SEO: a focus on the basics

SEO: a focus on the basicsYou have a website. You want to attract customers and build your business. You can do this in various ways: advertising your link on your products, business cards, and other marketing material. But the most valuable traffic on a website is from search engines: reaching your target audience and connecting with new customers who are looking for your product or service.

I frequently get asked the question: “What keywords did you put in for my site on Google?” and unfortunately, it’s not that simple. High organic ranking in search engines is hard work. It just is. Search engine optimization is a multi-level process and in order to do it correctly, you need to constantly monitor your ranking, modify and update your content, and analyze your competition.

In my experience, there are three basic necessities for a well-optimized website. I call them steps, but each one actually has multiple steps, and may require revisiting on a regular basis!

Step 1: Content, Content, Site Structure, Content

Content is #1. If your website doesn’t have anything good for your customers or the search engine spiders to read, then you’re sunk before you’ve even started. Ideally, you should have 500-1000 words of clean, grammatically correct sentence-structure content on every page. Some websites lend themselves better to more text content, others may have more visual content, but even a few well-written sentences goes a long way.

Beyond the readable content, the technical structure of a website is very important. This is where I focus my efforts for my clients, even if nothing else is done. I write clean HTML code for a lightweight website, use heading tags for important content and headlines, include ALT tags on images (because search engines can’t read graphics!), and strive to generate search engine-friendly URLs.

Fresh content is also excellent for boosting your ranking! Search engines will give more importance to a site with recently updated content, so a blog, a news feed, or even a portfolio page or photo gallery can help keep your site from getting stale.

Step 2: Research & Decide on Keywords

This step really could/should be part of step 1, because it goes hand-in-hand with writing the quality content. But I’ve kept it separate for a reason. I tend to prefer building a website with naturally organized content that makes sense from a user experience perspective, and then go back and revise things based on which keywords will best highlight the content and attract targeted traffic. But starting with Step 2, or at least keeping it in mind while developing a site map and navigation structure, isn’t a terrible idea.

It can be a daunting process to select keywords and write appropriate, relevant content. The good news: there are many tools and tutorials on the web for analyzing a website’s content and choosing keywords on a page. It’s a balance between having readable, useful content for the customers, but also giving the search engines what they need to properly rank a site. Here’s the not-so-good news: maintaining a high organic SEO ranking requires constant monitoring and rework. So launching a new website with some good keywords and letting the search engines have at it isn’t enough. Things may need to be adjusted monthly, or weekly, or even daily in order to keep a website at the top of the list.

(I will be the first to admit that this particular phase of SEO is NOT my area of expertise! I am not a copy writer and I don’t pretend to be one. But I am learning more with each project, and I’m happy to give advice to my clients when I can, and make referrals to some GREAT experts I know who can help!)

A bit about meta tags: a long time ago, meta tags were all you needed to “tell” the search engines what your site was about. But that quickly became an easy way to cheat the system, so meta tags aren’t used as the primary way to highlight keywords in a website. Meta tags should still be used, because you aren’t penalized for them, but they work WITH your content to build your ranking.

Step 3: Tell the Search Engines!

After I launch a new website, I have a laundry list of things I do to make sure that the search engines know it’s there.

Generate an XML site map. This is simply a file that helps the major search engines understand your site structure. WordPress has some useful plugins that do this, or it can be generated using an online tool.

Create Webmaster Tools profiles. Google and Bing both offer these free tools. After doing this, I can submit the XML site map, specify a preferred domain to avoid duplicate content penalties, analyze keywords through the site, view search traffic statistics, integrate the profile with Google Analytics, and so much more.

Create a local profile for your business. Verifying your business with Google Business and Bing Places for Business, and Yahoo Small Business will get your business in any location-based search results, so customers in your area can find you more easily.

..And then what?

There are about a million OTHER things that can be done to increase a website’s ranking, but these three areas are where I usually start with clients. Getting a few simple tools in place can make a big difference. And once a site is up and running for a couple of months, it can be useful to revisit the keywords or to take a look at your content structure and reorganize a bit.  If you’d like me to take a look at your website’s SEO status, contact me for a quote!

new websites launched: snacks & stained glass

I published two websites in the last couple of weeks and I wanted to share them here!

The first is a site that was brought to me already designed for Tracy at Tracy’s Tasties. My job was to take the (amazing!) design mockups and build them into a functional website so she can sell her gourmet hulless popcorn on the web. I did this, adding a WordPress backend for content management and a custom product area that she can use for PayPal e-commerce buttons.

Gourmet Hulless Popcorn

 

The second site is for a local stained glass artist. Brian wanted a place online to share photos of his beautiful stained glass pieces, and also to keep customers informed about upcoming art show appearances for his company, Three Rivers Art Glass. He already had a logo designed, so I used that as inspiration for the site design. The site runs on WordPress, with a custom project gallery and a blog so he can update with news and event information.

Stained Glass artwork

finding balance as a self-employed, work-at-home mother of three

Self-employment comes with its own set of unique work-related stresses and challenges: inconsistent money flow, staying motivated, keeping yourself accountable. When you add three kids to that plate, with their uncanny ability to get sick RIGHT when you have a huge project to finish and their superior chaos-making powers, things can get very stressful very quickly.

finding balance while working at home with kids

I’ve been working as an independent web designer for nearly ten years. When I started out, I was working full-time in my former field of medical research (which feels like a completely different LIFETIME now). I worked all day at work, then came home in the evenings and worked on websites for clients. My goal was to get my business to a place where I felt comfortable enough to leave the steady paycheck and day job to work “full time” as a web designer. Fast forward a couple of years, and I got there- right around the time I got the news that I was pregnant with our first baby. I had a brief and LOVELY stretch of time where I was home, working, with no kids running around to distract me. But for the most part, since I’ve been working as Inksplash Designs, I’ve been a mother.

I make no secret about the fact that I’m not a big fancy agency with full-service everything and 24/7 tech support. Inksplash Designs is a small, custom-fit webdesign shop that is a great fit for some projects and not so great for others. I’ve always been honest with my clients about my working situation, and I think that has been appreciated. I typically designate three days each week for work, and on those days my younger two kids go to daycare/preschool. The older one is in elementary school now, so that makes things simpler (and cheaper!) So in theory, I have three whole days each week where I can focus on Work and not on Everything Else. In reality, the lines get very blurred and it can make my head hurt.

Over the years, I’ve established some rules and tricks for myself to keep things semi-separated and to keep myself semi-sane. It’s not a perfect system, and I’m always making adjustments and exceptions, but it helps a lot.

1. No phone calls (or work email) after 5, unless it’s prescheduled and/or absolutely necessary. This is a stickler for me because it would be VERY easy to let my business take over our lives. Between the hours of 5 and 8pm, things in our house are just this side of insanity. Three hungry kids (and a husband!), homework, dishes, cleaning up, laundry, bedtime… not a lot of room for anything work-related. So if my phone rings and it’s not a number I recognize, my voicemail does the work and I catch up the next work day. There are exceptions for this, obviously, if there’s an urgent issue with a client’s email or website, in which case I hand the kids over to my amazing husband and lock myself in the office to take care of things. But in general, evenings are family time and household time.

2. Keep Work Days about work and Kid Days about kids. Also related to the effort to not let work take over, I try to make sure my days with the kids stay clear of work-related things. We run errands, go shopping, head to gymnastics classes, or play outside. Only one of my kids still takes an afternoon nap, so I can’t even count on using that time for work- which is okay with me. I usually have piles of laundry to fold, or meals to plan, or any other number of chores to take care of around the house. On the flip side, I make an effort to let the house stuff go on work days and focus on finishing projects, making client phone calls, returning emails, and writing proposals. (So if my husband wonders why there are still dishes piled sky-high in the kitchen at the end of my work days, this is why!)

3. Use childcare more if you need it. Sometimes I’ll have a lull in client work. It happens. I try to use that time to take a breath, and maybe work on some of my own projects, tinker with my website, or follow up with some old leads. And sometimes I am overwhelmed with work (hooray!) and I have trouble keeping up with things with only three days in a week. Fortunately our childcare center allows for flexible schedules each week, so I can always add an extra day for the kids if I need it. I used to feel guilty about doing this, and I worried about the financial hit with the already delicate balance of childcare payments vs my income, but sometimes it’s necessary. My kids love their school, so that helps ease the guilt a little. And if it helps me to feel less like I’m being pulled in a million different directions, I say thumbs up.

4. Set a timer. Take breaks. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my smartphone pretty much runs my life. I have multiple reminders each day that alert me to do various things (water the plants!) I’ve also recently started to set a timer so that I remember to get up from my chair a couple of times a day. Ridiculous, I know. But it’s necessary. Otherwise, I would likely stay rooted in my chair for 7-8 hours at a time because some days feel like a RACE to get done ALL THE THINGS before the kids get home. And while that’s great dedication on my part (HA!), it’s probably not super healthy. In order to feel balanced, you have to take breaks. Go get a drink. Eat a snack. Stretch a bit. Check in on Facebook and Twitter. Setting a reminder has been very helpful.

5. Be flexible and remember what’s important. Above all, this is key. Years ago, I would lose my MIND if things didn’t go according to plan, but I’ve learned to roll with the unexpected. Three kids teaches it, and three kids plus a business requires it. I love my job and I love my work situation, but my kids are more important part of everything. So if they need me because of sickness or injury or an important school event, I will be there. It may mean working extra late tomorrow, but in the end, it all balances out.

The system isn’t perfect by any means, and I still have days when I feel stretched to my mental and emotional limits. But after nearly a decade, I’ve mostly figured out what works for me. I love my job! I love my family! And I’m so thankful to be able to have both in my life.

project round-up

So! It’s been about a million years (or 8 months) since I wrote anything here. I’m happy to report it’s because my workload has been steady and my plate has been full! I do get frustrated at times that I don’t have enough mental energy to devote more time to writing helpful and thought-provoking blog posts, but when I realize it’s because my client work is filling my schedule, that makes me happy. Lots of new work coming in must mean I’m doing SOMETHING right!!??

While I have landed several new clients this year, a bulk of the work I’ve done in the past few months has been updates and changes for existing and past customers. So even if nothing is being added to my portfolio, I am usually hard at work helping my clients add new features to their websites, expand their online presence, and boost their business. Probably the biggest project of this year that wasn’t a completely new website was adding a full-featured e-commerce section to a site I designed two years ago for B.E.A.R. of PA. I also worked with a few new clients to make small changes to their current websites- new photos and graphics, social media integration, WordPress troubleshooting and support, and helping to put some finishing touches on WordPress themes before launching the new site.

Another large part of my business this year has been my blog design service. I am thrilled at how well Dress My Blog has been doing- I love designing blogs and being able to change gears from the more corporate/business-y projects is refreshing sometimes. I’ve designed and launched five new blogs since returning to work after maternity leave less than a year ago (two of them for the same client!) Here’s are some recently finished blogs:

Branching Out
Branching Out

Joy in Jackson's Journey
Joy in Jackson’s Journey

Moving Company Reviews
Moving Company Reviews

Cooking with Crystal
Cooking with Crystal

And finally, two other non-blog, WordPress websites I completed recently: Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck and Ruth Washburn Cooperative Nursery School.

Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck
Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck

Ruth Washburn Cooperative Nursery School
Ruth Washburn Cooperative Nursery School

Business is good, work is great, and I am still loving what I do. I’m working with two new clients right now on their websites- one is a brand new site and another is a redesign- and I’m also almost ready to launch another new blog design. Keep it coming! :)

new year, new goals

Happy New Year! As much as I do NOT like winter sometimes, I do enjoy January and the change of years. It’s like a clean slate, looking ahead to twelve whole months where I haven’t yet gotten behind on things! A chance to renew, reset, and refresh.

With that reset typically comes a list of goals and for the upcoming year. I have a list of personal goals I’d like to meet by the time 2014 comes to a close, but I’ve also made some plans for my professional life here at Inksplash.

1. Expand. I’m not planning to hire any employees just yet, but I am looking to partner with a few great people locally so I can offer additional services to my clients. There are areas in which I am NOT an expert and I’m completely fine admitting that! I’d love to be able to connect my clients with people who can provide them with features, services, and consultation on things they might need. And in turn, I hope to be able to make new client relationships of my own through my partners. I’ve already started the wheels in motion on this a little bit and I am so excited!

2. Organize. It doesn’t take long for files and documents to become a jumbled mess. My paper filing cabinet is in need of a good purge of old client files and notes I no longer need. So my paper shredder had better be prepared! I’m also in need of a new laptop before my current one finally gives up (preferably WAY before!) and once I replace it, I’ll need to go through my computer files and get things in order- some digital spring-cleaning!

3. Automate. The busier I am, the more I notice how much time I spend (waste) on paperwork. I’ve been using Freshbooks (affiliate link) for several years now and I absolutely love it. Before that I was using spreadsheets to manage my invoices and payments due and it was… well, it was a nightmare, frankly. Using an online accounting tool has made things so much easier for me, and I know there are features I’m not taking advantage of now that could make things even more pleasant to manage (because who likes paperwork? ugh)

4. Learn. Nearly every website I design makes me learn something new, even if it’s something small. Sometimes it’s a surprise, but a lot of projects I take on knowing that I’ll need to learn a new skill or technique, and I love that (even if it does make me a little anxious at first!). But outside of projects, there are a few areas where I’d love to strengthen my skills and become more confident, and I’m hoping to find the time to read and research a little bit.

Mostly though, I just want to continue enjoying my job and building useful, functional websites for my clients. I’m getting ready to start two new projects which is a great way to kick off the year. Here’s to a prosperous and busy 2014 for everyone!

win a free WordPress blog theme!

I announced the opening of Dress My Blog last month, and now I’m sharing more exciting news: I’m giving away a free WordPress blog theme to one lucky reader! Details are on the official giveaway post- head on over to find out more and get yourself entered.

And if you don’t win but still need blog design services? Just let me know!

(This giveaway is sponsored by Dress My Blog. For full details and giveaway rules, visit www.dressmyblog.net.)

announcing Dress My Blog: custom WordPress blog design

I want to take quick moment to plug my new site, Dress My Blog!

Wordpress Design from Dress My Blog

I’ve had this side project going for a few years, but it was pretty disorganized and not very official. So I took some time to redesign and rethink my plan for it, and I’m very excited about the possibilities. Personal blog design is what got me started with this whole web design thing to begin with, way back in the late 90s (I KNOW. MY AGE, IT SHOWS.) so it’s only fitting that I continue to make that part of my business. I’m still working as Inksplash Designs, but Dress My Blog is just a way for me to focus on bloggers as opposed to small businesses, ecommerce, and other more corporate projects.

So if you’re in the market for a personal blog, or even a blog for your business, let me know! I’d love to create something amazing for you :)

new blog design: Sparks of Splendor

It feels SO GREAT to have my first completed project up and running after returning from maternity leave! This one was extra fun for me because it was a personal site for a close friend. Melissa has been a blogger for years and was ready to completely redesign her blog with a new look and a new site name. I was flattered that she chose ME to do the work, and it was the perfect project on which to stretch out my tired design muscles.

Sparks of Splendor

The design is light and feminine and clean and leaves plenty of room for focus on her beautiful photographs of her three boys and husband. I loved designing a site for her and I hope she enjoys it! You can follow Melissa’s blog at sparksofsplendor.com

3 Reasons Why You Need a Website

It seems like a silly question these days, so many years into the Age Of The Internet. Why do I need a website? It surprises me how many times I go to the internet in search of more information about a business and I come up empty. How are these business surviving without having a presence online? How do their customers even know they exist?

Maybe your business is doing just fine without a website. That’s fantastic! But it could always be doing BETTER. Here are three reasons why you should consider a website for your business.

1. Help Your Customers Give You Money.

Okay so it sounds weird, but there is some truth to this! I personally am a busy lady. I have three young children, a job, a house… I don’t always have time to get to a store. I would much prefer to sit at my computer in my pajamas and do my shopping. Yet I have had several experiences where I’ve WANTED to buy something online from a particular business and it wasn’t offered. So I either never purchased it or I went elsewhere. That’s lost business for that company and woo-boy, if they only knew what their lack of a website was doing for their bottom line.

2. Build an Information Hub.

You don’t have to be selling products directly online to benefit from a business website. Simply having important information online about your company is helpful! Often I’ll be looking for more information about a business- store hours, a menu for a restaurant, etc- and they don’t have a website so I have to call instead and did I mention the three young children who don’t like to let me make phone calls in peace? If ONLY those businesses had a website, my stress level would be much lower and I’d be a happy customer.

3. Project Professionalism.

My first thought when I realize a company doesn’t have a website? Well! They must not be very up to date on how to run a business these days! How old fashioned of them! It might not be fair to think that way, and a business can likely survive okay without existing on the internet. But a business can’t THRIVE without one anymore. Having a business presence online helps you to appear professional and serious about your work or product. If I’m searching for a company online and not having any luck, then I see a similar company during my search who has what I need? I’m very likely to go there instead. More lost business, all because of being absent on the web.

Get online. Now.

Being online doesn’t have to mean spending thousands of dollars and hundreds man-hours on a website. With some good planning and a great project manager (hey! That’s me!), you can be up and running with something professional within a few weeks- AND within your budget. If you’re convinced you need a website and are ready to get started, contact me and I’ll share my ideas!

diving back in: open for business!

This is just a quick post to announce that I am officially open for business! The kids are back in school for the year and I’m excited about getting started on some new projects. (So hey, if you have one? Let me know!) It may take me a couple of weeks to get back into the swing of things, and definitely a few days to catch up on email and follow up with some folks, but I am BACK!

On a personal note, I had a great maternity leave/summer break with my kids. Zachary was born April 4, healthy and happy and he’s growing and doing so great- he’s almost 5 months old already! And the girls had a great time playing with friends and visiting playgrounds this summer, and we even braved the long drive to North Carolina for a family beach vacation. I feel so lucky to have been able to spend this time with them, even if it was exhausting some days :)

Audrey, Zachary, and Maggie

Thank you so much for your patience with me while I disappeared for so long! I honestly thought I’d be able to keep in touch more than I did, but I underestimated the demands of three kids. I’ll be going through email this week and if you’re waiting to hear from me, stay tuned!

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