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September 10, 2013

SEO for Startups – How to make your website Google friendly

The idea to write something on SEO for Startups came to me after a meeting this week with some good friends at well-known Berlin Electronic Music and Club Events startup, Beatguide. Their company, like many in the city, is growing fast. They have an excellent team, the founders are smart guys and the developers are A1. However, most of their resources have been focused on building a great product and expanding into major European cities. Developing a solid SEO strategy was something they’d put on the backseat while getting their business off the ground.

From talking to them, and others, SEO seems to still be regarded as a bit of a mysterious and highly technical endeavour where the goalposts constantly move and everyone keeps trying to second guess how Google will change their search algorithm. However, when you ask people what they want to achieve with SEO, the answer is always simple. It usually goes something like “when someone searches for X I want our company at the top of the search results”.

So where do I start?

SEO comprises 2 main areas. On page SEO contributes to roughly 25% of your ranking and covers the technical stuff like Structured Data, which I’ll cover in a bit. Off page SEO, which accounts for the remaining 75%, is all about building links. For the purposes of this post, and because SEO is a massive field, I’m just going to cover the basic on page stuff you need to get fixed first. Link building will be explained in a follow-up post later.

1. Set up Webmaster Tools

Before you begin picking keywords you want to rank for and trying to build links you need to focus first on making sure your site is SEO optimised. This means getting under the hood and working on the technical stuff as without it, Google and the other search engines can’t crawl your site effectively. Start with Webmaster Tools, get your site set up and a xml site map submitted. Webmaster tools helps you understand how the Google search spiders see your site, it will show up any errors and give you hints on how to fix them.

2. Check for duplicate content

As a good friend and SEO expert put it, “Duplicate Content is probably the single topic of SEO that has the most confusion and, for lack of a better word, bullshit written about it”. The principle is actually very simple. One piece of content, one URL. Back in the olden days (pre 2003) people would regularly duplicate content all over websites to manipulate Google into thinking their site was the authority on certain search terms. Google quickly realised people were gaming search results and changed their algorithm. Now if Google sees the same piece of content more than once on your site it won’t know which URL to rank in search results since the content is the same. For example if you have a product listing at /products/jackets/blue-rain-jacket.html and the same listing at sale/jackets/blue-rain-jacket.html, you’re gonna have a bad time. You can fix this using canonical tags which define one page as the “content master”.

Another area that causes big problems is index files, trailing slashes and sub domains. For example:

robdavies.info/
robdavies.info/index.php
www.robdavies.info/
www.robdavies.info/index.php

These might all direct a user to exactly the same place, my home page, but to Google they look like 4 separate versions of exactly the same content. Not good. So what do you do?

3. Check .htaccess

The way to fix a lot of duplicate content errors is to edit your .htaccess file which is normally found in the root domain of your website. Details of how you should rewrite this vary depending on the structure of your site and what you want to do, but a good place to start would be to include:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} ^(.*)/$
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://{HTTP_HOST}$1 [L,R=301]

This will fix the issue with trailing slashes and make sure all URL’s have a / at the end. This avoids Google thinking http://example.com/foo and http://example.com/foo/ are 2 separate URL’s and therefore duplicate content.

To redirect all non www. queries to the www. version of your site you can include this:

RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} !^www.
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.%{HTTP_HOST}/$1 [R=301,L]

If you want to go the other way to redirect and remove the www. from your site, like mine for example, you’ll need to include this:

RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} !^your-domain.com$ [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://your-domain.com/$1 [R=301,L]

4. Optimise your data

Structured Data represents one of the biggest changes in recent years to the way Google displays their search results. Essentially structured data defines the information Google needs from your site to display Rich Snippets in their search results like this:

Rich Snippets

Rich Snippets come in a variety of flavours depending on the content they’re defining. Google supports the following types:

Rich Snippets are a great way to increase your click-through rate (CTR) from search engine results, however they don’t necessarily increase your ranking, yet. Of important mention is therel="author" tag which defines the author of posts and articles and links to your Google+ profile. Google has hinted that Author Rank might be used as a signal to boost search ranking, although nothing definitive is in place yet.

Conclusion

I’ve covered lots of technical stuff here, but don’t worry if it hurts your brain, with a little help it’s all fairly easy to implement. Once you’ve covered these basics its time to start formulating an SEO plan, research keywords you want to rank for, create SEO optimised content and build your back-link profile. Luckily I’ll be covering all of this in later posts. If there’s something I’ve missed or something you want me to cover, let me know in the comments section and if you’d like to get in touch about a project, or consultancy you can contact me here.

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