SEO - in plain English

If you've thought about a website, you've probably seen the acronym 'SEO'. It stands for Search Engine Optimisation, and refers to the process of designing a website to maximise its presence on search engines like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft Bing.

We all want our website to appear at the top of search engine pages when potential customers come looking, and to meet this need, a whole industry has sprung up promising to get your site noticed. With an armoury of techniques, these outfits can definitely improve your search engine ranking. They can't deliver the impossible though, so promises 'get your site to the top of the search page' are usually exaggerated.* If you choose to use one of these sevices, check carefully any guarantees they make: invariably, a promise to 'get you to the top' will rely on the choice of a search term so specific to your business, a search engine could hardly not find your page!

Despite the promotion by SEO businesses to make their work seem like a black art, there are a few simple things you or your web designer can do which will improve your site's search rankings significantly. In fact, for most small to medium size websites, these techniques are probably all you need. This article only briefly touches on SEO techniques, but should form a basic primer as you think about ensuring your site is as visible to the web as it can be.

Content, content, content

Quality counts ...

Following wholesale attempts to manipulate search engine rankings by nefarious means, search engine companies have made a pervasive and broad move to emphasise content rather than technical adherence to HTML search engine assistive attributes like tags. What this means in practice is that your best efforts at improving your ranking are spent creating quality content. Quality content is interesting, up-to-date, reflects themes of interest to people using the internet, and relevant to its viewers. 'Well written' is also a necessity these days: poorly written, grammatically incorrect or mispelt content is likely to be ranked downwards given the association between poorly written content and 'spammy', low-quality sites: search engine technology is very sophisticated!

and an SEO-friendly site is logically organised ... High quality search engine friendly sites are well organised. This means 'pages do what they say in the title', and that pages do not duplicate content or themes inappropriately. The single, best thing you can do to improve your search engine ranking is to make content that people actually want to read. Think carefully about your content: do you think other people would want to read it? Assessing this objectively (and harshly) should lead you to write (or re-write) content in line with the goals of interest, relevance, and timeliness. If your page doesn't hold people's attention (measured by the search engines as time-spent-on-page), it's likely to be ranked downards. In summary, you should embark on the task of managing your content with the viewpoint that search engines are increasingly unlikely to be tricked - by either you as the content writer, or an SEO company taking your cash!
so invest in quality content before exploiting SEO 'tricks' to improve your site's ranking. Possibly the best investment you can make in SEO is paying a professional writer to re-write your content along the lines described above - this is particularly true if you don't feel your own writing skills are well-developed. Sites that read well, are logically organised and hold a viewer's interest will always outrank sites that don't have these attributes.

META tags

These tags are simply words that appear in the HTML code at the start of each web page. In the early days of the web, they were certainly useful for indexing pages by search engines. Like most of the simple things, they soon became exploited, and while still important, they no longer form the most important component behind searchability. META tags are not something you should be paying an SEO company to do for you: the benefits of META tags are at the margins, and if you write your own content, you can write your own META tags.

TITLE tag

Each and every web page has a title and again, this is stored in the header section of your web page. Like META tags, TITLEs were manipulated by the industry to the point where their value in terms of search engines has been downgraded. Images also contain TITLEs and should always be included as it is believed these are still part of the search engine algorithms. Unlike most other HTML attributes, titles are still considered important in search engine rankings. Avoid anything 'spammy' in your title, and avoid hyperbole. Sites that come across as a hard-sell, or exaggerated (when selling a product) may result in lower rankings.

Quality off-site links

While the first two techniques (effective META and TITLE tags) are simple, and part of the construction of your website, the next set of indexing components relate more to the behaviour of your website and its cross-referencing across the web. These are the hot topics in search engine optimisation right now. Because off-site links are less susceptible to manipulation and search engines technology has improved, these more sophisticated aspects of SEO are hot topics.

Fast page loading

Pages should be quick to load, because people like quick-to-load pages. Search engines also need to read them - if they experience wasteful waiting while a page loads, they conclude that the page is frustrating and of consequently less interest to searchers. This means you should optimise your images for the web (eg. no more than 72dpi resolution), avoid over-complicated page structures and minimise (or remove) lengthy Javascript that chews up resources. If your site is slow, it's worth considering moving to a faster web hosting service if you want your search engine rankings to improve.

No extraneous advertisting

Pages that use pay-per-click links and (in particular) popup boxes advertising things like 'You are the millionth visitor...') are annoying and suggest low-quality content. Again it gets back to quality content: people don't want to see these things, and they tend to not stay on these page. Ergo the search engines rank them downwards. They should be avoided if you want your site to rank highly.

Encrypted pages (HTTPS)

Google actively promotes the use of encryption certificates when assessing page rankings. A site that uses the prefix 'HTTPS' at the front of its address is using an encryption certificate. Given these must be paid for, and are not overly cheap, they are not utilised extensively by fly-by-night or 'spammy', low quality sites. Because of this, it is believed that they signify a higher quality site with better quality content and Google acts on this accordingly. In practice, this means that if you are serious about achieving high search rankings, you should invest in an SSL certificate. If you do this, make sure your server configuration is set to serve up all pages under the HTTPS protocol - a common mistake is to purchase an SSL certificate, but use it only for the 'transaction' pages (eg. where you buy a product). If you have an SSL certificate, ensure it is used on every page. These days the performance overhead for encryption is minimal.

Avoidance of Flash

Flash is a dying technology, killed by it own propriety nature and the availability of new 'free' functionality available in HTML5 and CSS3. Much of what Flash used to do well is now easily duplicated in web-standard, non-proprietary HTML. Flash has always suffered from the difficulty of indexing for search engine purposes, and its highly proprietary technology saw it completely shunned by organisations like Apple (albeit for commercial reasons). From a visibility perspective, it is effectively excludied from devices like the iPhone and iPad. To reach the widest audience, it is inadvisable to use Flash on your sites at all. Many 'do-it-yourself' sites create Flash-based websites - these businesses are quickly dying out as the technology fades. If you are one of the diminishing number of people who still run a site using Flash, it's reasonable to assume that your content is all but invisible to the web search engines, and you should have the site re-written using standard, non-proprietary software.

 

 

* If search engines were that easily manipulated, they'd be filled with spam and people would stop visiting. For companies like Google (worth over $500 billion), that's a big business risk so you can gauge for yourself the attention and investment they make in preventing manipulation of search results in sneaky ways! Don't forget that Google's search engine algorithms are a tightly held commercial secret and form an immense part of the value of the company. Optimising sites for SEO purposes relies primarily on Google's advice, and people's experiences rather than published 'mechanics' of the process - this aspect is a boon to SEO 'gurus' who exploit the fact that it is very difficult for you to objectively assess the techniques they use. We haven't covered Google's AdWords products in this article: rather we're attempting to explain the basic, free things you can do to keep your site prominent on the web.