Laying the Foundations of SEO Success

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Whether you’re starting a new website or optimizing an existing site for the first time, it’s useful to divide your list of SEO tasks into two clear sets.The first set covers the basic tasks that always need to be addressed:optimizing the content, site architecture, and technical implementation.These basics lay the foundations for your SEO strategy, ensuring your siteand content will rank well.The second set includes tactics that you choose to implement toachieve specific outcomes. In some ways, preparing a site so that it’s readyto rank well is the easy bit; it’s how you handle the next stage that willdetermine your ultimate success.Both sets of tasks can be subject to unwarranted assumptions andpopular myths, which I’ll address, too.

Laying the Foundations

So what steps should you be taking first to lay those solid SEOfoundations?

Keyword Research

This is a fundamental yet often overlooked key to SEO success. Youmust understand which keywords will drive the most search traffic toyour site that ultimately converts to sales. This means looking beyondhero or vanity terms, and really understanding how people search foryour brand, products or services, and content.It’s important to know that a single word or short phrase on yoursite can deliver traffic from different stages of the consumer’sdecision-making process. Hence, the search query may be navigational(brands, individual keywords), informational (usually short phrases), ortransactional (longer phrases indicating an intention to buy orsubscribe).

Keyword Competition

There’s no point targeting terms with high traffic yields in aspace where many compete for the same traffic. You’ll only come upagainst smart search professionals who know how to identify trendingkeywords to obtain a competitive edge.Depending on the nature of the site you’re optimizing, you’llquickly know it if you’re playing in the dog-eat-dog world of highcompetition for terms such as “credit cards,” “flowers,” and the like,where only serious heavyweights play with brand terms and two-wordphrases. If you’re lucky, you’ll be operating in a niche market withminimal competition, or in an editorial space where the key is to bepublished with the right subject or link-bait.Regardless, you’ll need a set of tools to help guide your waythrough synonyms, word variations, and search competition in both paidand organic listings. Search engines like Google do give some insights,but you’ll soon be looking for more robust tools like Market Samurai, SEOMoz, or RavenTools.

Site Architecture

Proper planning of how content is organized and then accessed isanother crucial yet often overlooked step in SEO. Search engine crawlersare designed to emulate the behavior of site visitors as they followlinks and index page content. It’s important that you design your sitearchitecture to make navigating as easy as possible for both yourvisitors and the search engines.Information retrieval is the science of searching for, collecting,and organizing information, typically from documents and databases.Search engines gather and index information found on the Web, includingpage content and metadata, and use IR principles to determine itsrelevancy to search queries. Your site architecture—how you organize andpresent your content—will influence your search rankings.Of course, you don’t need a degree in IR to understand thatputting your content into a logical, themed structure will make iteasier for search engines to find, index, and rank appropriately.

Keyword Focus

Unique titles and headings containing targeted words/phrasesrelevant to the page content will attract higher search rankings;however, keyword stuffing in on-page text is a big no-no. This is thekind of dilemma that SEO can pose.The solution is to think in terms of practice rather than theory.Keyword focus is about being clear, concise, informative, and relevantin a readable way that will encourage your visitors (remember them?) totake the next step towards the desired action.

Removing Search Engine Barriers

Search engines that visit your site are mostly code agnostic,ignoring how well-formed your HTML is. Maintaining a good content/coderatio and keeping HTML/CSS/JS output to a minimum will minimize the riskof a crawler going off its course or stopping altogether.I’d recommend that you validate your web pages, as it can show upcritical coding errors that may stop a search engine from reachingcrucial content.Be aware that search engines will normalize or canonicalizeidentical content found at different URLs: they aim to present thesimplest, most direct link to the content that’s relevant to a searchterm.Addressing server and site speed issues will also help to ensurethat a search engine’s crawler finds and indexes as much of your contentas possible.

Assisting the Search Engine Crawl/Index

While a robots.txt file won’t help yourranking, it will prevent search engines from wasting their “crawlbudget” (how long they spend on your site and how many pages they visit)on areas you don’t need to have indexed. Thought it’s often ignored, aclear robots meta tag can also assistby giving crawlers instructions on which pages to follow andindex.Any site without an XML sitemap (or at the very least an HTMLversion) is doing a disservice to the site owner. There’s no guaranteethat your “site attractions” will rank higher because of an XML sitemap,but at least you can be assured that search engines can findthem.Remember, though, a poorly configured robots.txt file or XMLsitemap can be as disastrous as a properly laid out one isbeneficial.That covers the basics.

Building on that Foundation

As we discuss the next stage of optimization, you must understandthat successful SEO is not a fast process. The reality is that there is noway—at least, no sustainable and ethical way—to skip the hard workrequired to reach the top of the rankings. Understanding the tools andmethods I describe here will, however, make the work easier toaccomplish.


Attracting site visitors who’ll share links to your contentrequires more than a suggestive article title. A linkbait article shouldbe planned in detail, using controversy, news currency, or notoriety tocapture an audience’s attention, as well as provide a mechanism to shareit. Ease of sharing—typically through social media networks—is crucialto the success of using linkbait.The very quality that makes linkbait work is also the reason it isdisposable. Good linkbait is most likely to be time-sensitive, itsfreshness being the attraction. Once it’s old, it’s no longer goodlinkbait.


Having your site’s name and link on a prominent, existing, relatedsite through some form of sponsorship can do wonders for yourvisibility.Distinct to a paid-for link or advertisement, sponsorship looksand feels organic. Naturally, you should be selective about sponsorshipopportunities.

Guest Posting

A crucial part of SEO is building a sense of authority andcredibility for your site. An easy way to raise your visibility is tosubmit guest posts on sites thematically related to your own.Note that you’ll probably need to be regarded as an expert in yoursubject matter for your post to be considered; however, the benefit thatthe published piece and its backlinked credit gives you makes it worthlooking for interesting subjects and angles.


Incentive promotion is a golden oldie method of marketing. Theincentive is usually a prize of some sort, but many people partake forthe sake of participating, rather than the prospect of winning.Encouraging sharing of the contest is again a key element to its successin SEO terms. Tailor your contest to suit your audience type, and if youmake it easy for them to do so, your participants will often promote thecontest for you.


If you have data or an online service that people can use, awidget is handy for allowing users to publish your content on theirsites. You’ll be visible, gain brand exposure, not to mention theall-crucial backlink. Again, the success of the widget will depend onthe value it provides.That takes care of the basic optimization work, and some of theapproaches to generating targeted site traffic. Not all these tasks willhelp your SEO strategy, but understanding them, and knowing which onesto implement, will.I’ve seen many situations where people are too concerned about theplacement of a widget deep within a site, when they have much biggerissues to manage; issues such as duplicated page titles, or splittingbacklink value by having both www and non-www versions of their sitevisible.


Anyone who has worked in the search industry for a number of yearshas learned that the real effort in SEO—generating quality backlinks—takeshard work. Still, that hasn’t stopped search forums, discussion groups,industry blogs, and the like being clogged with speculation about how togain a greater SEO payoff for less work.Some of the queries we’ve dealt with over the years in the SitePoint SEOforums have been:

What is the magic percentage for optimal keyword density?

Keyword density as a percentage score is a myth. Keywordplacement—what elements are put where—will give you bettertraction.

Should keywords be at the front of the title tag?

No one has proven one way or another that this makes anydifference.

How many <h1> tags can be usedon a page?

Best practice is one h1 perpage; the reality is that Google and other search engines pay littleattention to multiple h1s.

Should I get backlinks by posting comments to “DoFollow” blogsand forums?

DoFollow sites are those that specifically avoid using “nofollow”hyperlink values. This might seem an attractive option, but be awarethat your link will be one of hundreds on a page that’s unlikely tocarry any PageRank. It’s an exercise in futility.

Should I separate words in a title using commas, spaces, orpipes?

It makes no difference whether you do this or not.

Should I park keyword domains and redirect them to my maindomain?

A domain that is parked or redirected won’t show in searchresults. This method is only useful for capturing direct or typedtraffic.


Search engines have invested a significant amount of their time,money, and resources trying to even the playing field to ensure that thebest rises to the top. Of course, this doesn’t always happen, and youmight become frustrated as you watch your competitors sneak above youusing some questionable methods. One of the few certainties in SEO is thatif a particular fast-ranking method exists or is found today, it willprobably fail next week as the search engines act to nullify itseffect.It’s easy to become blinkered in our focus on any particular task,and lose the wider context of our work; conducting search engineoptimization for a site is no different. We must spend our time and efforton what will gain the most traction. We need to ensure that we have thatsolid foundation in place before we focus on granular optimization, and weshould to be aware of the myths in our business.A former boss of mine had a saying that he used in terms of websitedevelopment, but also applies to SEO: “Don’t let perfect get in the way ofbetter.” There is no magic SEO bullet, but there are ways to make sureyour hard work is rewarded.

Mike HudsonMike Hudson
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Mike Hudson is the in-house web search strategy manager (SEO/SEM) for From its head office in Melbourne, he oversees the continuing growth of the company across the network of more than a dozen websites operating in Australia, Europe, and Asia. He is an avid amateur photographer, publishing his images on his personal website at

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