Introduction to Basic Search Engine Optimization

Introduction to Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Needle in a haystack

t_buchtele / Flickr

Search engine optimization is the art & science of making making web pages & sites more endearing in a search engine’s eyes (predominently, Google) by ensuring that it carries certain keywords and phrases that people are likely to look for. There are more technical definitions, but at the end of the day, it’s about tweaking the content of a web page so that it ranks highly in search results

Search engine optimization is both art & science. Many of the factors Google uses to rank web sites are either unknown, or out of our control. From an artistic standpoint, good SEO serves both search engines and actual users (us humans).

Why is it important, and why do people pay a lot for it?

Quite simply, if you aren’t ranking highly in search engines (again, we are almost always talking about Google results) then it is as if you don’t exist online. Finding your site, without good search engine optimization, can be as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack.

Of course, there are other ways of make sure your web site shows at the top of search results, but those methods are 1) costly and 2) less effective in terms of generating visits to your web site and 3) typically attract lower converting visitors to your web site.

If I only need to know three things about what makes good SEO, what are they?

  1. Content and relevancy are the most important factor
  2. Basic search optimization best practices
  3. Links to and from your web site (quality > quantity)

Content and Relevancy

Google’s mission is always to provide the most relevant search result to users for a given phrase. They make their money based on advertising, but if their search engine was incapable of providing the best, most relevant results people would stop using it – and then who would look at their advertisements? Much less, click on them? So, the number one factor in great SEO is the quality (and to an extent, quantity) of content your web site has. Sometimes, as an SEO professional, we are unable to really impact the quality of the web site we are contracted to perform services for. There are clients who will think their web content is great (even if it isn’t) and won’t allow you access to change it. In these cases, typically, you would want to provide them recommendations and advice about things they should be doing to adapt or generate new content for their site. Teach them to fish, in otherwords. Along with having great content (written for humans but with search engines in mind) there are other factors related to the content on a web site itself.

1. The number of pages a site has indexed in search results

This refers to the number of pages Google has scanned on your web site. It is fairly easy to determine how many pages of a site Google has recorded in its database. Simply go to Google.com, in the search box type:

Google Site Search

You will see in this example, we have around 3,200 pages in total scanned into the Google database.

Each page on a web site is a potential entry point for a person looking for more information, in our case, about “senior living”

The more pages you have, the more potential entry points you have. Great SEO always involves the creation of new pages on a site because it is one factor which will positively increase your odds of showing up for a search result.

2. The frequency in which you add new content to your site, or change old content.

Search engines schedule their “bots” to visit your web site based on how often you change or add new content. If your site is one which hasn’t been updated in quite some time, this signals Google to return to your site less frequently, which in turn can make it harder for you to rank well for search terms. After all, how relevant is a site that isn’t updated? It could be, depending on the content, but as a general rule, sites which are created then left to wither aren’t very relevant.

3. Having quality content will generate more opportunities to create inbound links.

Links are, unfortunately, a key component to Google’s ranking algorithm. Sites which have a high amount of quality links will always rank higher than ones which do not.

Google’s rationale is that sites which reference, point-towards or otherwise “endorse” yours with a link are more important than those which do not. Think of a link as a “vote” for quality content from your peers on the internet. Quantity isn’t as important as quality, but you really need both to be successful in SEO.

SEO Best Practices

In a very general sense, good SEO results can be attained by following some simple guidelines for the structure of a web page.

Lets say you that a client wants their web site to rank well for terms related to “lottery games.”

Google first will look at the domain for the web site itself. Does the domain name have the term lottery games in it? Does it have just one of those terms? Where in the domain name do the terms fall – at the front, or back?

As a further example, in the case of Holiday Retirement, we don’t have the term “retirement” in our domain name at all. Our site, holidaytouch.com, doesn’t confer its actual purpose to Google whatsoever. This is an obstacle to good SEO best practices. This also is something that typically can’t be controlled on your end.

Next, Google will look at the url itself (e.g. web address). Does the url contain relevant keywords?

A search engine can look at this url and determine that this site, which contains lottery specific terms, also includes the term Powerball. Google can then scan the rest of the site and determine how it is structured based on this url.

If the organization of your site is logical, then Google will reward you with a combo listing, which will effectively give people the ability from a search result page to find the most relevant areas of your web site for their query. Usually, Google will only display 1 link to a site on the first page of search results. Combo listings like this can give you as many as 7!

California Lottery Results

Now, when Google visits your web site, it will scan all the textual content on the page and record it in its databases.

There are several places that Google looks on a web page, within the site’s text, to get clues about what a page is about.

1. The TITLE tag of a page

This is a tag which specifies the “subject” of a web page. It is also the text that is displayed in search results as the clickable “link.” If a user’s query terms are in the TITLE of your page, you are more likely to be relevant in Google’s eyes.

2. How Heading Tags can influence your SEO efforts

Heading tags are ways that one can create organization and structure within a web page. Think of these like headlines for an article you would read in the newspaper. Those identify the start of your content. Sub headlines represent logical sections within an article. Having keywords within either (or both) is a great way to increase relevancy.

3. Keyword density in SEO

Quite simply, the placement and the number of times a keyword shows up on your page, the more relevant it will be to Google. This doesn’t mean that you should write the word “lottery games” 100x in your article, unless of course, you’re article is a 10,000 word one that examines the entire history of lottery games. Density is a percentage relative to how many words are present.

Remember, Google wants to reward relevancy but they also want to make sure that the page they are sending you to by virtue of their search results is for a human, not a machine.

Google doesn’t release keyword density guidelines, but anectdotally, you should stay around 3-5%.

The role Internal Links play in SEO

We discussed how important external links are (those coming from someone else’s web site) for ranking purposes. Internal links (those from within your own content out to other content that is on your site) are also important.

Search engines “crawl” and index your site by traveling across links. If your site lacks sufficient links, then the search engines can’t find all of your content. It helps to think of internal links like a system of roads. Without the proper infrastructure of links, your content can be difficult to find, not just by search engines but also users.

Links do something else very important as well – they add context to what a web page is about.

Remember, as smart as the folks at Google are, what they have essentially done is written a program which tries to derive meaning from a bunch of text. If i have a page that has a very high keyword density (and other relevant factors like TITLE, headings and external links) for “lottery games” and then I have a link to a page called “Scratcher 360″ then Google will understand that Scratcher 360 is probably a type of lottery game. Otherwise, in Google’s eyes, Scratcher 360 is ambiguous.

Links are something which, for now, are very key in obtaining a high search ranking. I say for now because Google (and others) are experimenting with supplanting links with things like social recommendations, Facebook “likes” and “tweets.”

Links are hard to obtain outside of buying them. Most web developers, content creators and marketing folks involved in Internet marketing are lazy – they don’t like to give out links from their sites to others. Most know that links are valuable and either will demand some type of exchange (you link to me, i link to you – net effect is less) or, demand payment.

Google can, and does routinely, blacklist web sites from its search rankings which have links from known sites that are re-sellers of links. Buying links is considered a “Black Hat” tactic of SEO professionals.

A more “White Hat” technique, which is orders of magnitude harder but completely without risk, is to generate great content that is relevant to users. This type of content tends to be shared more between people, referenced on authoratative sites and linked to “organically.” This is what all great SEOs should strive for. Again, very difficult to do and time consuming.