Posted Sunday, November 28, 2004
An explanation of SEO basics: This article is a great primer if you're getting started with an SEO campaign or looking to hire a firm. If you're just getting started with:
- Selecting an SEO firm - Trying to start a search engine campaign - Reviewing your current SEO efforts
...read on. This article should provide you with a high-level review of the SEO process, dispel a few SEO myths, and help you understand legitimate optimization strategies.
What is SEO
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, defies easy definition. But here's a short version:
SEO: Using keyword analysis and other legitimate practices to gain the highest possible search engine and directory rankings, under a given key phrase, for a given URL.
I'll break this definition down a bit and hopefully prevent a hail of angry e-mails:
Keyword Analysis is the process of mining keyword search data to find the best balance between the keywords you need and the best potential search niche. More on this later.
Search Engine means an automated search engine. 'Search Engines' include Google, AOL Search, Ask Jeeves and MSN Search. A search engine obtains its results from 'bots' -- small programs that read your web site in much the same way you would: By reading the content on a page, and then moving from page to page via links. A directory, on the other hand, is built at least in part by human beings deciding where each site fits into the directory structure. Yahoo's directory area and Open Directory are both examples of directories.
Ranking is the numeric rank reflecting your position in the results list when someone performs a search on a particular set of keywords.
Highest Possible means getting as close to number one as you can. Often you just can't get that number one spot. Maybe someone else has a 400-page web site solely dedicated to the key phrase for which you're attempting to optimize. Or maybe they're paying a fortune in advertising. That's life, sometimes...
Key Phrase is the keyword or set of keywords someone types into the little 'search' field in Google or Alta Vista or any other search engine.
A URL is the address of one page on your site. Most search engines display keyword search results and provide a link directly to the page most relevant to those results, rather than your home page. It's very, very important to keep that in mind when you build and optimize your site.
Legitimate Practices is my pet peeve. A true search engine campaign will not use practices such as page or content cloaking, redirects, or lists of links (so-called 'link farms') but relies on good coding practices, well-written content, steady link popularity work and site features that will be as valuable for site visitors as for search engine ranking. Anything less is a short-term fix that will reduce your rankings.
So, the long version of the definition would be: SEO: Using keyword analysis, good coding practices, well-written copy, link popularity analysis and careful site organization to move a web page as close to the number one search results position as possible for a given key phrase, in both search engines and directories.
Hey, that's not so bad after all. But how do you get started? First, you separate reality from myth...
SEO Urban Legends
There are quite a few SEO myths out there. Here are my favorites:
The Keywords META Tag Matters. Mostly wrong. Only Inktomi pays any attention to the keywords meta tag. Do something basic, but don't bother putting in keywords that aren't supported by your page content.
Search Engines can read Flash, images and video. Search engines can read one thing: Text. Anything else, while legitimate as a design tool, will not help your ranking. And relying too heavily on Flash or images may reduce your site's visibility. Google is one partial exception -- it can read some Flash links, but still cannot read Flash content.
Mirroring my site in multiple locations will improve ranking. Actually, just the opposite. Duplication of content will generally have no effect or, worse, reduce your ranking in major search engines. Most search engines now have rules against this form of 'spam' and may reduce your ranking or ban your site.
'Doorway' pages improve ranking. Pages that have lots of keywords but then automatically redirect to the main site will not help you in major search engines, such as Google. And, if someone catches you and reports you to Google or the other search engine, you may be banned altogether. A 'landing' or 'bridge' page, though, that's designed to be as useful for users as for search engines, and does not redirect the user, can help by providing real, useful, keyword-rich content.
Firms promising to get me #1 rankings in 10,000 search engines for $99.95 can help. I alternate between tooth-grinding and hysterical laughter when I see these ads. First, there aren't 10,000 search engines. Actually, there are probably 10-20 to worry about. Getting listed in the other thousand or so is largely a waste of time. Second, no one can guarantee any ranking in any search engine for a specific keyword. Period. And the price is less than half the cost for an express submission in a single directory (Yahoo). Chances are anyone trying to get you to spend the $99.95 operates a 'link farm' where they list dozens, or hundreds, of sites. To learn more about how to choose an SEO firm, check out Google's article: (http://www.google.com/intl/mr/webmasters/seo.html).
Firms charging me more money and guaranteeing a #1 ranking on Google can help. This is the latest SEO scam. I can get you a number one ranking on Google, too, as long as I get to pick the keyword or can get you ranked under a fairly unique company name. But no one, and I mean no one can guarantee a #1 rank under a specific keyword. Even Google says so.
Search engines are now almost savvy enough to read your pages like a human being would, so anything that will drive away a typical site visitor will also probably reduce your ranking. Things that will increase your search engine ranking include:
- Good content - Good, clean HTML code - Useful, relevant TITLE and DESCRIPTION tags - Relevant, appropriate links from other web sites
There are some basic steps that, well executed, will do more to increase your rank than an ocean of snake oil.
The SEO Process
A typical SEO campaign starts with keyword analysis, and then emphasizes insuring your site doesn't impede search engine bots and follows up with ongoing link and traffic analysis.
Step 1: Keyword Analysis. If you say the right word enough times on your site, you'll get that coveted #1 spot, right? Wrong. Choosing the right keywords starts with a list of the keywords or phrases under which you'd like to be found, and typically ends up somewhere completely different. Selecting the best keywords is a four-step process: First, list the keywords and phrases under which you'd like to be found. Next, find out whether anyone searches on those keywords, and whether they're searching for relevant items. Third, find out how many other sites are struggling for rankings under those keywords. Finally, pick keywords with the same meaning but a better search-to-competition ratio.
Don't forget about relevance, either. If you want a high ranking under 'tires', you're going to have your work cut out for you. And in the end you'll likely end up getting found for 'bicycle tires', 'automobile tires', 'spare tires' and who knows what else. Is it worth it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But you have to do your homework to find out.
There are several tools that help you research the number of searches and competitors for keywords. Wordtracker (http://www.wordtracker.com) is a good one -- don't depend on their results from Overture, though, unless you're specifically preparing an Overture campaign.
Keyword analysis is the hardest part of a campaign, in number-crunching terms. It requires a lot of work and may not tell you what you want to hear. But in my experience it's critical to a successful campaign.
Step 2: Search Engine Readiness. Almost every web site we review has one or more problems that will prevent search engine bots from properly reading all content. Showstoppers include:
A major step in any SEO campaign is making sure that the site will present the friendliest profile to search engines. Happily, the investment in optimizing will also pay off in a faster, more universally compatible site.
Step 3: Content and Site Preparation. You've done your research: You know which keywords match your message, and your site's HTML code is one big search engine welcome mat. Now it's time to make sure that your site contains those keywords. This is where I most often see folks get confused -- should you rewrite your web content to emphasize keywords? Yes, but with extreme caution. Should you make small, appropriate changes? Yes. Here are my guidelines for content preparation.
Don't write for keywords (much). This almost always leads to stilted, hard-to-read prose. Writing keyword-rich content that really works for users is an art form. Be careful.
Do a little careful editing. If you use the word 'car' but 'auto' is the keyword you need, chances are you can do a few replacements without marring your carefully crafted copy.
Spend time on the titles and description tags. Make sure every page in your site has a unique, relevant TITLE and DESCRIPTION tag.
Never use an automatic page generator. Tools like WebPosition Gold offer to generate optimized pages for you. Don't. They tend to hurt your ranking as much as help, and they generate ugly, ugly pages.
Write more stuff. More content is almost always better. If your site is just missing a specific keyword or phrase, but you think it's important, then your potential customers probably do too. By adding a few more pages with content focusing on those absent keywords, you'll likely help visitors and improve your keyword ranking at the same time. And, the more text-rich your site is, the better the odds that you'll catch longer, stranger but really important key phrases that you can't anticipate.
Step 4. Link Analysis. Quite a few major search engines (Google, most importantly) weigh your 'link popularity' when ranking your site. A more accurate term, though, is 'link analysis', because these engines don't just count up the number of links to your site. They look for links near and containing relevant text. So a page full of links, one of which happens to be yours, won't help very much. But a link from a related site, near a short paragraph that contains relevant keywords, will probably give you a boost. Having keywords in the link itself is even better. A quick example:
'(http://www.portentinteractive.com)' doesn't help much.
'For search engine optimization, visit (http://www.portentinteractive.com)' is much better.
There are a few ways to build your link popularity:
- Contact sites that relate to yours and request a link exchange. This works really well, but obviously takes a long time.
- Syndicate your content. If you can provide an easy way for interested webmasters to link directly to relevant stories on your site, you provide an instant link popularity boost, and get your message out to boot.
- Start an affiliate program. If you sell a product, consider setting up an affiliate sales program.
Step 5: Submit your site. Many search engines, Google included, allow you to submit your site for free. Generally you can submit your home page and let the search engine crawl the rest of your site. Some directories and engines offer paid 'express' services, and some, like Teoma, require that you pay for URL submission. Which engines you choose depends on your budget and campaign.
Step 6: Review, Revise, and Keep Going. Think you're done? Wrong -- search engine optimization is an ongoing project. At least once per month, review your rankings, site traffic reports and link popularity and tweak your site as necessary. The tools you need to measure results are:
Site traffic reports. Any hosting company should provide you with a site traffic report, and most of the reporting tools in use today provide a 'referrals from search engines' section. Take a look at this section for a good measure of results.
Link counts. Use the link: command on Google to determine your link popularity.
Your keyword list. Search on the relevant search engines to see if your ranking has improved.
Your brain. You have to interpret what you see, and decide whether changes are warranted. There's magic formula for this. Sorry about that...
So now you'll get instant results, right? Well, not quite...
A Word About Expectations
SEO can take time. Even Google only refreshes its entire index once a month, so don't expect instant results.
If your work doesn't generate increased rankings within a month or two, don't panic. Look at your site traffic and search on the keywords you chose. Make sure that the search engine you're checking actually includes your site -- most likely the bots just haven't gotten around to 'crawling' your site.
Still stumped? Find a professional. Sure, we cost money. But you may have missed something about your site that's preventing a good keyword rank, and a second set of eyes can help.
A Solid Marketing Strategy
If you follow the basics and keep at it, you will get results. What's really important is to make sure you don't award too much weight to one area (such as link popularity) at the expense of the others. A well-rounded campaign will provide solid, long-term results.
About the Author
Ian Lurie is an Internet marketer in Seattle, WA. He started his web design and marketing firm, Portent Interactive, in 1995. Portent offers complete Internet marketing support, including search engine optimization, e-mail marketing, and web site design and development. Recent projects include SEO and production for (http://www.princesslodges.com), SEO, marketing strategy, design and production for (http://www.dessy.com), and, on the more whimsical side, frida.filmateria.com. Ian has a law degree from UCLA and has successfully avoided practicing law for almost ten years.