Search Engine Optimization Basics circa 2010

 

Unless you’re stuck in the year 1992 or so, your business probably has a website. It’s pretty much of a must-have item these days, for information, for marketing, for orders, and for your brand’s presence in general. In those respects, your Web presence has taken the place of printed marketing materials like brochures and newsletters (or even order pads for your sales staff). There was a time when nobody would have been able to foresee the direction the Internet has taken, with its explosive growth changing everything about the way the world communicates. It could have wound up like the world’s biggest library, if the covers were ripped off all the books and the books were scattered all over the floor. Fortunately, that’s not been the case. Search engines have defined the way the Internet is organized and managed for users. SO where does that leave you?

More to the point, where does that leave you if your company’s site is out there, but nobody can find out about it? Because it’s all a numbers game; you want users coming to your site, and the more users there are, the more likely they are to click and buy (aka “conversions”). But how do you get started making sure that people do find your site?

Search engines like Google and Yahoo have a set of parameters that determine how pages show up in their search results (Google, in fact, has a list of 200 factors). The factors that go into page rank change constantly as the search engine companies update and refine them, and much of what goes into the algorithms is actually a closely guarded trade secret. Obviously Google and their equivalents don’t want clever, unscrupulous webmasters to figure out ways to manipulate the algorithm, “game the system” and hype their page rank unfairly.

There’s a lot of outdated or just plain wrong information out there when it comes to search engine optimization. This article has the kicker of “circa 2010” because by mid-2011 much of this information is probably going to be out of date. But we can help you with a brief roundup of some of what works and what doesn’t in search engine optimization (SEO). In fact, the folks at Google are willing to help webmasters, designers and copywriters get up to speed on SEO with their own set of tips.

Think About Your Page Title

This seems like a reasonable place to start, doesn’t it? If your site is about spaghetti, put that right up front. Call it “Louie’s Spaghetti Shop” or “Mario’s Spaghetti Central.” If the user is looking for sites about spaghetti, then your site is going to be up towards the top of the search engine results page (SERP). But, this is something that you’ll also need to follow through on for your site’s inner pages. Make sure that inner pages have accurate, descriptive title tags as well. If one of your inner pages is about “spaghetti and meatballs,” make sure it says so – a search for “spaghetti and meatballs” can turn up that inner page in the SERP.

Include the Keyword In Your Meta Tags

Your description meta tag is important too – it gives Google’s search engine an idea of what that page is about. You can put a phrase or sentence in the meta tag, and Google’s bots might recognize it as a snippet for your page. You want meta tags to accurately sum up the page’s content, without such generic descriptions as “Page about spaghetti.” Don’t, however, fill the description meta tag only with keywords, or use identical or similar meta tags for all the pages.

Think About Your URLs

Try to put the keywords into the URL if at all possible. I know this won’t always work, as some domain names are going to be taken already, but use your creativity. More importantly, search engine spiders and users are much more receptive to shorter URLs (without long tails). Relevant words in the URL itself will appear in bold in search engine results. If at all possible, structure your URL’s so there’s one version of the URL to reach any document. Avoid having another URL linking to a different version of a document (say, a Flash version vs. an HTML version – more on this later). If you see that people are accessing the same content through different URLs, consider setting up a 301 redirect to the dominant URL.

Keep Your Site Easy To Navigate

This isn’t just important to your users, it also helps search engine spiders determine what the most relevant (and important) content in the site is. Try to adhere to the three-click rule, with every page on your site accessible with three clicks or less. Avoid having complex setups of links where every page is linked to every other page – have them all go back to a root menu on your homepage, if at all possible. Have as much of the navigation as you can done through text and not dropdowns, images or animation.

Remember what we said about Flash? Flash is not especially friendly to search engines. Designers love Flash animation, it’s cute, it looks nice, it’s “sexy” and showy, but search engine spiders don’t readily recognize it. Same goes for JavaScript, too. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that many users’ machines aren’t set up for Flash animation. If you have to include Flash on a site, make sure that there’s an HTML counterpart to each page that has Flash on it.

Don’t Forget The Content

You don’t have to get on the Internet for very long to realize that there’s a lot of pretty horrid content out there. Bad grammar, poor sentence structure, hideously misspelled words and boring content are everywhere. It’s a given that one of the main tenets of SEO is using keywords in the text of your content (usually about a 6% saturation rate, i.e. you want the keyword to show up six times in every 100 words). But remember…you’re writing content for your customers and users, not for search engines. Content that’s loaded with keywords can be stilted and awkward, and just downright irritating for users.

Another thing to remember is that search engines like fresh content over stale content. There are all kinds of ways to keep content fresh in your company’s website. Consider a blog, a forum, a newsletter, or a customer Q and A section just to keep things fresh.

And when using keywords, remember that there’s also semantic indexing these days. If your site is about spaghetti, Google can also recognize “ziti,” “macaroni,” “angel hair,” “pasta,” “linguini,” etc. etc.

Make Use Of Your Anchor Text

Anchor text will be in the clickable text that’s within an anchor tag. It’s there to tell users and search engines a little something about the page they’re clicking on. It can be an internal link, taking users to other pages on your own site, or an external link that leads to someone else’s relevant site. Either way, you want users and search engines to both understand what the link is about. Make sure that the anchor text is tight, concise and descriptive, and try to avoid using the URL in anchor text.

Optimize Your Images

You’ll want to also optimize your alt tags for images. Don’t just say “image1” or “image2” – make your alt tags descriptive. Besides, if an image doesn’t display on a user’s browser, at least the alt tag will.

Now, A Few Words To The Wise

There’s a whole lot of snake oil out there when it comes to SEO, and there are unscrupulous marketing companies and web design firms who might claim they can get you #1 ranking on Google, and sometimes at prices that sound too good to be true. Be very wary.

There is a whole bag of “black hat” tricks that can boost your page rank, like:

  • Hidden text full of keywords, sometimes in the same color as a background
  • Off-screen text
  • Keyword stuffing
  • Doorway pages
  • Links to link farm

All of these can work, at least for the short run. They all, however, go against search engines’ rules and regulations. If search engine bots recognize any of these tactics, they can result in your site being flagged, penalized or banned outright. They are unethical and unfair, and they can cost you. Imagine having conversions on your site go down to nothing – literally, zero – overnight. It can happen, and then you’re stuck with the task of essentially having to rebuild your site. If you’re shopping for an SEO company or a web developer, do your homework. Get references, meet the people face to face if possible, and tread carefully.

 


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As you probably know, Google and the other search engine companies have 200-plus criteria for site rank, and they keep tweaking and overhauling those factors on an ongoing basis. The rules of the game for SEO keep evolving and changing, and what you knew about SEO in 2008 may not be of much use in 2010. You need to stay on top with updated information that you can use for your site and your marketing efforts. Enhance your search engine marketing knowledge by finding related posts in our collection.

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