Number one in Google: an introduction to search engine optimization

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As a website owner, you want as many people as possible to come to your site. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of helping to ensure that whenever someone uses a search engine to look for something you offer, your site is highly placed and attracts visitors.

For people to find your site in searches, it must be:

  • Visible
  • Relevant
  • Well-connected

Let’s look at each of these factors in turn.

Be visible

If yours is a new site you need to tell the search engines about it. The simplest way is to use the search engines’ own submission services: add your site to Google; add your site to Yahoo!; add your site to Live Search.

You should not need to submit to any other search engines, nor use a submission service, especially those that charge for submission to “thousands of search engines”: they are scams.

Your next concern should be to make sure that all the pages of your site can be reached via links from the home page, a process called link checking. I use a tool called Xenu Link Sleuth to do this, but there are several alternative link checkers available.

You might find some or all your pages missing from the link checker’s list, even though you can reach them by clicking on links in your browser. If so the one possible reason is that your web designer has used a technology such as Flash or Javascript to make your the menus used on your site. Search engines can’t always follow such links so you should insist that the menus are replaced by ones that they understand as otherwise your site is effectively broken.

Be Relevant

What people are searching for might not be the same as what’s featured on your site. Or, to put it more plainly, the words they use when searching may not be prominent on your site. So you may need to alter your content with this in mind: a very simple example would be a UK company selling holidays to North Americans, whose site should use the word “vacation” rather than “holiday” as well as other language likely to be used by that audience.

To be sure you use the right words on your site, you need to carry out what is called keyword research. This is far too large a subject to cover in this brief article, but there are plenty of online resources available such as this useful summary of keyword research tools.

Without going into detail, the essence of keyword research is that you are trying to identify phrases (“search strings”) that people use to find sites such as yours, while striking a balance between popularity (how many searches using this word or phrase are performed daily), competitiveness (how many other sites are trying to rank for these searches) and value (what potential value these searches represent in terms of your business).

As an example, if you are a camera retailer, the string “camera” is very popular and very competitve but likely to be of low value as it’s not very specific to your business (many of those searching won’t be shopping for a camera: they might be looking for a magazine, or an online webcam, or a map showing traffic cameras, for example). On the other hand the string “canon digital slr” is much less popular and competitive, but potentially of higher value as it is likely to be used by someone searching with a purchase in mind.

Having identified keywords that you want your site to rank for, then you need to ensure your content is a good match for them. Again this is a large subject but there are a few basic rules to be followed:

  • Make your pages distinct. As far as possible, each page of your site should be about a single topic.
  • Every page should have a different title which says what it is about. Note that the true title of a web page is shown on the browser title bar, not in the page itself.The true title of a web page appears in the browser bar
  • Re-emphasise the subject of a page through headings.
  • Ensure the title, headings and body content of each page matches relevant search strings that you’ve identified through keyword research. Don’t go overboard and try to match too many strings on a given page; equally, don’t have too many pages matching on the same string.
  • Make sure the text on every link to another page (the anchor text) reflects the content of the page linked to. Don’t use phrases like “read more” or “click here”; do use ones like “read about our great fixed-term mortages” or “fantastic deals on UK short break holidays”.

Be Well-Connected

Up to now I’ve only talked about what is called on-site SEO: changing the content of your site in order to optimize it and attract visitors. Just as important is off-site SEO – getting links to your site from other places on the web. This process, called link-building, can be arduous but the rewards can be very great, because the search engines use the number and quality of links to your site as a measure of its significance.

Here are some basic tips and guidelines about external links:

  • Strive for relevant links. They should be from sites that have something to do with yours: your customers, your suppliers, blogs and forums about related products and services, specialist directories.
  • Just as with your onsite links, link anchor text is important. Try to get links with text that reflects specific products or services you offer, not always your company name.
  • Links about a particular product or service should preferably be to a relevant page that will sell that specific thing to the visitor rather than to your home page.
  • By all means submit your site to directories, but before doing so make sure they rank well in your sector. Try different keyword searches that your customers might use, such as “clothes shops” or “industrial pump services”, to see which directories appear high in the listings. Should you pay for a listing? I’d advise you to seek expert advice before spending money on directory listings.
  • You may be approached to “swap links” with someone else. If their site is relevant to yours and worthwhile, so it would be natural for you to have a link to it on your site, then by all means go ahead, though you should be aware that such reciprocal links do not always add much value.
  • Link from your own sites to other, relevant, sites you like. While this is strictly speaking part of onsite SEO, it’s also part of the process of link building. Good outgoing links help to make your site more useful to visitors, and are therefore valued by search engines.

Summary

Being “number one in Google” is a meaningless ambition: what counts is where you rank for the searches that are most valuable to you. Through keyword research, keeping your content up to date, and link building you can start to realise that goal.

To help you get started, here are some more useful resources for your SEO project. Happy optimizing!

  • 299 Steps to Website Heaven. Nikki Pilkington’s collection of great tips (also available as an ebook).
  • Your SEO plan. The site for another of the best books on SEO, full of useful material in its own right.
  • SEO Book Keyword Suggestion Tool. A very handy tool for keyword research.
  • Link Diagnosis. Who links to you? Who links to your competitors? What’s their anchor text? A great at-a-glance resource.
  • Google Webmaster Tools. Get the lowdown on your site from Google’s point of view. Some invaluable data, including the searches where users saw your site but didn’t click.

Figure W works with SEO consultants to make sites that the search engines love. Ask for a quote today.

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