An Introduction to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
Search Engine Optimisation or SEO involves ensuring that your website is highly visible on search engines. If your potential visitors Google for your business - either directly with your business name, or by search terms you think should lead to your website (e.g. "best restaurants near me"), and you do not show in the first page of results, then chances are they will not make it to your website. In fact if you are not in the top five results then 67% of visitors won't visit your website. So SEO is important.
However SEO has got a bad name recently, and for good reasons thanks to some Black hat SEO techniques which attempt to trick the search engines and which the search engines heavily penalise you for if caught implementing such techniques, so care must be taken. If you hire an SEO agency then it's important you understand exactly what methods they will use to improve your website's search presence.
SEO is primarily split into two categories:
- On page SEO: this concerns with what items you have direct control over and are often the easiest to address. It includes content of the page, technical aspects such as meta tags, performance, code quality..etc.
- Off page SEO: this concerns itself with items not directly under your control, such as links into your website, domain authority...etc. These can take time to build up.
How to set it up
It may seem difficult to know how to set up SEO effectively when Google and other search engines are very secretive about how their search engine actually works and, even if they weren't, they continually change how it works anyway. Well, the one thing that they have been consistently clear on in the few webmaster guidelines Google publish is that you should "Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines". They advise you to ask if you would "feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee". And say that "another useful test is to ask, 'Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?'".
These are entirely sensible ways of looking at it, and help take a lot of the mystery out of SEO. Now that's not to say there is not value in hiring SEO experts - there are many good companies out there that help companies improve their online presence, but, like any agency that you trust with your brand, you need to ensure you are comfortable with what they are doing with that trust and why. If they cannot, or will not, explain what they intend to do, or if you are uncomfortable with some of the techniques they intend to use then you will only have yourself to blame if it all goes horribly wrong.
Saying all that, some of the basics of SEO are easy to understand and implement and you may not need to hire outside experts to get these core pieces right. In fact Google even published their own search engine optimizaton starter guide. Although it is a bit old now, it is still worth a read and gives sensible suggestions, in line with their ethos of making pages primarily for the user. It gives tips and suggestions such as:
- Having clear titles and meta descriptions. These are key to SEO, and the first thing you should look at. It should be noted that the other meta tags such as keywords are pretty much understood to be almost completely ignored and not worth maintaining. Titles and meta data are given at the top of each page and give information which is shown in both the web browser window title and in the Google search results. The main meta data for this site is shown below, and you can right click and choose view source to see meta data for most web pages:
<title>An Introduction to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) : Tune the Web</title> <meta name="description" content="Learn the basics of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is and how you can make your website rank highly in search results by getting the basics right.">Titles should be unique, less than 60 characters long and not be generic ("Home Page" isn't very descriptive for example and should be replaced instead by information stating what the site is about). Descriptions should be 100 - 160 characters and will be used by Google and the like to give a description of your page so should be seen as an opportunity to entice visitors onto your website over others that may be returned at the same time.
- Have sensible URL names to your website pages with an organised and well thought out navigation structure.
- Have a sitemap for your website (or even two: one human readable HTML page for users and one XML version for search engines - one of the few exceptions where you should specifically create something for a search engine)
- Have useful content. Pretty obvious this one really!
- Use well structured HTML - ideally Semantic HTML.
- Mobile! A lot was made of the Mobilegeddon update to Google where Google, quick sensibly in my opinion, announced it would rank mobile-friendly websites higher for searches made on mobile. While this should in theory not affect desktop searches, that is a shrinking market and cutting out up to half your visitors is not really a great business tactic.
Searchengineland also published an article on The 8 Most Common But Simple Missed Opportunities In Optimizing Content which is well worth a read on how to get the basics of SEO right.
Setting aside, the content piece (which is entirely in your own court!), I firmly believe the more standards compliant and, well written, your website is, the more search engines favour your website. As well as being easier for them to crawl, it's also a sign of a quality website, which is a strong indication that the content should be of similar high quality. As well as SEO benefits, there are other benefits for both you and your users including maintainability, reduce chances of browsers rendering pages incorrectly, improves accessibility and is generally just good practice.
Other thing you can do to improve your search presence are to make the most of all the tools the search engines give you to feed back as much information as you can. Sign up for, and use, Webmaster Tools, look at all the other Google tools they provide (including Google maps as this data can be shown under company name searches to help your users) and consider implementing Structured Data.
If you follow these basic tips, you will have done 90% of the work to make your website rank well. An SEO expert will work on these items first, so you might as well make a good first start at these yourself. The remaining 10% will involve the harder work of keyword analysis and reviewing competitor sites that are ranking higher, building up your network, and then the expensive option of buying your users with online advertising.
Search engines are secretive about the magic algorithms that make their sites work. This is for more than a few good reasons including: the fact they don't want people to unfairly game the search engine results, that they are constantly changing and improving them and that, in all likelihood they couldn't tell you exactly what why your page ranks as it does! It's been said that Google use about 200 different factors to rank pages and manually understanding them and why your page ranks higher or lower than your competitors is not a trivial task. Saying that there are guidelines that websites should follow as discussed above. Additionally while Google may be the search engine that most SEO techniques and advice is aimed and tested on them, it's not a crazy assumption that all other search engines, from Bing to smaller fish like DuckDuckGoGo, either use very similar guidelines now or will be moving towards them. Though it's got to be said that Google, with their huge resources and dependency on search, are often the first to implement changes so don't expect to implement something like Structured Data and expect to see the supported on all search engines for some time.
The tools that search engines do give, including various Webmaster Tools, the Official Google Webmaster Central Blog and the Google Webmaster Support Forum are your best ways of understand how search engines work so you should definitely use them.
The most obvious downside of SEO is when it goes horrible, horrible wrong. "Black hat SEO" is the name given to any attempt to unfairly rig search engine results, and use of them can have devastating effects on your business when Google notices you engaging in those. SEO used to involve all sorts of tricks and hacks to make search engines think your website was worth ranking high in search results, even if it wasn't really worthy. In the early days of Google for example, it measured a site's worth by seeing how many other sites linked to that site, so lots of "SEO experts" set up pages and pages of useless sites with nothing but links to other sites. Google quickly caught on to this and released all sorts of updates with cute animal names like Penguin and Panda which, not only meant those sorts of techniques were not only not effective anymore, but they actually penalised you for attempting to rig their search results. This led to some sites traffic plummeting with a major impact on the business - many of whom (through naivety or a lack of care) were not aware that what they were doing was wrong.
The best way of avoiding being penalised for bad SEO techniques is, to repeat what is mentioned above, to design for users and not for search engines. And to bear Google's advice in mind: Would you "feel comfortable explaining what you've done... to a Google employee"? Any suggestions for content that is only intended for search engines should raise a huge red flag. These can include: hiding links on pages, creating pages just for search engines that have no real useful information for users, or creating artificial links. Most of these are easy for Google to pick up, and even if you use a dubious technique that they don't punish you for, you can bet they will do soon.
Search engines are the primary source of web traffic for most websites and so SEO is an important tool for website owners to consider. SEO has a mythical status to some people, but many of the techniques are obvious and are things you should be doing anyway. The most obvious way to rank, that is not discussed above, is to be the best resource for users! This is a chicken and egg situation but there's a reason that the huge websites rank highly - because users use them a lot. Whether it's wikipedia for general information, BBC for news or Amazon for shopping - these sites are seen by users (and hence by search engines) as authority sources and hence rank highly. How you can become a authority on a particular subject is a trickier subject - especially initially when you have no search ranking to begin with but it starts with content and getting your word out there. Since tunetheweb.com is a new website we'll see how we fair over the next while which will be one measure of whether you should bother with this advice :-)
Want to read more?
More resources on Search Engine Optimisation:
- Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.Last updated in 2010 (an age in internet time!) but still worth a read.
- Official Google Webmaster Central Blog. Also follow the Google Webmaster Twitter Account
- Moz.com - who regularly publish lots of SEO tips and tricks.
- Searchengineland.com - who publish lots of SEO news.
- How to Make Every Piece of Content SEO Friendly - very interesting article on how SEO has evolved to follow what users want, rather than tricks.
- The 8 Most Common But Simple Missed Opportunities In Optimizing Content - great article
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