How search engines work is part of their proprietary knowledge. The exact workings of their algorithms are closely guarded commercial secrets. However, guidance to how these algorithms (or algos) work can be found or deduced from various sources. Some general guidance is available free, directly from the search engines’ own web sites. Some guidance can be found from examining the various Google and related patents. However, real world applications of this knowledge can only be found by experimentation and trial and error.
There are some general rules. Applying them will provide a route to improved search engine visibility. The guidance in this section could be broadly applied to the three main engines – Google, Yahoo and MSN. However, given its dominance, much of the advice is derived from my interpretation of the Google “Hilltop” patent of 2001. The patent is believed by SEOs to have been the basis of the so-called Google “Florida” update of November 2003.
How Search Engines Gather Information:
Search engines gather information by crawling web sites. They crawl from page to page visiting sites already known and by following the links that they find. Whilst crawling, the robots, or spiders, gather information from the source code of each site and then send back that information for indexing. The Spiders were designed to read HTML code or code related to it such as XHTML or PHP. The Spiders find it difficult to read pages written in Flash and some other popular web programs. Spiders cannot directly read Java Script or images. They can however read the alt tags which may be provided with GIF, JPEG or PNG images.
SEO 1 – The Pre-Site Phase:
Search engine optimization is a marketing discipline. It is not a standalone function. Before any specific optimization activity is undertaken it is essential that two areas are non-search areas are appraised:
Understanding your Organisation’s Online Business Strategy
Good SEO requires a thorough understanding of your organisation’s overall business strategy. How does search fit in with activities such as advertising, e-mail and direct marketing? Is there a marketing plan? What does it say about objectives, strategy and budgets? What is the overall direction of the business and what can search contribute?
Researching your Market Category, Customers and Competitors:
Good SEO also requires a thorough understanding of the market category within which the search project and web site will compete. What is the category size and how is it developing. What other channels to market are there? What information is available regarding their behaviour and attitude of customers? What role in the buying process is played by the search marketing? Who are current and likely competitors? Once the above is fully grasped you can proceed to the first real activity of SEO; Keyword selection.
Keyword Selection – Factors
Keyword selection is the first search specific discipline. Having explained that spiders read and index text, we find that some text is more important than others. That text is keywords. Valuable keywords are the words or phrases that prospective customers use when searching in your market category. Keyword selection is therefore crucial and has implications for so much else within search. I have drawn up a list of factors that should be taken into account when selecting keywords.
The first thing to remember is that the number of keywords you can use on any one site or page has a finite limit. A general recommendation is that there is an overall limit of 20 individual words. In my opinion – due to other factors – the limit should be drawn much tighter than this. Rather than a limit of words, I prefer, a limit of characters – including spaces – of no more than 64. In essence, you must be sufficiently focused to sum up the key priorities of your business within this limit – typically no more than 6 to 8 words. The only way around this limit is to have an endless number of pages on an endless number of sites – all optimised, monitored and updated on a regular basis.
You should use a word or phrases that have sufficient search volumes for your needs. You can find out about search volumes by checking with Word Tracker software or keyword suggestion tools.
A place to look for keywords is where you enjoy some competitive advantage. How are your products or services differentiated? What are the real strengths of your business compared to your closest competitors? What proprietary advantages do you enjoy? What is it you do better that may persuade prospective purchasers to visit your site?
You may have decided on your own keyword priorities but you must also check out the competition for those keywords. Selecting a word or phrase already prioritised by a multitude of competitive sites will see you struggle for visibility. Try to find words or phrases that appear ignored or underutilised by your competitors. An alternative but higher risk approach is to see what keywords are used by competitor sites and then attempt to outmanoeuvre them by better use of links, content and meta tags.
The keyword terms you select must be relevant, salient and part of the vocabulary used by the audience you are seeking to attract. If that audience is a consumer one it is unlikely to use jargon. The opposite may be true if you are seeking B2B prospects. My experience suggests that consumers will often use entirely different vocabulary from marketing, advertising and IT people. To avoid confusion use simpler but more specific terms.
Making your keyword choice
In essence, you must synthesise all of the above five factors in selecting and refining your keywords. Ignoring any one of the factors could create problems. Do not rush into this process. Test out your keywords by making trial searches on the major engines and see what company results you might keep. Getting it wrong may involve a large amount of reworking.
SEO 2 – The On-Site Phase:
Writing Meta Tags
There is much debate about the current value of meta tags. I still find them very effective – both as an end in themselves and also as a guide to producing better and more search friendly content. Although Google apparently ignore their contents, MSN and Yahoo both still utilise the site title and description meta tags in their search algorithms. Meta tags are so called because they sit above the site – in the “Head” section – and are not visible to the casual site visitor. The meta tags can be found between the lines of HTML code, as the description suggests, at the top of the page.
Content is deemed to be increasingly important by many in the SEO field. This is apparently because with all the spamming and other optimisation techniques becoming increasingly sophisticated, only content can give the search engines a true indication of a site’s content. There are some general rules, amongst them is the more copy the better – aim for 250 words. Secondly look to use the keywords in two or three word phrases.
Where should content with keywords be located? High up on the first page is the general rule. Certainly get keywords into the opening sentence or paragraph. The latest MSN engine picks out and uses a selection of text from the opening paragraph in their site description. This implies that the MSN algorithm is placing additional emphasis on this text. Keywords should then be spread throughout the first page and the rest of the site.
Keywords and their surrounding copy should be relevant to one another. Certain words and combinations of words go together and the search engine algorithms know this. So advertising goes with marketing. Food with drink. Photographs with film. Also derivative words with different utilisation go well. So market and marketed with marketing etc.
There is much debate about density. Too little and the keyword or phrase won’t be picked up. Too much and your site may fail the spamming test. Some SEOs suggest repeating keywords no more than 7 times on any one page. Density is always measured in relative terms. A page with a lot of copy will have more word repetition than one with few words.
Text within title tags has a greater weighting than ordinary copy. Within HTML code titles are marked up,etc. Therefore whenever a paragraph title is used it is wise to use a keyword or keyword phrase
Search engines can read the alt tags that accompany JPEG, and GIF images. Every relevant image should have an alt tag and this tag should be written to comply with your keyword objectives. The text in an alt tag is believed to be given additional weight.
Bold and Cursive Script
Both bold and cursive script are given extra emphasis by the search engines. A subtle use of bold or cursive script, when using a keyword, will enhance its presence.
Inbound links are important for two reasons. Firstly, their content is highlighted with a hyperlink and this is given special emphasis by the search engines and secondly it is a way of ensuring the engines can navigate and deep crawl into a site.
Outbound Links (Forward)
These are apparently growing in influence as the engines realise that inbound links (IBLs – see below) are being widely spammed. Rather link internal links, external links provide the opportunity to include keywords in the hyperlink text.
Engines respond positively to site maps especially on larger sites with several levels. The site map is also a useful way of aiding the navigation of a spider for deep crawl purposes.
Engines apparently respond positively to a degree of content change – this is why some blogs appear high in the rankings. Apparently, Google responds positively towards “fresh” web sites and negatively towards “stale” web sites. If content has changed between crawling cycles it signals to the spider to return again at more frequent intervals.
Business Address and Telephone Number
It is believed that engines give an additional weighting to sites that carry an address and telephone number. In many categories there are a large number of searches made using a national discriminator in the search term, so include your country in the address.
Technical Issues – Site Design and Construction
This section is about avoiding the technical mistakes or pitfalls that may hamper search engine visibility.
As has been explained previously, search engines were originally designed to read via HTML code or code related to it such as XHTML and PHP.
Other File Formats
As at May 2005, Google claims that it is able to read 13 different file types apart from HTML. The most common non-HTML formats are PDF and MS Office files. From my experience documents in these two formats can all rank highly. I do, however, have reservations about some of the other formats and, as mentioned above, particularly Flash.
Frames cannot be read by the major engines. So in terms of search they are an absolute no. To find out if your site is utilising frames carry out the cache test on Google.
Do not make your opening page too large. Even if an engine can read your site many internet users are still on a dial up connection.
CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheet. It is a way of compressing HTML code, allowing a site to load faster and, in the SEO context, improves the density and priority of keywords.
SEO 3 – The Off-Site Phase:
The off-site phase deals primarily with inbound link building. Amongst the major engines Google places the greatest emphasis on links. The relevance and quality of these links has a significant influence on the ranking of your site in all of the major engines. The search engine algorithm interprets each inbound link as a “vote” for a site. Not all links are equal and therefore the quality of the vote is important in determining the value of the vote.
SEO 4 The Post-Site Phase:
Managing and responding to search marketing feedback
Search engine optimisation is a continuous process. Having completed phases 1 to 3 your site it should start to behave positively in the rankings. It is important that you measure the performance of your web site against the keywords you have targeted. Has the site actually risen in the rankings? If so, how far? Is ranking performance satisfactory against all targeted keywords and phrases or against just one or two? Has the improvement in rankings led to an increase in site traffic and business? How have your competitors reacted? Do they appear aware that you have optimised your site? Has anything changed on their sites to suggest they are responding? SEO is a competitive business so you should anticipate a response to any ranking progress you achieve.
Log files are where the records of web site activity are kept. They reveal what domains have visited the site and what pages have been accessed. The log files should be used as a check for any search activity. A regular check may reveal some useful information.
Pay Per Click
Creating and managing a pay per click campaign will generate lots of valuable data about your specific search category and the terms you use. Given the current arrangements in the pay per click market you will gather feedback about how your site and keywords perform across the Google, Yahoo and MSN networks and a few others as well.
The SEO Cycle
Concluding Phase 4 of SEO for ultimately leads you back to Phase 1. The process is essentially cyclical. The next time however, you will tackle phases 1, 2 and 3 with significantly more knowledge and experience.