Sunday, January 7, 2007
The Basics of Search Engine Optimization
My aunt and uncle from Cologne called asking how they could successfully get their new site into Google. I want to wrap up some of the tips I gave them – if you already know about SEO (Search Engine Optimization) feel free to skip. If not; there are three important steps to rank your site well with search engines. First, you got to create good content. Second, you ought to make your content accessible. And third, you should tell others about your content.
1. Create good content
You want to rank well in Google, but you need to ask yourself: why should you rank well? It’s more obvious why you want to rank well; you want more visitors, you want to spread the word on something that is important to you, you want to change the world, or maybe you just want to sell something, facing strong online competition. But why should you rank well? In the eyes of Google and others, you’re just another webmaster – but search engines first and foremost cater to the searcher. So you better make sure you deserve to be ranking well in Google for whatever it is you deliver to the searcher. Only if you do can you move on to steps 2 and 3. Here’s how:
- Search engines mainly understand text. So you need to make sure you create interesting, in-depth content in the form of text. It won’t hurt to include Flash animations, videos, or lots of images – but it also won’t help the search engine. A good test of whether your text can be seen in search engines is to open the source of your page (right click your site and choose “view source”, or however your browser calls it) and then check if that text appears.
- There’s a huge variety of search queries that may later on lead to your site. You better give up early on trying to optimize your content for each of those search terms. A more realistic strategy is to have lots of content on your site. If you sell dog supplies, well then write about dogs, dog food, dog coats, dog coats fashion, tips on putting on dog shoes, and throw in an article or two about dog breeding during Renaissance Italy (and then translate all those articles into as many languages as you can).
- Let’s say you sell dog supplies, but your competitor does the same, and she also has lots of content on her site. There’s only one thing that will help you: you need not only to have lots of content, but you need to have original content. Create that special feed-the-dog game on your website. Show off interactive charts on the evolution of dogs. Provide a wallpaper download area for dog lovers. You get the idea – do something original no one else thought of. Being unique means that visitors have a reason to come to your site instead of your competitor’s site.
- Creating lots of original content is almost the easy part. What’s much harder, and there’s no short-cut, is to become an authority in your field. It’s possible you already are – great, then I suggest you share your expert knowledge freely with the world. People will like your site more if they get the best tips from you, ideally, those that make a change in their life, however small (maybe you are showing them a more effective way to do something, or you answered one of their questions). If, on the other hand, you’re not already an expert in a given field, I suggest you start a blog – a knowledge and news journal for which you need to research an hour or so every day, learning while writing. Just wait half a year, and you’ll be an expert in you blog’s topic.
2. Make your content accessible
We’re now leaving the field of your expertise – dog supplies, or whatever it is you’re doing! – and move on to the technical part of making your content accessible. This part is technical simply because when search engines access your website, they won’t be seeing things the same way human visitors will. Instead of pictures and text, a search engine bot will see stuff like HTML tags, page titles, links, headers, and lots and lots of words. HTML is no rocket science, but you can also get many things wrong, so if you don’t want to tackle it yourself get someone who will; just make sure a couple of points are respected:
- Every page should ideally be doing one thing only (and that one thing well). If you have a page where you sell dog coats, then it should have a header that reads “dog coats” along with a dog coat photo, your dog coat articles for sale, and a description of just what a dog coat is. Furthermore, there should be a (limited) set of links on that page leading to related areas of your site, like a page where all dog supplies are found, a page that describes your company (handing out contact info like your company address and your email address), a page leading back to your homepage, and so on.
- Every page title should be unique to your site, and accurately & briefly describe your page’s content. If you sell a blue dog coat on the page, then your page title needs to be anything from “Blue Dog Coat” to “Buy a Blue Dog Coat at BestDogSupplies.com”, but it ought not be “BestDogSupplies.com” or “BestDogSupplies.com coats shoes fashion outdoor indoor dogs cats buy for sale”.
- Make each page rest on a simple, stable, and quick-loading place. For example, don’t move your pages to different URLs all the time, don’t create redirects, and don’t use overlong, complicated URLs. Simple & stable pages invite others to bookmark your pages or link to them, and it allows search engines like Google to assign a “trust" value to your page. If your page is about red dog coats, its URL should consequently be something like “BestDogSupplies.com/coats/red/” or “BestDogSupplies.com/products/red-dog-coats.html”.
Following these points takes a bit of trial and error, sometimes. But you don’t need to get it all right at once. Ideally, set-up a CMS (Content Management System) of some kind where you, or your developer, exercise full and direct control over tweaking templates and such. As a litmus test: if adding a new product or article, or adjusting the global headline size, or replacing the footer on all pages turns out to be a major headache, you know you’ve chosen the wrong system.
3. Tell others about your content
There once was a time when people could add lots of keywords to their page to optimize it for search engines. Today’s search engines – luckily for searchers – aren’t that easily fooled. Instead of looking at your site, Google and others mostly look at other sites to determine your site’s trust... specifically by checking the other site’s links to you. And the more trusted your site is, the higher it ranks for a variety of search queries. So how do you get others to link to you? Well, you already got great content (point 1 above), and you made it very accessible so it’s easy to link to (point 2 above). Now what’s left is to get the word out so others may feel inspired to link to you; not out of pity, not because you promise a link in return, and not because you paid them, but because they consider a page of yours just right for their visitors. So...
- Get involved offline! Go to conferences, trade shows, and every other place where people might be interested to get to know about your website.
- Get involved online! Sign-up for mailing list of your site’s topic, participate in newsgroups and web forums of your topic, look for online directories (like the Open Directory) dealing with sites like yours, contact webmasters and bloggers who maintain sites in your topic area. But don’t just get involved to promote your site, as such selfishness is deemed “spam”. Instead, take time to help others... for example, you may want to offer another site to write an article for them. Just pasting your URL everywhere you go is littering the online world – and you may end up being permanently kicked out of the places in which you littered.
- Get involved everywhere else! Maybe there’s a TV show which discusses websites? Well, it won’t hurt if you drop them an email, introducing them to your site. Be creative in finding people that might be happy to hear about your site, be it a newspaper, radio show, magazine, and what-not. To get a mention in any of these places, it always helps if you do something wacky (run across the football field naked, your site’s name printed on your back) or otherwise noteworthy (write a book, dressed or naked, whichever you prefer). To stick with the topic of dog supplies, you might want to train your dog to bark the name of your web site, and then upload the whole thing to a video sharing site like YouTube.
- If you got some money to spare, buy ads on search engines, like Google AdWords. While they’re never as effective as ranking well in the real search result, they can help get the word out while your site is still in its infancy.
What, there’s more?
OK, if you did all of the above – if you created good, accessible content, that starts to become widely known – you can take a break for a while. And then get back to continue to grow your site. But don’t worry about Google results for the first couple of months, in fact, don’t worry about Google results at all. Your site might not appear in search engines in the beginning, and maybe once it does, your competition will rank higher than you... but these things take time. (Don’t forget to ask yourself not why you want to rank higher, but why you ought to – and if your competitor is a large, well-known, well-working and trusted site maybe it deserves to be ranked higher than you.)
What you can do, though, after a couple of months, is to supervise your site and check what kind of search queries people entered to find you. To do so, get a web statistics program like Google Analytics. They’ll ask you to insert some tracking code into your website, and after some days you’ll be able to check which of your pages are the most successful, and which receive the most traffic from searchers. Using this data you can fine-tune your approaches for the future.
For example, when you find out that searchers just love your dog shoes fashion tips, then maybe you can create some dog coats fashion tips as well, and add a visible link to “buy dog shoes” from your dog shoes fashion tips page.
As another example, maybe a large group of people everyday finds your site searching for blue dog coats, but the page they end up on only sells blue dog shoes and red dog coats – in other words, you’re getting the wrong kind of traffic due to a “misunderstanding.” But maybe you do offer those blue dog coats somewhere else on your site, so having learned about this misunderstanding, you can now add a link to this page from the place where people accidentally arrive at.
Of course, once the search engine optimization basics are all done, you can dive deeper into the topic and read more search blog news, or hire a search engine optimization consultant. However, be careful, as some of the advanced tactics you’ll read up on are known to backfire... as may hiring the wrong SEO consultant. Here’s a quick checklist of “optimization” approaches you should avoid:
- Don’t stuff too many keywords into places where they don’t belong
- Don’t optimize for search engines at the cost of human visitors; if someone told you adding a dash to the domain name helps your rankings, but you feel that dash might confuse your customers, then don’t add it
- Don’t trust people who promise you “instant #1 rankings”, “guaranteed top 10 positions” or anything of the sort
- Don’t link to others from your site just because they promised a link back to you
- Don’t create multiple pages with exactly the same content
- Don’t “litter” your URL on other people’s sites (and don’t let others people “litter” URLs on your site; if you have a web forum, keep it spam-free)
- Don’t invest in a cheap server that won’t be able to cope with your traffic; don’t build your whole site on free website tools only – if you want to have a high-quality site & server, you need to pay for it
- Don’t worry about a page’s meta descriptions, meta keywords and such; your time is better spent creating content
- Don’t use tools that automatically submit your site’s URL to directories, search engines and such
- Don’t present different content to search engines than you present to users; for example, don’t hide your text to visitors and show it to search engines
- Don’t “over-optimize"; relax, if search engines required webmasters to heavily optimize, they’d be doing a very bad job
- In general, don’t try to outsmart search engines (unless perhaps you intend to dedicate your life to that task); those maintaining search engines are paid to outsmart webmaster tricks, so in the long run, chances for successful tricks are low
With all that in mind... good luck!
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