How to start your own blog, Part 4: Tracking your viewers, and search engine optimization, or SEO

In part 3, I gave some basic tips for coming up with post topics, driving traffic to your blog, and getting people to come back once they’ve visited.  Besides telling your friends about your blog and linking to it on social networking sites, a great way to get new readers is to show up in search engine results. In this part of the article, I’ll tell you how to do SEO, or search engine optimization, to make Google and the other search engines love you.

Natural SEO

The best way to get the search engines to love you is to simply write about the things you want to write about, and do it often, for an extended period of time, without even worrying about the search engines. Every post you write will contain phrases that are in fact keywords. The more you write, the more keywords you will generate, and the more likely you’ll be to show up in search results.

Why you should blog often: Aside from the fact that this will cause human readers to come back more often, it will cause spiders – the search engine robots that index the Web – to come back more often. As your site gets indexed more and more frequently, its chances of being seen as a relevant site by the search engines increase.  Spiders love fresh content.

Why you should blog for an extended period of time: The search engines need a while to trust you. A lot of scam artists put up fly-by-night sites to sell some phony product… the sites are up and gone in a week. Google and the other search engines hate that. When you’re still around 3, 6 months from now, still posting great content, the engines will start to throw some love your way.

Pick good titles

Now and then people wonder why my post titles are so long. For example,

“Wednesday update: Sierra Nevada glass night at the Flying Saucer, wine dinner at the Majestic Grille on the 9th, panhandling in Downtown Memphis out of control”

Why not just “Wednesday update?” My regular human readers are going to read the post anyway.

The answer is that the long title is not so much for my human readers as it is for the search engines. Look at the keywords and key phrases it contains:

  • “Sierra Nevada”
  • “Sierra Nevada glass”
  • “Sierra Nevada glass night”
  • “Flying Saucer”
  • “wine dinner”
  • “wine dinner Majestic Grille” (Google ignores common words like “at” and “the”)
  • “Majestic Grille”
  • “panhandling”
  • “panhandling in Downtown Memphis”
  • “Downtown Memphis”

All of these are likely phrases for people to type into Google’s search box. Still, though, all those phrases will appear in the post itself. Why do they need to be in the title too?

The reason is, Google considers the title to be one of the most important parts of the post. It gives extra consideration to keywords it finds there. So, you want to load your titles up with keywords whenever possible.

NOTE: Don’t make your titles seemingly random strings of keywords that make no sense to humans. This will annoy your human readers, and Google is sophisticated enough to catch onto this and penalize you for not producing useful content.

Other parts of a post that Google weighs more heavily than usual when assigning value to keywords:

  • Words that are in h1, h2, h3 tags
  • Words that are parts of hyperlinks
  • Words that are in bold

Think about these things as you type – but at the end of the day, my best advice to casual bloggers is to just be yourself, and express yourself. Do it for long enough and don’t give up, and the hits will come.

What I’ve typed above is 99% of my strategy to get traffic to my blog. After 4 years of blogging, I’ve achieved a PageRank of 5. PageRank is a Google term measuring how relevant it thinks a particular site is, with 0 being the lowest and 10 being the most relevant (Google’s home page and Amazon’s home page are 10s). I take particular pleasure in my PageRank of 5 when I observe that, as of this writing, the local daily newspaper’s site only has a PageRank of 4.

Get links to your blog

Another big, big measure of whether Google thinks your blog is relevant is how many other sites link to yours, and how relevant those sites are (based on their PageRank).

This is one reason it’s good to link to your blog from your MySpace page, your Facebook page, and any other social networking pages you control. Those count as links, and they’re links from well-known websites.

Once again, another way to get lots of links is simply to write good content. Do this enough and people will start linking to you as a valuable source of information. This takes time. This is why you can’t give up when your traffic is low for the first couple of months.

Another option is to get your friends to link to you, if they have blogs – especially well-known ones. A lot of blogs have “blogrolls,” lists of blogs they read. If your friends have blogrolls, ask to be rolled.  Those links will count in your favor.

Yet another option is to ask your friends to get on social networking sites like Digg and promote your posts. This will help get you visibility.

How do I know if people are visiting my site?

You need a tracker, something that tells you how many hits per (day/week/month/year) you’re getting. The better trackers can also tell you where your visitors are located in the world, how they found your blog (what link they followed or what they typed into the search engine), and what operating system and browser they are using.

WordPress has a stats plug-in that is really good. Note that this requires a WordPress API key, so you’ll need to sign up for a account even if you plan on hosting your blog on your own server. If you don’t know what an “API key” is, that’s fine, just use one of the other options below.

I’ve used eXtreme Tracker for 10 years now and love it. It’s a free tracker that puts a little planet icon on your blog (this is how the service promotes itself) and in exchange, you get access to some awesome statistics about your blog, updated in real time. You get a summary with averages, locations of last 20 visitors, info on how they found your blog, browser info, operating system info, screen resolution info and much more. One of the best free website tools I have ever found. If you really hate the planet icon, you can pay a small monthly fee to make it go away. I personally don’t mind it.

There’s a new service called Woopra that is the future of tracking. You sign up for it on their site, and they have to approve you (this takes about a week). Once approved, you can install a WordPress plugin (or add code to your site, if not using WordPress) that sends tracking data to Woopra. Then you can download the Woopra application and see people visiting your site in real time, watch them move from page to page, see where they are located on a world map, and so forth. You can even start a chat with them. Really, really cool.

Hard-core SEO

So you want to learn more about search engine optimization? You’d probably expect me to include a few Amazon links here, but sorry, those won’t help. Google changes its PageRank algorithm about once every three months, so by the time the SEO books get published and make it to bookstore shelves, they’re already out of date. To do SEO properly, you need websites and e-books that are constantly updated.

The best SEO training program out there is SEO Book. If you join, you get over 100 SEO training modules, videos, and training presentations, a copy of their best-selling and always up-to-date SEO Book, and access to a forum where you can ask questions and get advice from some of the top dogs in the SEO world. The downside is that unlike most of the other tools I’ve shared with you, this one is not free and it’s not cheap. Is it worth it? If you’re a casual blogger writing a small personal blog, probably not. On the other hand, if you’re starting a business and you see your blog as a major tool in your marketing campaign, absolutely.

If you don’t want to pay for the SEO Book, my best advice is to Google “search engine optimization” (including the quotes) and see what comes up. That should give you access to lots of SEO info. The downside here is, you don’t know when the pages were last updated (unless they specifically include that info on the page), so you don’t know whether what you’re reading is up to date.

In either case, you’ll get much valuable info not only on keyword choices and methods to drive traffic to your site, but you’ll learn about pay-per-click advertising as well. Once again, casual personal bloggers should leave this one alone. For businesses, this is something to study.

And that’s the end! You now have the info you need to get started blogging.  Hope you found this series of articles useful! If you did, here’s a link for you: