4 Steps For Designers To Build A Solid SEO Foundation

Every time Google makes a significant update to it’s search algorithm people start reporting losses and complaining how the changes are unfair. At the same time others report how that change is driving more traffic to their sites.

Search results are a zero sum game. With every site that drops in the results another rises to fill the vacated space.

How do you make sure that your site is one of the gainers when the next algorithm update comes along?

Concrete foundation of a building under construction

How to Build a Solid SEO Foundation

Over the years I’ve seen both positive and negative reports after algorithm changes. Casual observation suggests that those who lose have typically pushed the envelope a little farther than they should have.

Those with positive reports tend to be the people who focused long term by putting a solid foundation in place making their sites more resistant to changes.

What I want to present here are some basic concepts to get your house in order. What follows isn’t a recipe for seo success and it doesn’t contain any secret tips or tricks. Much of it won’t even sound like seo.

It’s simply a foundation to build on and it’s something you don’t need an advanced degree in seo theory to understand. However if you apply these non-seo concepts you’ll be surprised by how much traffic search engines send you.

My seo friends might notice I’m ignoring a few very important aspects of seo. I swear I’m not crazy. I’m ignoring them for reasons, which I’ll explain later in the post.

Here then is a simple (in terms of understanding) strategy for seo success.

Accessible route road sign

Build an Accessible and Usable Site

This might not be so simple for the average person, but you build websites all day long, don’t you?

Accessibility is usually linked with helping people with disabilities, but more generally it means helping anyone and anything access different parts of your site.

For example you’ll add an alt description to images conveying important information so anyone who can’t see the image can still get the information. Search engines can’t see those images so that same description helps them get the information.

There are 2 important things your code needs to do where seo is concerned

The more accessible and usable your site, the more it does both.

Follow standards and structure your site so it’s easy to crawl. Use semantic html, microformats and other structured microdata to help machines understand your content.

If you aren’t a web developer then you probably want to hire someone for this. Ask questions of your developer to know whether he or she understands accessibility issues.

Create Great Content

Search engines present results with content. They want to present the best content available. The word “best” is, of course, subjective.

What I mean by create great content is you should create the best content you can. Then make it better, and better, and…well…better. You get the idea.

No matter how good you think your content is you’re wrong. It could be and should be better. Your content can never be too good.

Be honest with yourself. Everyone says they have great content. Most people don’t. No matter what you think of the content on your site, keep working to make it better.

Search engines want to present the best and most relevant content in their results so that’s what you should be creating.


Promote Your Great Content

If you build it, he won’t notice unless you tell him. You have to promote your content in some way, not in a spammy way, but in some way.

Your goal should be to bring your content to the attention of real people who might like it.

It’s not about getting as many people as possible to quickly visit your page. It’s about getting the page in front of the people who are likely to be interested in what’s there.

The “how” will depend on the type of content and your industry.

One common tactic is guest posting. You create content similar to your own and place it on a site similar to yours. That other site becomes a marketing channel. It introduces your great content to a group of people likely to enjoy it.

Seek different promotional channels. Every social networking site can be a channel. Any place that lets you advertise is a promotional channel.

The basic idea is to leverage these channels to reach people you don’t currently reach on your site in order to let attract them back to your site.

Measure and Iterate with Analytics

You aren’t going to have the same success with every marketing channel and every piece of content.

Some marketing channels might not have audiences with a good match for your site or have an audience too small to make it worthwhile. Each requires different tactics for success and you may find you’re better working certain tactics and not so great working others.

You’ll also find that you’re better able to create certain kinds of content and that some topics have more or less search competition than others. You’ll rank quicker for some subjects than others.

You find all these things out through analytics. Learn which sites are sending you traffic. Learn which pages on your site are attracting more attention. Learn whatever you can and do more of the things that work and less of the things that don’t work.

Crosshairs zeroing in on the word SEO

Where’s the Real SEO Stuff?

So you’ve probably noticed the above has little to no mention of things like keywords and links, page titles, headings, and other on-page factors. These things and many others are important to seo, however I didn’t mention them for a reason.

For the beginner I think all the detailed talk does 2 things that often derail the seo effort before it gets started.

  • It confuses people — There are so many factors to consider with seo and so much misinformation about them that it’s hard to tie it all together. You won’t understand the details of seo until you first understand a solid marketing foundation.
  • It leads to micro focus — When all people read about is the tactics that’s all they ever think about. It’s why people ask how many keywords they can use in meta tags or what keyword density is ideal. This micro focus leads people toward things that are largely unimportant while they ignore the big picture.

That doesn’t mean I’ve completely ignored some of these seo things though. For example…



I’m sure you’ve seen it mentioned somewhere that to rank well web pages need links. Guess what? That’s what promotion is. Along with the guest post you wrote came a link or two back to your site.

The best links are the ones other people build for you. When you create remarkable content people remark on it. They share it. And how do people share content online? By linking to it.

Once you’ve seeded things a little by promoting your content, the people who like it will share it and build links for you.

Instead of spending time asking someone to link to you, you can spend that time creating more and better content, making your site more accessible, and seeking new channels for promotion.


If you write a focused article you naturally use keywords.

I’ve done exactly 0 keyword research prior to writing this post, but in time it’ll rank for phrases around some general themes on seo. Why? Because in writing a post about seo, I’ve naturally used words associated with the topic.

You want a product page to rank? What words will people use to search for a product?

  • The product name
  • A description of the product
  • Product benefits
  • Problems the product solves

The above are things a well written product page should be addressing with or without keyword research.

Now there is an important consideration in that the words you naturally use might not be the words potential customers naturally use. This is a major reason for keyword research.

In addition to the words themselves you want to understand the intent behind the words people use.

However if you pay attention to your industry and more importantly what your customers say about your industry, common words phrases will become part of your natural vocabulary.

I don’t want to leave the impression that you don’t need to do keyword research. You should be researching keywords and phrases. What I want to get across is that by paying attention to your industry, especially the customers of your industry, you’ll naturally be doing a fair amount of keyword research.

Worn book cover for Isaac Asimov's Foundation


It may seem counter intuitive, but you can often do well with search engines when you stop thinking about search engines. Once upon a time seo success was based on knowing a few tricks for where to place a word or phrase in your code. That time is long gone.

Search engines want to rank content that people find valuable. Search engines are following real people and so you should too.

If your site appeals to real people; if you can find ways to get people to visit your site, stick around, and tell their friends, without a search engine having any part of the process you’ll find search engines end up sending you a lot of traffic.

None of this post should be taken as me saying seo isn’t important or that you should ignore things like keyword research and link building. You should be doing both.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s more important to build a solid marketing foundation by building the best website you can build.

Once you have that foundation in place you can work some of the nuanced details that is seo. They do work and can help you get even more traffic.

However if you never do anything you would call seo or hire someone to do it for you, you can still pick up search traffic, by following the 4 steps described here.

Create the best content you can and place it on the most accessible site you can build. Promote it through different marketing channels and then measure the results to adjust all of the above.

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  1. Great advice, I strongly believe that the key to good rankings is giving a user what they want and most of the time that’s useful and informative content.

    People moan about updates hurting their rankings but I hope Google continue to punish those with poorly constructed sites and poor quality keyword stuffed content. if you’re site isn’t of high quality then you have no right to rank highly anyway.

    • It’s definitely all about the user. Even if you gain plenty of traffic what does it matter if that traffic doesn’t find something they want on your site.

      It’s not so much that Google punishes poorly constructed sites than they might rank well constructed sites better or at least give them some kind of boost for being well constructed.

  2. Fantastic article. Though I must say that “naturally” using keywords is often a skill that is developed. Unless you know what keywords to focus on, how can you naturally use them?

    Regardless, quality is king, still is and always will be!

    • That’s why you pay attention to your industry and particularly what your customers are saying about your industry. In doing that you’ll naturally start using the same words they use when you create your content.

  3. One major problem I noticed among bloggers is their lack of knowledge and interest in SEO. Many people are of the impression that you have to be professionally trained to effectively know how to optimize a blog for the search engines, while this might help, it isn’t really necessary.

    • Unfortunately seo has a bad reputation in some circles and in others it comes across as more complicated than it has to be. Part of why I wrote this post was to combat both impressions.

      SEO is something people should at least understand the basics and the basics aren’t really all that hard. Some of the technical stuff in site development might not be for everyone, but understanding how to create content and promote that content shouldn’t be hard.

  4. Hi Steven,

    Thanks for the great post – I definitely agree with your focus on good content and users. Focusing on technical SEO just distracts most people from the task at hand – communicating with REAL people.

    Optimising titles should always be done later – once you finish the content.

    Writing great content is naturally the problem most of us have though, it’s not always easy πŸ˜‰

    • No it’s certainly not easy to create great content. And even when you think you are you can probably do better. Hopefully we all take that hard look and continue to improve what we create.

      I agree that some of the technical details obscure the more important stuff, though I hope I haven’t given the impression you should ignore all the technical details.

  5. Great article. You are so right that content is the most important component. Keyword density comes from well written and relevant content. The fuss over keywords is unnecessary if you do your just duty with content development.

  6. Very well said…!! Many a times we give more importance to the process without knowing why it should be implemented or followed.

    This article really opens up the idea of SEO beyond just keywords, back linking etc.

  7. I find Stevens comments about making great content even greater a real challenge, we have been guilty of believing that we have great content on our site, i need to go of fix a few things !

  8. Hi Steven,
    Really Wonderful Article!!
    I agree with you that modern SEO is primarily SEO for people not for search robots. A modern SEO specialist should have knowledge in marketing, usability, web programming. Still the backbone of the website should be thoughtful semantic core with the correct internal linking between pages.
    Thank you so much, Arnaud

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