Beginners guide to SEO
A quick tour around the world of search engines, how they work and the stuff they consider when ranking websites.
The Search Engine’s job is to bring up the most appropriate site that is relevant to your search. The Search Engines that do it best, get the most traffic, and make the most money. Google has around 84% of all searches and makes $billions, followed by Yahoo and Bing.
Google's the daddy
No one has time to sit down and revue all the sites, so they do it through complex algorithms: ‘Robots’ are sent out to gather data (Google bot visits your site hundreds of times every month to see what’s changed).
Programmes then assess tons of data about your site, weigh this up against tons of data gathered from other sites, and then rank you on the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).
The search engines’ prime directive
The big thing to get your head around, is that the Web was designed to be a source of free information (not a source of ‘free’ advertising).
I know it sounds idealistic – which isn’t surprising when you consider the internet is driven by people in sunny California – but underneath that faded Tee shirt, is a cold, pinstriped business suite.
This prime directive is not for altruistic reasons: for the search engines to remain in business they have to bin the rubbish and promote the truly useful sites that are informative, rewarding or entertaining.
Only by keeping their customers happy can they make money.
You will see this thinking running through all the markers that the search engines use to rank your site.
How search engines rank your site
Links are the single most important criteria for higher page rankings In the game of high rankings, links are your trump card. Think of a link as a vote of confidence from someone out there on the web that your site has something worth reading. Links also have the knock-on effect of generating traffic – and traffic counts as popularity: and popular sites get higher rankings.
But it’s not just the quantity of links pointing your site; quality and type are also taken into consideration.
If you have original, useful and interesting content, then people will automatically link to your site over time. But while you’re waiting for that to happen, there are numerous ways to kick start the process.
Directory links are a useful method of link generation; just think of them as hundreds of internet Yellow Pages.
The Open Directory Project (DMOZ) is the mother of all Directories, with stiff criteria for listing and all entries are edited by humans. Google looks highly on this peer reviewed directory, and having a site listed in it offers a great degree of trust.
There are thousands of free and paid directories out there, each one can generate business in its own right and the more appropriate the category the better, but cumulatively they boost traffic = higher rankings.
These days a company looks odd if it doesn't have a Facebook Business page, a Twitter account or Linked In profile.
Now, I know some of you will be thinking this isn't appropriate for you, but the way the web is going, more weight is being given to interactivity rather than just broadcasting.
More importantly, Google checks on whether you have social networking accounts and whether your company is being talked about. And this is an important factor on your search engine results.
Write an article related to your trade which is of genuine interest to wider world. The thinking behind article directories is that they are Free Content for anyone to use – the only caveat if that if they use it, they are required to post your link.
Get a good article and let other people do the link building for you.
There is a mass of criteria about links that do effect how it is valued.
The referring site
A link from a hugely popular or credible site, such as the BBC, is given more value than a little unknown. Referring site with a higher page rank are also given more weight.
Links from college websites (URLs ending in the .edu) are liked because of the assumption that the website’s content is educationally oriented. The same reasoning goes for .gov addresses, the assumption is the website’s content is of use to the general public and has been passed at bureaucratic level.
Certain sites are given special treatment and can win you bonus points, such as: DMOZ, Wikipedia and del.ico.us
Link context and placement
Where the link appears and on which page is also rated, and again it comes down to common sense. A link on the home page is golden, whereas a link hidden away on the third level is tarnished.
They also rate whether the link buried amongst a huge list of external links or placed on its own.
Good content is the King of high rankings If links are the Ace, then content is the King, and the pair of them work hand in hand.
An inordinate amount of weight is given by designers and clients to the look and feel of a website – but it’s the words that get results on the search engines.
Because the web is so cheap compared to other media, the common pitfall is not to invest in SEO copywriting.
The result is a waste of money; a site that is scrutinized and approved by the board of directors, and not seen by anyone else.
It’s the words that count
The internet doesn’t supply a quick or easy answer to your marketing problems. It is a marketing tool that requires time and investment.
There is a disparity in perception between the belief that people don’t have time to read, and the reality: which is people read now more than ever before because of the internet - but with so much choice, they are not going to hang around and read rubbish.
And what counts with your potential customers, is even more important to the search engines.
Search engines don’t appreciate pastel shades or a beautifully rendered photograph – all they see is words, and the code in which they are written.
Search Phrases (keywords)
Any page can be optimized for 2 or 3 search phrases – it’s the selection that is the key to your success. To do this you have to:
1. Think up a load of phrases that you expect people might be searching for if they wanted to find your business
2. Research how many people are actually using those search phrases. (There are numerous tools that can tell you exactly the number of times a specific phrase has been punched-in over the past month). You can guarantee the more popular the phrase, the harder the competition will be.
3. Research the competition, and see how many other pages out there are optimized for those search phrases. Asses the quantity and quality of the competition: how many links do they have, how well optimized are their sites, how many pages etc.
4. When you have all the facts at your fingertips you can decide on which phrases to optimize the page for – niche or mass market.
5. Then it’s a case of assessing the results over time, seeing what’s working, what can be improved and amending accordingly. The web is in a constant state of flux and what might work today, could change tomorrow.
How the key phrases are coded on the page – in order of priority to the search engines
Tip No 1: Title tag: Almost irrelevant to the human reader, but to the search engines, this is like the 4 foot high letters on a 48 sheet poster
Tip No 2: Description: Again, invisible when you are on the website, but key to the search engines and their first choice for information to display on the SERPs
Tip No 3/ish: Keywords: These have been so abused by spammers that they have been devalued by the search engines, but are a good indication to see if you are on the right track
Tip No 4: H1s: If the Title tag is the headline, H1 tagged phrases are the sub headlines. Followed by h1s, h2s
Tip No 5: Anchor text: This is text within the page that links to another page
Tip No 6: Alt / Title tags: Images carry no weight, but their invisible Alt and Title tags do. Strange but true
Tip No 7: Bold / Underline: This is the one case where what you see on the page is also recognized by the search engines. No major weighting, but important
Tip No 8: Text: At last, the copy you see on the page! It’s important to have an overall easy reading index and a weighting of the key phrases that’s between 5% and 10% of the overall word count
Quality and quantity
OK, so you have idea of what phrases are given weight and where, and then those pesky search engines also have guidelines on how many there should be.
Some of this is based on the mechanics of what can be viewed on their Search Engine Result Pages, others are based on word count and reading complexity.
Title tags: 55 characters, including spaces. Descriptions: 120 characters, including spaces. Key words, 250 characters, including spaces. Body text: 250 words (ideal min).
Well written and structured text and meta data, takes time and effort, something you can guarantee spammers cannot be bothered with. For these reasons it is rewarded by the search engines.
Spread betting – just how big should your site be?
If you have individually optimized pages, then the bigger the better: each page is a unique opportunity to catch searchers and generate traffic.
It’s a case of seeing how many cards the competition is holding, sneaking a peak at how strong their hand is and beating it. If you’re pinning all your hopes on one card, you can bet you are going to lose against someone holding a full deck.
Link baiting - how to hook links from other sites without the work
Another method that is mixed in with the general quality content theory, is link baiting.
The phrase in new, but the theory is old fashioned common sense.
It runs like this: you have your website which is essentially offering the same stuff as all your competitors. So you write an article which gives a unique angle on your product / manufacture / area of specialization.
This is a definitive piece of work, a source of reference and referral for other websites. It generates links as it propagates over the web, and potential clients who may find it, get reassurance that you know what you are going on about.
The added benefit is that an a article like this, is not only embedded in your site and a passive potential for traffic, but it also can be actively submitted to Article Directories and Wikipedia.
Updates - the rewards of the constant gardener
The search engines also track how often your site is updated and what changes are made to each page. A well tended website should have constant changes: pruning the meta data, planting new key search phrases, and weeding out unwanted information.
It all shows that someone cares and the search engines reward them with better results. Leave your site untended and it will go to seed, and sink off the search engine rank pages.