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SEO Checklist
By André le Roux

1. The Domain Name

Most search engines do look at domain names when ranking pages, but the direct benefit of having keywords in your domain is very small.

There is also an indirect benefit to having a keyword-rich domain name: Search Engines like Google that factor link popularity into their ranking algorithms often also look at the anchor text of incoming links. In other words, the text used in a text link that points to your site should - as far as possible - contian your keyword. If your site is about purple widgets, you want people to link to you using "purple widgets" as the link text.

Like this:
Here is a good site about purple widgets.

Not like this:
Here is a good site about purple widgets.

But this is of course in the hands of the webmaster linking to you.

How do you increase the probability that they will link to you using your keywords? Yes, keywords in the domain. Many people (I'm one of them) prefer to link like this:

Purple Widgets
This is a good site about purple widgets

Apart from SEO considerations, there are other (arguably more important) considerations when choosing a domain name.

A good domain is:

  • short,
  • easy to say and spell,
  • descriptive and
  • memorable.

You should be able to say it over the telephone once and the other person should know how to spell it and they should know what you sell. If you can do that AND work keywords in there, good for you. If you can’t, skip the keywords.

2. The File Name

The same applies here. The filename should preferably be short and descriptive. Having keywords in the filename helps, but not a whole lot.

By the way, if you do use keywords in the domain or filename, separate them with hyphens rather than underscores.

Google sees
seo-checklist as seo checklist (good)
but it sees
seo_checklist as seochecklist (not good)

3. Content

The actual page content should have a keyword density of about 10% and should weigh in at about 200 words - but there are as many opinions about this as there are SEO experts. Some say keyword density should be 5% and some say it should be 20%. 10% works for me.

There is more consensus about page length @ 200 words. Those that disagree usually say it should be more. Some say it should be 500. I've seen longer pages doing very well in the SERPs for highly competitive keywords so longer might be better. Don't fuss too much about this. Keep the file size under 101K though because Google chops anything above that.

4. Layout & Design

  • You should have more text content than HTML elements.
  • No fancy stuff (Flash, Splash, Animated Gifs, Rollovers etc.) unless absolutely necessary.
  • No frames.
  • No JavaScript. If you need JavaScript, call it from an external file rather than dumping the code in the HTML file. JavaScript drop down menus prevent spiders from crawling beyond your homepage. If you use them, be sure to include text links at the bottom of the page.
  • No ads if possible.
  • Nothing that does not fit perfectly into the page topic; There should be no doubt in the search engine's mind (or in he user's mind) what your page is about.
  • No unnecessary directories. Keep your files as close to the root as possible.
  • KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

5. The Page Title

The page title weighs heavily in the algorithms of all the major search engines, so be prepared to spend some time on it.

Here's what to look for:

  • Write an accurate, keyword-rich page title of about 7 words.
  • Do not include stop words (and, the, a etc.) in the title. That just wastes space.
  • Remember that each page can (and should) have a unique title.
  • Remember that the title is the first and probably the only thing the searcher will look at in the search results. Having a keyword list as title might get you listed higher (if you're not penalized), but it's less likely to get clicked than a well structured title.
  • Syntax:
    In the HEAD section of the site add:

    <title>Your Keyword-Rich, Descriptive Page Title Here</title>

6. Meta Tags (Maybe)

The general consensus among SEO experts is that meta tags are dead. Even so, many of these same experts continue to use meta tags in their own sites. At the time of writing (May 2003) and to my knowledge, Inktomi is the only major search engine that still looks at meta tags. Meta tags still matter on some smaller topical and country-specific search engines.

Here's a great idea from a recent thread (posted by Quayfee):

"Would the best way to use them simply be for your own records? ie. by putting the phrase for which that page is optimised in the keywords and description tags you have a permanent record of your work, you then gain the benefit for the smaller SEs and don't risk misuse."

If you decide to use meta tags, here's how:

In the HEAD section of the site add:

<meta name="keywords" content="KEYWORD1 KEYWORD2 KEYPHRASE1 etc. - about 30 to 40 unique words">
<meta name="description" content="An accurate, keyword-rich description - about 150 characters">

7. Headings

Use headings responsibly. From my own experiments they don't seem to make a huge difference, but they do count and won't hurt your site. Unless you misuse them of course. Don't be tempted to wrap your entire page in <H1>.

<H1>Your Top Level Heading Here</H1>
<H2>Level 2 Heading</H2>
<H3>Level 3 Heading</H3>

etc. all the way down to <H6>

8. Bold text

The same applies to bold text. The general consensus is that there is a slight advantage in having important keywords in bold text, but use it sparingly.

9. Linking

9.1 Internal Linking

  • Every page on your site should link to at least one other page. This has to do with the distribution of link popularity. I discuss this in more detail in the Search Engine Yearbook.
  • Your homepage should include a link to your sitemap (a page that links to all the pages in your site). This is good for users and allows spiders to quickly access all your pages.

9.2 External Linking

Only link to external sites when you absolutely have to. Decide if it enhances the user's experience. If it does, add the link.

9.3 Reciprocal Linking (link exchanges)

Only exchange links with sites your visitors will find useful. Don't exchange links only to increase link popularity.

9.4 Anchor Text / Link Text and Link Titles

Use descriptive anchor text for all your text links. Most search engines consider anchor text of incoming links when ranking pages. The jury is still out on whether search engines also consider other elements on the link page (like text surrounding the link, the page title etc.).

Link titles are like alt text for text links. Very neat. Link titles add to the usability of a site. It is not clear whether search engines consider like titles when ranking pages. I'm guessing they do.

Here's an example:
Hover your mouse pointer over this link to see a link title in action.

<a href="checklist3.html" title="This is a link title.">this link</a>

10. Images And Alt Text

All images should include descriptive, keyword-rich alt text.

Alt spam (alt tags that's nothing more than a list of keywords) is fairly common, but can get your site penalized. A good guideline is to use alt text to describe the image. If it's a product image, describe the product in such a way that someone with a text browser or images turned off knows what the image is about.

One possible exception is the title image. To just put "logo" in the alt is of no use to spiders or your site visitors. Here is the alt text I used in the logo at the top of this page: "Pandecta Magazine E-Business Forums: No *BS* E-Business Know-How." That tells browserly-challenged visitors what they're missing and helps the spider understand what the page is about.

Don't be tempted to make it very long. If it does not fit in the image placeholder, it's probably too long.

<img src="image.gif" alt="Your alt text here">

11. Themes

Most of the major search engines prefer sites that focus on one theme. If your site is about widgets, gizmos and ...uuhm... Santa, you'll do better if you register a unique domain for each and split it into 3 separate sites.

Please note: Do not register multiple domains to house different parts of one theme. If you have a site selling pink widgets and blue widgets, that should be on one domain - not on pink-widget.com and a blue-widget.com respectively. That will just dilute your link popularity.

Another note: Don't cross-link your domains. There is a lot of speculation about just how much cross-linking is safe. Don't go there. If the info you want to share is all on one theme, keep it on one site. If it is on multiple themes, place it on different sites with no links between them. There are rare exceptions where it's ok (from an ethical point of view) to cross-link your sites, but remember that search engines cannot look into the intentions behind every instance of cross-linking and your site might get penalized.

12. Tricks

There are no tricks in long-term SEO. Cloaking, hidden text etc. etc. will all hurt your rankings in the long run. Build pages that the search engines will love (text-based, content-rich, tightly focused - like this page:-) and you'll reap the rewards. At the time of writing, this site has an Alexa rank of 37,194 - and still going strong - without spam.

The Bottom Line

Search engine are becoming better and better at listing the best sites at the top of the search results and at weeding out sites that employ shady tactics. Focus on building great content first. Success tends to follow.

Related resources:
E-Business Checklist
Web Marketing Checklist