Search Engine Optimization: A Primer

While creating an effective website is important, most website creators will also want to generate as many visits as possible. This is where search engine optimization (SEO) comes in.

SEO involves making minute adjustments to your website in order to give it an improved presence on popular search engines such as Google or Yahoo. Used properly a website can show up higher on a search engine, vastly improving traffic to the website.

SEO Methods

Keywords

Keywords are words and phrases that define your website. Search engines track keywords when determining the page rank, a variable that determines how high up your website will appear on search engines, of your website. Significant consideration must be taken in determining what keywords will be effective for your website.

Make a list of keywords. Consider a couple of important words or phrases that define your site. Use words that people will search for when looking for your website. Single out a few keywords that you think will work best to place on your website. For example my website for this class is a local environmental group, so “environmental cause” or “Maryland environmental group” are two keyword possibilities.

If you are uncertain if people will use your keyword to search for your website, several keyword tools exist online to give you a detailed report of how often your selected keyword is used. Google’s Keyword Tool is one such example, giving a comprehensive breakdown of monthly hits along with other notable trends.

Place these keywords in your website. There are several locations where your keywords can go. These include:

  • Page Title – One of the biggest sections search engines will evaluate to determine what is on the web page.
  • Meta Data – Although not as frequently today, meta-tags help some search engines categorize websites. Meta tags are inserted into the HTML of a website and are not typically visible to the viewer. Fortunately several website editors (including EditMe) will take care of this for you if you give them your keywords.
  • H1 Header Text – The H1 header is the biggest header and is commonly used for titles and other critical information. As such, search engines like to analyze it.
  • Page Content – The main page content should include your keywords. Although it helps to use the keyword multiple times within your page, you should not go out of your way to include it. Unnatural keyword placement results in keyword stuffing and can hurt your visibility on search engines.

Be patient.Search engines won’t instantly pick up on your keywords overnight. It will take a couple of days for engines to register the keywords and integrate them.

Page Linking

Good website navigation does more than just help your user navigate your website; it also helps search engines access your webpage. Search engines use web crawlers to explore your website and pull out searchable information like keywords. Good keyword placement is useless if the search engine cannot access your pages.

Homepage navigation is key. Crawlers will start at the homepage and progress from there to other sections of your website. Pages that are not linked from the homepage or pages immediately linked to the homepage can be easily missed.

Consider linking to similar websites. Known as reciprocal linking, two mutual websites that link to each other will boost rankings on search engines for both websites. This also has the practical effect of increasing traffic to your website from users to the website you link to.

Fun fact: Avid blog readers may be familiar with spam comments, artificially-generated comments from bots with a link to a website that you are…usually better off not visiting. This is a variation of page linking, albeit a rather unethical one.

These are just a few examples of using SEO to increase your search engine presence. The week 9 reading on SEO provides a more comprehensive look at SEO techniques including more specific information on the ones listed in this blog post. There are also a number of books dedicated to the topic.

Perfectly optimizing your website to meet SEO standards can take a significant amount of work. Agencies exist that are dedicated solely to assist organizations and other individuals in making a website SEO-compatible. In addition, consultants serve as search-engine optimizers. If you are a business attempting to construct a high-ranking website, hiring a specialist will make the process much easier. Google offers some useful tips on what to look for in a search engine optimizer.


Comments can be made by clicking on the yellow “Comments #” link below this line.

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11 Comments

Filed under Web Design

11 responses to “Search Engine Optimization: A Primer

  1. Matthew

    Testing comment settings.

    -Matthew

  2. Prof. Dayton

    Matt,

    In line with Don't Make Me Think, it might be a good idea to add a line space followed by a line in bold directing class colleagues to click the comments counter link.

  3. Matthew

    Added. My apologies if any of the blog responders were confused.

  4. Andrew

    The first thing I did after reading this was insert meta-tags into both of my blogs. Blogger doesn't have an automatic method of doing this, like EditMe does, so I had to do a bit of searching through blogger help until I found a guy who'd done the scut-work and was sharing it. Then I loaded his code into the HTML.

    The nature of blogs makes optimizing web crawling results difficult. A blog constantly shifts the old contend “down”, and so a lot of links can be lost. It would seem that any excuse to link your old stuff to the current content would therefore be a good idea. It would also seem that any blog tags should be simple keywords, rather than any kind of code.

    For example, on my music blog, I've been reviewing all my CD's. The tag I've invented for this is “mycd1,” which is gibberish. I'm going to need to change it to something else.

    Our projects are different, as their natural content growth is not necessarily going to push old content away from being linked. But it definitely underscores the need to make sure that as much content is findable from your homepage as possible.

    “Scraping” was an altogether new concept to me. I once had someone poach one of my online reviews and publish it on Amazon under their own name. It's still there, much to my annoyance. I don't know that it would have made a difference if I'd included a backtracker, but I suppose it might have.

  5. Great ideas Andrew. Optimizing a blog on search engines is indeed much tougher since the content is always changing. Although technically a website, they provide a far different challenge in SEO.

    In order for a blog to be successful in attracting viewers I think a different approach than SEO is necessary: networking. Comment (or in the case of blogger “follow”) on blogs made by other people and in time they may start checking out or linking to your own blog. Blogging is all about forming a community with like-minded people to create a sort of global village. As the community grows and friends tell their friends who tell their friends visit, your blog will find increased activity.

    While good SEO practice can certainly help a blog get more visitors, the ideas formed from reciprocal linking may work better in the long run.

  6. Rob Elson

    An interesting blog—especially for someone like me who has very little experience with SEO. I didn’t know it was so in-depth. It’s amazing what can be a career.

    Anyway I’d like to comment on a couple of your points that I found particularly insightful.

    You talk about page content and suggest that “unnatural keyword placement…can hurt your visibility on search engines.” I wonder about this. How can a search engine tell whether your keyword placement is unnatural. Is it strictly quantitative; that is, how often the word/phrase appears on a page? Or is it more complicated than that—like the search engine actually evaluates placement and judges the legitimacy of your content? Please let me know if you know.

    I'm intrigued by the supposed lack of importance of ancillary pages of a website. I had no idea how developed SEO is. Pages immediately linked to the homepage can be immediately missed? Does that mean that most of your SEO content should be on the homepage—and for each page deeper in the hierarchy it matters less?

    The business end ofthings in your discussion is interesting to me due partly to Dr. Dayton’s comments in this week’s webinar. He said that it’s important to question the credentials of a self-proclaimed “SEO professional.” To me, becoming a SEO expert may just take a little bit of reading and “practice.” I would hesitate to hire a search engine optimizer without doing some research to see if I could figure it out myself.

  7. Iris P.

    Nice analysis of SEO methods. I've placed meta tags into my project site last night and after reading your blog topic, I may need to review the key words I inputted. I need to make sure that the words in the meta tags reflect my site efficiently.

    I agree with Andrew about the use of web crawling on a site that has frequent changes. How would they be able to make changes and still be located on online search engines? I would think that these particular sites would use one of the methods you (Matthew) mentioned at the beginning of your blog (page title, meta tags, H1 header text). To me, page linking would get messy and confusing for people using Google or Yahoo to find your site.

    I like the idea of reciprocal links; it sounds like both parties win at the end and benefit the increase of viewership to their individual sites. However, I do have a concern with this concept. At a particular time, could it be possible that one site would take the ideas of the other site, “run with it,” and strengthen their own site to rake in more visitors?

    I know exactly what you mean with the spam comments on web sites. YouTube has become famous with this within the comment section of a video clip. The comment may begin with some relation to the video or previous comments and then it will turn into some verbiage instructing the reader to visit this site or buy some outrageous item.

  8. Bethany Barnett

    Very interesting blog. I didn’t realize that search engines analyzed on so many levels – I’m especially surprised to hear they look for H1 header text. I assume you mean the font style, like the one built into Editme?
    In terms of just getting hits, is it better to have a long page title that includes more keywords, for example, instead of “Ann Arbor Salsa”, would it be better to call it “Ann Arbor Salsa and Latin Dance”. This title would be less specific and accurate, but it may result in more hits from people looking for any type of Latin dance near Ann Arbor or Detroit.
    You say “it helps to use the keyword multiple times within your page”. I guess it’s better to avoid being creative with the synonyms or poetic descriptions, like replacing “salsa” with “the sizzling sport.”
    I heard that the rank of a website on the search engine results depend on how popular the website it. This wasn’t mentioned in the blog. Is it a myth? Or is it just different than SEO?

  9. @Rob: Great questions.

    1) Google's search engine algorithm is extraordinarily complex and was designed by genius-level programmers. I don't know how exactly the manner in which engines like Google can determine keyword placement without doing some research into complex code forms. I *think* based on what I could find that it is a little bit of both, favoring the former. For the most part it just looks at the most obvious points like I said in the blog post (title, main header, etc.) and you can get away with having the keyword a number of times. However if you make an obvious effort to include the keyword a ridiculous amount of times, like say a paragraph with nothing but that keyword, the search engines will pick up on the repetition and that's not good.

    2) Web crawlers, while complex, are not human. They are only programs with scripts. They look for very specific page linking criteria in order to find new pages. If they can't find that criteria, then they just assume no other pages exist. The actual linking scheme is fairly complex, but generally speaking linking as much as possible from the homepage is a good start. The more links from a homepage it takes to reach the site, the less likely it will be that a crawler will find it. Having pages link to each other also helps. The “Crawable Link Structures” section of the week 9 reading provides a nice illustration of this, along with several detailed reasons why a crawler might not be able to reach a page.

    3) It is easy to make a website SEO-compatible enough to be somewhat high on search engines, and the tips I mention in my blog post can help you do that. However, in order to be really high (like within the 1st page of results) you need to perform a large number of complex tasks. One commonly accepted practice of search engines is that if your website is not on the first page or two (or even the first page or first half of the first page) of results then you might as well not even be on the search engine, as most people won't look that far. So really dedicating a lot of time and energy to SEO is key if you want to be up there in the search engines.

    If you can take the time to research the books and do it yourself, that is great. Many businesses don't have the time or resources to dedicate an employee to this task, hence the idea of hiring a consultant or SEO specialist. Definitely check the credentials though, as a bad SEO optimizer can do more harm than good. The link on my blog post about this offers a number of good tips on what to look for.

  10. @ Iris:

    Like I said in response to Andrews comments, it may be more helpful to try and build up a community or fanbase for these sort of websites. Indeed, you'll need to update the content often in this case, to keep people interested and coming back. I mentioned this with blogs, but this practice also applies to webcomics as well. The webcomic XKCD is a good example. It started off as a site where Randal (the creator) posted some funny drawings from his high school/college days, and then word of mouth and social networking caused it to explode in popularity and a full time job for him. Now its reached the point where Randal can make wikipedia temporarily explode whenever he feels like it. In addition to made up words, he also did this with the article on wood.

    Otherwise, yes I would recommend focusing on more concrete sections like title and header text. Note also Penny Arcade, which runs a weekly blog/comic. Comic titles appear as titles in blog posts, and said blog posts link to the comic in question. I'm willing to bet there are some better options out there however that further research could bring up.

    I completely agree about Youtube, by the way.

    @Bethany

    Maybe. I think in regards to word choice you need to be original, but not too outlandish. Also, while a longer title may give you more opportunities to use keywords, it might become too long and annoying for visitors to navigate. Personally I would prefer looking at a website titled “Ann Arbor Salsa” vs. “Ann Arbor Salsa and Latin Dances” though that could leave out important information. Perhaps “Ann Arbor Dances” would work better. While SEO is important, you have to remember the big picture. Don't let your efforts to make your website SEO compatible harm other areas of the website.

    As for the popularity thought, I don't have an exact answer but personally I doubt popularity inherently makes a website better on search engines. It's more of a natural cause and effect thing. Popular websites and high search engine results often go hand in hand because people will be constantly looking for it. Popularity can be a side effect of a good website, as a well-designed website that appears high on search engines will attract attention, and in turn popularity.

    You could however use popular topics to make a website better, because that's what people will be looking for. If you mention a big news event, or a celebrity scandal on your website (or definitely a blog! There's an idea.) and place it well that will lead more people to your website, because tons of people will be searching for it.

  11. timothy q

    Like most people (everyone?) on this blog, SEO is fairly new to me. I've heard the term kicking around before, but I never really knew what it was. This blog marks the 3rd or 4th time I've spent a chunk of time reading about SEO, and I feel like I only understand the basic ideas.

    It's amazing to me that SEO is this shadowing new specialty that has no standard or regulation. Considering that search results are a fundamental aspect of how we use the web, I would think that SEO would have developed into a full discipline a long time. It bizarre–think of all the professional and private entities who spend all this time, energy, and money into developing sites. Then they don't t put the same amount of energy into getting to the user-audience who is actually searching for them online.

    One thing about this field that no one has mentioned is how monopolized it is. While most of us don't know a lot about SEO, there are some giants out there who do.

    I have this paranoid the feeling that Google is actually is actually pulling all the strings behind the SEO movement. (I'm pretty sure their reading this now–this is a google-owned site). Every time I read about SEO, I get re-directed to Google-run sites about SEO.

    Conspiracy theory aside, there are some non-search engine sites that certainly have SEO down. Wikipedia is one. Here is my impromptu test: I entered 5 search terms into yahoo (I don't use google anymore because the above-listed paranoia).
    Here are the terms and the number wikipedia appeared in the results:

    revolutionary war: 1
    waterfall: 1
    xbox360: 2
    towson university: 4
    sprocket wrench: more than 10
    (but wrench is 1).

    I think we would be hard-pressed to find another single site that comes up with such high search results across such a random list of search terms.

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