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Foundations of
Search Engine Optimization

Guiding Principles to Help Get the Search Engine Traffic your Content Deserves

an essay by Garth Hagerman

Many, perhaps most, web sites languish, seldom visited and un- or minimally- indexed, causing little but frustration for authors, webmasters, and e-commerce entrepreneurs. This doesn't have to happen to you. You can design your site to be a search engine juggernaut by following a few simple principles.

Let's start by looking at the Four Cs of Search Engine Optimization: content, currentness, coding, and connections.

CONTENT

I frequently talk to frustrated web site owners who lament that their site doesn't show up at all, or doesn't rank highly, for important search terms. I look at their sites to find out what the problem might be, and I often find that their site is very pretty, and it has lots of nice pictures, but it has shockingly little actual text content.

It's probably the oldest cliché in the web world: content is king. Being a cliché doesn't prevent it from being true, and it doesn't prevent an awful lot of people from ignoring it. You'll need a substantial amount of quality, keyword-heavy, logically structured, original text content in order to convince the search engines that your site deserves a high ranking for competitive search terms.

Remember, the web started out as a tool for academicians to exchange their research findings; it wasn't designed as a medium of artsy-fartsy visual design statements. Search engines look at text; they can't read your graphics, they won't be impressed by your Flash animation or your Javascripts. They are looking for web pages which have lots of information about the search terms. Thus, if you want to rank highly for a particular search phrase, you'll need to have lots of information which relates to that phrase. Pretty simple so far, huh?

CURRENTNESS

Even large masses of original content won't get you far if it's not updated regularly. Another major cause of search engine disappointment is infrequent updating. Even if your content is timeless, you'll need to go through it and dust it off and knock down the metaphorical cobwebs from time to time. A few quick edits and additions every few months will help a lot; major additions will help more. You'll need new and fresh links from time to time, also. Websites which have been forgotten and neglected by their owners get little or no respect from the search engines.

One of the good things about having a blog as part of your site is that it allows owners without tech skills to update their sites easily and regularly without calling up their web guy and getting a new job scheduled. You can type up a quick news item and have it cross-referenced with other relevant items in a jiffy.

CODING

Here we have to get a little more technical. Once we have substantive text content, we'll need to put it on the web in such a way that the search engines will recognize it as a legitimate resource. The best way to do this is by learning HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and hand-coding your site.

There are many WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) programs out there, which enable any bozo to put together a web site without actually learning the nuts and bolts of coding a site. That's a great and glorious thing—for personal sites, for family sites, for sites that don't need a wide audience, for sites that no one really cares about, anyway.

For search engine optimization, however, you'll need to know which tags are important for search engine rankings, and you'll need to avoid the code bloat which is endemic to WYSIWYG generated code.

While a full treatment of HTML and CSS is way beyond the scope of this little essay, we can look at some of the aspects of coding which are especially important for search engine optimization. We'll start by defining some guiding principles, and then list some of the important specific tags.

Coding principles for search engine optimization:

Eschew gratuitous fru-fru.
This is also known as the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) Principle. The search engine spiders aren't looking at your site in a browser; they look at the code, and separate the kernels of content from the chaff of table tags, Javascripts, proprietary pseudo-html, etc. The more wheat you have in proportion to chaff, the better your kernels of wisdom will be indexed. Make the spiders' job easy, and they will be kind to you.
Keep the display information in a separate .css file.
One key to lean, efficient, highly index-friendly web pages is keeping all of the information about how the content is to be displayed (fonts, colors, etc.) in its own file, while the actual .html file has the page's content, its structure, and hardly anything else. Font tags have no place in a 21st Century web site.
Use the tags for the jobs they were designed to do.
The title tag should accurately describe the page's contents; headlines and sub-heads should relate to the content under them; alt attributes should describe the image. Sometimes, myopically clever webmasters find ways to cheat the search engines by using tags sneakily; sometimes this works... for a while. The engineers with the search engines are constantly refining their algorithms; rewarding webmasters who have real content and play fair while punishing cheaters. If a particular trick works this week, it might get your site purged from the index entirely next week.
Make sure your code is standards-compliant.
There are many reasons for this; I find it nearly impossible to trouble-shoot if the code flunks a syntax-check. Search engine spiders are likely to be confused by poorly formed HTML.
Use your keywords in a variety of contexts.
It's hard to discuss this one without an example. If you have a page that is all about "tartan plaid widgets," you might wind up with a page where the whole phrase is in the title tag and an h1 tag; there might be an h2 tag that says "All about Widgets," another which says "Why Acme Widgets are the Best Widgets," and a third which says "The Tartan Plaid Difference;" after each of the subheads, you'd have a couple of paragraphs of regular body text, using your keywords a few more times in them; throw in a list of wonderful characteristics of your widgets; and put the keywords in bold type in the text somewhere. Bingo! you're rocketing to the top of rankings for "tartan plaid widgets." Just don't get carried away. Make sure your scintillating prose is keyword-rich without being ridiculously redundant; it must make sense to your human readers.

Important html tags for search engine optimization

The title tag.
It's hard to overstate the importance of title tags. Try this: do a competitive search on any of the major search engines. Look at the results. How many of the highly ranked pages have the search phrase in the title tag? Coincidence, or alien intervention? The title tag is the first thing spiders look at, and it's weighted very heavily in ranking algorithms. Make sure your title tags use likely search terms which accurately reflect the contents of their pages. If you really want to sabotage your rankings, use a title tag like "Untitled Document" or "insert title here"
Headline and subhead tags.
Keywords in h1 and h2 tags, at least, are wieghted fairly heavily by ranking algorithms; the lower level subheads don't seem to help as much, but you should still use them as the structure of your document dictates; key search terms should be used in a variety of contexts on the page.
Alt attributes in image tags.
The closest search engine spiders come to being able to make sense of images is reading alt attributes. These are very important for image searches, and seem to carry some weight in general searches. Again: play fair. Don't use long lists of keywords of dubious relevance in alt attributes; describe the image accurately and succinctly.
Meta tags.
Meta tags are in the head of a web document. They are not seen by casual site visitors, but can be read by the search engines. There are two meta tags we're concerned with here: meta-description, and meta-keywords.
Some people's idea of search engine optimization begins and ends with meta tags. The problem with this is that meta tags really aren't that important; content and other aspects of coding are about a zillion times more important than meta tags. Meta keyword tags are probably not even worth bothering with; maybemaybemaybe some of the search engines give the listed keywords a little, itsy-bitsy bump, but they've been abused so brutally by so many traffic-hungry webmasters that they're generally ignored. Brainstorming and making lists of keywords and phrases will help you write your content, however; make sure that those important search terms are actually used where people can see them.
Meta description tags are somewhat useful; some search engines use them as the description of the page when it comes up on a list of search results. Without the meta-description, the page will still show up, but the listed description will be a hodgepodge of keywords and sentence fragments. I often use the meta description tag of other sites when I'm putting together a links page.
Conclusion: meta tags are worth bothering with, but just barely; don't lose any sleep over them, and don't waste your time and energy making free-association lists of dubiously relevant "keywords" which don't actually appear in your content.

CONNECTIONS

First off, a confession. "Connections" is a little bit of a stretch. I needed a word starting in "C" which means "links pointing in". Connections was the best I could come up with. Anyway, once you've got your content and your coding all beautifully optimized, you'll need one more vitally important element before the masses start visiting your site, reading your informative text, and buying your widgets. You'll need to get other sites to link to your site. Those connections are important to get your site ranked highly, they're generally the way the spiders find your site in the first place, and they'll help get traffic directly, as human users follow the links, too.

While just about any link pointing in to your site is a good thing, some are better than others. Links from high traffic sites count for more than links from a page of Joe and Becky Shmoe's pictures of their cat. The search engines also try to measure the relevance of links, so it's imprtant to have links from other sites which share some topics with yours. There is no such thing as too many links pointing in to your site. Your page rank will continue to improve as you get more and more connections.

Ways to get other sites to link to yours:

Exchange links.
If you set up sites for other people, make sure all of your clients are linked to all of your other clients. Find sites that are related to your site, (but not in direct competition) link to them, and email their webmasters with a request for a reciprocal link. Make sure you mention something specific that you like about the target site so the webmaster will know you're an actual human who has really visited the site. Check those sites again after a month or so. If they haven't reciprocated, remove the link from your site. Make sure your links page includes an offer to exchange links with relevant sites.
Submit your site to directories.
Find directories of sites related to your subject. Try to get your site on as many of them as possible. Start with the Open Directory Project (www.dmoz.org). If you're a member of a relevant professional organization, that group may well have a site listing its members.
Buy ads on high traffic sites.
If you can afford it, this is often a great way to pump up your page rank in a hurry. If your site is selling stuff, it's generally a good investment to spend the $300 to get on the Yahoo! directory (if your site is non-commercial, you may be able to get on it for free). For most trades, there are high traffic information sites or directories which allow you the priviledge of giving their owners lots of money for an ad link. Sometimes it's worth it, but be careful.

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