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The Art of SEO by Jessie Stricchiola, Rand Fishkin, Stephan Spencer, Eric Enge

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Chapter 4. First Stages of SEO

SEO projects require forethought and planning to obtain the best results, and SEO needs to be considered during, and incorporated into, all stages of a website development or redevelopment project. For example, the site architecture (including the selection of a content management system or CMS), the marketing plan (including branding concepts), and much more are impacted.

In this chapter, we will discuss several aspects of how SEO projects start:

  • Putting together an SEO plan

  • Performing a technical SEO audit of a site

  • Setting a baseline for measuring results and progress

These are the things you want to do at the very beginning of your SEO efforts for any website.

The Major Elements of Planning

As any experienced SEO consultant will tell you, you should incorporate your SEO strategy into the site planning process long before your site goes live. Your strategy should be well outlined before you make even the most basic technology choices, such as the hosting platform and your CMS. However, this is not always possible—and in fact, more often than not an SEO professional will be brought in to work on a site that already exists.

Regardless of when you start, there are a number of major components to any SEO plan that you need to address long before you research the first title tag.

Technology Choices

As we already suggested, SEO impacts major technology choices. For example, a CMS can facilitate—or, possibly, eliminate—your SEO strategy. Some platforms do not even allow you to have titles and meta descriptions that vary from one web page to the next, create hundreds (or thousands) of pages of duplicate content, or make a 302 (temporary) redirect the default redirect you need to use. All of these things could be disastrous for your website.

This problem also exists with web servers. For example, if you use IIS, the default redirect choice is a 302 (as we will explain in Redirects in Chapter 6, a 301 [permanent] redirect is essential for most redirect applications). You can configure IIS to use a 301 redirect, but this is something you need to understand and build into your SEO plan up front.

Market Segmentation

Another critical factor is the nature of the market in which you are competing. This tells you how competitive the environment is in general, and when you augment it with additional research, you can use this information to tell how competitive the SEO environment is.

In some markets, natural search is intensively competitive. For instance, Figure 4-1 shows the Google results for credit cards. In this market, Visa, Master Card, American Express, and Discover all fail to make the #1 position in Google’s results, so you know this market is highly competitive.

Sample results for a competitive query

Figure 4-1. Sample results for a competitive query

This does not mean you should give up on the market, especially if it is already your business; however, you might choose to focus your SEO on less competitive terms that will still bring you many qualified leads.

Where You Can Find Great Links

As you will see in Chapter 7, getting third parties to link their websites to yours is a critical part of SEO; without inbound links, there is little to no chance of ranking for competitive terms in search engines such as Google, whose algorithm relies heavily on link measuring and weighting criteria.

An early part of the SEO brainstorming process is identifying the great places to get links, as well as the types of content you might want to develop to encourage linking from other quality websites. Note that we, the authors, advocate pursuing few, relevant, higher-quality links over hundreds of low-quality links, as 10 good links can go much further than thousands of links from random blog posts or forums. Understanding this will help you build your overall content plan.

Content Resources

The driver of any heavy-duty link campaign is the quality and volume of your content. If your content is of average quality and covers the same information dozens of other sites have covered, it will not attract many links. If, however, you are putting out quality content, or you have a novel tool that many will want to use, you are more likely to receive external links.

At the beginning of any SEO campaign you should look at the content on the site and the available resources for developing new content. You can then match this up with your target keywords and your link-building plans to provide the best results.

Branding Considerations

Of course, most companies have branding concerns as well. However, there may be strategies that you cannot pursue because of the nature of your brand, such as the following:

  • Developing and promoting interesting articles on Digg is a strategy that many companies employ. Articles that are popular enough to make the front page of Digg get a very large number of visitors and a good number of links as a result. But the audience is skewed heavily toward 13- to 28-year-old males, and the type of content that is required to become popular with that audience might not fit with some brands (take, for example, the AARP).

  • Some companies put up pages about other companies’ products, most likely as part of a competitive comparison, to rank the other companies’ brand name in the search engine. Again, this might be pushing the envelope a bit for some brands.

The list of situations where the brand can limit the strategy is quite long, and the opposite can happen too, where the nature of the brand makes a particular SEO strategy pretty compelling.

Competition

Your SEO strategy can also be influenced by your competitors’ strategies, so understanding what they are doing is a critical part of the process for both SEO and business intelligence objectives. There are several scenarios you might encounter:

  • The competitor discovers a unique, highly converting set of keywords.

  • The competitor discovers a targeted, high-value link.

  • The competitor saturates a market segment, justifying your focus elsewhere.

  • Weaknesses appear in the competitor’s strategy, which provide opportunities for exploitation.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your competition from an SEO perspective is a significant part of devising your own SEO strategy.

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