At this point in web development, virtually everyone I talk to about a project tells me they would like to “come up in Google”. In the industry, we refer to that as search engine optimization, or SEO for short. This post attempts to cover the basics for search engine optimization as a starter resource for others.
It has been my experience that most people think about SEO as something one does after a website is up and running, like tuning a car. While SEO was born from trickery designed to exploit the algorithims search engines use to rank web pages, modern SEO practices need to be considered and implimented from the beginning of a site’s conception. SEO is more than just keywords, it’s a part of the site’s structure itself.
Search engines 101
In order to understand SEO, you must know a little something about how a search engine works. Essentially, there are 5 pieces to a search engine:
The web page crawler, also known as the spider
The index, which is the database
The search box
The search results pages
The spider is a type of robot that has the task of following links on the Web to download pages. Each page that is downloaded is processed and stored in the index. When a user makes an inquiry through the search box, the algorithim determines which pages to pull from the index and what order they are displayed on the results pages.
That’s the basic overview of how a search engine works. If you’re feeling geeky and want some in-depth knowledge, read The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, which was the original research paper written by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page for Google while they were still at Stanford. What matters to know about how engines work with respect to optimization is this:
Spiders find pages by following links, so you’ll want to make sure they can follow every link on your site.
The algorithim determines the order Web pages are displayed on the search results pages, so you want to make sure your pages take advantage of that algorithim.
Search engines rank Web pages, not websites.
Algorithims are tightly held secrets by the major search engines, and they are updated regularly. While there are people that focus on cracking the algorithims, most people will do just fine with the known best practices for maximizing your position in the engines. In fact, Google even provides some of them on their site as webmaster guidelines. The rest of what we know comes from experience and information sharing. When I first heard about SEO, I thought it was a scam for people that didn’t know better. Then I stumbled across Webmaster World. Webmaster World is the largets online forum in the world and it’s where all of the great optimizers share their knowledge with each other. If you want more than what this post offers, I recommend turning there next.
SEO tactics can be broken down into two areas: on page and off page factors. On page factors are what you do with your Web pages themselves. Off page factors are the factors outside of your Web pages that influence your ranking. Most people think it’s what you do on your Web pages that makes the most difference for rankings, but that’s not true. The biggest impact on your position on a results page comes from the links pointing to your page. Take for example a Google search on the word “failure“. The #1 result is the actual White House bio for George W. Bush. Now, I can promise you that the White House did nothing to optimize his bio for the word failure. What happened is that a bunch of bloggers organized to put links on their blogs using the word failure for the blue text and pointed the link to the President’s bio. It’s a phenomena called “Googlebombing”. Therefore, if you only do one thing when it comes to SEO, get links!
Content is King
After links, content is King. The only thing search engines process on a page to determine rankings is written content. In fact, Google employs artificial intelligence engineers and a grip of other really smart people to make computers that can “read” your page’s content. They can determine quite a bit about your page by the keywords that appear in the headlines, paragraphs, and more. I’ll cover more about how to write keyword friendly copy later. The most important thing you need to know about content is to have a lot of it. As I said earlier Google ranks web pages, not websites, therefore the more pages you have in Google, the more traffic you’ll pull.
And, the only thing SEs like more than content is fresh content. Google will visit your site a few times the first time the spider comes across it, if they don’t see new content, they won’t come back very often. If you do regularly produce new content, then Google *will* return often, and that equals good.
Proper document structure
Having loads of fresh content is great, but to get the most mileage out of it, you need proper document structure. Proper document structure refers to correctly coded web pages. This means having complete meta data and content that is wrapped in semantically correct tags. Google values the words that appear in headlines more than the ones in paragraph copy. And, in order for Google to know what your headline is you’ll need to do more than just make it a larger font and bold. Headlines need to be wrapped in <h1>, <h2>, and the other headline tags. Paragraphs need <p> tags. And so on.
I also highly recommend using <strong> and <em> tags in the middle of your paragraphs around keyword phrases.
Keyword density and proximity
While it’s true that search engines value keywords, gone are the days of using those keywords over and over on a single page. As I said before, Google employs artificial intelligence engineers and they have developed a thing called latent semantic indexing, which means they can read your pages to determine if you are keyword spamming. One of the things search engines look for is the number of times a keyword appears on a page divided by the total number of words on the page, which is known as keyword density. The optimal percentage is between 1.5% and 3%. I wouldn’t sweat keyword density too hard unless you are in a highly competitive keyword space.
Keyword proximity refers to the distance keywords appear to each other. Words that are next to each other are considered stronger than words that appear with other words between them. Proximity is less of an art and more of a concept to be aware of.