that if there is more room.
Just like with domain names page URLs matter, short is best, and it’s all part of your search engine listing (which is like a free ad from Google / Bing).
TIP: 55 characters is my short version of a title that gives room for breaking the rule. Also, the titling practice of using “-” and not leaving out “stop words” (like in, of, the, and) generally applies to domain names. I personally can’t stand when people leave out words in titles. It’s like not using an oxford comma (but these are my personal tastes).
Best Practices for First Paragraph / Best Practices for Description
You have 156 characters or less to summarize your article. The first 156 characters of your page that are text and not a heading tag will also be your description.
TIP: If you have a date on your post / page (often the case with blogs) the date eats up characters. With titles or descriptions, making it right is more important than making it fit. Search engines can simply decide to grab any content from your page for ranking regardless of size if they choose. Metadata is only advice.
If you manage to summarize your article without mentioning the topic, then you should take a step back and try harder.
Here is a great start of a novel, but an awful 156: “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
Here is the SEO version of a 156 for the same novel: “A sailor called Ishmael narrates the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale which destroyed Ahab’s ship.”
Good writing is not necessarily good SEO. To have good SEO, you would need a title like “Moby Dick is Ishmael’s Version of Ahab Vs. Whale” and a 156 “Ishmael narrates the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale which destroyed Ahab’s ship.” If Melville had written those words, we probably would not know Moby Dick today.
Best Practices for Paragraphs
Always use short paragraphs and always use short sentences. Use simple words and always link off to subjects and summarize as needed.
Explain it to your audience as though they are five-year-olds who don’t want to sacrifice truth for brevity. This isn’t an insult to the audience; keeping things simple helps to expand your audience. Our attention is limited by nature, but our storage capacity isn’t. You must capture attention.
Best Practices for Heading Tags
The title of your page is an H1 tag. That means, “heading one”. Headings follow a hierarchy and should be used to break up the flow of the page. There should be only one H1 tag (the title of a page at the top), but every time you switch subjects you can either use an H2 or lower.
The rule is this. You can’t skip order in the hierarchy moving down. So I can’t go H2 and then H4, but I can go from H4 to H2. This works like multiple indentations with bullet points.
Typically you’ll only use H2 tags on a page (and this is good novice behavior). If you want a subsection you use H3, and below that H4. It keeps going.
Each H tag should have unique CSS (which is a web developer for style sheet).
H tags are simply titles and titles should have a hierarchy, not just code wise, but visually (so font size is key).
Like everything else this is about making your page easy to read for your reader.
Never Use Duplicate Content Without a Citation
You should never use duplicate content without a citation and or link. Taking someone else’s hard work and passing it off as your own is not only unethical but self-defeating. This is true for pages, paragraphs, and even sentences. If you can’t understand something enough to re-phrase it, then why is it on your site? How can you be #1 if you won’t even write your own content?
Beware Too Good to Be True Guest Blogs and Writers For Hire
Sometimes hiring writers works, but you can’t cheat the system. If you think you are going to rank a site buying content for pennies on the dollar, you are most likely wrong. What you are doing is shooting yourself in the foot by filling your site with content that doesn’t necessarily meet your standards or have your tone. If you use guest bloggers, do so only with those you trust who add value to your site and the reader. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t hire writers at a normal wage and make them part of the team, it’s to say that you can’t just hire a company to fill your website up for $7 a page if your goal is to compete with the best sites in your industry.
Best Practices for Linking
Who you link to is who you are friends with. In real life, if your friends are a bunch of scumbags, then you are probably a scumbag. If you want to be popular and smart, hang out with smart popular people.
The people you link to are generally those who you are friends with and with whom you have much in common. In real life, the character of your friends usually says something about your character. For instance, smart people tend to hang out with other smart popular people
Link to the best articles just as you would link to your best friends. Link to .edu, link to .gov. Find out for yourself who is trying to make the internet a better place and who is selling snake oil. Show your support for the sites doing a great job, learn from them, and link to them.
Links out and in are the key to ranking online, but a link in or out to the wrong place can actually hurt your rankings.
You can’t control everyone who links to you, and this is surely factored into ranking algorithms, but generally if your content is good you’ll get good links.
TIP: Use Google Analytics. It’s your way of knowing how people are finding your site, what they are doing on the site, and who is linking to the site. NEVER EVER click on the links sending you traffic. There is a whole gambit that involves sending bad traffic to new sites in the hopes that you will click the link. If you feed the troll the troll will start showing up at your door for dinner.
Best Practices for Site Structure
Internal links are key. External links to good content and internal links to good content may as well be equal in your eyes. A link from a .edu is going to trump your internal link, but over time as your site grows they will both be key factors in its growth.
Don’t think about anything other than your user. What will give them the best experience, and how can you create a matrix of knowledge for them to explore.
I strongly suggest taking a good look at what we did with FactMyth.com using a custom WordPress build. It’s elegant, simple, and creates a beautiful matrix of relevant content (which is interesting on a site about every subject). Luckily, you don’t need much code to make good use out of WordPress.
Best Practices for Posts, Cats, and Tags
Everyone loves cats, but in this instance I mean categories. WordPress uses post types (like pages and posts) and categories / tags to organize your content. Think about structure. You don’t want ten categories with the same post in it unless it is relevant. You don’t need a “cool apps” tag unless you are going to review a bunch of apps. The fewer times you fractal off the main point for no reason, the better.
Check out how we use categories and tags. Browse around and notice how we have used categories (which we call subjects) and tags to organize things. Keeping structure in mind, and treating it as part of SEO, keeps the structure tight.
Best Practices for Images
Always use plain English to fill out the title tag and alt tag. Put a description. Use keywords. Always use small file sizes for images (under 100kb). In most cases your images will be the largest items on a given page.
TIP: Always cite your images and always use “reuse with modification” or images that are marked for public commercial use. The bar isn’t super high for most things, but if you use copyrighted pictures from people who do photography for a living (especially for a big organization) you run the risk of damaging your relationship with advertisers and the search engines.
Keep it clean; keep it quick. Minimize all files if possible. Google has lots of standards on this. You can see your page speed and get suggestions here.
Speed matters, but what Google’s page speed tool suggests is not gospel. It can drive you mad to try to get 100% on the tool, just make sure your content is good, the code is clean, and site loads quickly.
TIP: Check your bounce rate in analytics to detect problems.
TIP: Think about the order and cleanliness of your code. It won’t stop great content from ranking, but it is best practices to keep code clean.
You Don’t Have to Get it All Right at Once
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Good SEO is about caring about your website and it’s pages and not rushing their construction.
The best rule is to wait a day and then edit before going live. Inevitably the second that the page goes live you are going to panic and need to make “just one more little change”. This is normal, so always double check your “final draft” and always go back and check your work.
Freshness and relevance matter. Michelangelo didn’t just take a rock and wave a wand to make his David, he put his heart and soul into it every day from 1501 to 1504. People who saw the rock in 1501 were probably not impressed. Three years later Michelangelo’s rock had become his masterwork.
You don’t have to get it right today, but the goal should be to get it right over time. Spill your blood, sweat, and tears, and if you can keep coming back day after day, and proving you deserve it, then you’ll have your best chance to earn it.
Keep Adding to the Matrix
The more you focus on a subject, even if your site covers more than one subject, the better you will do. If you become and expert, and other people refer to your site, you become “an authority”. Authority is earned and is analogous to respect. Do you know who people respect? They respect people with integrity and good intentions who do the right thing, put in hard work and help others without demanding something in return.
Everything Takes Time
Things take time. Or as I like to say, they take space-time and mass-energy.
Longevity should not be underestimated. If your domain has been up for the same owner and same content, then time is your friend. New domains aren’t as trustworthy as mainstays. If you want to be #1 you have to start carving your David today. In 3 years, if you are still working toward it every day, you will greatly increase your chances of success especially if you follow best practices and have great content.