What is SEO?
SEO. The abbreviation is thrown around a lot (usually while a lot of money is being thrown around). It stands for Search Engine Optimization. But what does it mean? SEO is all about increasing page rank. This means using our knowledge about search engines and humans to get web pages to the top of organic search results.
When the market is saturated (department store, computer) or your topics are wide reaching (news, politics) an SEO expert can be a worthwhile investment. But most companies only need high page rankings in specific markets (health food stores near me, carwash in Springfield) or specialized topics (custom-made guinea pig collars, window treatments for Victorian-era houses). Once you understand how page ranking works it becomes fairly simple to optimize your own website.
How Page Ranking Works
There is some “voodoo” involved with all page rankings, but the 3 most important keys are making sure the page is readable, relevant, and referenced. Focusing on these three will do a lot to increase your page ranking.
You need to make sure your web pages are readable for both search engines and humans. Fortunately, that tends to overlap quite a bit. If anything in this section is confusing to you, contact your web designer or developer (or ask a question in the comments).
The most important part about a readable web page is that the page is actually viewable. Humans want information quick. They’re not going to sit and wait for a page to load when there were 4 other pages to try in the search results.
This may have a different name, such as post title or article title. This is the first place search engines look to determine the content of the page. They use the page title as the linking header in search results. So humans know what to expect, the title should be descriptive, accurate, and under 60 characters.
The meta-description is also used to analyze content and appears as the “snippet” in search results. You get about 160 characters to briefly summarize the content of the page. Although control of this area depends on the management system for your website, you can always make your content more effective by ensuring that the first 160 characters of your page text is relevant.
Content As Actual Text
As crazy as it sounds, some people actually use pictures of text on their website instead of actual text. Please don’t do this. If your words are pictures, the search engines can’t read them and will think there is no content on your page. Although humans can read pictures of text, the text is often a bit blurry, and they will get annoyed when they can’t copy and paste it.
Mark-Up and Proper Formatting
Mark-up is what we use to style the text. Use things like headings, bullets, and italics to break up the text. It is especially important when formatting a heading to use the headings tags. For instance, when you’re creating a paragraph header, don’t just make the text bold and increase the size. Choose the h3 (Heading 3) from the format style list. When creating numbered lists or bullet points, don’t just type your numbers or use asterisks for each bullet. Select the numbered or bulleted list from the format options. When pages are properly formatted, it doesn’t just help the search engines understand your content, it’s more readable, and more accessible for blind humans. As sighted humans, we see larger, more bold text on it’s own line and know it’s supposed to be a header. We see a list of paragraphs that start with incrementally increasing numbers and we know it’s a list. But computers don’t know that. When we use the proper formatting tools we are telling a computer what the different parts of the text are so it can be interpreted for a search engine or for reading aloud to a blind human.
When ranking your web pages, search engines want to know that the content is relevant for the humans that are initiating the searches. When writing content for your pages you should be clear and concise. You should also be aware of relevant keywords when writing your content. Use tools like Google Insights for Search to find out what keywords people are using. Once you know when and how humans are searching, you can incorporate those keywords into your text naturally.
Knowledge of the human choosing cycle can also be used to make your page more relevant. Whether they are choosing a site to trust, a company to call, or a product to purchase, most humans follow the same path: Interest → Gather → Research → Exclude → Choose. Once you know where in the choosing cycle you want your visitors to be, you can tailor the content for maximum relevance.
The other way to show that your webpage is relevant is to update and create new content on a regular basis. You may have the most relevant information on the entire internet, but if nothing on the web site has changed in 3 years, the search engines will assume it is outdated and lower your rankings.
The final key to increasing your page ranking is demonstrating that others find the information on your site useful. Links to and from your page are the digital proof.
There are 11 important aspects of links that search engines look at when using them to determine usefulness.
- Anchor text. What does the actual link say? It’s more useful when the link says, “Here is more information about astronomy,” instead of, “You can never learn too much about astronomy. For more information click here.”
- Link location. Page text and navigation are places that show the linked-to information is useful. However, a link in an ad space is marked as such and not utilized.
- Link format. Is the link text or a picture? Humans like pictures but search engines prefer text. If you’re using a picture, make sure to include descriptive alternate text.
- Link age. How old is the link? If the link is several years old, then you must be continuing to provide quality content.
- Link type. Internal linking within your website is helpful for humans but won’t prove you are being referenced. Incoming links show that others are writing about your site. Reciprocal links are good if you are linking to each other due to mutual interest. Purchased links, such as those on a link farm, are ignored.
- Link source. The more respected the linking website the better.
- Source relevancy. If you have a site about horses being linked to by a site about horses, that’s good. If it’s a site about drum sets, it probably doesn’t mean much.
- Source type. Search engines like links from reputable directories, content sites, and blogs. Links from link farms, ads and other similar locations are typically ignored.
- Source location. If there is a lot of cross-linking between several sites, the search engines will evaluate more closely. If it suspects you own all of the sites and are just trying to increase your page rank it will ignore those links.
- Surrounding content. Is the information around the link relevant to the search keywords? If the link text says, “Learn more about Clydesdales,” and the surrounding text is all about horses it will find the link relevant. If the link about Clydesdales is surrounded by text about motorcycles the link won’t count for much.
- Country of origin. You may have a website that targets visitors to the U.S. that may have become a popular site of referral for bloggers in the UK, but is unknown to people in Australia. Because of this, it would end up with a much higher page ranking for UK searchers than Australian searchers.
Practicing Good SEO
Once you understand the basics of SEO creating optimized pages is fairly simple. Just remember to keep your page readable by using proper formatting, relevant by having real content and keeping your site up-to-date, and referenced by cultivating good links.