Lee Odden

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Basics

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, SEO, SEO Tips

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Basics

Learning the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) isn’t difficult, it’s time consuming. SEO consultants can offer a variety of services but in the end, web site owners will appreciate the optimization services they’re getting much more if they educated themselves on the fundamentals.

The nature of marketing web sites has continually evolved from a focus on optimizing text to include an array of digital asset optimization such as images, audio, video and content delivery formats like RSS and mobile. Regardless, there continues to be a significant value in basic SEO.

In many cases, small businesses or small web sites especially, there’s a lot the site owner or webmaster/developer can do to improve the search engine friendliness of the site, i.e. fundamental content optimization, before pursuing outside help. However, those that do end up outsourcing on-page optimization and link building often do so because of a lack of resources or the desire to leverage expert experience to avoid big mistakes that can end up costing more to fix than a SEO consultant in the first place.

For those individuals and organizations considering their own basic SEO, here are a few items for review:

  • Define clear and measurable goals for the site and take benchmark measurements
  • Keyword research – generate a glossary of keyword phrases that addresses both prospect needs and the content you’re publishing. Here is a list of the best keyword research tools as voted on by our readers
  • Content creation plan – Think of it as an editorial calendar for your web site. You must PLAN on creating keyword sensitive content on an ongoing basis that adds to the user experience
  • Keyword mapping – Using a spreadsheet, map keywords to the page or category. Focus is important, 1-2 phrases per page
  • Keyword phrase order – Does the keyword order in the page match order in the query? Anticipate queries and match the word order: “luxury hotels Chicago” vs “Chicago luxury hotels”
  • Keywords and the buying cycle. Consider the content and where it fits within the buying cycle: Research, Consideration, Evaluation, Purchase
  • Keyword prominence (how early in the page content or title/meta description tag) – Guide: most important phrases high and to left
  • Write to inform and convert as your priority, not to rank. Title tags and meta description tags should be written with keywords in mind, but the focus must be on motivating the reader to click through or to perform some other desired action
  • Keyword in alt text of images, particularly of images that link to another web page. Keywords should be relevant to the page being linked to
  • Filenames containing keywords are useful, but do not change your entire site URL structure if you’ve already published another URL syntax
  • Use hyphens in file names, not underscores
  • HTML site maps listing links to all pages or top level categories on the site are still a good idea
  • Google Webmaster Central and Yahoo Site Explorer accounts can provide useful crawling and link information/resources
  • For bloated pages, try to place JavaScript and CSS data in an external file to increase speed page load and to move content up in the document
  • Implement and review web stats for trends, visitor behavior, content performance, referring traffic and optimization enhancement opportunities: Google Analytics, WebTrends, ClickTracks, Index Tools, HitsLink Enterprise

About links for SEO:

  • Anchor text of interlinking site pages should include relevant keywords, not “click here”
  • Are all internal and external links valid? – Validate all links to all pages on the site
  • Employ a tree-like/organization chart linking structure with a minimal number of clicks to any particular page
  • Intra-site linking – Use appropriate links between lower-level pages. cluster links between sub categories
  • Linking out to external sites – Only link out to relevant, information rich sites. Do not link to sites that do not add value to the visitor experience
  • Avoid exchanging links for the sake of improving rankings
  • Ensure link stability over time – Avoid “Link Churn”, i.e. changing outgoing links often

Link building tactics for SEO:

  • Employ a linking program to acquire incoming links from relevant web sites by researching back links to high ranking competitor web sites
  • Contribute articles using keywords in titles to industry publications – not article directories
  • Engage in blogger PR and online media relations with relevant industry web sites
  • Submit keyword optimized press releases to search engine friendly wire services such as prweb.com, prnewswire.com, marketwire.com or pr.com
  • Submit the site to major directories – BOTW.orgBusiness.com
  • Leverage social networks and micro-blogging to promote linkable content
  • Diversify your link building tactics

A few things to avoid for SEO:

  • Don’t block your entire site from search engine spiders with a robots.txt during development and then forget to allow after publishing (believe me, it happens more often than you think)
  • Avoid all Flash, all Ajax, iFrames or anything that makes it difficult for a search engine to find and understand site content
  • Avoid more than 100 total links going out on any given page. Site maps can be broken up
  • Avoid JavaScript for navigation links. Use CSS for rollover or foldout menus instead
  • Avoid temporary (302) URL redirects. Use permanent redirects (301)
  • Avoid dynamic URLs with session ids, or URLs with more than three parameters and approximately 10 or less characters per variable
  • Avoid buying links from networks of blogs or sites of unrelated content. While we don’t have any particular issue with the idea of buying links as advertising, at TopRank, we prefer to “earn” links for the most long term value and lowest cost per acquisition

This list is about a third of the checklist I’ve recently revised for our internal use on text-based SEO projects, but should offer small web site owners ample insight into the variety of considerations with fundamental site optimization and link building. Interestingly enough, while things are constantly changing in the world of SEO, some things stay the same as you’ll see in this 2002 post from Brett Tabke, “Successful Site in 12 Months with Google Alone“.

A deep historical knowledge base combined with active engagement, testing, learning and analysis is what keeps web marketers savvy in the ways of SEO and depending on internal resources, it’s also why some companies are better off outsourcing SEO than handling it 100% their own.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Nice one Lee. I think we’re all rushing about the latest and greatest tactics and strategies in SEO that we forgot about the foundational stuff.

    I recommend people check out Gradiva Couzin and Jennifer Grappon’s “SEO: An Hour Today” for people to really understand not only the foundational aspect of SEO, but also how to think of SEO as a structured process.

    Disclosure: I was an early review of the book and even got a fancy quote in the book. :0

  2. Thanks Daniel and I agree with you on the book recommendation.

  3. Great post Lee. I plan to share this with many clients I work with who are just getting started with their online businesses. You keep it simple and easy to follow for newbies that don’t always understand all the technical lingo.

    One question I do have about link building – you mentioned

    Contribute articles using keywords in titles to industry publications – not article directories.

    I refer quite a few clients to http://www.ezinearticles.com as one specific way to publish articles within your particular industry. I feel article writing like this does two important things: 1) Potentially gets you on the front page of google for an article on a credible site like ezinearticles.com (see the above link).
    2) Allows you to use keyword phrases as follow links in the bio section of the article.

    I’d like more information on what you think.

  4. Thanks for writing a great summary of basic SEO considerations for small businesses. I think it’s definitely an important topic to come back to from time to time, given the fact that so many website owners and small businesses are just starting an SEO strategy (and will continue to do so) and it can be difficult for the newcomer to jump in an figure out what everyone is talking about without some key places and locations to begin with.

  5. Avatar Rick Marnon says

    I have been working on the seo for a short while now, and I came across this site from our office webmaster. He helped me to start looking at some alternative places than I had been to get better rankings, so it drove me here and I’m glad because there is a lot of information that I can use. Thanks.

  6. Thanks Derek and Rick. The interesting thing is, while many “SEO Basics” articles and blog posts have been written and likely read over the past few years, the majority of companies that hire outside help for SEO do not implement recommendations made.

    The biggest reason the basics are still in need of attention is that so many web sites do so poorly at implementing them on their own or as a iProspect study suggests, when money is paid to an outside consultant. That study cites 64% of companies that hire SEO consultants do not implement properly, completely or at all.

    I would wager that the majority of small business websites that have engaged in in-house SEO would not be able to check “yes” to more than 1/2 of the above list of considerations.

    While webmasters and web marketers are chasing after the “latest and greatest SEO silver bullet”, their poor execution processes of the fundamentals are leaking sales to the competition.

  7. Hey Lee – thanks for mention and the old skewl reminder about SEO basics and the importance of the fundamentals. Short and to the point – your posts are always catch my attention. Keep up the great work!

  8. Hey Lee,

    A few weeks ago I also posted 13 steps to easy on-site SEO:

    This might also help out your viewers too.

  9. Thanks Drew, that’s a nicely detailed post!

  10. Nate, regarding article submissions, I think they can be a useful supplement, but the suggestion I’m making in the post is to offer pre-written articles to industry web sites or publications.

    For example, a client of ours sells fabric online. Sending an article to an online craft magazine (that also publishes in print) is what I’m talking about.

    In the PR industry they are typically called a “contributed article”. The benefit is that there is a strong editorial process and any links achieved will be rare, but more valuable and typically of a much higher profile than through and article directory or submission service.

  11. Lee:

    I appreciate you specifically mentioning small business owners. You have provided us with an excellent checklist to get started. I just hope more will take the time to follow your advice and get to work, even if it is just for a few minutes each day. Many will be surprised at how much better their sites will do, just by getting the basics of SEO in place.

    You do a great job, thanks for your research and time.

  12. Hi Lee, great post. Its refreshing to see the tried and tested techniques getting a good dusting down every now and again.

    I just had a problem with this part: “Use hyphens in file names, not underscores” — I use both and never had a problem and even Google has acknowledged that both are now considered.

    Do you feel that their is still a preference for one over the other?

  13. Thanks Aaron.

    Paul, with underscores, we just made it a best practice long ago before Google improved it’s ability to see the difference. Now it might be more of a usability benefit than SEO.

  14. Avatar Jason Lewin says

    Thanks for sharing Lee. Great post – I have shred this with my team.


  15. Lee, thanks for the great post. I especially like the “a few things to avoid” section. I’m adding this list to my resources library – great work.

  16. Avatar Joe Beccalori says

    Small companies are not the only ones sometimes timid of site updates.

    Often times the politics of dealing with large departments in big companies prevents the ability to directly modify the site in the desired timeframe or on a workable budget.

    The tough job is to cut through the clutter and gain the appropriate empowerment from your client, which means sell to the top.

  17. I agree, Joe. Very, very true. I’ve had instances where it has taken a large company over 6 months to implement basic SEO suggestions. Then they wonder why they’re not ranking for their top keyword phrases. It’s so important to set expectations up front to avoid the SEO vacuum.

  18. You mentioned not using I frames to encourage spiders. What is the basis for that comment? If you have just one iframe on your main page will that hinder all spider traffic?

  19. Dennis, the iFrames comment means avoiding placing the majority of on-page content within iFrames rather than using CSS to create scrolling behaviors which iFrames are most often used to achieve.

  20. Nice post. I got a main point at the end. Its better to outsource SEO than doing it by 100%. I’ll consider that to be the best one, as I’m a beginner to web developing. Thanks Lee.

  21. Many have advised me to avoid Flash! But I have always preferred small-Flash elements on websites. It’s good to see the phrase “Avoid all Flash” in your article. It’s exactly what I wrote in my SiteProNews article too.

    I have mentioned few Flash website optimization ideas there. You can read it at.

  22. Well done Lee. I particularly agree with the first paragraph: “web site owners will appreciate the SEO services they’re getting much more if they educated themselves on the fundamentals.” It certainly would and make our job much easier.

    However, note that BOTW and business.com require payment for inclusion.

  23. Google has NOT announced that “hyphens and underscores are treated the same”.

    Someone mentioned at a conference back in the Summer that they were starting to look into it.

    Matt Cutts has posted several times since then, that you are still better off with the hyphen.

    Always avoid spaces in filenames and URLs.

  24. Avatar Joe Beccalori says

    Agreed. Hyphens are better. I have tested this in isolation and they work.

  25. I enjoyed your post. AdAge just published a story related to SEO and Social Meda optimization. Matt Creamer, one of their editors, writes about his experience being “optimized” by SEO and SMM. You might enjoy the article: http://adage.com/digital/article?article_id=122344

  26. Thanks for that post. One point we’re missing.
    The Use of an ALT and TITLE Tag with images is for SEO very important. But more important is to use the right image naming and the right use of stop characters. Let me explain:
    1.) image-stuttgart-aktiv.jpg
    2.) image_stuttgart_aktiv.jpg
    What is the difference ? Only in 2) we use the right stop character _ which can be crawled by google.
    Thurthermore in the ALT Tag it is important to use the right stop character.
    The only stop character that works is | .
    So an ALT Tag has to be written like:
    [img src=”image_stuttgart_aktiv.jpg” alt=”Stuttgart Aktiv | Stuttgart Ausgehen | … | Stuttgart Veranstaltungen” ]
    This stop charakter can also be used in the TITLE tag.
    Using the right stop characters can improve key word relevance and keyword density of a site successfully.

  27. Hey Lee, nice post. You included a lot of useful info. I have to disagree with you on the comment regarding avoiding all flash and AJAX. I agree with saikat with regards to SEO flash elements are better then a full flash website. If your design calls for flash or AJAX there are ways to get around it by using the . Or you can use Hijax http://domscripting.com/presentations/xtech2006/

    If you use the tag make sure the content in the tag matches the content of the flash/AJAX element.

  28. Hey Gary, now that I read it, I see the recommendation on Flash and Ajax can be misunderstood from it’s intended meaning.

    What it says is to avoid sites that are “all Flash” as in sites that are made only with Flash and nothing else. It’s not supposed to mean avoid Flash entirely. Hijax is a good recommendation as is using Flash elements within a HTML site.

  29. Flash is for people and text is for people AND search engines. It’s always hard to strike a baance. The best promotion of any site is one that attracts and retains qualified people. If you can also attract search engines with your strategy – then awesome! Double Whammy. Our site used to have a lot more flash on it, and we toned it down and went more minimal – using text wherever possible, and addng lots of fresh content. That helped alot.

  30. This is a great article to begin with. Flash seems to be useless unless it’s extremely minimal! Either way, definitely an article worth sending around to the newbies and others looking for some alternative ideas.

  31. You provide the basic information in pretty decent way. This information is very impressive for both professionals and freshers.

  32. Nice move, going back to the basics. That’s what’s really important. My favorite point: “Keyword research – generate a glossary of keyword phrases that addresses both prospect needs and the content you’re publishing.” I don’t think enough people do keyword research and it can be very key.

  33. Really solid info here Lee. Here is some info on getting around FLASH sites.

    Write the Flash object onto the page using JavaScript and replicate all the links and content that appear in the Flash version using regular HTML within the noscript tag! As long as the user has JavaScript enabled, they will see the Flash version of the site, and the search engines will be able to crawl through all the content and links found in the noscript tag. And there you have it — SEO friendly Flash!

    To see how to embed Flash objects using JavaScript please refer to example B in this “Making Flash Accessible” document published by the W3C.

  34. Great stuff for beginners and small business. Although Adobe is providing optimized Flash Player technology to Google and Yahoo! to enhance search engine indexing of the Flash file format (SWF) and extract information that is currently not discoverable by search engines, it’s better website owners keep out of full flash sites. If it constitutes a small part of a website, it should not be a problem. People need that to make the website little appealing.

  35. Thanks so much for this very informative article!
    looks like I’ve gotten into some “bad habits” in my designing, and this article set me straight!

    I realize this post is almost a year old, but I was wondering if you had any specific tips regarding forwarded domains. My company runs a budget web design business where we sell design and .com, but all the content is hosted on a single server, with forwarded, masked domains (ie: the client’s .com is forwarded to ourserver.com/clientsite/index.html)

    -is this a no-no?
    Will google still crawl our sites? and if so, will it understand them as separate entities?

    -When we create a site map, should we do so for each .com, or for our entire network of sites on our server?

    thanks again.

  36. the most informative thing in this article is Link Tactics i found it really very nice piece of information regarding seo

  37. Search Engine Optimization is a never ending process and requires frequent attention to maintain or improve your ranking. If you’re not putting effort into SEO, your competition is and all your online marketing or lack of will be for naught.

  38. Avatar Miguel Linares says

    Absolutely right. Great overview


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