Updated January, 2011
Getting found on search engines is usually vital if you want to have any kind of online prominence, and search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the Holy Grails of online marketing (and marketing is what we’re doing here: we’re selling ideas, right?). So, how do we get Google, Yahoo and Bing to notice us?
First, some introductory points:
- A lot of the information you’ll hear about search engine optimization is out of date. Particularly, you’ll still be told that you need to have keywords in your site’s meta tags (which are in the html heading and provide information about your site), when they really don’t make much difference now. People abused meta keyword tags so much in the past (i.e., by putting the word “sex” in them about 500 times per page) that search engines generally now ignore them.
- When we’re talking about search engine optimization, we’re not talking about spoofing search engines with bad information or otherwise trying to distort the search engine results — people often try to do that, but the search companies constantly change their algorithms to counter new tactics. Their business depends on good search results and they work hard to thwart attempts to fool them. Don’t bother — if you really abuse the system, they can make sure that your site is somewhere around search result page number 100,000. You can generally get good enough results just by knowing HOW search engines rank pages and setting your site up accordingly and planning your marketing strategy accordingly.
- Search engine optimization is a long-term process, and the sooner you get started, the better.
- I’m going to focus on Google, because it’s the most popular and most responsive search engine, but the same strategies will generally yield good results for Yahoo and Bing/MSN (the other two most popular search sites) and the also-rans. You’ll probably see changes in your Google rank first; I’ve found that the others sometimes lag by a month or two.
How Do Search Engines Work?
To understand how to optimize your pages, it helps if you understand how search engines actually work. When you search on Google, the company’s system calculates which sites are most relevant for your search within a fraction of a second, based on the contents of the page and on how authoritative a source your site seems to be. How do they determine these things?
Let’s begin by looking at how does a search engine finds your site and analyzes it for inclusion in the engine’s search index. Each search engine uses programs called “spiders” to acquire pages for inclusion. People speak of spiders crawling the web for pages, but they really never leave their host computer — to do their job, they work by requesting a web page, reading it, finding the links embedded in the page, and then requesting those linked-to pages, reading them, following links, and on and on. In theory, Google and other search engines should be able to find any page on the web that’s linked-to, though in practice it’s best if you let them know that your page exists by submitting it directly.
Once Google has your site pages in its index, how does it know which ones to serve up in response to a given query?
First, Google looks at page content. Does the a page contain the words you searched for? Are they a significant part of the page (i.e., are they mentioned repeatedly)? If you’re using a multi-word query (i.e, “die disco slowly”), how close together are the search terms on the page? Are they part of the same sentence or phrase or are they scattered? Do they show up in the page title, the filename and in page headings?
Second, Google looks at the authoritativeness of the site on which the page resides. How many other sites link to it? How authoritative are THOSE sites? Google sees links on the internet as “votes” for a site and its content and figures that the more links exist to a given site, the more authoritative that site is. And links from sites that are themselves considered authoritative count more. Google also looks at the specifics of the text of link — what keywords are clickable in links to a particular page? What words surround the link text?
Of course, this description is over-simple — the details of Google’s search algorithm are a closely-held secret and the algorithm itself changes constantly. But it’s close enough that we can benefit from it: if you want to boost your site’s search engine presence, you’ll need to look at the quality of your content (AGAIN with the content!), the way it’s presented and how many quality sites link to you.
To optimize pages, start with the words. Think about your topic and what search terms people might use when they’re looking for information about it, and try to work them into the text as much as possible. Don’t sacrifice readability — keyword-laden text doesn’t need to sound weird — but do keep search terms in mind as you’re writing or editing. If possible, keep your pages fairly short, since the percentage of the page text devoted to a particular keyword seems to matter — if a word shows up five times on a short page, it’ll tend to do better than if it shows up five times on a long page. Again, don’t sacrifice readability, since a bunch of one-paragraph pages are going to drive readers crazy.
Second, pay attention to the page elements. As much as possible, use “semantic coding” — Google pays attention to the classic html header tags (h1, h2, h3), using them as a guide to your page content. So, you’ll benefit from using header tags for your page divisions (headings and subheads) rather than an arbitrarily defined tag — use H2 or H3 rather than , and make sure that your likely keywords show up in the headings (which they should do anyway, if the headings are any guide to the content). Don’t neglect ALT tags for images — they’re another chance to work in your key concepts.
Finally, Google gives a disproportionate amount of weight to the page title — not the title in the body of the page, but the html title in the page heading (which shows up in the little bar at the very top of the browser window). I’ve tested this one myself — on the NET site, because of a quirk in the site construction process, our global warming pages were originally titled “NET.org >> Warming,” but after reading about the importance of titles, I changed them to “NET.org >> Global Warming” and resubmitted them to Google. A couple of weeks later, our main climate change page jumped from around position 220 in the results for the search phrase “global warming” to around position 75. Impressive change! (And we improved on it later.)
In addition to the page title, pay attention to your filenames — for a climate change page, “global-warming.html” is better than “warming” and certainly better than “gl_w.html.”
Now that your pages are optimized, it’s time to make others respect our authori-tay — we need links. Assuming that your content is worth reading, other sites will often be happy to link to it if they know about it. So, as we discussed in the section on spreading the word, it’s time to track down resource sites about your topic(s) and ask them to link to you. Avoid link-spammers! Don’t get on sites that exist solely to exchange links with random sites in the hope of building Google traffic — the search engines tend to punish those sites, and showing up on them can actually hurt you. Focus on substantive sites that contain good resources about your subject.
Google provides a good guide, since sites that rank highly for your keywords will generally be authoritative by definition. Besides looking at where a page shows up in the search results, you can find a site’s approximate page rank directly using the Google toolbar or any of several websites. So, hunt down the site editors’ email addresses and start contacting them. You’ll be competing with the link-spammers (they send out zillions of spam messages asking sites to exchange links with them), so make sure that your message looks like it comes from a human being.
Be polite! Occasionally, site owners will act like jerks when you contact them, but even then, you’ll almost always attract more flies with sugar than with vinegar. Make it easy for them — clearly identify the page on their site on which your link belongs (usually on a Links or Resources page) and suggest text for the link. If sites don’t have a Links section and clearly don’t link out often, you may well want to leave them alone, unless they have a specific article page on which your content might be referenced.
Your general outreach will also usually contribute to link-building. Blog outreach in particular can help, and search engine optimization is another good reason to focus your outreach on the most popular blogs in your subject area. Press releases and articles that you write for other sites are another search engine optimization tool. Since releases that go out through P..R. Newswire and PRWeb show up on Google News, Yahoo News and other content aggregating sites, try to keep your keywords in mind as you write headlines, and make sure that your press releases always have a URL in them. If you contribute articles or columns to HuffingtonPost and other third-party publishers or to an newsletter, try to get a link to your site in the content or the attribution.
Finally, as you begin to build up links to your content, make sure that search engines see them. Particularly if you show up on authoritative sites, submit the pages that link to you to Google so that the benefits show up in the search index as fast as possible.
These tactics can make a big difference in how high your site shows up in search results, but there will always be limits. Sites that have been around for years and have many, many links to them will be tough opponents, as will traditional news sites and (often) government sites. Particularly on controversial topics, pages from the BBC, CNN, the New York Times and other sites with millions of readers and tens of thousands of links will almost always dominate the top results.
Some vendors will sell you specialized search engine optimization services. I haven’t used them, though I’ve been to plenty of presentations by “experts,” and I can’t really comment on how effective they are. I suspect that you’ll get 90% of the benefits they deliver simply by following the rules above.
Hosing Your Enemies
Well, okay, there’s not much you can do to hurt your opponents’ search engine placement, but you can certainly avoid helping them. If you link to an opposing site, for instance to discredit it (“Look How Bad My Opponent Sucks”), add a “nofollow” attribute to your link tag. It’ll keep Google from counting your link as a “vote” for the site.
Another approach to hurting your enemies and help yourself is to “flood the zone” with content, particularly by posting on popular sites that tend to rank highly. YouTube clips and HuffingtonPost articles will tend to show up high in search results, for instance, so publishing on these sites can help to push content that’s unflattering (to you) or flattering (to your opponent) down the page.