Engine Optimization: Elements of an SEO Strategy
Search Engine Optimization: Elements of an SEO Strategy
An explanation of SEO basics: This article is a great primer if
you're getting started with an SEO campaign or looking to hire a
firm. If you're just getting started with:
- Selecting an SEO firm - Trying to start a search engine campaign
- Reviewing your current SEO efforts
...read on. This article should provide you with a high-level review
of the SEO process, dispel a few SEO myths, and help you understand
legitimate optimization strategies.
What is SEO
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, defies easy definition. But
here's a short version:
SEO: Using keyword analysis and other legitimate practices to gain
the highest possible search engine and directory rankings, under
a given key phrase, for a given URL.
I'll break this definition down a bit and hopefully prevent a hail
of angry e-mails:
Keyword Analysis is the process of mining keyword search data to
find the best balance between the keywords you need and the best
potential search niche. More on this later.
Search Engine means an automated search engine. 'Search Engines'
include Google, AOL Search, Ask Jeeves and MSN Search. A search
engine obtains its results from 'bots' -- small programs that read
your web site in much the same way you would: By reading the content
on a page, and then moving from page to page via links. A directory,
on the other hand, is built at least in part by human beings deciding
where each site fits into the directory structure. Yahoo's directory
area and Open Directory are both examples of directories.
Ranking is the numeric rank reflecting your position in the results
list when someone performs a search on a particular set of keywords.
Highest Possible means getting as close to number one as you can.
Often you just can't get that number one spot. Maybe someone else
has a 400-page web site solely dedicated to the key phrase for which
you're attempting to optimize. Or maybe they're paying a fortune
in advertising. That's life, sometimes...
Key Phrase is the keyword or set of keywords someone types into
the little 'search' field in Google or Alta Vista or any other search
A URL is the address of one page on your site. Most search engines
display keyword search results and provide a link directly to the
page most relevant to those results, rather than your home page.
It's very, very important to keep that in mind when you build and
optimize your site.
Legitimate Practices is my pet peeve. A true search engine campaign
will not use practices such as page or content cloaking, redirects,
or lists of links (so-called 'link farms') but relies on good coding
practices, well-written content, steady link popularity work and
site features that will be as valuable for site visitors as for
search engine ranking. Anything less is a short-term fix that will
reduce your rankings.
So, the long version of the definition would be: SEO: Using keyword
analysis, good coding practices, well-written copy, link popularity
analysis and careful site organization to move a web page as close
to the number one search results position as possible for a given
key phrase, in both search engines and directories.
Hey, that's not so bad after all. But how do you get started? First,
you separate reality from myth...
SEO Urban Legends
There are quite a few SEO myths out there. Here are my favorites:
The Keywords META Tag Matters. Mostly wrong. Only Inktomi pays
any attention to the keywords meta tag. Do something basic, but
don't bother putting in keywords that aren't supported by your page
Search Engines can read Flash, images and video. Search engines
can read one thing: Text. Anything else, while legitimate as a design
tool, will not help your ranking. And relying too heavily on Flash
or images may reduce your site's visibility. Google is one partial
exception -- it can read some Flash links, but still cannot read
Mirroring my site in multiple locations will improve ranking. Actually,
just the opposite. Duplication of content will generally have no
effect or, worse, reduce your ranking in major search engines. Most
search engines now have rules against this form of 'spam' and may
reduce your ranking or ban your site.
'Doorway' pages improve ranking. Pages that have lots of keywords
but then automatically redirect to the main site will not help you
in major search engines, such as Google. And, if someone catches
you and reports you to Google or the other search engine, you may
be banned altogether. A 'landing' or 'bridge' page, though, that's
designed to be as useful for users as for search engines, and does
not redirect the user, can help by providing real, useful, keyword-rich
Firms promising to get me #1 rankings in 10,000 search engines
for $99.95 can help. I alternate between tooth-grinding and hysterical
laughter when I see these ads. First, there aren't 10,000 search
engines. Actually, there are probably 10-20 to worry about. Getting
listed in the other thousand or so is largely a waste of time. Second,
no one can guarantee any ranking in any search engine for a specific
keyword. Period. And the price is less than half the cost for an
express submission in a single directory (Yahoo). Chances are anyone
trying to get you to spend the $99.95 operates a 'link farm' where
they list dozens, or hundreds, of sites. To learn more about how
to choose an SEO firm, check out Google's article: (http://www.google.com/intl/mr/webmasters/seo.html).
Firms charging me more money and guaranteeing a #1 ranking on Google
can help. This is the latest SEO scam. I can get you a number one
ranking on Google, too, as long as I get to pick the keyword or
can get you ranked under a fairly unique company name. But no one,
and I mean no one can guarantee a #1 rank under a specific keyword.
Even Google says so.
Search engines are now almost savvy enough to read your pages like
a human being would, so anything that will drive away a typical
site visitor will also probably reduce your ranking. Things that
will increase your search engine ranking include:
- Good content - Good, clean HTML code - Useful, relevant TITLE
and DESCRIPTION tags - Relevant, appropriate links from other web
There are some basic steps that, well executed, will do more to
increase your rank than an ocean of snake oil.
The SEO Process
A typical SEO campaign starts with keyword analysis, and then emphasizes
insuring your site doesn't impede search engine bots and follows
up with ongoing link and traffic analysis.
Step 1: Keyword Analysis. If you say the right
word enough times on your site, you'll get that coveted #1 spot,
right? Wrong. Choosing the right keywords starts with a list of
the keywords or phrases under which you'd like to be found, and
typically ends up somewhere completely different. Selecting the
best keywords is a four-step process: First, list the keywords and
phrases under which you'd like to be found. Next, find out whether
anyone searches on those keywords, and whether they're searching
for relevant items. Third, find out how many other sites are struggling
for rankings under those keywords. Finally, pick keywords with the
same meaning but a better search-to-competition ratio.
Don't forget about relevance, either. If you want a high ranking
under 'tires', you're going to have your work cut out for you. And
in the end you'll likely end up getting found for 'bicycle tires',
'automobile tires', 'spare tires' and who knows what else. Is it
worth it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But you have to do your homework
to find out.
There are several tools that help you research the number of searches
and competitors for keywords. Wordtracker (http://www.wordtracker.com)
is a good one -- don't depend on their results from Overture, though,
unless you're specifically preparing an Overture campaign.
Keyword analysis is the hardest part of a campaign, in number-crunching
terms. It requires a lot of work and may not tell you what you want
to hear. But in my experience it's critical to a successful campaign.
Step 2: Search Engine Readiness. Almost every
web site we review has one or more problems that will prevent search
engine bots from properly reading all content. Showstoppers include:
- An all-Flash or all-images home page - A home page that automatically
redirects to another page - Pop-up ads (does anyone really read
these things?) - A site full of pages with fewer than 400 words
- No TITLE or DESCRIPTION tags
A major step in any SEO campaign is making sure that the site will
present the friendliest profile to search engines. Happily, the
investment in optimizing will also pay off in a faster, more universally
Step 3: Content and Site Preparation. You've done
your research: You know which keywords match your message, and your
site's HTML code is one big search engine welcome mat. Now it's
time to make sure that your site contains those keywords. This is
where I most often see folks get confused -- should you rewrite
your web content to emphasize keywords? Yes, but with extreme caution.
Should you make small, appropriate changes? Yes. Here are my guidelines
for content preparation.
Don't write for keywords (much). This almost always leads to stilted,
hard-to-read prose. Writing keyword-rich content that really works
for users is an art form. Be careful.
Do a little careful editing. If you use the word 'car' but 'auto'
is the keyword you need, chances are you can do a few replacements
without marring your carefully crafted copy.
Spend time on the titles and description tags. Make sure every
page in your site has a unique, relevant TITLE and DESCRIPTION tag.
Never use an automatic page generator. Tools like WebPosition Gold
offer to generate optimized pages for you. Don't. They tend to hurt
your ranking as much as help, and they generate ugly, ugly pages.
Write more stuff. More content is almost always better. If your
site is just missing a specific keyword or phrase, but you think
it's important, then your potential customers probably do too. By
adding a few more pages with content focusing on those absent keywords,
you'll likely help visitors and improve your keyword ranking at
the same time. And, the more text-rich your site is, the better
the odds that you'll catch longer, stranger but really important
key phrases that you can't anticipate.
Step 4. Link Analysis. Quite a few major search
engines (Google, most importantly) weigh your 'link popularity'
when ranking your site. A more accurate term, though, is 'link analysis',
because these engines don't just count up the number of links to
your site. They look for links near and containing relevant text.
So a page full of links, one of which happens to be yours, won't
help very much. But a link from a related site, near a short paragraph
that contains relevant keywords, will probably give you a boost.
Having keywords in the link itself is even better. A quick example:
'(http://www.portentinteractive.com)' doesn't help much.
'For search engine optimization, visit (http://www.portentinteractive.com)'
is much better.
There are a few ways to build your link popularity:
- Contact sites that relate to yours and request a link exchange.
This works really well, but obviously takes a long time.
- Syndicate your content. If you can provide an easy way for interested
webmasters to link directly to relevant stories on your site, you
provide an instant link popularity boost, and get your message out
- Start an affiliate program. If you sell a product, consider setting
up an affiliate sales program.
Step 5: Submit your site. Many search engines,
Google included, allow you to submit your site for free. Generally
you can submit your home page and let the search engine crawl the
rest of your site. Some directories and engines offer paid 'express'
services, and some, like Teoma, require that you pay for URL submission.
Which engines you choose depends on your budget and campaign.
Step 6: Review, Revise, and Keep Going. Think
you're done? Wrong -- search engine optimization is an ongoing project.
At least once per month, review your rankings, site traffic reports
and link popularity and tweak your site as necessary. The tools
you need to measure results are:
Site traffic reports. Any hosting company should provide you with
a site traffic report, and most of the reporting tools in use today
provide a 'referrals from search engines' section. Take a look at
this section for a good measure of results.
Link counts. Use the link: command on Google to determine your
Your keyword list. Search on the relevant search engines to see
if your ranking has improved.
Your brain. You have to interpret what you see, and decide whether
changes are warranted. There's magic formula for this. Sorry about
So now you'll get instant results, right? Well, not quite...
A Word About Expectations
SEO can take time. Even Google only refreshes its entire index
once a month, so don't expect instant results.
If your work doesn't generate increased rankings within a month
or two, don't panic. Look at your site traffic and search on the
keywords you chose. Make sure that the search engine you're checking
actually includes your site -- most likely the bots just haven't
gotten around to 'crawling' your site.
Still stumped? Find a professional. Sure, we cost money. But you
may have missed something about your site that's preventing a good
keyword rank, and a second set of eyes can help.
A Solid Marketing Strategy
If you follow the basics and keep at it, you will get results.
What's really important is to make sure you don't award too much
weight to one area (such as link popularity) at the expense of the
others. A well-rounded campaign will provide solid, long-term results.
About the Author
Ian Lurie is an Internet
marketer in Seattle, WA. He started his web design and marketing
firm, Portent Interactive, in 1995. Portent offers complete Internet
marketing support, including search engine optimization, e-mail
marketing, and web site design and development. Ian has a law degree
from UCLA and has successfully avoided practicing law for almost