Please Note: This article was last updated in 2003.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of building and promoting your web site in a way that ensures that it is regularly indexed and displayed appropriately on search engine results pages (SERPs).
The basic steps in this process are pretty straightforward and haven’t changed much over the past five years: figure out which keywords people are using to find the products and services you sell, build a website that includes those keywords, and make sure the search engines know about your pages.
However, the details of search engine optimization change every day, so you either need to spend a few years learning its intricacies and then several hours a week keeping on top of the field or you can hire an SEO expert.
Why SEO Is Hard
Search engines are committed to delivering relevant results to the people who use their site. Search engine marketers (like me) are equally committed to giving their clients the best possible search engine marketing results. This results in a situation where engineers at Google and the other search engines are constantly adjusting and adapting the logic in their programs to discount (or even penalize) techniques that search engine marketers use to get their web pages to show up higher in the rankings.
A few examples of how this dynamic has played out:
- Keyword Stuffing
In the early days of the internet, marketers would stuff web pages with popular keywords (often completely unrelated to what they were selling) to hijack search traffic. For example, a site selling phone services might stuff keywords like “Playboy,” “free nude pictures,” “Pamela Anderson Lee,” and other frequently entered search terms. They would hide these keywords in META tags, or by making them in extremely small type or in type that was the same color as the page background (making the type invisible to human users). This worked for a little while, but soon search engines caught on and would remove pages that used these tricks from their indexes.
- META Tags
META tags are fields in HTML web pages that are invisible to people looking at the web page. They were designed to allow web page authors to include information about the information on the page (i.e., meta-information) to make the pages easier to index. Unethical search marketers have abused these tags, so search engines ignore them nowadays. (NOTE: a few SEs still use these tags, so it is still important to include them in your search-engine-optimized web pages.)
Cloaking is the practice of showing human users one version of your web site and search engines another version. This tactic is made possible by the HTTP protocol which underlies the web. When you visit a web page you give it information about who you are (“user agent” is the technical term). A cloaked web site will show human users one page and search engine crawlers another page. Search engines, especially the crucial Google search engine, abhor this practice and will remove sites that use it from their search results.
- Link Farms
A more recent example of the search engines vs. marketers battle is participation in a “link farm.” Because Google and other search engines now measure both the popularity of web pages as well as the content on them, many attempts have been made to artificially inflate the number of links to sites. As always, search engines have figured out how to identify websites that use this tactic and penalize them for attempting to fool searchers.
Why SEO Is Easy (or at least manageable)
So what is a search engine marketer or web-site owner to do? Fortunately, as I said above, the basics of search engine optimization have remained fairly stable. It is entirely possible to conduct an ethical and effective SEO campaign that will satisfy both your goals and the goals of the search engines.
Search engine optimization is a time-tested, highly effective way to get people to your web site. While it is difficult to determine exactly how search engines operate, a widely adopted conventional wisdom informs most professional search engine optimization campaigns.
How to Do Search Engine Optimization
Here are the basic steps it takes to implement an effective and ethical search engine optimization campaign:
- Keyword Research
Any SEO program should begin with keyword research to identify how your customers are looking for you. It’s important to set aside your own ideas about what you do and how you are perceived. Use tools like Wordtracker and the Overture and Google AdWords keyword suggestion tools to find out which keywords and key phrases people are actually using to find the products and services you sell.
- Market Research and Competitive Analysis
As in any marketing campaign, you need to analyze the market you are operating in and identifying who your competitors are. In search engine optimization, you will typically encounter both market competitors and keyword competitors folks in completely unrelated markets who are competing for the keywords and phrases you have identified.
- Write Search-Engine-Friendly Copy
Once you have a list of keywords and phrases and a strong sense of your competitive environment, you need to write search-engine-friendly copy. This copy will show up in a number of places on your web pages in the TITLE tag, headlines and other page content, and in META tags, as well as in copy that you write for directory submissions, keyword-ad copy, and other off-site submissions.
- Optimize Your Web Site
The information architecture of your web site your directory structure, file-naming conventions, link structure, etc. can have a big impact on your search engine positioning. It is primarily because of these considerations that I recommend involving a search engine marketing expert as early as possible in your website development.
- Optimize Your Web Pages
- Improve Your Link Popularity
The two main things that search engines look at to decide on the relevance of your pages are the content on the page and how well it matches a search query and the link popularity of the page that is, how many other pages link to your page. They also look at the quality and popularity of the site that links to you, so it is important to put information on your site that important sites will want to link to (see my online publishing page for more on the importance of having good content on your site) and then promoting your site to those sites so that they will link to you.
- Submit to Directories and Search Engines
Once you have built and optimized your site, you need to let search engines know about it. The best way to have Google, the most important search engine, find your pages is by following links from other sites, so if you have worked on your link popularity you are almost certainly already indexed by Google. It is also important to be listed in Inktomi, AllTheWeb, HotBot, AltaVista, and other search engines, as well as in directories like Yahoo! and the Open Directory Project (DMOZ.org).
- Measure Your SEO Results
As with any business initiative, it is important to measure the results of your search engine optimization campaign. Analyzing your web server logs (or other measurements of traffic to your site) can tell you how many referrals your site gets from search engines. Depending upon your focus and objectives, a number of other web metrics may be relevant to your measurement of your return on investment (ROI) for your search engine optimization efforts.
My Search Engine Optimization Qualifications
I have been writing about and practicing search engine optimization since 1998. I have done work for individual client sites, and I have developed systematized and automated SEO systems for a marketing services firm. See my portfolio for some examples of my work.
Why SEO Is Important
This page created 4/5/03; last updated 11/21/03.