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The Basics of Search Engine Optimization (S.E.O.)

One means of making sure your site receives maximum visibility is search engine optimization (S.E.O.). You must think in terms of search engine optimization from the earliest stages of planning and design if you want to receive heavy traffic from the major search engines. In order to optimize your site, you need to understand how search engines work, how web surfers search, and what elements of your site contribute to successful search placement. While much information (and misinformation) exists about search engine optimization, experts agree that the elements you must focus on are keywords, meta tags and links from other sites.
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How Search Engines Work

Before delving into specific elements, it’s necessary to understand how search engines work. True search engines (as opposed to directories like Yahoo!) use a program called a “robot” or “spider” to “crawl” the web while gathering and indexing the information they find. A searcher receives the results of these crawls when s/he conducts a search. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, every search engine (and literally thousands of engines exist) has its own criteria for indexing sites, and further criteria for determining the ranking of sites. It’s easy to see why S.E.O. consultants can make a handsome living – it’s virtually impossible for a single webmaster to know all of the various rules that will optimize his/her site for every engine.

Feeling Overwhelmed Yet?

While a search engine optimization consultant can provide a greater amount of detailed knowledge for an individual web master, experts tend to agree that there are a few rules that almost anyone can apply to optimize his/her site.

First, while thousands of search engines exist, most surfers do their searching on a handful of sites. Yahoo! generally accounts for half of all web searches. While they charge a fee for simply considering a business listing in their directory (currently $299), many business people may find that a reasonable investment, considering the popularity of this portal. Among true search engines, the most popular by far are Google and Overture. It’s important to know that many search engines actually get there results from these giants, so applying the rules that work for these two can help get your site listed in many engines.

Optimizing You Site

In order to make sure your site is listed in searches that directly apply to your type of business, it’s essential to use the best keywords and phrases. Keywords are the words that searchers use to find web sites that will give them the information they want. In order to take advantage of the power of keywords, you must find out what keywords and key phrases are most popular among the searchers you want to attract to your site, so you may want to consider using a service like Wordtracker (http://www.wordtracker.com) to find out the words and phrases that searchers are using. Once you’ve determined this, you want to place those words and phrases at the points in your page most likely to be noticed by search engines. Experts tend to agree that the best places to use keywords are in your page title, your page’s copy, and in the site’s meta tags.

The page title is likely the most important place to use the proper keywords, as all search engine spiders tend to look at it. Precision is key – use the keywords that are most likely to bring the right visitors to that particular page. While some consultants suggest using many key words, or many slight variations of key words, or repeated key words, search engines have caught on to these strategies and may actually penalize your site for using such tactics. According to Webmonkey.com’s Paul Boutin, it’s best not to include extra words, such as a company name; using only the keywords as site title will generally bring the best results.

It’s also important to use those keywords and phrases in the copy of the page, as spiders do look at this also. Note, for instance, how often I use phrases like “search engine opitimization” and “search engine” in this article. That’s deliberate. Keep in mind, though, that search engines have caught on to the practice of loading down copy with keywords to achieve higher rankings, and certain high ratios of keywords to overall copy may actually hurt your placement.

The third place to use keywords is in the site’s meta tags, which are part of the coding for the page. Again, it’s best to use only the words that will bring the best results – repetition or overuse of variations can hurt your optimization.

Finally, some consultants will suggest that regardless of your site’s content, you always include the most popular overall keywords in your title and meta tags. While this may bring more initial traffic to your site, you have to consider whether attracting searches on “Eminem” or “Spiderman” will benefit you in any way. Generally, it’s best to optimize your site so that you attract those searchers that would actually be interested in what you have to offer.

Link popularity

Another criteria that many search engines use for ranking is link popularity. Essentially, is your site linked from other sites, and are those sites ranked well in their engines? This can be a time consuming process for a webmaster, as getting links on other pages generally involves contacting the owner of that page and asking for a listing or agreeing to a “link swap”: you put a link on your page to their site, and they do the same for you. Again, don’t believe that you can fool the search engines through short-cut methods such as FFA pages, as the engine administrators have caught on to these, also. Also keep in mind that links on other reputable pages account for a high percentage of traffic – you really can’t lose by having your site listed on other site’s “Links” pages.

Some Final Thoughts

When optimizing your site for the search engines, it’s also important to remember that a high ranking in a search doesn’t necessarily mean more qualified traffic. As in many aspects of life, presentation is everything. If the listing on the search engine appears clear and professional, you’re more likely to receive more of the traffic that will benefit you. Boutin notes that the meta name field in the coding is important in this regard, as some engines use the information in this field for their site description. While you want to use keywords and phrases in this field, do so in a manner that still will make sense to a surfer looking for a site like yours.

Ultimately, search engine optimization involves using tried and true methods of design and writing to make your site user-friendly.

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, Ph.D.

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