Location - Location - Location: The Basics of Search Engine Optimization

Steven Champeon
2005-09-02
Reprinted from The Triangle Technical Journal

Your corporate Web site…to you - an investment – and being such, you didn’t let the CEO’s nephew design it. You issued an RFP; you went through a formal vendor selection process; and then you hired a professional firm to ensure that your corporate site (often the first impression of your business) was both useful and usable, separating form and function from presentation and style. A real A+ job. And now that you’ve built it, they will come. Right? Wrong.

The universe of Web content is enormous, and continues to expand every day, hour, minute, and second. Between 1995 and 2005, the Web went from a field of dreams to a crowded, competitive clearinghouse of information, products, and services. As a result, individuals are turning to search engines to cull the herd. In fact, search activities are the second-most common activity on the Internet, after email. Each time an individual launches Google, it searches more than eight billion Web pages, and according to Jupiter Media Matrix, 93 percent of users do not look past the first two pages of any search engine’s set of results. Considering that 55 percent of all online purchases begin with a search engine and that between 6 and 10 billion searches in the United States each year are performed with the specific intent to purchase an item or service, a business should not find itself in the position of saying: “We built it. Where is everyone?”

So what is your business doing to make sure potential customers find you in that ocean of information? If you respond with “nothing,” please go bang your head on the nearest wall, and then let’s talk about search engine optimization (SEO).

SEO refers to the process of attracting potential members, customers, or stakeholders to a Web site by improving the site’s rankings in Internet search engines. It is probably the least understood aspect of Web design and marketing – and truthfully, a bit of a black art. That’s because Google, Yahoo, MSN, and other “crawler-based” search engines rank Web pages once a month based on secret mathematical algorithms.

But let’s shed a little light on this black art. While the algorithms that search engines use to find and rank Web pages are closely guarded secrets, general information is available regarding how search engines index – making it possible to optimize your site to improve ranking placement. For example, Yahoo!, a human-powered directory, depends on people for finding and organizing their listings, so companies should write a short, 25-word or less, core description of the entire Web site using one or two of the keywords users may search for. Google places tremendous value in link structures and a page’s content. Knowing such constants, tailoring your site and its content to comply with the way search engines index the Web will significantly improve your search status.

In order to maximize search engine optimization, there are certain things you must do. Presented below in no particular order of importance are proven methods for enhancing any search engine optimization initiative:

Do…

  • Pick your keywords carefully and wisely. A high keyword density ratio within your content is one of the best ways to increase your search engine ranking potential. Develop your keyword strategy by researching the most relevant and most searched for keywords or keyword phrases.
  • Create a useful and thoughtful Web site. The content of your Web site ultimately determines its utility to visitors. Quality is key. The writing should be clear and concise, using words that describe your company and what it does. Your site should be quick to load, clean, appealing, and easy to navigate. Determine what the purpose of the Web site is, and ensure that purpose is fulfilled. And remember to refresh your content – do what you can to change your content and keep users returning for more.
  • Make a complete sitemap of your site, which will help both your users and the search engines at the same time. Having a well-designed sitemap will ensure that each page of your site gets properly indexed by search engines. It is important to call that file sitemap.html and not site-map.html or other variations. Additionally, make sure that your sitemap.html file is directly accessible from your homepage and that it uses link text. Link text is always a lot better than a picture or graphic, since search engines won’t be able to read them.
  • Implement a link popularity strategy on your Web site. Adding links to strategic partners and related Web sites is another way to improve your rankings, because a large part of how search engines judge your site relates to who links to it. Quality links are one indicator of a valid site. An additional benefit is that incoming visitors may view your site in a better light if they find it through a recommendation on another site that they respect.
  • Make sure you write a short descriptive title tag (including keywords) of what each page of your site is all about, and make sure they are all different. Search engines use the information contained in that title tag, compare them to the text on that page and rank it accordingly. The short description in your title tags will also help your users. The idea here is to keep it as short and descriptive as possible. Avoid the temptation of creating title tags that are longer than 30 characters maximum, since they might have a dilution effect in your rankings of certain search engines.
  • Incorporate a relevant metatag. Metatags are groupings of keywords that are built into a Web page’s source code and are intended to provide a sort of summary of what the site is meant to accomplish. Historically, major search engines placed more relevance on the metatag, until some sites became wise to this and created massive metatags that were irrelevant to the actual site. Today’s view is that a properly worded metatag can’t hurt.
  • Review site design and publishing technology to prevent barriers to page indexing. Search engines cannot easily index sites that have extensive graphics or animations and little text. While a site may look attractive or compelling, search engines may find little upon which to base a strong page rank.
  • Register site with search engines. Refreshing and resubmitting your site won’t kick it to the top of the charts, but it reminds the search engine that your site exists, so you should refresh and submit it every month or so. Be warned that caution should be exercised here – submitting your site more than once a month is considered a spamming tactic and could get you in trouble with a search engine.
  • Have patience. After search engine optimization and submission of your Web site, you will see your listing on most search engines in just three days. But, bear in mind, it may take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to achieve a high ranking due to the time it takes for search engine spiders to properly index your site. Ranking takes time and is unfortunately a measure beyond any search engine optimization and submission company’s control.

Search engine optimization can help companies promote themselves and their products and services in an efficient way by ensuring that information seekers are a single click and mere seconds away from what they have to offer. And in an age of information overload, an optimized Web site may present the best chance a company has to expand its reach.