It’s no secret that Google is one of the most visited Web sites in the world. It enjoys the lion’s share of the search market by most estimates, receiving more than 65 percent of all search traffic in the world. Yahoo! is a not-so-close second with around 20 percent of the market. MSN has about 8 percent, and the numbers go down from there.
Search is the second most frequently used Internet application (email is first). For Webmasters and business owners, it clearly makes good sense to be at the top of search results for keywords related to their industries—this can bring in new traffic every day, and new traffic means an opportunity for new sources of revenue. The question is: How do you get to page one of the results list?
An entire industry has sprung up in response to this question—search engine optimization (SEO). SEO companies specialize in helping Web sites climb higher in search results for keywords that are searched for regularly. The ultimate goal of SEO is increased traffic, or visits, for the Web site. This is a relatively new industry, and it’s one inherently ridden with unknown variables. As such, it can be outright difficult to find solid and reliable information. Many business owners and DIY Webmasters find themselves scrambling for a crash course in what makes a Web site “Google-friendly.” They usually uncover more questions than answers.
Here are 10 things to keep in mind when considering a plan of action to improve search visibility for your Web site:
1. There will always be unknowns. This is because Google and other major search engines will never release the details of their algorithms. Search algorithms, which are complex mathematical formulas used to rank Web pages for relevant keywords, are among the most closely-guarded secrets on the Internet. That said, there are certain “best practices” that consistently result in high rankings for Web pages.
2. Base your actions on research. Do your homework first and you’ll find that targeting ultra-competitive keywords may be a futile effort. In almost every niche there will be a few competitors that have been around longer and have put a lot of resources into their climb to the top. However, searches that include local keywords (towns, counties, states, etc.) and so-called Long Tail search phrases (four words and more) are often less competitive inroads to your online market. There are multiple tools for keyword research available—among the best are Wordtracker (www.wordtracker.com) and Trellian’s (www.trellian.com) “Keyword Discovery” tool.
3. High rankings don’t necessarily mean more traffic. If you’re thinking of hiring someone to handle your SEO, bear in mind that many less-than-honest SEO companies “guarantee” high rankings within a certain time frame. This is usually an empty guarantee. While they might achieve the number of rankings they promise, there won’t necessarily be a significant increase in traffic to your site. Why? Many search phrases are obscure and don’t receive much search traffic. Traffic is the goal—not rankings.
4. Don’t fall for “search engine submission.” Some SEO companies will try to sell you on “search engine submission.” They’ll usually claim something like, “We’ll submit your site to every English-speaking search engine in the world.” This may sound great, but it isn’t. For years search engines haven’t needed to be “told” about your Web site. Their sophisticated crawlers (the programs that index Internet content for search) follow links to make their way around the Web, and if there are plenty of links pointing to your pages they’ll find you on their own. Beyond submitting sitemaps to Google and Yahoo!, you should never need to manually submit your pages to a search engine. Watch out for SEO firms offering this service—they are ripping people off.
5. Links make all the difference. The greatest Web site in the world would be totally isolated without inbound links. Links are the connecting blocks of the Internet that Googlebot and other search engine crawlers use to find their way around. Links also add value to the page they point at so long as they are linked from a relevant and trusted Web site. You need as many permanent, on-topic, and high-quality links as you can get.
6. “Link farms” are not the best sources of links. When Webmasters learned the power of inbound links, they went out to find the easiest places to get them. This high demand for links resulted in link directories, or “link farms,” that were set up to cater to this demand. Webmasters who set up these directories were able to host ads on their sites, wait for the link-seekers to come to them, and cash in on the traffic. However, the major search engines are all about providing the best results possible to their users, and sites that build links in an artificial way will generally not rank highly. Permanent links from trusted Web sites are the best bet.
7. Content should be created for the users. Some SEO firms set up so-called “gateway pages” that are loaded with keywords. The idea is that these pages will rank well because of their high keyword density and that users searching for the keywords will land at your gateway page and then click-through to the rest of your site. Why doesn’t this work? Even while you might get a gateway page to rank well, users will not appreciate content written for search engines. Attempting to cram in as many keywords as possible will result in a sacrifice of writing quality. Low-quality content isn’t going to build your brand or convince users to stick around.
8. Text links should be used wherever possible. Some Web designers use images for their navigation to achieve an aesthetic for their pages that text won’t allow. Search engines can’t look at images to determine their contents. Search engines evaluate your site based on the words they find in your source code—using text for links wherever possible ensures a high level of visible content.
9. Flash-based sites generally do not rank well. Flash came onto the Web scene several years ago, and it was instantly popular. If you’re not familiar with Flash, it is a technology that allows Webmasters to add elaborate animations to their pages including interactive presentations. However, Flash cannot be indexed by search engine crawlers. In other words, if you’ve built your site entirely in Flash, you probably won’t rank well, if at all. There are methods for adding Flash to your pages in a search-friendly way, but they are generally complex and beyond the abilities of the average Webmaster. It’s a good general rule to use as much static HTML text for your site as possible.
10. Be patient and persistent. Most Web sites won’t achieve traffic-rich rankings overnight. Some SEO companies argue that Google won’t allow a brand new site to rank well for several months—something SEO experts often refer to as the “Google sandbox.” However, whether this exists or not is often debated. The real issue seems to be building up the link popularity and trust of your Web site. You will likely find some phrases that competitors aren’t targeting, but bear in mind that climbing your way to the top for competitive keywords will be a long haul.
Mike Tekula works as a Web designer and search engine optimizer in New York and is a specialist in W3C Standards compliance and generating increased Web site traffic. He can be contacted through www.TekWebSolutions.com.