Search Engine Optimization, though an integral part of developing a complete web presence, is something that’s often overlooked by both web design companies and their clients alike. This article is meant to serve as an introduction to Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and it will be followed with a 2nd article which contains a basic primer on how to go about properly optimizing a site. My intended audience for this first article is the savvy consumer who is trying to educate himself or herself, and the follow-up article will endeavor to help those design/development firms who are only just breaking into the world of SEO.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the process of increasing a site’s ranking on search engines such as Google, Yahoo, or MSN. Ideally, you want your business to appear as the first result to someone who is searching for a product or service you provide to your customers. For example, if you own a vegetarian restaurant in Philadelphia, it would significantly increase your restaurant’s exposure if your website were the first result for “vegetarian restaurant Philadelphia” on Google. This type of positioning is the goal of search engine optimization.
Organic Results vs. Paid Results
It is important to understand the difference between organic search results and paid search results. Organic search results are selected and positioned by the search engine itself, with no external bias toward one site over another. With organic searching, the order of results is determined exclusively by the relevance of the site to the user’s specific query, as determined by the search engine’s internal algorithms. Search engine optimization endeavors to “educate” the search engine about a site so that the site will be seen as relevant for certain queries, and therefore given better positioning in the results. This “most relevant site first” method of ordering search results is in sharp contrast to pay-per-click, in which the highest bidder for a given search query is given preference. However, pay-per-click results are generally shown on separate parts of the screen from the main organic results, usually at the top of the window or in a sidebar labeled “sponsored links”. Although there are compelling reasons to launch a pay-per-click campaign as part of your online marketing plan, this article focuses exclusively on organic search optimization.
Won’t the search engines just find my site on their own?
Modern search engines are very adept at crawling the web and creating a comprehensive index that contains every website they come across. However, the algorithms used by search engines take into account many different factors when determining where to position a site, and if your site doesn’t measure up when it comes to some of the more important factors, you will end up buried among thousands or millions of other sites.
Search engines have one goal: to return the most relevant results to a user’s query in order to help them find what they are looking for. Why is it, then, that if you do in fact own a vegetarian restaurant in Philadelphia, your website can still get buried on page 29 for the exact query “vegetarian restaurant in Philadelphia”? One reason for this apparent discrepancy is that search engines don’t view websites the way a person does. When a search engine downloads a web page, it sees only the markup code that was used to create the site – it doesn’t see visual elements like graphics or page layout. If the site hasn’t been optimized, more often than not, the search engine’s back-end view of the site offers little indication of what content is important and what the primary focus of the site is. These search engine “spiders” – the algorithms that do the actual searching and indexing – can make a good guess as to what the site is about, but without a clear understanding of why it would be a great result for a specific search query, the site will end up in a mediocre position at best.
Another reason sites receive a poor ranking is that they simply don’t appear to be very important to the grand scheme of the Internet. Search engines are trying to return the most useful results to their users, so if your content appears to be of little value, and if no other sites on the web are linking back to yours, your site is going to be very poorly positioned. One way to combat this problem is to work to build inbound links, which are links to your site from other sites. This can be accomplished by submitting your site to online directories, participating in forum discussions or blog discussions relevant to your site and including a link back, or by marketing the site via press releases or external product reviews (where applicable). Inbound links, however, aren’t the whole story, and it takes a comprehensive SEO plan to ensure long term, first page positioning, especially in competitive markets.
Why didn’t my web designer optimize my site when he built it?
There is a common misconception that search optimization is simply a matter of altering the design of the site or adding a few keywords to the content, and that such SEO-related tasks should be handled by the web designer prior to the site launch. While it’s true that there are design elements that need to be addressed when optimizing a site, SEO is, in many ways, a marketing effort rather than a technical one. The optimization process involves tasks such as copywriting and press release distribution, which fall well outside the technical realm of web development. In the end, SEO is an entirely separate product and process from the actual web design, and it needs to be treated (and budgeted) as such.
Recall what I said earlier regarding search engines evaluating the overall importance of your site in order to determine its search positioning. Much like a print campaign or TV ad, your goal on the web is to increase brand awareness, because it gives a sense of stability and competitive importance to your company, and it creates a connection between the company and your customers. The idea of brand awareness is well understood and sought after in the marketing world, but it often becomes diluted when crossing over to the web, sometimes to the point of being tacked on as an afterthought to the development of a company website. SEO should, conversely, be considered an integral part of any marketing plan, and should be budgeted and managed separately from web design and development.
Who can optimize my site?
In the world of SEO, it’s very easy to find companies who are essentially selling snake oil. Oftentimes, these companies offer little more than “directory submission”, which, while it is a piece of the SEO puzzle when done correctly, may not affect your positioning at all when done incorrectly (in some cases, it can actually hurt your positioning). Choosing the right SEO firm can be tricky, but Google has a page dedicated to the most important things to consider when choosing an SEO company. You can find that page here: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35291
To add to what Google has suggested on that page, it’s important that the SEO firm you choose offers a plan that is tailored specifically for your website. If their plan seems instead to consist of generic link building and indiscriminate directory submission, it’s likely that you won’t see the kind of results you would ideally expect (if you see any results at all). The SEO company should take the time to detail individual changes to each page of your site, and should suggest new pages to be added. Additionally, any good SEO firm will be able to not only provide analytics and metrics, but will also be able to explain the data’s significance within the context of your specific website.
Search engine optimization should be considered an integral part of developing your company’s web presence, but it’s important to remember that SEO effectively crosses the boundary between technical process and marketing endeavor, so it needs to be managed and budgeted as an independent project, rather than being tacked on as part of the general site design. If your web development company doesn’t offer comprehensive and developed SEO services, it is important to hire a separate SEO firm and facilitate ongoing cooperation between the two companies.