Last lesson was about social media; today I’m going to write about search engine optimisation (SEO).
SEO has gotten an enormous amount of attention in the past several years. I think people have the mistaken impression that it’s some sort of mysterious black art, and many SEO experts are all too happy to perpetuate that myth. Here’s the truth: search engine optimisation is simply the practice of trying to understand how search engines decide which websites are important and then using that knowledge to convince the search engines that your website is the most important one in its class. SEO can get complicated, but it’s not some mystic ritual prayer to the gods of the internet—it is a very understandable process.
Before I go any further, let me be clear: when I (and any other SEO) say “search engine”, what we are really saying is “Google”. No other engine’s ranking system has mattered in years, and that is unlikely to change for some time. (In next week’s lesson you’ll see that Microsoft’s Bing search engine can actually be relevant to online strategy in other ways, but their ranking algorithm is similar enough to Google’s that it makes more sense to simply focus on the larger market.) Nevertheless, the same principles would apply in some fictional post-Google world.
Anyway, let’s break this down a little bit. Search engines are (ie. Google is) ubiquitous, and yet the way they work is actually fairly non-obvious. Basically, they have “bots” which crawl the internet 24/7, adding and updating database entries for every page they come across. Then, when a user enters a word or set of words into the search form, the search engine scans its entire database for web pages containing those words (or similar words, actually, in Google’s case). That part is, actually, sort of obvious. The less obvious part is this: imagine that you’ve been tasked with building a search engine, and you have successfully created an enormous database containing the entire internet, and you or your engineers have found a way to query that content quickly enough to come up with a big list of all the pages on the internet containing the terms someone is looking for. How do you order those pages?
Answering that question is what made Google a household name, and (as I’m sure you can appreciate) the details are pretty complicated. Moreover, Google is constantly refining their algorithm. The good news, however, is that the big picture is fairly straightforward. Firstly, for your page to be on that big list of pages that Google has to sort, it needs to contain the words being searched for. (“The words being searched for” are referred to as keywords—from now on I’ll call them that, too.) No matter what you do, your page will never rank for the “chocolate” keyword if the word “chocolate” doesn’t appear anywhere on the page—that should be glaringly obvious. The amount of times a keyword shows up on a page and the location of that keyword relative to the rest of the text (eg. domain name vs. title vs. middle paragraph) is also very important.
Next—and this is one of the most important things to understand—Google sees links pointing to a page as a positive vote toward the general importance of that page. So if you write a nice essay about chocolate and put it on the internet, you probably still won’t show up on Google because there are millions of pages about chocolate on the internet with more inbound links than your essay.
Those two concepts generally make up 90% of SEO today. In the early days of search, it was important to build your site in a way that made it easy for search engine bots to read them and that became an important selling feature for many web developers. Today, Google’s bots can read almost anything, with the general exception of images and Flash animations. Important content on your site should always include a plain text representation anyway, for accessibility purposes, so those exceptions are not a major concern.
The one most important piece of advice I can give regarding SEO today is this: it is not worth trying to trick Google. There are people that will set up enormous amounts of links to your site from questionable sites across the internet in an effort to increase your rank. Some people used to try padding their pages with long lists of keywords so that Google would find them more easily. These sorts of tactics sometime do work for short periods of time (those specific ones are already obsolete, but people are always coming up with new ways to trick Google), but eventually Google will modify its algorithms to penalize pages using such tactics as search engine spam. Entire companies have been ruined by Google’s penalties.
For the vast majority of businesses, the best SEO strategy is very simple: be conscious of the search terms your customers will use to find you online, and include those words frequently in your content—especially page titles, headers, and the domain name if possible. Don’t fight for very popular search terms when more specific ones will do. (“Chocolate des moines” will be far easier to rank for than just “chocolate” and is probably more valuable for a chocolate shop in Des Moines anyway.) Hopefully your business name is unique enough that a direct search for your company will not be difficult to rank for. Include your web address in all of your marketing, and give people reasons to link to you—having a blog will help a lot in this regard, but only if you or one of your employees will write in it regularly. With time, people will link to your site and your SEO rank will grow organically with your reputation. Search engine optimisation can easily get more complicated than that, but that will get you at least 80% of the benefit for 20% of the effort. I’ve done a fair bit of SEO work in my life, and it can produce enormous ROI, but it can also become a huge time sink. Beyond these basic steps I always recommend clients think hard about whether SEO is the most effective use of their marketing budget.
Here’s one bonus tip that I’ve found to be quite useful for a large number of businesses: if your business is struggling to rank for one very specific keyword, or if you want to make it more difficult for a competitor to rank for one of your specific keywords, buy domain names for that keyword (in the case of our example, something similar to chocolatedesmoines.com, chocolatedesmoines.net, desmoineschocolate.org, etc) and put up a simple landing page at that domain which includes information about the keyword in question and links back to your company’s main site. The page can be extremely simple—you should be able to get everything done for under $500 including a simple design, basic copywriting, and a few domain names—and it will go a long way toward helping your site rank for those keywords.