confused man with lots of question marks around himSearch engine optimization (SEO) is one of the scariest phrases I hear from my clients. It sends me reeling into the darkest recesses of my knowledge of web site development, digging for just the right way to ask them that fuzziest of all questions: what, exactly, do you mean?  It used to mean "get me to the top of Google search results," and the way you did that was through a complicated process of keyword purchasing, hiding tiny-print hidden keywords in the content of your own site, and, if I remember correctly, a complicated voodoo-like ritual involving lots of clicking. Now, the question of how to get into those top slots on a Google search -- or any search -- ends with an answer that can easily take up a twenty-page proposal.

That is why, with no regrets, I just don't do SEO.

It's not that I think optimizing your site for search engines isn't important -- it definitely is -- but that I flat-out don't know how to do it. The ins-and-outs of that process have become so complicated that, while there was a time that buying "SEO packages" from your web developer was possible, your web consulting firm now needs to have someone on staff who has made a career out of doing just that, only that, and nothing but that. You know that worn-out phrase about something trying to be like hitting a moving target? Well, SEO experts have to do that -- hitting a moving target is not impossible, but it requires a very high level of skill. These folks are following the details of search algorithms, analytics, and online marketing impacts that change often. Using tactics from even a few months ago can be a total waste of time. It's just not possible to do this well as an amateur.

Because of that high level of skill and in-the-moment execution knowledge that an SEO expert must provide, they are usually not cheap to hire. For some of my clients -- the small non-profit organizations and the start-up businesses -- the cost for an SEO package from a firm that specializes in online marketing is simply out of reach. It's something I tell them to plan for the future -- to put into their "phase II" (or "phase XVII") marketing plan, but to lay the groundwork for later. Here's several suggestions I give them so that they have a good foundation for later:

1. Install Google Analytics

googleanalyticsYes, Google isn't the only search engine, but it captures two-thirds of all online searches. Google has some nice tutorials on how to install this code on your site, or you can have your web developer do it for you. Either way, capturing your site's traffic from the very beginning will help your marketing/SEO person, even if you don't hire that person until years from now. As a bonus, reading your analytics even as an amateur will teach you a tremendous amount about your site's traffic, the most viewed pages, and how people are finding you.

2. Update Your Site Regularly

We don't know everything about how search engines rank your site, but we do know that, more and more, they're looking at a complicated number of factors to determine the site's vitality. Included in this list is the question of whether or not the site is stale -- is it an old site left there to die, or does it represent an existing, thriving, active business? The question of how often does the site need to change is just "often." While it would be great if you added new, quality content (more on that below) every week, even if you just add listings to your event calendar, stream your Twitter feed to your page, or add to your list of inspirational quotes, search engines see that you're accessing the site, using it, and attempting to make it interesting to your readers.

3. Use Social Media to Direct Traffic to Your Site

It's a time commitment, but it pays off: getting people to visit your web site from social media sites increases that elusive ranking. Social media sites by their nature are in-the-moment kinds of places, and if people are visiting them and then visiting you, that says something about your vitality, too. Pick one or two social media sites and get active there in ways that draw people back to your web site.

4. Write Good Content.

Thankfully, there is no more points given to keyword stuffing, which was a big part of SEO even five or six years ago. Keyword stuffing was when people peppered their writing with the same words written slightly differently over and over, like this:

redundant writing

 The idea before was that if you had "responsive" and "web design" appearing on your page more often than some other company who offered those services, the search engines would rank you higher. However, search engines have now realized that while this site had the words there more often, the repetitive keyword stuffing actually made the site annoying and difficult to read for the user -- and therefore, it wasn't actually a better search result.  Now, search engine algorithms have gotten better at determining whether your site's content is interesting, well-written, and engaging. Take the time to write well, and -- FINALLY! -- it will pay off.

5. Use Titles and ALT tags

This is something your web consultant can help you put into practice, but every page on your site needs a title. Up at the top of your browser window, you'll see the name of the page you're on -- that is fantastic, important real estate. Make sure it contains the name of your organization and the name of the specific page of the site that your user is seeing. Here's how it looks for Jebraweb.com's blog in Firefox:

jebraweb.com title tag in firefox

ALT tags are for your images -- they tell people using assistive technology like screen-readers what your image looks like in case they can't see it. For the image above, the ALT tag reads "jebraweb.com title tag in firefox." Again, your web consultant can help show you how to add ALT tags for images, and while they're designed for this screen-reader situation, they also work well as an SEO tactic. As always, subtlety is your friend -- no keyword stuffing! 

The most important thing to remember is that SEO has become a true art, and it's really best left to be perfected by the artist. You can read hundreds of articles by SEO experts at Business2Community.com or Social Media Today, or if you're ready to delve deep, check out this infographic from SearchEngineLand.com. In the meantime, these five tips should give you a good, solid start.