Search Engine Optimization Basics
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a
blend of art and science, made all the more challenging by
both intense competition to show up in the first few resultsespecially for popular keywordsand the constant
tweaking of the algorithms used by the major search engines
to insure valid results and punish nefarious activity, which
changes search rankings. Nevertheless, there are some basic
tactics which have withstood the test of time and these
changes, and which can be implemented without excessive
effort or expense.
If you fortunate enough to have a large
budget for search optimization, you may want to consider
using a specialized SEO service.
If not (as is generally the case), using the tactics below
will at least help your positioning, with minimal expense.
The first step is to register with each of
the major search engines (although they will almost
certainly find your site eventually even without
registration). Beware of software or services which promise
to register your site with hundreds of search engines
automatically; these are generally a waste of money. First,
because there aren't hundreds of search engines of any
importance; there are a handful. Second, because search
engines often don't like automated registrations; Google,
advises against using programs like WebPosition Gold(TM).
Hand submission works best,
and with the relatively small number of significant search
engines, this can be accomplished in less time than it takes
to catch up with your coworkers on the success of your
fantasy football team. In my (extensive but unscientific)
Google alone will generate anywhere from half to
two-thirds of your search traffic; submit to
MSN, and you've got probably 90% of the market covered;
Alta Vista and AOL get you to about 95% (Alta Vista now uses
Yahoo! search, and AOL relies on dmoz.orgsee the section
below about getting your site linked). If you are still
feeling ambitious about site submission at this point, check
out the meta-search engines (you can find an excellent list
of these at
Search Engine Watch); while you can't submit to these
directly, you can check their results for your keywords to
identify other search engines you may want to submit your
In addition to submitting
your site to search engines such as Google, it's helpful
though not essential to create and submit a
Google site map. This helps Google spider your site more
easy tool walks you through the Google site map creation
and submission process.
Beyond site submission, the
three most important factors in search engine positioning
are content, links and code. With regard to content,
consider not only the text on your pages, but also page
names, page titles, meta tags and image alt-text. Your page
text should of course contain your most important keywords;
and if you have key search phrases (e.g. "e-mail marketing
services") for which you want your site to appear, include
Page names (e.g.
web_marketing.htm) are the filenames of pages on your
server; for SEO purposes, try to give your pages descriptive
names (e.g. Email_Software.htm) rather than generic ones,
such as products.htm or services.htm. There are actually two
separate page titles: the text heading that actually appears
at the top of your page, and the page title that is an HTML
property of the page. For position optimization purposes,
you may want to make these slightly different (for example,
the text title of this page is Search Engine Optimization
Basics, while the HTML title is Basics of Search Engine
Optimization). Most content management systems will also let
you add a Page Description in the properties, which should
be formed as a complete descriptive sentence (e.g. "A how-to
guide for improving your site's search engine position or
ranking, through content, links and code.").
Meta tags are key search
terms that apply to a specific page; for the best
optimization results, limit this to 20 words or so, and
don't repeat any word more than three times (Google hates that).
You can generate meta tags automatically using
this tool, and check the quality and validity of your
meta tags using this
meta tag analyzer. Here's the code you'll need for the
three basic tags; these should be placed immediately after
the <head> tag near the top of each page on your website:
<title>Write a 4-9 Word Descriptive Page Title Here</title>
<meta name="description" content="A complete sentence
describing what your page is about, and including important
<meta name="keywords" content="Up to 20 keywords/phrases
related to the content on this page">
search engines can't read text contained within an image
file (GIFs, JPGs or PNGs), it's important to include alt
text for the images on your site, particularly if you use
graphical menu buttons (this is also a best practice for
site accessibility). For accessibility purposes, you
can't simply load up your image alt text with unrelated
keywords, but you can vary your alt text from the displayed
text as long as it is consistent with the graphic (for
example, on this site, the SEO menu button is labeled "SEO /
SEM" while the alt text for the menu graphic is "Search
Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing").
Another of the most important
factors determining your search engine rank is the number of
links from other sites pointing to your site. Two places
where you almost certainly will want your site linked are at
dmoz.org (used by AOL search) and in the appropriate
About.com. Unfortunately, neither of these are quick nor
is your link even guaranteed. Expect at least two weeks to
get listed on dmoz.organd contact them again after three
weeks if your site still isn't showing up. About.com is
managed by human editors who do this part-time, are busy,
and receive a lot of email, so expect a similar if not
longer delay there.
Where else to get linked? Do
Web searches for your top competitors and your most
important keywords / phrases and see what sites show up.
This is tedious, as results will include your competitors'
sites (who obviously won't link to you) as well as some pure
junk. You can find links to specific competitor sites by
typing the URL (e.g. mycompetitor.com) directly into the
search box on Google, then clicking "Find pages that link to
mycompetitor.com." Look for sites such as portals/vortals,
industry association directories, and publications, then
contact them about linking to your site.
If you have any "thought
leadership" content on your sitewhite
papers, original articles, reports etc.tag them on
social media sites. This provides external links which
help with SEO and will also likely drive some direct
Another important category of
sites to get listed on / linked from is blogs (Google loves
blogs). Search for blogs related to your industry (e.g.
"marketing-related blogs"), then contact the writers of the
pertinent ones about getting linked; you will likely have to
offer some value in return (e.g. a link to their blog,
advance notice of your press releases, content, even an
offer to guest blog if they are open to that). You can also
in many cases post comments to blog postings; just be sure
you are on-topic and that your comment adds some value, and
is not just a promotion for your firm, as comments are
usually reviewed before being published.
If you've got even a modest
budget, two paid sites worth listing on are the
Yahoo! directory ($299 per year) and
Business.com ($199 per year).
Whatever you do, if you come
across a service guaranteeing you "links from thousands of
sites!"avoid it like the plague. These are "link farms,"
popular at one time though all but dead now. Search engines
really hate these, and they are a great way to get
blackballed; and getting your site un-blackballed is an
exercise you don't want to go through.
The final important raking
factoryour HTML codeis the one area where the
typical marketer may need technical/Webmaster assistance. If
your content management system gives you an "optimize code"
option (which, for example, FrontPage doessort of), using this will
help at least to a limited extent. The goal is to make your
actual page content/text as easy as possible for the
automated spiders used by the search engines to crawl; this
means minimal code preceding your page content. The
Markup Validation Service is a free online tool that
validates your site's code against common standards.
When spidering your site,
most of the popular search engines will check for the
presence of a robots.txt file in the root directory of your
site. While not strictly required, this file does make your
site more search engine-friendly, and you'll need one if you
want to prevent search engines from spidering specific areas
of your site. This is a plain text file which can be created
in Notepad or any text editor and then uploaded to the root
directory of your site. The simplest possible robots.txt
file contains just these two lines:
You can make this file
considerably more elaborate, by adding special instructions
for each search engine, or excluding certain directories
from being searched; for instructions, see
Also, Google in particular
advises against the use of frames or doorway pages, and
for dynamically-generated pages advises limiting parameters
to one or two. If this is all a bit too geeky for you, ask
for help from your Webmaster, content management vendor or
Web host (or from an independent SEO
firm if you have the budget).
What about PR activities?
Interactive PR is a great
way to build links from relevant, high-quality sites. Within
press releases, link specific phrases to targeted
corresponding pages on your website.
The final step in improving
your search engine positioning involves the least effort,
and yet is the hardestwaiting. Getting linked from sites
like dmoz.org isn't a sure thing, and will generally take at
least a couple of weeks. It can take several weeks for
Google to find your site, and about the only thing you can
do to speed this up at all is to try getting your site
linked from more sites so you are easier to find.