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A Search Engine Optimization Primer

A Search Engine Optimization Primer describes for the layman the various methods and requirements to make a Web site "search engine friendly." What is the point in spending time and money building a Web site if no one can find it doing a simple search using Google, Yahoo!, MSN, or any number of other search engines? With Internet searches quickly replacing traditional methods of locating products and services (like the Yellow Pages), companies today have to ensure that their Web store front is as visible as possible to potential customers or users. Read on to find out how you can make sure that your Web site is optimized for today's search engines!

A Definition

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a complex topic with a fairly simple definition: SEO is the science and art of designing a Web site and its content in such a way as to give each Web site page the best chance of being listed and highly ranked by search engines. I describe it as both a science and an art.

The Science of SEO

Like a science, specific, known design techniques can be used (or not) by Web designers to improve a search engine's ability to "read" the content of a Web site and its pages. Wonderful and complex Web sites can easily be created without using any SEO techniques, or by using techniques that directly interfere with a search engine's ability to "read" the content of a site. If you want to determine whether your Web site has a fighting chance of being highly listed by a search engine, you need to be aware of these known and non-mysterious techniques.

The Art of SEO

Like an art, scientific techniques have to be employed in reference to a Web site's purpose, audience, message, aesthetics, and contents. The "look and feel" of a Web site can be critical, and a balance must sometimes be struck between the artistic qualities of the Web site and its adherence to search engine requirements. Many "artistic" design elements actually interfere with or prohibit a search engine from reading a site. For example, a popular design element used today, Flash movies, is invisible to search engines. If your Web site is created with Flash, you can forget about getting noticed by search engines for the simple reason that Flash is not textual content, and search engines feed off of content, not graphics, photographs, or Flash movies. It is important to know that any words contained within a Flash move, photograph, or graphic is invisible to search engines. Just because you can see words displayed on your Web site doesn't mean that a search engine can. The Flash movie that serves as my Web site's banner provides a good example of "invisible words." Although the site visitor sees the following in the banner,

GRDavis Media Services ****** Web Site Development Technical Writing Sales and Marketing Collateral

the search engine sees none of these words. Why? Because the words are actually part of a Flash movie. If you are to look at the underlying Web page code, you will not find this particular collection of words; you will only find a reference to the Flash movie that projects the words on the Flash movie screen. It's the projection of the words that is visible to you and me. Since search engines cannot see what movies, graphics or photographs contain, any words they contain are invisible. This is an important lesson to learn and understand.

The Importance of Textual Content

Rich, pertinent, textual content is red meat to a search engine. Period. If your Web site does not contain good, solid text describing your products, services or offerings, then your hope of receiving a natural high listing – for important search terms – within the most important search engines is nil. Textual content is the foundation upon which all other Web design techniques must build if you want a good chance to naturally be listed high by search engines like Google, Yahoo! or MSN. That is, unless you want to pay for page 1 or page 2 listings through potentially expensive pay-per-click ads or sponsorships.

Textual Content Defined

Let me be clear by what I mean by textual content. Textual content means letters, words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs that can be "read" by a search engine's robot program called a "spider." It is the search engine's spider that "reads" your Web pages. If the spider cannot see something, it doesn't exist as far as the search engine is concerned. Search engine readable text may not be visible to you, but it is visible to search engines if the text is included as part of the Web page's underlying code. More about that later. Search engine spiders do not "see" what you see when viewing a Web site. You may see pretty pictures, graphics, text, movies, and animations. The spider may see – nothing! – at least nothing that it can search and index. Search engines see the special code behind the Web site, not what is displayed in your browser window. To see what a search engine sees, display your favorite Web site. Then, with your mouse, perform a "right click" on the Web site page to pop up a menu. If you are using Internet Explorer, look for "View Source" on the menu and click on it (for Netscape, look for "View Page Source"). (If you don't see "View Source" as one of the options in the menu, then click again on another part of the Web site. Stay away from menus, flash movies, graphics, photos and the like.) The resulting window displays what the search engine sees, which, of course, looks like a bunch of code to you and me.

How to Make Sure Textual Content Works for You

The best way to make sure textual content is usable by search engines is to focus on the effective use of keywords or keyphrases within well-written text. A keyword or phrase is any search engine readable text that indicates the focus or topics covered by a Web page. Keywords and phrases work best when they are repeated several times in different ways on a page. For example, the key-word "doo-hickie" can be repeated in several different places within the underlying page code:

How to Make Sure Keywords DON'T Work for You The use of keywords on a page should be natural but purposeful, not forced or overdone. Your Web page should not resort to "tricks" to put keywords in the Web page's search engine readable text. Here are some guaranteed ways to get penalized, banned or ignored by search engines: Other Considerations to Improve Search Engine Listings Although "content is king" when it comes to search engine optimization, Web site builders can employ other techniques to improve search engine listings. Here is a sampling of things that can be done or should be avoided: Do These Things Article Submission Links (#=Google PageRank as of this writing) Avoid These Things

Linking schemes will often do a site more harm than good. Many sites that advertise link-sharing programs not only offer little value, but will distribute your email address without your permission, resulting in an increased volume of unwanted mail.

The Aesthetics of Search Engine Optimization

Do Search Engines care about, reward or penalize the visual or aesthetic appeal of your Web site? In a word, No. Ugly Web sites can be ranked as high or higher as visually appealing or highly creative Web sites. In fact, the design techniques, tools, utilities, components, and gimmicks many visually stunning Web sites use actually often prevent those Web sites from being effectively spidered, indexed or listed. So how much attention should you give to your Web site's visual appeal? It depends. If your Web site illustrates your artistic capabilities, such as for an artist, musician, or photographer, then you should make sure that your site is highly aesthetic, and you will likely have to make some compromises between aesthetics and search engine optimization. If your Web site is an e-commerce Web site, then it can actually be quite ugly and still be effective both in regards to search engine optimization and user interaction. Most of us, I think, just want a good looking, appealing Web site that search engines like, too.

Claims of Which to Be Wary

Some search engine optimization companies will make strong claims regarding their ability to get your Web site a high listing. For example, they may claim, "We Get Your Website to Page One'. Here's what Google says:

Most such proposals require users to install extra software, and very few users do so. Evaluate such proposals with extreme care and be skeptical about the self-reported number of users who have downloaded the required applications. Keep in mind that millions of Web sites exist, and for any particular search term tens of thousands of Web sites may be listed. Most search engines only display 10 listings per page, so a guarantee of your site's naturally being in the top 10 or 20 listings for an important search term cannot be made. What if the companies already listed in the top 20 paid an SEO company to guarantee a top 20 placement? Where would that leave you? Having said that, all is not lost. For example, an Arlington, Texas-based accounting firm may not be able to appear in the top 20 listings for the search term "accounting firm," but it may have a good shot at appearing in the top ten for the search term "Texas accounting firm," or "Arlington accounting firm," or "DFW accounting firm" or "church accounting firm." Others may claim "Guaranteed Search Engine Listings." Understand that this is a claim that even the search engines will not make without forking over some loot. No search engine that I know of guarantees that your Web site will be listed (except for those accepting payment for listing), so how can an SEO company make that claim? They can't. However, most Web sites are eventually listed by search engines for free. The questions are: How long does it take? Where in the listing does your Web site appear? and For what search terms? It really doesn't make any difference if your Web site is listed number one for some obscure search term that may rarely or never be used. In my own experience, most search engines pick up a well-designed, search-engine-optimized Web site within 72 hours of a free submission. It may not be listed highly at first, but it is listed.

So What Can an SEO Company Really Claim to Do for You?

Summary Advice

Establish realistic expectations for your Web site, but commit yourself to using good, solid, proven practices, techniques and standards to improve your Web site's search engine optimization effectiveness. If you already have a Web site, it is not too late to make it SEO compliant. It may take some work, but the potential rewards could be great, especially if you need to use your Web site as a lead generation or sales tool. Having said all of this, not every Web site needs to be optimized. Some Web sites are meant primarily to serve existing customers, and are not designed to be electronic brochures or sales tools. Or, the business is structured such that sufficient new business comes from referrals rather than via marketing or a Web presence. In such cases, owners should count themselves lucky. If your business could benefit from SEO, don't put it off. Your competitors are likely not sitting still, and are hoping that you hesitate just a little longer.  


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