If you’re like me, when it’s time for the holidays, your mind turns to one thing: Search Engine Optimization. Not.

Now I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill, but SEO strategies seem to be multiplying like Justin Bieber fan sites. So before you overdose on eggnog, I have some homework for you over the holidays. Read this guest post from the Genius Eric Pratum. In one post, he shows you a 10-step prioritized plan to improve the SEO for your blog without spending a lot of time or money.

Search engines help people find information outside of their networks, get exposed to new ideas, and answer questions that no one around them can. You might be seeing a lot of benefits from social media, but SEO cannot be overlooked. You need to strike a balance between engineering content and actually writing it. When trying to promote your blog, search engines can be a powerful way to bring you new, relevant readers and subscribers.

So with a little help from Ross Hudgens, I’ve put together this beginner’s SEO guide for bloggers. I’ve rated each step by importance and degree of difficulty. Here we go:

1) Site-wide keyword strategy

Difficulty – 2

Priority – 10

A sitewide keyword strategy helps you determine the emphasis of your blog. If you’re a social media blogger, you’ll have a certain set of high-level themes you discuss and use like: social media marketing, social media for business, and so on. If you’re a landscape photography blogger, you’ll have a different set.

Many of these keywords should be prominent on most pages of your site. This is part of what differentiates you in search from every other type of photo blogger that covers a slightly different topic and should be drawing in different types of searchers.

How to do it – Determine your most popular topics and generate a short keyword list around those topics. If you run out of ideas, try Google autocomplete, the Wonder Wheel, or the Google Keyword Tool. The more focused you are, the more focused searchers will be on what you write about.

It is important to note that you might pick topics that are extremely competitive in search because they’re too broad or too popular. Try to balance broad and niche appeal so that you have a chance to get new, sometimes peripherally interested, searchers while also being true to the core of your focus.

2) Meta tags, titles, and keywords

Difficulty – 6

Priority – 9

Keywords are the words and phrases most relevant to the topic of an individual page. In the “eyes” of an SEO bot, title tags are the names your pages.

Often, these are the same as the blog post titles themselves. Meta tags (just “tags” if you’re in WordPress) tell search engines what keywords from the page copy might be the most “on topic.”

For example, if you use the phrase “social media” several times on a page and then also use the meta and title tag “social media,” search engines take those together as an indication that your page is relevant to that. There is some debate about emphasizing meta tags, but it seems to be generally accepted that they are not significantly important to search engine rankings. Focus on copy & title tags.

How to do it – On a day-to-day basis, your individual post keywords will differ slightly from your sitewide keyword list. Use the same techniques we used in building your site keyword list: Google autocomplete, the Wonder Wheel, and the Google Keyword Tool.

After you have written your post, determine what keywords naturally pop out and use them in your title and meta tags. Then, from your keyword research, figure out how you can work in the most relevant keywords in the copy and tags. However, always keep in mind that you are writing for people first and search engines second, so don’t unnecessarily stuff the post with keywords. If you use a WordPress Thesis theme or a plugin like All in One SEO Pack, you can easily format the blog post title separately from the actual title tags, which is great if your keyword-rich title tag is not necessarily the most eye-catching blog post title.

3) Develop internal links

Difficulty – 3

Priority – 8

For most blogs, internal links are a good way for people and search engines to understand your subject matter and get access to older content. Internal links are generally links to older posts within the copy and/or archives or tag clouds in the sidebar.

How to do this – Try to reference at least one of your older posts each time you write something new. If possible, do this early in your post so that it is more prominent to readers and search engines. Also, make sure that your sidebars have archives and/or tags listed that are not hidden behind something like flash or javascript. While those can look pretty and sometimes entice humans to click further into your site, search engines can have trouble following these links if they’re not in standard HTML.

4) External link building

Difficulty – 10

Priority – 7

Search engines look at the number of external links to a page to help determine what should rank the highest. The more inbound links a page has, the more authoritative search engines believe it is. Link building can be accomplished in a number of different ways, but it is very important to note that getting links from sites that are relevant to the page they’re linking to is valuable, so no links to your Nikon 50D page from a recipe website please. And, getting a link with the right keywords in the anchor text is a big help, so shoot for a link that says, “Nikon 50D,” and not, “Click Here.”

How to do this – This can be a difficult maneuver but here are some ideas:

  • Write great content. Write something amazing that others WANT to link to.
  • Be controversial. Much like the recent SEO vs SM posts that drew lots of attention and therefore links, you can write about how all Nikon cameras are superior to all Canon cameras.
  • Ask for links. Search out similar sites and give the webmasters a reason why it would be valuable to link to your site. One way to do this is to find out who links to sites like yours and go talk to those people.
  • Be social. Search engines pay attention to pages that get lots of tweets, stumbles, and so on. Make it easy to share your posts.
  • Guest post. This is time consuming, but often when you guest post on other blogs, you get at least one link back to your site, and how often would you guest post on an unrelated site? Not often, so you get a link from a relevant page, and you might get to choose the anchor text.

5) Create and cultivate social profiles

Difficulty – 4

Priority – 6

Be sure to feature you blog link on social profiles at Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or whatever is relevant to your business. While you may not get credit for an external link, people actually use these sites a lot and you can generate a lot of click traffic, subscribers, and maybe even additional links. Also, know that search engines do count “social signals” (tweets, stumbles, and so on) in their search algorithms, so if your posts are tweeted about by influential people, you’re likely to rank slightly higher than posts that are not.

How to do this – Create profiles and add links from networks and other sites that are relevant to your focus. That could be MySpace if you’re a musician, Hacker News if you’re in the tech space, or a recipe website if you’re a chef. Be active on those sites and you’re likely to drive relevant traffic.

6) Image tags

Difficulty – 4

Priority – 5

Search engines can’t “read” images, so they need tags attached to them to let them know it’s a photo of a dog, a drawing of a car, or what-have-you. Tagged images can drive a ton of relevant traffic to your site from places like Google Images. I recently removed an image from my site that I felt did not represent what the page was about and lost nearly 500 visits per day as a result. That’s how much traffic I was getting everyday for a single image. For big-time bloggers, that’s nothing, but when your blog gets in the low hundreds or thousands of daily visits, that’s a big deal. Imagine if that image had been relevant to the page.

How to do it – If you’re in WordPress or a similar Content Management System, make sure that you put in relevant image titles, descriptions, and alternate text when you upload a photo.

7) Optimize pages again after you publish

Difficulty – 8

Priority – 4

You’ve posted your article. Your analytics now tell you what keywords people use to find that post. They also tell you what sites people come from to get to your content. When you optimize your web pages after-the-fact, you simply tweak content, tags, and titles.

It is very important to note here that many SEOs (and search engines themselves) consider it unethical to make major, non-contextual changes to your pages only in order to get them to rank higher. If the change you make streamlines how the page reads, removes superfluous keywords, or otherwise makes the page more valuable to readers though, you will be in the clear.

How to do it – Look through your analytics to see what types of traffic you’re getting for a page. Did you mention “social media” five times but are getting more search traffic for “social marketing?” Go ahead and change all of those instances to social marketing. Are you getting traffic from a motivational blogger? Adjust, re-arrange, or re-word the content to be more relevant to the topic on that linking page. Another option is to write new posts relevant to the referring keywords and sites you’re seeing in your analytics. But, never change the page simply in order to rank higher in search results. Always focus on making the page more valuable for readers.

8. Add Videos

Difficulty – 5

Priority – 3

YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world, and it’s owned by Google. In many of its search results, you may notice that Google (and other search engines) show videos very near the top of the page. Every one of these videos could be a YouTube video that has a link to your specific, related blog post if your videos are relevant to the search terms and tagged appropriately. At the same time, sites like DailyMotion and Revver have dedicated visitors that might be more relevant to you than YouTube viewers.

How to – Try video blogging now and then instead of writing blog posts. Use a service like PixelPipe or TubeMogul to syndicate these videos to several different sites. Use the same keyword descriptors for your videos that you would for a normal blog post. Think about transcribing the main points of the video to re-purpose this content in a written blog post.

9) Directory submissions

Difficulty – 9

Priority – 2

Sites like Yahoo! and Alltop host directories and lists of sites within particular niches. SEOs debate the value of being listed in a directory, but hey, it’s a one-time project and your site can get listed alongside other relevant, popular sites, it’s not necessarily a bad idea. In a past life, I was able to get a company blog listed first within its Alltop category, and as a result, nearly all of our traffic was driven through this one channel.

How to do it – There are directories and lists for nearly every niche you can imagine. There are also huge directories that house everything. It’s a good idea to get listed in a few of each. Some of them charge, so skip those for now. Search for your keyword + directory, follow the directions for each directory, and wait. Inexplicably, many of these directories take months to list sites.

10) Sitemaps

Difficulty – 1+

Priority – 1

A sitemap tells search engines where every page is on your site, how it’s laid out, and what pages have been updated. For large sites this is more important than for common blogs, so this might be one of the last things you do. However, once you set it up once, you will probably not need to go back.

How to do it – If you’re on WordPress, get yourself a plugin like Google XML Sitemaps. This will create the sitemap for you, and also submit articles to the search engines when new posts go live. If you’re not on WordPress, you’ll have to search around to see how easily you can get a sitemap created.

So there you have it! Ten steps to drive readers to your blog. Here are a couple of other ideas and resources:

  1. Write first and foremost for people.
  2. Search is an important part of the online marketing equation, but is neither a mindless, anti-human part nor the only part.
  3. Try to focus your posts on a single, narrow topic (eg. Twitter for animal shelters), but use relevant variations of that keyword.
  4. The narrower your keyword focus is, the less traffic you are likely to get. However, the narrower your keyword focus is, the more relevant traffic you are likely to get.
  5. Don’t overdo it on meta tags. If you do, it’ll look like keyword stuffing. Try to keep it to 5 tags or less.
  6. If you can’t figure out what your site should be about, chances are neither can Google or your readers.
  7. Link building can really suck up time. If you’re dedicated to being a great blogger, you’ll probably see the most value in writing great content that entices people to link. Asking for links will likely be less successful.
  8. The search engine marketing field is huge, and search engines keep their algorithms mostly secret, so be wary when someone tells you that they know for certain that one trick or another will boost your rankings.
  9. If you blog every day, give yourself five minutes to think about SEO. You will quickly learn what methods work for your site and what does not. Tweak, repeat, and soon, you will find that optimizing your content for search engines becomes second nature.

SEO tools, toys, and references:

Eric Pratum is the social marketing strategist at his nonprofit marketing agency. Find him on his smart marketing blog or, even better, say hi on Twitter.