Category: internet

Bad Google Chrome 17: What happened to Don’t Be Evil?

I just read this Ars Technica article on the Google Chrome 17 release and was not happy to read the following:

The new Chrome introduces a “preemptive rendering” feature that will automatically begin loading and rendering a page in the background while the user is typing the address in the omnibox (the combined address and search text entry field in Chrome’s navigation toolbar). The preloading will occur in cases when the top match generated by the omnibox’s autocompletion functionality is a site that the user visits frequently.

I bet this is going to piss off a lot of web server admins. Unless the pre-render is coming from Google’s Cache, it’s going to put extra load on web servers. Web server stats will be inflated, giving a distorted picture for ad revenue. I’m sure google’s smart enough to have thought of these things and has it all figured out, but I’d like to know what their answers were.

Google has also added some new security functionality to Chrome. Every time that the user downloads a file, the browser will compare it against a whiltelist of known-good files and publishers. If the file isn’t in the whitelist, its URL will be transmitted to Google’s servers, which will perform an automatic analysis and attempt to guess if the file is malicious based on various factors like the trustworthiness of its source. If the file is deemed a potential risk, the user will receive a warning.

Google says that data collected by the browser for the malware detection feature is only used to flag malicious files and isn’t used for any other purpose. The company will retain the IP address of the user and other metadata for a period of two weeks, at which point all of the data except the URL of the file will be purged from Google’s databases.

I sure hope this can be disabled. For one, whitelisting download files is the first step to a censored net. Secondly, it gives google access to anything you’ve ever downloaded. Your privacy is no a matter between you and the server. Now you have Google acting as a nanny, reading over your shoulder, making sure that what you’re pulling down over your network connection isn’t going to hurt you (but also very likely in time that it isn’t “bad” in any other sense, either).

While they’re “protecting” you now, eventually they’ll get the idea that they should “protect” you from copyright violation, from information the government doesn’t want you to see for whatever reason, and so on. It puts Google in control over how most people access everything on the internet, and is vastly more power than any single entity should be entrusted with, no matter how competent, how corruption-resistant, or how well-intended they are.

I’m sure malware is still a very real problem, but personally I have not had a run-in with Malware on any computer I’ve used in many years. Justifying Google’s right to do this and using malware as a scapegoat is a bit like saying that due to the possibility of terrorism, you have no right to personal privacy or a presumption of innocense.

We need to speak up about this.

Follow the Leader: Firefox 5 and the State of the Browser Wars

Mozilla released Firefox 5 yesterday. I upgraded on one of my systems already, but haven’t done so on all of my systems due to some Extensions that are lagging behind in compatibility. These days I mostly use Chrome as my default browser, so I’m less apt to notice what might have changed between FF4 and FF5, and looking at the change list it doesn’t look like a huge release, which is another way of saying that Firefox is mature and can be expected to undergo minor refinements rather than major uhpeavals — this should be a good thing. FF4 seemed like a pretty good quality release. I’ve been a Firefox user since the early 0.x releases, and have been more or less satisfied with it, whatever its present state was at the time, since about 0.9.3. And before that I used the full Mozilla suite, IE4-6 for a few dark years when it actually was the best browser available on Windows, and before that Netscape 4. I actively shunned and ridiculed WebTV ;-). And I’d been a Netscape user since 1.1N came out in ’94. So, yeah. I knows my web browsers.

These are pretty exciting times for the WWW. HTML5 and CSS3 continue slowly becoming viable for production use, and have enabled new possibilities for web developers.

Browsers have matured and become rather good, and between Mozilla, Chrome, Opera, Safari, and IE, it appears that there’s actually a healthy amount of competition going on to produce the best web browser, and pretty much all of the available choices are at least decent.

It seems like a good time to survey and assess the “state of the browser”. So I did that. This is going to be more off the cuff than diligiently researched, but here’s a few thoughts:

After some reflection, I’ve concluded that we seem to have pretty good quality in all major browsers, but perhaps less competition than the number of players in the market might seem to indicate.

Hmm, “Pretty good quality”: What do I mean by this, exactly? It’s hard to say what you expect from a web browser, and a few times we’ve seen innovations that have redefined good enough, but at the moment I feel that browsers are mature and good enough, for the most part: They’re fast, featureful, stable. Chrome and Firefox at least both have robust extensibility, with ecosystems of developers supporting some really clever (and useful) stuff that in large part I couldn’t imagine using the modern WWW without.

Security is a major area where things could still be better, but the challenges there are difficult to wrap one’s head around. It seems that for the forseeable future, being smart, savvy, and paranoid are necessary to have a reasonable degree of security when it comes to using a web browser — and even then it’s far from guaranteed.

There has been some progress in terms of detecting cross site scripting attacks, phishing sites, improperly signed certificates, locking scripts, and the like. Still, it seems wrong to expect a web browser to ever be “secure”, any more than it would make sense to expect any inanimate object to protect you. It’s a tool, and you use it, and how you use it will determine what sort of risks you expose yourself to. The tool can be designed in such a way as to reduce certain types of risks, but the problem domain is too broad and open to ever expect anyone but a qualified expert to have a hope of having anything resembling a complete understanding of the threat picture.

That’s a can of worms for another blog post, not something I can really tackle today. Let’s accept for now the thesis that browser quality is “decent” or even “pretty good”. The WWW is almost 20 years old, so anything other should be surprising.

In terms of competition, we have a bit less than the number of players makes it seem.

Microsoft only develops IE for Windows now, making it a non-competitor on all other platforms. Yet, because its installed userbase is so large, IE is still influential on the design of web sites (primarily in that IE forces web developers to test for older versions of IE’s quirks and bugs). By now, we’re really very nearly done with this, one would hope the long tail of IE6 is flattening as thin as it can until corporations can finally migrate from Windows XP. Even MS is solidly on board with complying with w3C recommendations for how web content gets rendered. It seems that their marketshare is held almost exclusively due to IE being the default browser for the dominant OS. Particularly in corporate environments where the desktop is locked down and the user has no choice, or the hordes of personal computer owners who own a computer but treat it like an appliance that they don’t understand, maintain, or upgrade. I suspect that the majority of IE users use it because they have no choice or because they don’t understand their computer enough or have the curiosity to learn how to install software, not because there are people out there who genuinely love IE and prefer it over other browsers. I’m willing to be wrong on this, so if you’re out there using IE and love it, and prefer it over other browsers, be sure to drop me a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Apple is in much the same position with Safari on Mac OS X as MS is with IE on Windows. Apple does make Safari for Windows, but other than web developers who want to test with it, I know of no one who uses it. Safari is essentially in the inverse boat that IE is in on its native platform: a non-competitor on every other platform.

This leaves us with Opera, Mozilla, and Chrome.

Opera has been free for years now, though closed-source, and has great quality, yet adoption still is very low, to the point where its userbase is basically negligible. There are proud Opera fanboys out there, and probably will be as long as Opera sticks around. But they don’t seem like they’ll ever be a major player, even as the major players always seem to rip off features that they pioneered. They do have some inroads on embedded and mobile platforms (I use Opera on my Nokia smartphone rather than the built-in browser, and on my Wii). But I really have to wonder why Opera still exists at this point. It’s mysterious that they haven’t folded.

The Mozilla Foundation is so dependent on funding from Google that Firefox vs. Chrome might as well be Google vs. Google. One wonders how long that’s likely to continue. I guess as long as Google wants to erode the entrenched IE marketshare and appear not to be a drop-in replacement for monopoly, it will continue to support Mozilla and, in turn, Firefox. Mozilla does do more than just Firefox, though, so that’s something to keep in mind. A financially healthy, vibrant Mozilla is good for the market as a whole.

Moreover, both Chrome and Firefox are open source projects. This makes either project more or less freely able to borrow not just ideas, but (potentially, from a legal standpoint at least) actual source code, from each other.

It’s a bit difficult to be able to describe to a proverbial four year old how Mozilla and Chrome are competing with each other. If anything, they compete with each other for funding and developer resources (particularly from Google). Outwardly, Firefox appears to have lost the leadership position within the market, despite still having the larger user base, they are no longer driving the market to innovate. Firefox largely has given that up to Google (and even when they were given credit for it, much of what they “innovated” was already present in Opera, and merely popularized and re-implemented as open source by Mozilla. And with each release since Chrome was launched, Firefox continues to converge in its design to look and act more and more like Chrome.

It’s difficult to say how competing browsers ought to differentiate themselves from each other, anyway. The open standards that the WWW is built upon more or less demand that all browsers not differentiate themselves from each other too much, lest someone accuse them of attempting to hijack standards or create a proprietary Internet. Beyond that, market forces pretty much dictate that if you keep your differentiating feature to yourself, no web developers will make use of it because only the users of your browser will be able to make use of those features, leaving out the vast majority of internet users as a whole.

Accelerating Innovation

After releasing Firefox 4, Mozilla changed its development process to accomodate the accelerated type of release schedule that quickly lead to Google becoming recognized as the driver and innovator in the browser market. Firefox 5 is the first such release under the new process.

This change has met with a certain amount of controversy. I’ve read a lot of opinion on this on various forums frequented by geeks who care about these things.

Cynical geeks think that it’s marketing driven, with version number being used to connote quality or maturity, so that commercials can say “our version number is higher than the competitor, therefore our product must be that much better”. Cynics posited that since Chrome’s initial release put them so many versions behind IE/FF/Opera that this put Google into a position of needing to “make up excuses” to rev the major version number, until they “caught up” with the big boys.

While this is something that we have seen in software at times, I don’t think that’s what’s going on this time. We’re not seeing competitors skipping version numbers (like Netscape Navigator skipping 5 in order to achieve “version parity” with IE6) or marketing-driven changes to the way a product promotes its version (a la Windows 3.1 -> 95 -> 98 -> 2000 -> XP -> Vista -> 7).

Some geeks, I’ll call them versioning “purists,” believe that version numbers should “have integrity”, “be meaningful”, or “stand for something”. These are the kind of geeks who like the software projects where the major number stays at 0 for a decade, even though the application has been in widespread use and in a fairly mature state since 0.3 and has a double-digit minor number. The major release number denotes some state of maturity, and has criteria which must be satisfied in order for that number to go up, and if it ever should go up for the wrong reasons, it’s an unmitigated disaster, a triumph of marketing over engineering, or a symptom that the developers don’t know what they’re doing since they “don’t understand proper versioning”.

From this camp, we have the argument that in order to rev the major number so frequently, necessarily this must mean that the developers are delivering less with each rev, which thus necessarily dilutes the “meaningfulness” of the major version number, or somehow conveys misleading information. So much less is delivered with each release that the major number no longer conveys what they believe it ought to (typically, major code base architecture, or backward compatibility boundary, or something of that order). These people have a point, if the major number indeed is used to signify such things. However, they would be completely happy with the present state of affairs if only there were a major number ahead of the number that’s changing so frequently. In fact, you’ll hear them make snarky comments that “Firefox 5 is really 4.1”, and so on. Just pretend there’s an imaginary leading super-major version number, which never changes, guys. It’ll be OK.

Firefox’s accelerated dev cycle is in direct response to Chrome’s. Chrome’s rapid pace had nothing to do with achieving version parity. In fact, when Chrome launched in pre-1.0 beta, in terms of technology at least, it was actually ahead of the field in many ways. Beyond that, Chrome hardly advertises its version number at all. It updates itself in about as silently a manner as it possibly can without actually being deceptive. And Google’s marketing of Chrome doesn’t emphasize the version number, either. It’s the Chrome brand, not the version. Moreover, they don’t need to emphasize the version, because upgrading isn’t really a choice the user has to make in order to keep up to date.

Google’s development process has emphasized frequent, less disruptive change over less frequent, more disruptive. It’s a very smart approach, and it smells of Agile. Users benefit because they get better code sooner. Developers benefit because they get feedback on the product they released sooner, meaning they can fix problems and make improvements sooner.

The biggest problem that Mozilla users will have with this is that Extensions developers are going to have to adjust to the rapid pace. Firefox extensions have a built-in check which tests an Extension to see if it is designed to work with the version of Firefox that is loading it. This is a simple/dumb version number check, nothing more. So when version numbers bump and the underlying architecture hasn’t changed in a way that impacts the working of the Extension, the extension is disabled because the version number is disqualified, not necessarily because of a genuine technical incompatibility. Often the developer ups the version number that the check will allow, and that’s all that is needed. A more robust checking system that actually flags technical incompatibilities might help alleviate this tedium. But if and when the underlying architecture does change, Extension developers will have to become accustomed to being responsive quickly, or run the risk of becoming irrelevant due to obsolescence. Either that, or Firefox users will resist upgrading rapidly until their favorite Extensions are supported. Either situation is not good for Mozilla.

Somehow, Chrome doesn’t seem to have this problem. Chrome has a large ecology of Extensions, comparable to that of Firefox. Indeed, many popular Firefox Extensions are ported to work with Chrome. Yet I can’t recall ever getting warned or alerted that any of my Chrome extensions are no longer compatible because Chrome updated itself. It seems like another win for Chrome, and more that Firefox could learn from them.

I have to give a lot of credit to Google for spurring the innovation that has fueled browser development in the last couple years. The pace of innovation that we saw when Mozilla and Opera were the leaders just wasn’t as fast, or as influential. With the introduction of Chrome, and the rapid release schedule that Google have successfully kept up with, the entire market seems to have been invigorated. Mozilla has had to change their practices in order to keep up, both in terms of speeding up their release cycle, and in adopting some of the features that made Chrome a leader and innovator, such as isolating browser processes to indivual threads, drastically improving javascript performance. Actually, it feels to me that most of the recent innovation in web browsers has been all due to the leadership of Chrome, with everyone else following the leader rather than coming up with their own innovations.

In order to be truly competitive, the market needs more than just the absence of monopoly. A market with one innovator and many also-rans isn’t as robustly healthy as a market with multiple innovators. So, really, the amount of competition isn’t so great, and yet we see that the pace of innovation seems to be picking up. Also, it’s strange to be calling this a market, since no one at this point is actually selling anything. I’d really like to see some new, fresh ideas coming out of Mozilla, Opera, and even Microsoft and Apple. As long as Google keeps having great ideas coupled with great execution, and openness, perhaps such a robust market for browsers is not essential, but it would still be great to see.

Intellectual property value of social networking referrals

One thing I have noticed over my years of using the social web (fb, twitter, livejournal) that human culture instinctively places a value on linking to things in a way that I find odd. There’s a type of “intellectual property” that people conventionally recognize as a sort of matter of natural course. I don’t know how else to describe it than that.

In real value terms this sort of intellectual property is very low value, but in social etiquette terms, the value is more substantial. The phenomena is one of credit, but it’s not credit for authorship, rather it is credit for finding and sharing. If you find something cool and blog about it, and you’re the first one in your little social group to do so, you get some kind of credit for being on top of things, being cool enough to know where to look, lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, or whatever. It’s not much more than that, but somehow if you post the same link and are not the first in your social group to do so, and don’t acknowledge the coolness of the person who you saw posted it first, it can ruffle feathers, as though people think you’re trying to be the cool, original one and are stealing other people’s “cool points” by not acknowledging where you got your cool link from.

It’s funny though since posting a link is an act of evaluation (“I judge this content to be worthy of your time, so I’m sharing it.”) rather than an act of creativity (if you want to be really cool, go author some original content and see how many people you can get to link to that.)

What I take from this is two things:

  1. having good enough taste in something to make a recommendation which one of your friends will pass along to others is an important, valuable thing in itself. Having this sort of taste implies that you are cool.
  2. Getting there first is important, OR perhaps acknowledging who was cool enough to turn you on to something that you found cool is important.

One of the things about Facebook that I like a lot is that they get this, and implement it in such a way that it basically works automatically. You can click “Share” and it just handles crediting who you got it from in a behind the scenes sort of way that forces you to follow the etiquette convention automatically, thereby avoiding being a leech or douchebag. On the other hand, in Livejournal, this is a somewhat useful way to discern who among your friends is a douchebag, since if they don’t think to credit someone for showing them something that you’ve already seen before, you know they’re not with it, or at least aren’t following their friends-list all that closely.

 

Another interesting thing about this is that, depending, sometimes people will just post a link to something without any comment, while other times people will post and add their thoughts to it as an annotation. Sometimes no comment is needed, or is implied by the context of how you know your Friend and what they are about and why they would be posting that link. Other times, people will post their thoughts and sometimes write something reasonably lengthy and thoughtful on the subject that they are linking to. This tends to happen much more on Livejournal than on Facebook or Twitter, which are geared toward more structured, but forced brief content. I think that Livejournal tends to encourage more expressive posts because people tend to use pseudonyms and write with somewhat more anonymity than they have with Facebook, where most people use their real name. I do like the way that Facebooks conversations of comments seem to flow very nicely once a topic hits someone’s wall. It’s also interesting to see how different groups of friends will come to the same original linked content and have different or similar conversations about it.

I think it would be fascinating to be able to visualize through some sort of graphic how sub-circles of an individual’s friends might converge though common interest in some topic. In my own Facebook experience, it has been interesting to see people I know from elementary and high school mixing with people I knew from college and afterward, and from various workplaces, and so on. I think it would be really interesting to see this sort of interaction on a very large scale, sortof a Zuckerberg’s eye view of what’s going on in various social circles that occupy Facebook. I can mentally picture colored bubbles occupying various regions of space, and mixing at the edges, colors blending like wet paint.

I also think it’s interesting how the constraints and style of the different social sites shape behavior and the characteristics of the groups who use them. Facebook users in my experience have tended to be more sedate, dryer, and thoughtful, though not always. Substantial numbers of my friends seem to be comfortable goofing and making fools of themselves, or being outspoken to the point that they run the risk of offending people of a differing political polarity. Twitter seems to be a land of important headlines mixed with one-liner witticisms and the occasional bit of Zen. Livejournal seems to be more private, insular, and diary-ish. I almost said “diaretic” but that sounds a lot like another word which, actually, might be even more appropriate, if disgusting. Discussting? Heh.

OK, I’m clearly blogging like I’ve been up for too long, and I have. But I hope to revisit and put more thought into these matters and see if something materializes out of that that is worthy of linking to and discussing. This could end up being someone’s Social Media studies PhD thesis:P

Three eras of searching the world wide web

A little late to the game and perhaps obvious, I know, but I was just musing and it occurred to me that there are perhaps three distinct eras for the way people using the world wide web have found information:

The Yahoo era: A cadre of net geeks personally indexed and recommended stuff for everyone to look at when you told them what you were looking for.
The Google era: A massive cluster of robots scoured the internet and figured out what web sites looked like they were pretty good and matched them up with what you told them you were looking for.
The Facebook era: Your friends find something cool/funny/useful/outrageous and post something about it, leading you to do the same.

Ok, so yes, that’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s been on the web and paying attention from 1994-onward or earlier. Predicting what the next era will be is of course the billion dollar question.

The obvious thing that comes to mind is that things will just remain this way forever, and of course this is false and just a failure of imagination.

The next most obvious guess at what the future will bring is to combine the stuff that happened in the previous eras in some novel way. The Facebook era is kindof like that — instead of a hand-picked WWW index managed by the geeks at Yahoo!, we have a feed (rather than an index) of links which our our social contacts (rather than a bunch of strangers working for Yahoo!) provide for us to check out.

So, perhaps just doing a mashup of the Facebook and Google eras would point to what the next breakthrough in search might look like. Let’s try that:

Mash1: Our social contacts create a cluster of robots who index the WWW and come up with a custom-tailored PageRank algorithm tied to what turns our crank.

Hmm, intriguing, but unlikely. Most of our social contacts probably don’t know enough about technology to do that.

Mash 2: The behavior of our social contacts is monitored by robots who analyze the information that can be datamined out of all that activity, and use it to beat our friends to the punch. Especially for marketing purposes.

Much more likely! What we’re doing on social networking sites is already closely watched and analyzed by hordes of robots. All it would take is for someone to come up with the idea and implement it.

And it’s a good enough idea that I bet there are already people working on this right now. In fact, there definitely are if you consider social media advertisers. But I’m also thinking about more general purpose informational search.

In fact, after I congratulate myself on what a clever prognosticator I am and hit Publish, I bet within 15 minutes someone will post a comment with a link to a company that’s doing exactly this.

I mean, of course I could save myself the embarrassment and google around and see if I could find that myself, but it’s so last-era.

I want to see whether the Facebook era will bring the information to me with less effort expended. It may or may not be faster than the google era, but faster isn’t always the most important thing — sometimes there’s a tremendous amount of value in getting information from a friend that could easily have been looked up through a simple query to google.

5… 4… 3… 2…

A few things you should know about SEO

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:

  1. internet advertising
  2. traditional media advertising (print, radio, tv, billboards)
  3. direct marketing (mailers, pamphlets, brochures, flyers, business cards)
  4. word of mouth
  5. other sites linking to you
  6. 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:

  1. the site domain name
  2. the title element
  3. 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:

  1. behind a login
  2. inside of flash objects that aren’t properly accessible
  3. 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!