Search Engine Optimization Basics

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2323, 2005-06-10, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 22 and 24) and their website. It was reprinted as course material for an Internet marketing business class at San Diego State University.

If you have a website — regardless of whether it is commercial, educational, not-for-profit, or personal — then you'll want to make it as easy as possible for Internet users to find it. Some of those people will end up at your site because you wisely listed it on your business card, or added it to your e-mail signature. But more than likely, the majority of your site's visitors will discover it because it turns up in the results produced by a search engine, when they search on particular phrases.

If you want people to find your personal home page when they search on your name, and for whatever reason your site is not showing up in the results of the most popular search engines, then at worst you will be a little less famous and a little more disappointed.

But it is much more serious if you are responsible for maximizing the number of prospective customers who visit your company's website, so that they can purchase items online from your company's catalog. If for some reason the search engines are displaying your competitors' sites ahead of your company's, then it could mean the difference between your company making or losing money, and your being promoted to a corner office or demoted to a street corner.

The tremendous popularity of search engines among Internet users, is the primary reason why commercial firms — especially those whose revenue is primarily or exclusively derived from online sales — are willing to invest significant resources in fine tuning their websites to get the best rankings within search engine listings. This practice, and now profession, of "search engine optimization" (SEO), is a critical component of online marketing.

Search Engine Inner Workings

Let's begin by reviewing how search engines build up their databases of links and cached Web pages. Search engines use computer programs that automatically explore the pages that comprise the Web. They do this by examining a particular Web page, cataloging it based upon its content, and then following any links from that page to other pages that have not yet been examined. Thus these programs that "crawl" on the Web are referred to as "spiders".

By having numerous spiders working continuously to catalog all of the reachable pages that comprise the Web, search engines are able to keep their databases relatively up-to-date with all of the new and changed Web pages. It's a tremendous task, given the vast number of pages out there (it exceeded one billion in the year 2000) and the large number of new pages being added every day.

You should bear this in mind when you are wondering why some or all of the search engines appear to be ignoring your new website. It's simply one needle in a humongous haystack. But don't give up hope.

Words, Words, Words

You can dramatically improve your odds of being found, by tailoring your site's contents to best match the specific words and combinations of words likely to be used by people who you want to find your site. Because Internet users will be using these so-called "keywords and phrases" when requesting a list of links from a search engine, it is imperative that your site's pages contain those keywords. Well-chosen keywords and phrases are most important for your site to be properly cataloged by search engine spiders, and thus to be found by search engine users.

First, develop a list of all the phrases that you can think of that people might use to find your site — succinct phrases that best describe your business. Then hone that list down to the two dozen most likely phrases. If you have difficulty creating a list of keywords, then take a look at Wordtracker, which is designed to help you optimize your keyword list. At this time, they offer a free trial.

These keywords can and should be located in the text of each page, which is visible to someone viewing the page in a Web browser. In addition, the keywords can be placed in the headings, subheadings, images' captions, images' alternative text attributes (<img alt="">), page titles, and anywhere else that they seem appropriate. Just don't make the mistake of overdoing it — often termed "keyword stuffing" and "spamdexing" — because search engines will consequently penalize your site.

The keywords you decide upon should also be placed within the tags describing your page. These behind-the-scenes tags are in the form of HTML, and thus are visible to your site visitors only if they choose to view the source code of the Web page. These so-called "meta tags" can be found in the "

" section of each Web page, and are so named because they begin with "". The meta tag containing "name='keywords'" should contain a comma-delimited list of the keywords you've chosen.

Site Design and Other Factors

While embedding well-targeted keywords within your site is acknowledged to be the most SEO valuable technique, there are other worthwhile elements: smart site design, reciprocal links, and attractive page content. To make your site as welcoming as possible to search engines spiders: organize the pages and links in a logical hierarchy, opt for CSS divs instead of nested tables, use text instead of images for the navigation links (or at least have flawless image alt values), and include a site map (which serves as an index of links to your pages) if the site has more than a dozen pages.

Appropriate reciprocal linking is when two or more sites have links to each other, as a natural result of the surrounding content of each site. This is quite different from — and far more effective than — the so-called "link farms", which are merely content-free pages that contain nothing but links to the sites of paying clients. Search engine firms caught on to that trick a long time ago. Consequently, paying someone to include links to your site among thousands of others, would not only be a waste of your money, but can get your site quickly penalized in the search results, or even blacklisted entirely.

The best way to entice new visitors to your site, whether they are humans or spiders, is to offer free quality content. This will encourage human visitors to check back frequently to see new content, and also to post links to your site on their own sites and in their blogs. This invariably increases your site's estimation by search engines. Having fresh content that matches your targeted keywords and phrases will also result in higher rankings by the search engines, because they always examine words within the context of the surrounding material.

Search engine optimization is an increasingly important component of wise website promotion. While an article can only touch upon the major topics within SEO, you likely can see already how important these methods are for improving your site's standings within search engine rankings, and thus in the eyes of Internet users for whom "Google" is now a verb.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.