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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:

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:

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...

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:

With all that in mind... good luck!


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