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SEO Basics

Basics of search engine optimization

At my day job, we’re contacted every now and then by clients asking about search engine positioning and optimisation. Most of the time the client has been approached by an SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) consultant trying to talk them into paying lots of money for search engine optimisation. The SEO firms promise “guaranteed top results” and “submission to 500 000 search engines and directories”.

Many site owners are regularly contacted by scam companies of this kind, and it’s understandable that many take the bait and start paying for “top results and submission to everything”. After all, who doesn’t want their site to be highly ranked by search engines?

In an attempt to help a few people avoid paying for unnecessary search engine optimisation, I’d like to share what I have done to achieve very good search engine rankings, for this site as well as for clients’ sites.

First, just let me say that not all SEO consultants out there are scam artists – there are many reputable firms in the business. However, anyone promising “guaranteed top results”, “submission to 500 000 search engines and directories”, “instant results”, or “permanent top positions” is most likely a scammer. There is no way anyone can guarantee that your site is the number one result unless they actually control the search engine results, or if the top ranking is for a word or phrase that only exists on your site, of course.

What strikes me as I think through the steps I have taken to get good search engine rankings is how much SEO has in common with accessibility, usability, and high quality markup – the principles of web standards. That actually makes it even better: by making your site more accessible and usable for humans, and by using valid, semantic markup, you also make it more attractive to search engine robots.

Consider the guidelines I describe here a basic level of SEO – try this first, and if you’re still not getting the results you want, you may want to look into getting help from a reputable search engine optimisation firm. If you contact someone regarding optimising your site, ask them what they will do for your site. If they suggest any kinds of shady methods, be very careful. They might get you penalised or even banned from search engine indexes. On the other hand, if their advice includes what I’m suggesting here, they will probably do a good job.

There are no shortcuts

I’ll start with the bad news if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to get great results. There isn’t one. Instead, expect to do some hard work, especially when it comes to the content of your site.

You will also need patience. Results do not come overnight. If you’re working on improving the search engine positioning of a client’s site, you should probably explain this to them early on.

Write good content

This is probably the single most important thing you need to do if you want to be found on the web. Even if your site is technically perfect for search engine robots, it won’t do you any good unless you also fill it with good content. Yes, really!

Good content to me is text that is factually and grammatically correct, though that is not necessarily a must for all kinds of sites. Whatever your site is about, the content needs to be unique and/or specific enough to appeal to people. More specifically, it needs to be useful to the people you want to find your site.

Good content brings return visitors. Return visitors who like your content will eventually link to your site, and having lots of inbound links is great for search engine rankings, especially if those links are from highly ranked sites.

Closely related to good content is fresh content. By adding new content regularly, you give visitors a reason to come back. Search engine robots will also visit your site more often once they notice that you update regularly, which means that any new content you add will be indexed quicker.

When doing work for clients, creating quality content is rarely the responsibility of the web designer. Often, the client wants to write their own copy, which is fine if they’re good at it and keep adding new content. In my experience, that is rarely the case. If at all possible, try to make the client realise that they should hire someone to help them write, or at least get someone to help them edit what they have written. In either case, make it clear to them that they can’t expect consistent high rankings without good content.

Think about spelling

If you write in English, you are probably aware of the differences in spelling between American and British English. Colour vs. color, optimisation vs. optimization, etc. There are also many words that are commonly misspelled (this goes for all languages).

I don’t like the idea of intentionally misspelling words, since it goes against my definition of “good content”. If words with multiple spellings or commonly misspelled words are an important part of your content, i.e. keywords, consider adding a glossary or similar to include the most common spelling variations on the page.

Write descriptive page titles

By making your page titles simple, yet descriptive and relevant, you make it easier for search engines to know what each page is about, and people scanning through search results can quickly determine whether your document contains what they are looking for. The page title is also what is used to link to your site from search result listings.

Because of this, the title element is one of the most important elements on a page. Some argue that it is the most important element.

When it comes to the order of the text in the title element, I’ve found that the following works well:

Document title | Section name | Site or company name

Based on a discussion here a while ago, that is probably one of the best formats for accessible title texts. Again, accessibility and SEO work together.

Whatever you do, don’t use the same title text for all documents. Doing so will make it much harder for search engines, people browsing through search results, and site visitors to quickly find out what the document is about.

Use real headings

Use the h1 - h6 elements for headings. Using graphics for headings may let you use any typeface you want, but search engines aren’t going to pay much attention. Even if you (as is required) use the alt attribute to specify alternate text for heading images, that text will not be anywhere near as important as real text in a heading element. In my experience, this is true even if the images are inside heading elements. If you know otherwise, please tell.

If you cannot use real text, look at the various image or Flash replacement techniques that are available. Be aware that there may be a tiny risk involved in doing so. Since image replacement techniques involve hiding text, it is theoretically possible for search engines to penalise you. Currently that risk seems very slim, but don’t say I didn’t warn you if it does happen.

Use search engine friendly URLs

Avoid dynamically generated URLs that use a query string to let the server know which data to fetch from a database. Search engine robots may have difficulties with this kind of