I have a brother. He started a business earlier this year, and recently asked me about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for his web site.
I went to a two-day class on the topic earlier this year, which means I’m by no means an expert on the topic, but I’m a pretty good study and I’ve been using and following the world wide web since very nearly the beginning. I figured I should answer his question, and while I’m at it I figure it’ll make a decent blog post.
So, here’s a few things you should know about SEO:
SEO is not a goal; it is a means to an end.
Everyone wants to be number one. But being the top ranked search engine result, or even on the first page, isn’t really the whole point of SEO. Getting that good position on a search results list is something we do for something. We do it in order to drive traffic to our site.
Depending on the site in question, simply driving traffic to it may not be the goal either. What do you want that traffic to do once it arrives at your site? That depends on the purpose of your site. Being found is only the first step. What will you do once they’ve found you?
There’s a zillion reasons people put web sites up, but most of them boil down to making money at some point. How do you do that with your site? Is it through advertising? Subscriptions? E-commerce? Establishing relationships with customers? Gathering user data and selling it?
However you do it, most likely the more traffic your site gets, the more revenue you’ll take in. Ranking highly for popular search terms is a good and important means of driving traffic to your site, but it’s not the only thing you can do to achieve that.
Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of why you want the traffic in the first place.
SEO is but one means of driving traffic to your site
Consider — and make use of — all methods that you can:
- internet advertising
- traditional media advertising (print, radio, tv, billboards)
- direct marketing (mailers, pamphlets, brochures, flyers, business cards)
- word of mouth
- other sites linking to you
- linking to yourself from elsewhere
Optimization is relative to the search term
People talk about “optimizing my site for search engines” and there are indeed a few technical things you can do with your site that will make it friendlier to search engines in general — and I’ll be getting to those.
But when you talk about SEO, you really are talking about optimizing for a specific term (or list of terms), not generically “optimizing your site.”
People searching for your site specifically are likely to find it very easily, even if they don’t know your domain name. Search any website for “csanyk.com”, for example, and you’re pretty much guaranteed that this website will be high on the list. Search for my name, and you’ll also find this site pretty high up on the list of results. Search for “IT consulting” or “Web Design” or something generic, and well, I’m sure I don’t rank so well. Another example: Last year, I created a class on Cascading Stylesheets called “Streetwise CSS”; if you search for that specific term, “streetwise css”, I’m highly visible. But if you’re just searching for CSS, I’m not as visible in the crowd of good resources on CSS that you’ll find when you google for the term “css”.
It’s easy to be found if you’re unique
The reason for that is simple: unique terms on the web don’t have to compete with a million other web pages because they’re unique. If there are 10 results on the first page, and you’re the only person who happens to be using that particular term in the entire internet, well guess what? You win by default. No contest.
Optimizing for a unique term is easy. It’s also a great idea. If you have one specific term, such as your name, that you can get out there through branding and marketing, people will start searching for that term and they’ll find you easily. But, the catch with unique terms for SEO is that since they’re unique, that means no one else is using them, and if no one else is using them, that’s probably because no one else knows them.
So one of the tricks of SEO is having a unique name or other term that could be used by people to search, but isn’t being used yet. Invent a good name that no one knows yet, make sure that you are on the top result for it on all the search engines, and then go about making it known. Youtube. Flickr. Pixlr.
You need to be where they’re looking
Having a unique, easy to find search term will rank you high on a search engine’s results for that specific term, but if no one’s searching for that term, it’s not going to boost your traffic. Cornering the search results market on a specific, unique term is not all there is to SEO. Far from it. You also need to try to get a piece of the action from very common search terms. SEO for a unique term is easy and valuable because it enables you to stand out from the crowd.
Ranking high in search engine results for very common search terms is much harder, but it’s even more valuable because it puts you in a prominent position in front of the crowd of people searching for that term, and the easiest way to draw a crowd to your site is to position it in the middle of a crowd to start with. It’s hard because there’s not just a crowd of searchers — there’s a crowd of sites looking to be found. And there’s only perhaps 10 results on the first page of most search engines, which they’re all competing for. Still, it’s worth competing for those high-ranking results for common terms, because so many people are searching for them.
To put it another way, looking for you is very different from searching for what you do, what you are, or what you want to be known for.
Learn to think like someone who’s searching for whatever it is you want to be found for.
You have to do some marketing research, use common sense, psychology, and come up with lists of terms that people who need your site are likely to be searching for. Figure out those words, and optimize for them, and your site will rank highly for people who need you. Set up Google Analytics on your site and you’ll be able to see the search terms people used to find your site. Look at that list, and start filling in blanks. Figure out synonyms, regional terms, alternate spellings for what you want to be known for. Let your list seed a brainstorm so you can come up with other terms that people might be searching on, but not finding you. Then optimize your site so that the next time someone searches for that term, they do.
Learn to think like a Search Engine Rank Algorithm (and a Web Crawler, too)
This is where your technical specialists come in. Whoever’s designing, building, and maintaining your web site should be taking care of this for you. But you need to know at least something about this, so you can talk to your technical people.
Understanding how a web crawler works isn’t difficult. A web crawler is a program that goes out on the web and downloads pages and follows links. That’s how search engines obtain the content that they index and rank. That’s about all you need to know. Knowing this, you now understand the importance of making the information on your website accessible to the web crawler.
There are ways of building web sites that make it easier or more difficult for web crawlers to find everything. Valid, standards compliant, well-structured HTML that does not abuse or misuse tags is what you want.
No one quite knows for sure how search engines rank sites for specific search terms — it’s a tightly guarded secret, and it’s constantly being changed and tweaked as the internet evolves and as SEO experts learn how to game the system. We can guess, and we have some pretty good knowledge about what matters to ranking algorithms.
Here’s where words “count” most to a ranking algorithm:
- the site domain name
- the title element
- heading elements
This does not mean you should load these areas with words you hope people will search on! Search engines are wise to this and will penalize you for it. The ranking algorithm has a built-in diminishing return for putting too many “hot words” on your page. Choose a domain name wisely, and go for uniqueness (since every common word is already in use or very expensive) and branding. Use the title and heading elements in your html to make good, effective titles and headings. Make them good and effective titles and headings for humans first, but give thought to the machines that will visit your site, analyze its contents, and then rank them for the search terms that those humans will be using to find you.
Avoid “hiding” your content where search engines won’t be able to find it:
- behind a login
- inside of flash objects that aren’t properly accessible
- in images without proper descriptive text
Ranking algorithms also care about how popular your site is and how important your site is. They also care about how popular and important the sites are that link to you. Just how exactly this is determined is difficult to know, but generally speaking, if other, high quality, popular, important web sites link to you, that will help boost you in search results. The more the better. But this is also very hard to accomplish. It’s probable that being popular with social networking sites will help boost your search ranking, but also drive a lot of traffic to your site through the users of those social networks outright. So make it easy for people visiting your site to Like you on facebook, to Tweet about something they found on your site, or to find your personal profile on LinkedIn, or whatever. There are social bookmarking plug-ins for most popular web content management and blogging systems (WordPress, Drupal, Blogger, etc.) that can do this for you. Giving your visitors reasons to Like and link to you is up to you.
Enough of these will give you some boost in your ranking. But links from social networking sites are also “cheap” and easy to game the system with, so it may be that the ranking algorithm takes this into account, or will soon. The maintainers of these algorithms are constantly changing the rules to keep ahead of SEO opportunists who are looking for ways to game the system.
Build a Good Site and SEO almost takes care of itself
Really, if you’re doing things right, you almost don’t even need to think about SEO. A good site is one that provides value to its visitors and gives them reasons to come back. This should be fairly obvious to anyone. You need content that is fresh, constantly updated. You need information that is highly valuable or entertaining. You need engaging things for people to do.
Have a strategy. Why does your site exist? What is its purpose? How well is it achieving its goals? Measure and monitor everything you can about the site and analyze it.
Not all web sites need to be YouTube or Facebook. You don’t have to be giant or mega-popular or have brilliant, cutting edge technology or an idea no one has ever thought of before to be useful or popular with your market.
If all your site needs to be is a brochure and a means for customers to find you, then provide useful information for customers and prospective customers. Give customers accounts that they can use to log in and conduct business with you — placing orders, paying bills, asking questions, providing feedback to you, Liking you.
If people visit your site frequently, they will link to it, tell friends about it, and this will build your traffic and search engines will rank your site higher as a result.
Don’t attract a crowd only to have them find an incomplete or crappy web site!