In February 2011, Google temporarily penalized the rankings of J.C. Penney’s website for using an artificial linking strategy. This heralded Google’s Panda and Penguin updates, which lowered search rankings for sites deemed low quality or over-optimized. This is high drama for SEO specialists, but for the average small business website, the greater risk lies in being under-optimized. Many small businesses overlook some simple steps that are within Google’s guidelines that can help boost their search rankings.

Target Keywords

Google’s Keyword Planner recently replaced its Keyword Tool, forcing SEO experts to adjust. Despite changing tools, basic keyword targeting principles remain constant. Many site administrators don’t develop a keyword target list, often because they lack a marketing strategy. Know who your market is and what interests them, and then use this to generate your keywords. Compile your initial list using ordinary language, then expand it using a keyword tool.

When selecting keywords, high search volume indicates high consumer interest, but this in turn indicates more competition. Your challenge is to identify keywords with sufficient market interest but low enough for feasible competition.

One way to lower competition is adding niche phrases. For example, the URL string verizonfiosdeals.com/new-york-city includes a geographical niche reference that limits search rankings to a specific area.

Position Keywords Correctly

Another mistake many sites make is failing to place target keywords in the most important place: the title tag. This header code lets search engines know what pages are about. It normally displays at the top of your browser window tab and page content. Place your page’s highest-priority keyword here.

To appeal to human readers as well as Google, your title tag must be readable and relevant. Use natural phrasing, and remember that search engines only index your first 70 characters. As such, place your keyword as close to the front as possible.

Help Google Help You

For search robots to index your site, they must be able to crawl your pages. Errors such as broken links can block robots, a problem that hinders hundreds of thousands of sites. To help, Google Webmaster Tools provides a Crawl Errors feature.

Have a Navigation Strategy

When search robots crawl your site, they navigate your internal links to determine which priority pages should be indexed most highly. Neglecting navigational strategy can rank pages incorrectly or make sites look artificial. To avoid this, design a logical hierarchy that serves your visitors’ navigational needs. For each page, ask, “Where does a visitor need to go from here?”

Build Natural Links

Google has recently targeted what it considers unnatural linking methods, such as large-scale article marketing and guest posting, and optimized anchor text in press releases. While this makes things challenging for SEO practitioners who have been using these methods, for the general website owner, it underscores the importance of natural link-building for search engine ranking. Building links to your site from relevant sources using natural anchor text is crucial to optimizing any website.