The 7 Search Engine Optimisation questions you were too embarrassed to ask
(A Beginner’s Guide)
This is the first in a series of blog posts on the subject of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Starting with the absolute basics, we’ll gradually move into more detail and finish up with some cutting edge theories and practices which should hopefully cover all sides of this complicated and time-consuming business.
This blog post is part 1 in a series on SEO (search engine optimisation).
>> Part 2 – 6 SEO techniques that your business website can’t do without
To begin we’ll go through the obvious questions that a novice might be too embarrassed to ask:
1. What does SEO really mean?
‘SEO’ stands for Search Engine Optimisation and, put simply, it’s the practice of attempting to improve a website’s position in search engine results. SEO is similar to, but not quite the same as, ‘SEM’ – Search Engine Marketing – but for the purposes of this article the two terms are more or less synonymous.
SEO is a broad subject that encompasses hundreds of different techniques that can be used to try and improve your website’s position. However – to understand SEO you must first understand how a search engine works.
2. So how does a search engine work?
A search engine is essentially a huge list of website addresses. The search engines constantly update this list with new websites and revisit old ones using software called ‘web crawlers’ – also known as ‘spiders’, ‘bots’ and ‘indexers’. These programs rapidly scan website pages and figure out:
- What the page is called, how it is described
- What’s on the page (text, media)
- How the page is linked to others
After making this analysis a complex mathematical formula is used to give the page (and its parent site) a ‘value’, which comes into play later on.
When someone searches for something on Google the engine goes through the list of pages and spits out every single one that has a reference to that search.
E.g. In a Google search for ‘Blue Woollen Mittens’ any site in the world that mentions wool products, mitts, mittens, woollen mittens and specifically blue woollen mittens will appear. Thanks to a sophisticated code it will probably also find websites selling gloves, snow shoes, warm hats and lots of other knitwear-related products.
The engine then looks at the calculated value for each of the pages in the list and will sort them according to the ones it thinks are mostly likely to suit your search – putting the best ranked sites at the top: http://www.etsy.com/listing/54843785/cornflower-blue-wool-mittens
Getting to the top of the pile is where SEO comes in.
3. Why is my website not on Google?
Sometime after your new website ‘goes live’ you will probably find that it has been picked up by a search engine (e.g. Google). This means that your site can now be ‘seen’ by the search engine and it will appear when searched for directly (i.e. if you type the address into the search box).
However – this does not happen automatically. Your site must be visible from somewhere else on the web in order for it to be found. You can add a link to it from another site, or you can submit the site to the search engines directly: e.g. www.google.com/addurl
“Having a website listed on Google and having a website that performs well on Google are two very different things.”
Either way it can take several months for any site to appear. Google alone has over 1 trillion pages in its index and is constantly growing – but this is a relatively slow process.
Finally – don’t forget that getting onto the search engine listing and getting a good position are two very different things – one is free and painless and the other can be expensive, time consuming and extremely tricky.
4. What about my keywords?!
We often get questions that sound something like this;
“How do I enter keywords on my site? I want to appear higher up in the search results.”
It’s a common misconception that the answer to doing well in searches is to write lots of ‘keywords’ – this stems from how the web used to work:
Search engines used to look at a part of the website code called a ‘keywords tag’, which website owners would use to quickly list all the important terms from their site. E.g. an old keywords tag for a photography site might have look like this:
Keywords = “portraits, weddings, events, fashion, makeovers, online proofing”
The search engine would look at the text of the site and then at the keywords tag and would rate this site for the terms listed about.
However – website owners soon became savvy to this technique and chose to abuse it by adding extra terms not related to their site that would skew the results:
Keywords = “… online proofing, Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, Pokémon, Free Games…”
“The purpose of a search engine is to deliver the best possible websites for each search – the search engine doesn’t care how much you spent building your site or how famous your brand is.”
The purpose of the search engine is to deliver to the customer the closest match possible to what they searched for – therefore the abuse of the keywords tag led to it being dropped as a means of ranking websites.
The keywords tag still exists in the code (and you may still choose to add terms to it) – but it is no longer recognised by the major search engines.
‘Keywords’ has now simply come to mean ‘those terms that you want to do well for’. I.e. whatever it is that your customers are typing into the Google search box. Once you’ve figured out these terms you can then try and add them to your site text – in the headings, links and information.
5. So how do the search engines actually rank my site?
Good question. The short answer is: we don’t know. In fact, it’s a closely guarded secret exactly how the search engines each rank their list of sites (which is to prevent duplication and abuse of their formula). However – we can have a pretty good guess at the factors taken into consideration – the main ones include:
- The number and quality of links coming in from other websites (particularly ones that are popular)
- Reputation of your domain name
- The use of key words in the title of your page
- Use of key words in the text on the page
In all there are hundreds of factors, each with a smaller and smaller priority (ranging down to the text you’ve put in bold or italics and the position on the page where your important terms appear).
“Focus on offering appropriate, well written content. After all – the Search Engines are more interested in good sites then good SEO.”
(Here’s a good start: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/perfecting-keyword-targeting-on-page-optimization)
The important thing to remember as a beginner is not to focus on what the search engine is doing – but instead to focus on providing a service to your customers. If you build a website with lots of good useful readable content that informs, explains, delights and brings in visitors then you will find that you perform better and better in the results as times goes on.
Search Engines want to provide the best possible sites in their results, not necessarily those that have spent longest trying to second-guess how they work.
6. Can’t I just add content and then hide it?
No, you can’t. This is a process that is described as ‘Black Hat’ – it is essentially cheating and it’s viewed very negatively by the search engines. SEO techniques can be put into two general groups:
‘Black Hat’ refers to techniques that are aimed at doing whatever it takes to produce a site that performs well in search engines – producing content that only a search engine can see and generally trying to trick it into believing the site is worth ranking high.
‘White Hat’ refers to methods aimed at producing good content for human visitors, with the added side-effect that the search engines also find your site useful and worth listing at the top of the results.
Some methods described as ‘Grey Hat’ sit halfway between these two sides (where there are some negative and some positive connotations).
“If it feels like a sneaky tactic then you should probably avoid doing it.”
Google is very clever at detecting Black Hat methods and actively penalises sites by reducing their rank or even blacklisting for particularly bad violations. An example of this is using black text on a black background, or flooding a page with hundreds of repeated keywords.
If in doubt: if it’s not good for a human to read then don’t put it on your site.
Even better: don’t add anything to your site that’s ‘just for the search engines’.
7. An SEO company just rang… is this a good deal?
Always be careful when dealing with cold-callers who are trying to sell you a marketing campaign. It is easy to confuse beginners with techno babble and overcharge for what turns out to be a simple (or even free) service. Here are some common phrases to be wary of:
- “We will get you onto the first page of Google”
Unless the SEO campaign is for a sponsored advert (which operates on a pay-per-click system and is separate from normal search engine results) then it’s just not possible to guarantee first page position.
- “We work for Google” or “I’m calling from Google”
Google don’t have a sales team who call ordinary website owners and this is aimed to mislead you.
- “We will submit you to the major search engines”
This process takes seconds and is free for anyone to do. If you’ve had your site for any period of time then it’s probably already indexed anyway.
- “We only charge £XX per keyword”
As mentioned in parts 4 and 5 of this article charging ‘per keyword’ is a bit irrelevant to your site position – you should expect the SEO company to add as many ‘keywords’ as you need.
- “We charge £XX per month/year”
Unless the SEO campaign is for a sponsored advert (pay-per-click), or you are promised a regular monthly review and update then you shouldn’t need to pay an on-going fee.
“The bottom line: if it all sounds a bit too good to be true then it probably is!”
If the salesman utters any of the above then it’s probably best to let them go. If you’ve gone this far and the pitch is still going well then here are some final tips before signing up for any SEO package:
- Identify whether they are selling a sponsored ad (pay-per-click) or an ‘on-page’ optimisation (editing your site text, titles, etc), or both.
- Get examples of several sites they’ve optimised and check if they perform well for their search terms.
- Google the company name to see if there are any customer reviews on web forums – or complaints sites.
- Get them to explain exactly what changes they’ll be making to your website.
- Ask to speak to an engineer (someone who actually does the work) rather than a salesman.
- Ask if they provide proper statistics package so you can monitor the performance of your site and gauge the effectiveness of the campaign.
Get savvy, educate yourself and avoid shelling out for a service that you may not be up to scratch. There are plenty of decent SEO companies out there, though you should be aware that a good service can often cost a little more.
The Final Word
“The trick to good SEO is that there is no trick – just good websites.”
Hopefully as you will have seen from this article the trick to good Search Engine Optimisation is that there is no trick: just concentrate on creating a good to use, well written and useful website that does what it advertises. From that beginning will flow good traffic, repeat customers and decent search engine rankings.