Are you one of the thousands of people who has no idea what search engine optimization is?
Or maybe you’re like most people who know just enough to be dangerous.
In either case, don’t feel bad; you’re in good company. In fact, there were even times when I fell into each of those categories.
Whether you’re planning to learn about search engine optimization so you can optimize your own website, or you just want to learn enough so that you can make an informed decision when you hire a search engine optimization company, by the end of this article you’ll have an above-average level of knowledge on the subject.
I’ll share the basics of search engine optimization, some of the common myths and even the tools that are worth investing in and which ones are a waste of money and time.
What is exactly is search engine optimization?
Simply put, search engine optimization is a collection of activities that seek to improve a website’s ranking for particular keyword phrases. At its foundation, this is made up of on-site and off-site factors.
Pretty simple so far, right?
Well, it gets a lot more complicated real quickly.
The on-site aspect of search engine optimization is rather simple, relatively speaking.
It consists primarily of:
- Unique and effective title tags. Ideally each page should have a unique title tag that is short and memorable. Most search engines can index a title tag over 1,000 characters, but will only display about 65 characters in the search results.
- Unique content added on a regular basis. The more unique content your website has, the better it will perform, and if you can add multimedia, such as video or audio, you can usually expect even better results.
- Fast-loading pages. Google has already admitted that the speed of your website is a factor in how well it ranks, but think of your visitors too – they’re more likely to spend more time on your website if the pages load more quickly.
- Original content that keeps visitors on your website longer. It’s speculated that the amount of time a visitor spends on your site has an impact on your ranking because it indicates the quality, or lack of quality in your content.
- Descriptive and relevant image names and alt tags. Images help draw in people with shorter attention spans, which is most everyone on the Internet these days. Relevant file names and alt tags help the search engines understand what the images are about since they can’t identify the contents on there own.
Off-site search engine optimization is where it starts to get complicated.
The search engines are mostly looking at links pointing to your website and citations about your website, though the latter carries far less weight. It’s not as simple as just getting more links than the next guy though, because there is an algorithm that analyzes your link profile, looking into every data point you can imagine, and then some, for example:
- Anchor text. The clickable portion of the link (for example: widgets) is the anchor text, and it plays a large role in the value that the search engines place on that link as it relates to that particular keyword phrase.
- Rate of link acquisition. Link building (also known as link marketing) isn’t based only on the volume of links attained. The major search engines also consider historical growth. If you’re website used to get a few links each month, but then suddenly starts getting hundreds of links in large bursts, followed by periods of no new links, the search engines will quickly be able to tell that something shady is going on, and those links will have far less impact. It may also raise red flags that could cause a manual review and get your website penalized.
- Quality of links. One good link from a trusted website is almost always going to have more impact on your ranking that hundreds of links from questionable article directories.
- Link decay. Over time, some of your links will disappear. Websites may get shut down, editors may remove links and pages may be deleted, all of which result in your website losing a valuable backlink. Another form of link decay is when you spam links where they don’t belong, such as blog comments, forums and social networks to name a few. Some link decay is to be expected, but massive link decay is a sure sign to the search engines that you’re engaging in questionable link building techniques, as with the rate of link acquisition, this could raise red flags and cause a manual review that gets your website penalized.
- Citations can sometimes have the same effect as links. For example, if CNN mentions your company by name, that is a sign of trust from a reputable website. Even without the actual link, this can improve your TrustRank and thus, your organic ranking.
I could probably write an entire book on SEO myths, but we’ll keep it short here.
- Buying AdWords has a positive influence on organic ranking. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you think that Google or any other search engine is going to alter their organic results just because you spend a few hundred dollars per month, I’d like to talk to you about a bridge I have for sale.
- Linking to the search engines helps your ranking. Nope. Not one iota. The search engines already have plenty of exposure and a link from your website isn’t going to motivate them to rank your website any higher.
- Trading links is a great way to improve ranking. Maybe if this was 1995, but the practice of reciprocal linking has been dead for over a decade now.
- Optimizing meta tags is important for SEO. Meta tags were once used to tell search engines what a particular web page was about. Then they got abused so the search engines moved on to other, more effective ways to determine what a web page was about. The meta keyword tag has absolutely no value at all. The meta description tag still has value, but not from a ranking perspective. Instead, it’s used to provide a short description to potential visitors as they scan the search results.
- Repeating a keyword phrase improves ranking. This is yet another outdated technique that just won’t die. There once was a time when repeating a keyword phrase over and over (called keyword stuffing) would help get you a higher ranking. Those days, thankfully, are long gone. When you write web copy, write the same way you would write an article if search engines didn’t exist.
Tools and resources
In my opinion, most of the “so-called” SEO software is worthless. If a piece of software claims to tell you how to
- optimize keyword density
- optimize title, keyword, description, heading or alt tags
- build reciprocal link partners
then you should avoid it like the plague. If you simply write for your visitors, not the search engines, code your HTML properly (W3C valid) and keep your text to code ratio low, you’ll already be far ahead of most websites in terms of on-site search engine optimization.
And don’t waste your time building reciprocal link partners – that ship has long since sailed. It was a technique that worked about ten years ago but has little to no effect today. Instead, focus on link bait and guest posting.
So what tools and resources are worthwhile?
Well, you’ll need a solid SEO foundation to work from, so following the SEOBook and SEOMoz blogs is a great place to start. Both offer some of the most up to date information on the world of search engine optimization.
One thing you’ll want to check for and fix right away are any broken links on your website, and the best tool for that is Xenu’s Link Sleuth, which is 100% free.
You’ll want to be sure that the content you write for your website is something that visitors are actually looking for, so you’ll need to do some keyword research. A few great tools for this are Google’s keyword tool, and Wordtracker. Another option is to look for the keywords that competing websites are ranking for using SEMRush.
Next, you’ll need to track your results. Here at Wildfire, two of the tools we use everyday are Google Analytics and Aaron Wall’s Firefox Rank Checker plugin. You can also do a pretty good job of tracking your inbound links using Open Site Explorer from SEOMoz, although it’s data isn’t quite as complete as the now deceased Yahoo! Site Explorer used to be, it’s still an incredibly valuable tool that is constantly growing and improving. Majestic SEO is another great tool for tracking your inbound links.
Share your thoughts in the comments below, and if you’ve found this article to be useful, please share it or link to it :)