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:

  • Domain name. Ideally, your Web site’s domain name should contain your most important keyword. For example, if you are in the business of selling doo-hickies, a great domain name would be “www.doo-hickies.com.” Unfortunately, most keywords are already employed in someone else’s domain name. If possible, use your most critical keyword or phrase in your domain name. If that is not possible, see URL names, below.
  • “Title” meta-tag. Ex.: “Doo-Hickies Are Our Specialty at We-Sell-Stuff.com”
  • “Description” meta-tag. Ex.: “If Doo-Hickies are your passion as they are ours, you will find a complete selection of Doo-Hickies here. Contact us for more Doo-Hickie information.”
  • “Keywords” meta-tag. Although Google pays little notice to keywords in this meta-tag, Yahoo! and MSN use it to identify keywords to index. Use variations of the keyword to represent different ways someone may search for information about it. For example: “Doo-Hickies, Doo-Hickie, Doo-Hicky, accessories, testimonials”. However, keywords or phrases within this meta-tag should also be present within the page’s searchable text. Keywords within the meta-tag that are not actually present on the page can serve to penalize the Web site’s listing.
  • URL names. Page URLs that contain a keyword or phrase are rated higher than URLs that do not. If you cannot use a keyword in your domain name, you can include it within the URL: “http://www.we-sell-stuff.com/html/doo-hickies.html” is rated higher for the key phrase “doo-hickies” than is the URL “http://www.we-sell-stuff.com/html/doohick.html.”
  • “ALT” tags (for graphics and photos). Ex.: “We sell a variety of Doo-Hickies and accessories.” “ALT” text is always visible to the search engine, but is only displayed to the Web visitor when the mouse is moved over the graphic or photo for which the “ALT” text has been created.
  • “H1,” “H2,” etc. Search engines pay more attention to text that is emphasized with heading, bold “B,” underline “U,” or italic “I” tags. An “H1” heading may look like this on a Web page:
  • Doo-Hickies Accessories
    The search engine will see something like this: “H1”Doo-Hickies Accessories”/H1”
  • Links. Search engines rate text contained in links as more important than regular text. For search engines, Example A below is more important than Example B, even though both contain the same keywords and point to the same Web page (the bolding serves to illustrate links:
  • Example A: Read about my Doo-Hickies testimonials.

    Example B: Read about my Doo-Hickies testimonials here.

  • Real text, not graphical text. Real text is any text that can be read by a search engine because the text is contained within the underlying Web page code. Graphical text is any text that is contained within an image, graphic or Flash movie, and is not actually present within the underlying Web page code. Keywords that are contained within well-written, contextually appropriate sentences, paragraphs or lists are rewarded with higher ratings by search engines.
  • Page placement. Keywords place higher on the page rate higher than keywords buried within the text further down on the page.

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:

  • Stuff your page with keywords. On some Web pages you will see some works repeated over and over and over, assuming that this will force a search engine into giving the keyword a higher value. The opposite actually happens. Search engines identify the over-use of keywords as “spamming,” and can actually ban your Web site from their index for this practice.
  • Use invisible keywords. Invisible keywords are invisible only to you, not to the search engine. Web site creators can make words invisible by simply making them the same color as the background. If the underlying code for a Web page contains invisible keywords, it will be penalized, or even banned, by search engines.
  • Use extremely tiny fonts. If your Web creator uses an extremely tiny font (less than 6pt) size to hide key words, search engines may penalize your site.
  • Use keywords in your meta-tag that aren’t actually on the page. Search engines that still use the meta-tag fully expect to find the keywords within the readable text on the page itself. If they don’t, they may penalize or ban your Web site.
  • Use graphical keywords. Graphical keywords are words contained within a graphic, photograph or Flash movie. They may look good to you, but search engines take no notice of them.

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

  • Robots.txt. Include this file in your root directory. It can contain instructions for search engine robots regarding which directories and files it should spider.
  • Sitemaps. Create a Sitemap. A Sitemap.html page can be created that contains links to each Web page that needs to be spidered. If a link is created on the Home page to the Sitemap.html page, then the spider will follow the link to the Sitemap.html page where it will, in turn, follow all the links on the Sitemap.html page. This helps search engine spiders know which Web pages to index.
  • Google Sitemap and Validation file. Create a Google Sitemap.xml file and validation file. These files are also located in the root directory. Google enables you to create a special Sitemap that is particular to Google robots. The Sitemap.xml file requires a specific Google format to work, and forces Google to spider all the Web pages contained in the Sitemap.xml file. For this to work, Google also requires a validation file to be created.
  • Info.txt File. Create this file and place it in your Web site’s root directory. Some search engines use an info.txt file that contains specially formatted information about the Web site, including the site URL, site name and descriptive text.
  • Links from “Like” Sites. Google especially values links from other like, quality sites that already have a high page rank within Google. For example if your company has partners or customers that are willing to put a link from their Web sites back to yours (with appropriate keywords in the link text, of course), then Google will use those links to improve your own Web site’s Google PageRank.
  • Local Listings in Search Engines. Google, Yahoo! and MSN enable you to list your business information, including the Web site URL, in a special section called Local Listings. Take advantage of this to help increase your page rank and page listing.
  • The Use of Smaller Search Engines. Google, Yahoo! and MSN aren’t the only important search engines. There are a number of smaller search engines which can contribute to improved listings and Google PageRank. Also, some smaller search engines are specialized search engines that someone may reach through a Google search anyway, so it would be good to be listed in such specialized search engines.
  • Article Submission Sites. Another way to increase your Web site’s visibility and listing is to publish quality articles and documents on the various document submission sites. These sites will publish your (approved) document on their own site, and it will usually be picked up by other sites or blogs looking for good content. The result is that a number of links are created from those sites back to your Web site. Below is a partial list of smaller search engines and article submission links:
  • Smaller Search Engine Links
  • SearchWarp.com
  • SitesOnDisplay.com
  • SearchRamp.com
  • Mixcat.com
  • ExactSeek.com
  • Aesop.com
  • WebSquash.com
  • AllTheWebSites.org

Article Submission Links (#=Google PageRank as of this writing)

Avoid These Things

    • Dynamic Web Pages. Don’t use them unless you absolutely have to. Search engines have difficulty reading dynamic pages, so any keyword optimization you may have included on the page will be for naught. Dynamic Web pages are created “on the fly” as a visitor navigates from page to page. The content of dynamic Web pages is usually stored in a database, and is not loaded for presentation until the content is requested. Dynamic Web pages are usually identified by punctuation characters in the page URL:

http://www.cpaforyou.com/Default.aspx?tabid=29.
In this case the dynamic Web page is identified by the “?” in the last portion of the URL. Another obvious disadvantage to dynamic Web pages is the inability to use a keyword in the page name and URL. Dynamic pages can make Web site maintenance easier but it may mean forsaking a search engine-visible Web site.

  • Frames. Again, don’t use them unless you have a compelling need to do so. Any content contained within a Web page’s Content frame is often invisible to search engines. Frames involve one Web page file (the Master frame) loading content from some other Web file into another frame (the Content frame). All the search engine sees is what is contained in the Master frame, which is usually just the meta-tags, a banner file name, and navigation elements. Any of the stuff in the Content frame isn’t seen because it’s not really part of the Master frame and its underlying code; the content file is just referenced by the Master frame. By the bye, any keyword or SEO work you’ve done goes to waste.
  • Broken Links. Make sure that all links on your Web pages work properly. Search engines do not like broken links. A broken link is simply a link that displays a “Page Not Available” or some other such message. Your listing rank will be lowered if search engine spiders find broken links on your page.
  • Link Farms. Do not use link farms or link sharing schemes. Search engines very much value links from like-site to like-site; they do not like links from unrelated site to unrelated site. Your listing rank may be lowered if your Web site is part of a link farm. Here’s what Google says:

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:

    • No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google.

Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a “special relationship” with Google, or advertise a “priority submit” to Google. There is no priority submit for Google.

  • Some SEOs may try to sell you the ability to type keywords directly into the browser address bar.

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?

  • They can evaluate an existing Web site based on known SEO practices, standards and techniques that are search-engine approved, and advise you on how to improve your Web site’s SEO content.
  • They can create Web sites based on known SEO practices, standards and techniques that are search-engine approved.
  • They can provide services for you like keyword research, code optimization, domain registration, search engine submission, article submission, Google Sitemap creation, etc.
  • They can help you create pay-per-click (PPC) adword campaigns that will get you listed on the first, second or third page of listings for specific search terms. Just keep in mind that for highly popular keywords and phrases, even PPC can get quite expensive. For example, to get Google Page 1 listing for the adword “technical writing,” you could expect to pay $3.30 per click. Based on an estimate of 23-29 clicks per day, that’s up to $100.00 a day just for people clicking on your Google ad.

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.