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The ABC's of SEO

Posted on 4.30.2007

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For many, search engines have come to be the primary source of finding information about both the online and offline world. Google alone claims a rate of one billion searches per day. Simply put, search engines are a part of our daily lives. As such, optimizing your website to reach Web searchers is now a vital part online success.

As a website owner, you should proud of what you’ve created — or paid for. Your site looks great, it’s easy to navigate, user-friendly and loaded with great content. But what good is it if nobody can find you?

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SEO is about removing barriers between the search engines and your content. To do this effectively you must concentrate primarily on your website’s accessibility and content while making an outright commitment to its long-term success. It involves a philosophical shift from the mindset of immediate gratification to a focus on long-term sustainability. You must demonstrate to the search engines that your site content is the most relevant and important to a searcher’s needs. But don’t worry — SEO is not as hard as many would have you believe, and the rewards are immense.

Accessibility: Well-Designed & Thoughtful

There is plenty that goes into the concept of accessibility when it comes to SEO. Great websites feature well-designed and thoughtful arrangements of page components for users while making those same components accessible to search engines. Websites with dated design methods and not employing even the most basic SEO techniques will be relegated to no man’s land — never to be found, much less appreciated by a casual surfer or active consumer.

CSS & Table-less Design
During the long reign of Web 1.0, many designers used graphical tools to create table-based templates. But now we’re firmly entrenched in the Web 2.0 era. Designers are increasingly adopting cascading style sheets (CSS — now in its third iteration) for table-less design. CSS allows far less code to be used, creating a higher content-to-code ratio. Search engines typically use a top-down logic in determining the nature of website content — therefore, by using CSS, webmasters can clean up their code and arrange content at a higher (more accessible) portion of the page.

The end result is that search spiders are able to get through your site quickly, and easily differentiate content from code. Your site is indexed accurately and users get a better representation of site content from search results.

Sitemaps
Sitemaps are XML files that list the URLs (Web pages) residing on a domain to provide search engines with easy access to a website’s entire content. XML files also provide additional metadata about the frequency of change, a page’s importance as compared to other pages on the site and when they were last updated. For search engines, in many respects accessibility means “attainability.” Providing these easy-toread and indexable guidelines for search engines ensures your site will be crawled thoroughly and accurately. A uniform standard for
sitemaps has been created (check out sitemaps.org) and is supported by the three major search engines; Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Metadata — Titles, Descriptions & So Much More
Metadata, in the case of websites, is simply information about a specific page — mainly the title, descriptions and defined keywords, although abstracts and site information can also be included. Some search engines factor in various sections of metadata included on a page to determine that page’s relevancy to a search term or phrase. It’s important to keep in mind that metadata serves two purposes — obviously to rank higher (by telling the search engines what your page is about) but also to tell users what they will find at the page they are about to click through to from the search engine results pages (SERPs). When existent or relevant, this data is sometimes what a user sees below each search result listing.

This means that when formulating titles and descriptions for each unique page of your site, it’s important to give equal attention to the density of keywords and phrases as well as how you formulate your text for maximum readability — the user should get a clear description of the page that includes keywords for which they were searching. Best practice has shown that a roughly 75-character title and a description of approximately 170 characters work best.

Shows & Tells — H1, H2 and H3 tags
SEO professionals are known to explore every possible opportunity to get better rankings. Header tags (H1, H2, or H3) appear at several spots on a page, breaking up content and making it easier to read, while also providing clues to search engines about that page’s structure and content. While the degree that header tags play in getting listed higher on search engines is debated, they do provide the ability to create well-formed documents that are both meaningful to search engines and visitors to your site. Header tags provide site optimizers with a place to include descriptive, keyword-rich content and indicate to both parties (search engines and users) the importance of a page section. It’s a good idea to take a little time and include some header tags in your pages.

Breadth of Content

You probably read it all the time, but you’re about to read it again. Content is king. And the presence of quality content or lack thereof will greatly impact any SEO effort. The breadth of content or scope of topics that SEO practitioners consider including on a site is important as it gives search engines the sense that you are as much a destination for information as you are an enterprise trying to sell something. There is a great deal of value assigned to information hubs and not just by search engines — when users like a site and the information it provides they are more willing to share it with others. And that is where the link juice lives.

CMS, Blogs and Forums
Those responsible for SEO as well as site designers and developers have an important consideration to make about how to present content. Content management systems (CMS) can make administering content much easier and are, for many websites, the de facto standard in how users interact with their company and brand online. There is plenty of valuable information in your user forums and blogs — from what you produce to what is penned by your audience. Typically these areas are up-to-date and loaded with relevant information about both your products and industry news. But the manner in which your content is presented is critical. Some forums and blogs are presented in applications like AJAX or JavaScript that, many times, are unable to be indexed by search engines.

Product and Consumer Reviews
One way to build a content site is to publish reviews of products, even if your site sells someone else’s materials. Providing both your own informative review and insightful reviews by other consumers will quickly enable you to add valuable, often keyword-rich content that again is valuable to both of your audiences — search engines and users.

However, don’t take the easy way out by copying and pasting reviews or descriptions from another site. Aside from copyright infringement risks, this can result in duplicate content issues. Plus, creating original content will add value to your site. If a searcher queries a product and finds the same review on 10 different pages, but yours is different, the added value will bring that individual back for further reviews. Not only that, but the search engines will give your review priority over the other sites all using the same material.

Focus Pages (About, Contact, FAQ)

Many site optimizers find that users typically navigate to pages providing information and greater focus on the company behind the website during their initial site visit. Pages that reveal guidance about a company’s mission and objectives often rank highly, as search engines consider that important, relevant information for visitors. But the benefits of focus pages are not only to secure a few additional listings. They also provide access to information about the personnel or employees that support your company, products or brand. Informative pages
about your company, services and people are yet another way to add keyword-rich content for the spiders to crawl.

Media Centers
Every website should have some form of a media center to share information with prospects. But many either do not make an effort to keep this information updated or overlook the value such content can provide. Some forms of media to include are whitepapers, press releases and relevant outbound links about happenings in your industry.

Online media centers not only give your site even more content, but enhance your credibility with search engines. The engines consider who you are linking to (ideally relevant and respected sources) as much as they do who is linking to you. Having a media center on your site also gives you the ability to combat negative press. For example, search McDonald’s on Google and the top results will be the official corporate site, information about Ronald McDonald charities and stock news within Google’s OneBox. But also on the first page are links to the McDonald’s-bashing documentary “Super Size Me” and another site claiming McDonald’s exploitation of animals, people and the environment. This is not to say you should produce misleading or false information but, the more positive press on your site, the more opportunities you have to limit negative results.

A search for McDonald’s also lists separate pages for mcdwireless.com and Ronald McDonald House charities. Both of these supplemental pages support the overall brand and allow for more linking opportunities among all McDonald’s Web pages. More links provides higher rankings and more pages under the McDonald’s umbrella provides further opportunities to dominate the SERPs.

Finally, media centers provide an opportunity to up sell to existing consumers and get that oft-elusive ranking for those reviewing your products and services elsewhere on the Web.

Commitment
The single most important part of any SEO strategy is commitment. This includes a commitment to developing an accessible site, creating content, offering innovative products and services and, of course, testing — plenty of testing. The days of hastily creating sites and generating loads of qualified visitors are over. It takes a great deal of hard work to make a successful SEO campaign happen.

Testing
Exceptional SEO is rarely an accident. While it is certainly plausible that you could have a site ranking well in popular search engines that has been designed with tables and features little to no quality content, it’s not guaranteed to be a real solution until you can prove that your methods work better than the alternatives. Search engines use algorithms to crawl sites and they constantly change. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow.

This means that testing your tactics and techniques is imperative to your success. If you don’t know what you did to get a site ranked, then you’ll never know how to do it again, and again, and again.

Innovation
You will quickly notice that leaders in any industry are not content with one product. They continually innovate and improve and you should do the same. Innovation can take many forms — improving an existing product, refining a method of delivery, setting new standards for your industry and developing entirely new products, to name a few. Innovation gains the respect of your consumers and your industry as a whole — leading to brand recognition, more incoming links and better SEO.

Networking
Networking your way into the spotlight is the final but most important ongoing factor in successful SEO. As with innovation, establishing relationships and earning the respect of both consumers and industry experts is crucial. Recognition of your site through incoming links is arguably the biggest factor that makes or breaks SEO campaigns. If content is the king — then incoming links are the blue blood that keeps your site at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs).

Networking can be accomplished through a variety of ways, including the upsurge of social networking websites. As more of these sites spring up, it’s important to have a presence in your industry’s social scene.

Know Your ABC’s

Oneupweb, a leading SEO/SEM firm published a 2005 study, finding that only 13 percent of Fortune 100 companies had well-optimized websites. Although this is up from three percent in 2002, the importance of search results positions necessitates much more work. Considering that most of us are not included in the Fortune 100 list and do not have the same brand recognition as those companies, solid SEO strategies are vital to our online enterprises. Understanding and exploring the basics of SEO while making a commitment to accessibility, content and networking will yield results of which you and your company can be proud.
 

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