SEO First Steps: Prioritizing SEO Tasks

I tend to spend a lot of time on conference calls these days. I assume that is because in general, when you work contract or for an agency, you usually charge by the hour, and it makes more sense to call in than to have someone pay travel expenses. More often than not, as a call gets going there is a little awkward shuffling, even when an agenda goes out, for the call to actually get underway. That is a great time to ask a question to get everyone in the conference call mood and get things rolling.

For a SEO strategy call, I often open with a general question along the lines of, “So have you done any SEO work for your site?” The response to that, which generally chills me to the bone as if I was stuck in a slasher movie is, “We did some research, read some stuff, and have started implementing things.” Oh no, as it turns out, the company was really a quiet loner who always kept to themselves…

I love, love, and super love, when a company takes initiative and actually pays attention to SEO as part of their marketing mix (or in the current economic climate) their entire plan it seems. However, I feel like there are three things that really get things off on the wrong foot when it comes to beginning a SEO effort for your site:

  1. Not setting goals. I don’t understand why common sense doesn’t render this suggestion useless, but start at the beginning-that means, set goals. Even if we are talking about something as basic as, “What are you trying to accomplish?” Do you have one phrase? One hundred? Don’t worry about doing keyword research or even stressing about search volume or divvying up time at first, just answer the simple question, “What are we trying to do?” After that question is answered, you can start to work on a plan to get there.
  2. Have a plan. In theory, after you answer the main question of “What are we trying to do?” you will hopefully begin to work on more tangible smaller goals, and put together some ideas of how to achieve it. There is no shame in having a goal of “get more people to read about my product” and then have part of your plan consist of “tell people it’s good.” While that won’t get you where you want to go, it gets the ball rolling, and gets you ready to work the plan.
  3. Work the plan. When I hear “we started implementing some things” I think of that as code for, “we randomly did a bunch of stuff that was suggested on various blogs and we are having a lot of problems that we now need fixed really soon because no one can find our site.” Work the plan. Slow and steady, so you can see when something helps or tanks your rankings or traffic.

So, those suggestions are the same three you seem rehashed on every SEO project post. Well, let me add a bit more creativity to the post, say the equivalent of Jason’s Mother being the killer in Friday the 13th and not just Jason. Let me tackle the most daunting piece of your planning: deciding what to do.
If you have already decided to work on SEO for your website, and you make it past the goal setting portion of planning, the thing that causes the most stress, more than anyone saying “this will be a piece of cake” or “I need to go check out that strange noise” is deciding what tactics to prioritize. More often than not, that list is composed of an almost infinite number of suggestions gathered from various SEO blogs and webinars. If that is the case, there is often some great information, and some not so great information. However, what is often the hardest thing to do is to narrow your focus and put real tactics against abstract pieces of your plan. For example, check for in-bound links to moved pages or keyword research, which do you do first? Here is how you divide your tasks:
SEO First Step should be the activities that deal with your site from a technical standpoint. To keep this simple, focus on 5 things:

  1. Is your site available? Look in your analytics package and make sure you don’t see a lot of errors. Run a few versions of HTTP header checkers and make sure you have 200 respones (ok). If you see 500s, 400s, or 300s-dig in deeper. If those are 302s, change them to 301 or rewrite them. 302s won’t help you for SEO.
  2. Is anything hidden? Keywords, phrases, content of any kind hidden in CSS or snuck behind flash will give you more headaches than you can imagine. And the worst part is trying to diagnose it as the problem. Remember, intent doesn’t matter-that is, just because you are doing a show/hide for aesthetics doesn’t make up for the fact that you have hidden content. Spammy or for aesthetics, don’t hide content. Ever.
  3. Canonize it. Do you have more than one version of the same content on your site? Are you sure? Do you have two versions of the same page? For example, one with keywords used and one with category IDs? Or do you have the old format of your URL and the new format both live? Fix those items, you want one canonized version.
  4. The power of metatags…to bury your page. You know that title tag that has your page title? It not only needs to have a title, but one that incorporates your keywords. You know that keywords metatag? If you have more than 50, you just spammed it. If you have more than 12, you lost any help it might give you. And if you think it might help your Google rankings, it won’t. Google doesn’t give weight to that tag. On the flip side, if you spammed it, Google will taketh away. More importantly, if you overuse your H tags or use them for the wrong keywords, you will feel the pain. You might see a small bump from correct metatags (especially the uber important title tag) but you will certainly see a precipitous drop from having incorrect tags.
  5. Navigation. This is a large and winding item that could leads to 10 or 20 blog posts, but to summarize, run a number of spider tools on your pages over the course of a couple of weeks. How many pages will the spiders average? If it is single digits, that is bad news. For the purposes of SEO, you want a URL that has your keywords, you want a URL that has 15 or less parameters (preferably a lot less), and you want navigation that prioritizes your most important pages.

Now that you have knocked out the first step, you can move on to the next steps in your SEO strategy. But that is the sequel blog post, which unfortunately will have less quality, but much more gore. That’s the way these things work.

Epilogue: A good SEO second step is to ensure that you have analytics running and installed properly. Test it. For your SEO third step (and very time intensive) is to do your keyword research and map that to specific content or lack thereof for your site). A great SEO fourth step should be focusing on creating engaging content and putting together an editorial schedule. Your seemingly neverending SEO fifth step is to build your links. The SEO sixth step is to review your metrics, your goals, and build on what you have done.

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