A Primer on Search Engine Optimisation

There are lots of good primers on Search Engine Optimisation out there in the world. This is mine. It was written with my workplace in mind, a community college in British Columbia, Canada. The principles, however, are universal.

We all know that having your content appear at (or near) the top of a search engine results page means a lot more people are going to click the link to your site. Getting a top results position means getting more traffic; getting even a second-page listing often means being considered invisible.

So what can you do to make sure your content gets to the top of a search engine results page?

  1. Know your message
  2. Know your audience
  3. Keyword research
  4. Putting your research to use

Step One: Know your message

We assume that you’re doing the job you’re doing because you love it. You have passion for the industry you’re in and the greater issues that make your industry exciting.

You need to communicate that passion to other people who share your passion.

Decide clearly what message you want to communicate to your audience. Part of deciding that message comes with Step Two: Know your audience. You’ll probably go back and forth between getting to know your audience and refining your message.

Ideally, part of deciding what the message will be should align with the overall college messaging. By working synergistically with the overall college message, we have the opportunity to have visitors attracted to the college as a whole. That means your marketing efforts could benefit students that may be more interested in other programs and schools—and other programs’ and schools’ marketing can benefit students interested in yours.

But you must develop a clear, succinct message that your audience will resonate with. The School of Environment and Geomatics may focus on environmental issues that resonate deeply with young, environmentally-aware people. In this case, the message might be: “You can make a difference to the health of the planet by becoming a [job title]. We at S_____ College care deeply about the issues that matter to you. Come to S_____ College and learn to be that world-changer.”

Be prepared to be consistent in communicating your message wherever you meet with your audience, online and in person.

Further reading: Content strategy: optimising your efforts for success

Step Two: Know your audience

Any and all information you can get about your target audience will help you. Research your target audience. Find out their demographics. Find online communities where your target audience congregates. Join those communities and participate in them. With your school or program’s Facebook account, join related Facebook groups. Listen to what’s being discussed and contribute honestly—not just indiscriminately spamming links to your school or program page. Follow people and groups on Twitter that relate to your industry, and join the conversation. Join forums and message boards and do the same. Become known as an authentic, genuine, real person that people can trust. Then when you do mention your school or program, your recommendation will be trusted.

Let your passion show. If you don’t care, your audience will sense that and dismiss your intended message as just another marketing schtick.

What does this have to do with SEO? If you don’t know your audience, and you don’t have a trusted voice—and your competitors do—you will waste a lot of time targetting the wrong people with the wrong messages.

As you discover who your audience is, and what is important to them, refine your message appropriately to more accurately reflect their interests and desires.

Step Three: Keyword Research

“Keyword research is one of the most fundamental SEO activities, but it’s also one of the least talked about.” — Effective Keyword SEO Research, Julie Batten, clickz.com

We can’t emphasise it enough—without carefully researching what keywords to target, your Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) efforts will be useless. There is nothing more important than selecting good, relevant keywords.

The process of discovering the appropriate keywords for your site is called keyword research. Keyword research involves painstaking investigation to discover:

  • what terms people search for,
  • how often,
  • how many other sites appear for those terms, and
  • which other sites appear for those terms.

Note: we use the term “keywords”, but most people search for short phrases such as “study online” or “how to apply to s_____ college”. You should generally think in terms of short phrases that actual people are using today; the tools we recommend later in the report will help you see what phrases people are currently using.

Keyword research is a strategic exercise that enables you to determine which queries your site is most relevant for and for which you can feasibly expect a return. Once you have carefully researched your keywords, then you can optimise your site accordingly.

How many keywords or keyword phrases should I choose?

You should have no more than one or two keyword phrases per page. Ideally, each page you create should have its own focussed keyword phrase. So, as you plan your content, research keywords specific to each page, and consider creating a page for each keyword phrase.

The best keywords are probably not what you think

“You can probably think of at least 10 to 20 keywords off the top of your head you think are relevant to your site. However, the way you think about your organization or business may be very different than how customers or the average Joe thinks about it. Keyword research tools are essential for seeing what users truly search for.”  — Effective Keyword SEO Research, Julie Batten, clickz.com

Never rely solely on your own imagination to determine keywords. You must research your keywords carefully using good SEO keyword search tools.

You are looking for relevant key words or phrases that strike the right balance between:

  • popularity (lots of people searching for those key phrases), and
  • low competition (not a lot of other sites are optimised for those key phrases)

Your keywords must be relevant

The key phrases you choose must be accurate and relevant to your content. Don’t seed the phrase “free chocolate” into your content because it’s popular—people will feel betrayed and search engines may penalise you if your area has nothing to do with giving away free chocolate. Research key phrases that represent your content.

Find the balance

If you choose phrases that are too narrow or specific, no-one will search for them. It may feel like bragging rights to be #1 on Google for the term “basket-weaving 101 in Nowhere, BC”, but the point is to increase visitors.

Likewise, if you choose phrases that are too broad and popular, like “education” or “college” or “welding”, you’ll find yourself trying to compete with larger organisations with much higher budgets and teams of personnel dedicated to continual keyword research and content rewriting. I won’t say you can’t do it, but it will take a tremendous amount of work on your part to make it happen.

Better to strike that balance, and find relevant phrases that have reasonably high search volume and low competition. The only way you can determine this accurately is through a search engine tool.

Use the Tools

You don’t have to use all of these. You have to use at least one of these—as much as it takes to get the data you need.

Remember: keyword research is not “extra work” on top of SEO. This is the only useful starting point for SEO. If you haven’t done keyword research, nothing else you do can have any positive effect. Only on the foundation of good, relevant keywords can you build engaging, well-written content that your visitors can find using search engines.

Suggested tools:

Teaching you how to use these tools is outside the scope of this report. As web-based research tools go, though, they are reasonably easy to use. If you follow the principle of finding popular key words or phrases, you will be able to find out how to get that information using these tools.

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow

You’ve researched your keywords, found a good selection that are relevant, sufficiently popular, and underrepresented by your competitors. You’re ready to write excellent copy based on these carefully-researched keywords.

Just keep in mind that your industry will change. The marketplace will change. Your competitors will watch you and respond to what you’re doing, just as you watch them and respond to them. Next year’s target audience may be different from this year’s.

You should plan to review your keywords at least annually (and you should do it much more frequently) to determine if they are still relevant, popular and underrepresented by your competitors. It may be that the keywords that were perfect last year (or last month) are no longer as popular as they were—or your competitors have spent an obscene amount of money to target the keywords you optimised for last year (or last month).

Don’t let your site get left behind by a changing world. Review your keywords regularly and be prepared to adjust your optimisation accordingly.

Further reading:

Each of these pages will have links to further reading. The more you know about these issues, the better you’ll be able to promote your program or school.

Step Four: Putting the Research to Use

You’ve taken the time and effort necessary to research a good number of excellent key phrases. You’re ready to create content based on that research. What do you do now?

Remember the people, forget the machines

You are going to build your content based on the people you want to attract to your program. If you focus on your visitors’ needs when you create your content, search engines will ensure that those people find it.

Search engines spend an outrageous amount of money researching exactly who, what, when, where, why and how people search. Chances are good you won’t out-think the search engines (or a clever and rich competitor). You probably won’t be able to fool them into ranking your content higher than someone else. But you can write good, clear, relevant content that your visitors will be glad to get. Search engines will look for that content and rank it according to its excellence.

Your webTeam have constructed the website’s page styles in such a way that some of the most important technical elements will automatically populate based on the content you enter. Other than creating excellent content based on your study of your target market and researched keywords, there isn’t a lot of technical jiggerypokery that you need worry about anyway. More on that later.

Go back and revisit Step One. You have continued participating in the online conversation, kept up-to-date on your industry and cultivated relationships with your target audience, haven’t you? Excellent. Keep it up—it will absolutely pay off.

Plan your content

You now know the message you want to communicate; you know your audience intimately, and they know you; you have diligently researched your desired keywords. You are passionate about your industry and have a burning desire to connect with other like-minded people on topics you share interest in.

You probably have a large amount of data, research and other information that can provide the foundation for well-written content.You will have information about each course and program, and additional material about other issues related to your school and programs.

Map out your topics in a way that makes sense. It may be helpful to use index cards and write down one topic on each card. Assemble the completed cards according to their related topics, from most specific up to most general (from the “bottom up” as it were). Have a clear understanding of how each topic will relate to the other.

Seriously consider committing to regularly-updated content such as a weekly “blog” (linking to external articles and writing a paragraph or several on your industry, government policy changes, innovations, and other topics of interest to your audience), regularly-updated photo galleries, FAQs, et cetera. Each blog post or additional page of information is an opportunity to focus on another keyword phrase and optimise that page or post for that phrase. You may find, months from now, that certain posts get dramatically more search traffic than others. That data will help you a great deal in future planning.

If you already have excellent, focussed, keyword-rich and frequently-updated written content, you can expand into creating audio and video content. This requires exponentially more production effort to be successful, but well-written and -produced audio and video content can be extremely valuable—and popular. You’ll need to keep in mind accessibility legislation and provide transcripts and closed captioning for visitors with visual or audio impairments, and similar requirements.

Your CMS Trainer can help you set up any of these content areas—but creating the content is up to you.

Write your content

Write each page of content carefully. Ideally, each page should focus on one or two of your researched key phrases.

Write your content for people, not for machines. Write it in such a way that some other web content moderator in some other institution will come across it, think to themselves, “Wow—this is wonderful information!” and create a link to it.

Don’t add fluff just for the sake of adding content. Add useful information that will be of interest to your visitors.

Write for the web. Keep your words simple. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Use bulleted and numbered lists liberally. Bold and italicise key concepts that will pop out when your visitors skim your content. Preview your content often as you write it, to make sure it comes out right on the website.

  • NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER use Microsoft Word to create your web content.

Yes. We’re serious about that.

Writing your content in Microsoft Word will make converting it for use on the website a blistering, living hell when you try to make it work on your website. When you cut-and-paste content from Word into the CMS text editor, it will paste huge amounts of ungodly Microsoft-specific code behind the scenes to leverage Office products. This will :

  • make it extremely difficult for you to get your content to look right
  • dramatically slow down your page
  • make your visitors vulnerable to malicious code elsewhere on the web
  • cause birth defects, cancer, earthquakes, and possibly trigger Armageddon.

Okay, maybe not that last bit. But definitely the first three. Do yourself a favour and write your content in Notepad or another text-only editor, or for preference directly in the CMS.


Putting up your content as a PDF (as opposed to web content) will make your content much less accessible to your visitors. Instead of just seeing the content in their browser, they’ll have to launch a PDF reader. The resulting file may not even be readable in their device of choice. It is always better to author your content as web content in the CMS.

If you absolutely must put up a PDF, make sure it is optimised for the web.

In your content

Break your content up into short paragraphs and sentences and words, so it’s as easy as possible to read. (We’ve tried to write this report using these same techniques.)

Use headings liberally, and try include your page’s keyword phrases in the headings (insofar as that makes sense to humans). Search engines assume if you’re using a keyword phrase in a heading, you are probably talking about it in the following section.

Creating a heading
Creating a heading level 3 in your content: note the dropdown menu in the top right corner of the screenshot. This is a “real” heading 3 that search engines will rank.

Note: to make an actual heading, you need to use the style dropdown in the CMS editor. You can’t just make the text larger and bold; that won’t register a thing to search engines, and can actually harm your rankings.

Creating a heading level 3 in your content: note the dropdown menu in the top right corner of the screenshot. This is a “real” heading 3 that search engines will rank.

When you include images, include a description of the image in its alt attribute. Ideally, that image will describe something that reflects your researched keywords… which you can then legitimately add into the alt attribute. You’ll get a tiny SEO benefit from that—and image search engines can then have your image appear when someone searches for images using those keywords, which can bring them back to your page.

Link to other areas of interest inside and outside of the college sites. The whole point of the web is content and linking to other related content. You don’t have to write it all yourself.

Don’t worry about linking to off-site resources. By helping your visitors find the information that’s valuable to them, you will become likewise valuable to them. If you become an  ongoing, regularly updated and reliable source of valuable content, they will get used to coming to you for information.

Ideally, when you create links to content, use their preferred keywords. Likewise, when you encourage other areas to link to you, ask them to use your preferred keywords. If your content is valuable, other sites will be willing to link to it, just as you should be willing to link to outside content that’s valuable to your target audience and compatible with your message.

When you create a link to other content, it’s sometimes valuable to describe what you are linking to in the title attribute.

Using the title attribute
Using the title attribute

In most browsers, the text in the title attribute will appear as a tooltip when the user hovers her mouse pointer over the link.

How a title attribute works
A user mouses over the “email” link and gets more information about the link.

Be careful not to over-use the title attribute—it can make life difficult for visitors who use assistive devices such as screen readers. Don’t jam it full of unnecessary keywords—just enough information to be valuable.

Don’t forget the don’ts
  • Don’t try to fool search engines. It’s dishonest and doesn’t get you what you want.
  • Don’t hire someone who claims to be able to fool search engines. That’s probably worse than doing it yourself.
  • Don’t get unfocussed. Concentrate on your audience, your message, and creating top-quality content.

Technical Considerations

We know, we know, we said earlier that you don’t have to worry much about the technical details; the webTeam take care of most of that by ensuring the website is coded in a way that’s optimally visible to search engines. It’s why we avoid Flash, Java applets, and other components that are invisible to search engines. But here’s what you should triple-check.


Metadata means “data about data” or “information about information”. In the context of the web, it’s the summary information about that page (section) that you’re creating. It will include information such as Title, Language, Keywords, a Description, Copyright, Authorship, et cetera.

Metadata for http://selkirk.ca/programs/rr/
Metadata for http://selkirk.ca/programs/rr/
The School of Business and Aviation has filled out their metadata completely.
The School of Business and Aviation has filled out their metadata completely.

You can modify each section’s metadata by modifying your section. You’ll want to accurately represent each page’s content, keeping in mind your researched keywords. Pay particularly close attention to:

Page Title

The page title is the single-most important piece of metadata, and the part given the most weight by search engines. It describes, most succinctly, your page. The page title you choose will appear in search engine results, in a visitor’s bookmark, and probably lots of other places.

A page title (“Renewable resource - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”) appearing in Google search results
A page title (“Renewable resource - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”) appearing in Google search results
The School of Renewable Resources page title.
The School of Renewable Resources page title. Note that the system automatically adds “at Selkirk College” to the page title; by adding it to the metadata, it will show twice. We strongly recommend reviewing changes whenever they are made in a variety of web browsers to avoid these kind of issues.
A bookmarks list, featuring page titles.
A bookmarks list. The page title becomes the text you see for each bookmark. You will notice that some of these are less effective than others: “wmd - Demo” doesn’t give me any idea of what I bookmarked; “Why does Drupal Still Suck? | The Smorgasbord” tells me the name of the article and what website it came from.

It’s never a bad idea to include the keywords you researched for this page (section) in the keywords metadata. It won’t gain you “points” towards better search engine rankings, but it’s useful in other ways.

Recording your keywords in the section can help you remember what keywords you were trying to target when you created the page. It can also help us keep track of keywords in the future and start to build an overall strategy of targetted keywords, or a taxonomy. There are lots of appropriate future uses for keyword lists as well, such as allowing users to search the site for other related information based on the keywords you chose for your page or article.


Search engines are smart. If you don’t include a description of your page, they’ll guess and create one for you.

Google's search engine results, featuring the meta description
It looks like Google created their own description of Wikipedia’s article for “Renewable Resource”. We recommend that you write your own—Google’s description truncates after a sentence and a half.

We believe you know your content better than Google does. We strongly recommend that you write a succinct, carefully-constructed description of your page’s contents. Google gives you a couple hundred characters’ worth of space before they cut you off.

Step Five: Give it time

If you follow the recommendations above, you will see an increase to your targetted search engine visitors. Don’t worry about metrics like your page rank. Don’t even concentrate on whether you went from #12 to #11 on a Google search. Concentrate on whether you are getting increased traffic, conversation, engagement, and above all, enrollment. These are your true measures of success.


Getting good search engine rankings is 90% about researching your topic, knowing your audience, and writing good content. Your webTeam will help you with the 10%—but you have to do the 90%.

But trust us: it’s worth it.

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