Search Engine Optimization: A Primer

By Stephen Saugestad
September 15, 2009
SEO

SEO is an extremely popular topic with clients of any web design studio. And even more so with clients in the hospitality industry, as googling for hotels is a common way to find accommodations.

The following is an introduction to how Search Engine Optimization works.

For the most part, search engine optimization (SEO) tends to be something of a black box to many of you. I have some background in this practice, so I’ve fielded a lot of the same questions from many of our clients. I thought I would take this opportunity to write a little primer for you that you may find useful.

Anyone with some basic HTML skills can do some of the following work themselves. However it’s not something I recommend because it requires a significant investment in time, the right software and tools, up-to-date knowledge, and experience. Having an expert manage your SEO campaign is usually a better way of obtaining and maintaining search engine rankings – especially if you are in a competitive market. You can also do some serious damage to your hard earned rankings if you run afoul of any of the rules, which tend to change over time as search engines become smarter. If you have a very limited audience and operate in a small market (e.g. purple panda pants from Bolivia), then by all means follow these simple rules and you’ll be on your way to the top of the search engines.

The Basics

Google accounts for about ¾ of the search market, so for the most part we will focus on issues pertinent to them. However most search engines operate much in the same way, so anything good for Google will typically be good everywhere else.

Search engines rank websites according to a complex, mathematical algorithm only known to the search engine. This algorithm is updated on a periodic basis in order to deliver more accurate search results, and to combat the effect of those trying to unfairly manipulate their rakings. Those who engage in deceptive practices, and their tactics are commonly referred to as “black hat”. An example of this would be having content visible only to the search engine bots, or creating link farms to boost relevancy. Everything we do, and that of our partners would fall under the “white hat” designation, as we are very cognizant of the deleterious effect this may have on our client’s rankings.

Search engine algorithms are continuously tweaked by very smart people. And by “smart people”, I mean people much smarter than you and I. It’s much the same as investing money – there is no magic formula, and anyone who tells you otherwise is usually trying to make a quick buck. Basically it’s an elaborate cat and mouse game between the search engines and SEO practitioners.

A Google search result, broken down.

How to Rank Well

There are three main factors that affect search engine rankings – your title tags, content, and in-bound links. While they are occasionally referenced for descriptive purposes, your META tags do practically nothing to help you gain ground in search engine rankings. By all means have them, but don’t expect any miracles.

The title tag is arguably the most important tag on your web page. Traditionally it is given the most weight in determining rankings, in terms of on-page factors. Find out what keywords people are using, pick out the ones most relevant to your page, and put them in the title tag. Generally it’s a good idea to only focus on two sets of related search queries (e.g. hotels Vancouver, boutique hotels in Vancouver). Don’t repeat the same term more than once, and try to create as many combinations as you can following that rule using some filler (i.e. Vancouver Hotels – Boutique Hotels in Vancouver – Boutique).

a title tag, in xhtml code
the same title, in a browser window

Using the same keywords, write some content that is related to this topic. Make sure you have some instances of the keyword in the top, middle, and end of the copy as they are the areas the search engine bots will look. Make sure also that they are in your titles, using title tags (H1, H2, H3). Combined with your title tag, the bots will make an inference that the page they are crawling is about that topic.

heading 1 and heading 2 tags, in xhtml code
heading 1 and heading 2 tags, in a browser code
meta tags, in xhtml code

Now if you are in a competitive field, which most of you are, the aforementioned on-page factors will do little to give you a high search engine rank by itself. The on-page stuff makes a great foundation, but keep in mind that they are all relatively easy fixes, so assume that all your competitors will be doing the same.

Off-Page Criteria: In-Bound Links

In-bound linking is arguably the most crucial aspect of any successful search engine marketing campaign. We’re talking links, on other websites, linking back to yours. However, there are some caveats you should be aware of before you recklessly start stockpiling links.

As a general rule, it’s true that having more is better. However keep in mind that all links are not weighted equally. Links that originate from sites that are about the topic you are optimizing for will help you. The quality of the site is also a consideration – obtaining links from “authority sites” (considered to be an authority on the subject) will help you considerably. For example if you are a hotel, you would do well to be linked from a tourism bureau in your area, a travel blog with high circulation, or a respected travel publication.

Just to put this into proper context, having a thousand links from a crummy site will help you less than a single one from an authority site with a high PageRank.

PageRank

PageRank is a mathematical formula used by Google that calculates the importance of your web page. Pages are ranked on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Keep in mind however that this is on a logarithmic scale, as opposed to being incremental. Getting from a 3 to a 4 is not too difficult, while going from 8 to 9 is practically impossible.

When you are collecting in-bound links, take note of the PageRank. Getting a link from an “authority site” with high PageRank will go a long ways towards achieving a high search engine ranking. A 4 or 5 is average, and anything 6 or higher is very good. However obtaining a link from such a site can be very difficult, and many businesses pay third parties for such links.

More on PageRank here.

Link Text

One other factor to keep in mind here is the link text. Ideally you want the text linking to you to be as close as possible to your targeted search terms. Logically it makes perfect sense that a site receiving a link with certain keywords would be about that topic. Search engine bots also feel this is true. Therefore when you are linking to your site, make sure you use the keywords within that link (e.g. hotels in Vancouver).

Obtaining Links

Unfortunately most people who own authority sites with a high PageRank are well aware of the value their links can provide. Therefore it may be necessary in many cases to simply purchase a link. Search engines generally frown upon this kind of behavior because you are, in essence “gaming the system”. Unfortunately this is a very common tactic out there, and it may be justified in some instances to keep up with your competitors. Not recommended by me, of course.

The most effective way of obtaining links is to do some research, make a list of good sites, and contact them one by one by email. There is software out there that will do this for you, but the chances that someone will respond to an automated email is practically zero.

First, do some research on the site you want to be linked from, and write a personal email addressed to the appropriate party. Open your email with something you learned about the site, and reference an item you found to be interesting. Throw in a compliment or two. Find some similarities between your sites, and suggest a link swap while making clear to the owner that this is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Natural Linking

Another good way of earning in-bound links is to become an authority on the topic yourself, or develop a site that does the job and link from there. Start a blog on the topic, or write articles that tell people how to solve problems related to your field. People will naturally start linking to your content on their own with no intervention from you.

PPC

Pay-per-click can be useful for limited applications, or as a supplement to your organic search engine rankings. If you have something very focused that you are marketing for a limited timeframe, it can be much more cost effective to spend your money here. Just make sure you learn how to use the system and make the necessary adjustments to your campaigns. There are many hidden pitfalls in using PPC’s that novice users are not aware of and they can quickly eat up your budget. Consulting a professional search engine marketer is always a good idea, even for advice, to get you started.

Writing Content for the Web

In our studio, we are very adamant about the length of copy, and what is appropriate for the web. As a general rule, we follow the “shorter the better” mantra religiously.

The web is a relatively new medium, but it is having a profound effect on how we absorb information. The sheer volume of information available to us, and the speed at which it is updated has resulted in some unprecedented changes in the way we organize and absorb it.

The advent of the web and the proliferation of blogs have given voices to millions of people who would otherwise have no way of (potentially) reaching a wide audience. Thanks to the power of aggregators like Digg, anyone with a shoestring budget, a voice, and a bit of luck can suddenly find themselves in front of millions of people.

The net effect of being faced with so much information has made it necessary for people to adapt. People now have to filter and process information quicker and more efficiently. As a result, our attention spans are getting shorter, and aside from some limited applications (e.g. a long blog post about case law and complex legal strategies), websites have been forced to shorten the amount of copy to be processed by their audience.

The proliferation of the web, advent of Google, and sites like Wikipedia have made it possible for anyone to have instant access to volumes of information about any topic. This mean we no longer have to “store” this information in our heads. The foundation of knowledge available to us now is getting shallower as a result, and this is having a profound effect of the wiring of our brain. I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the biological and cognitive implications here, but essentially the internet is transforming the way we think and interact with information.

You can see the effect this is having even on other traditional mediums like newspapers – many of which now have “summaries” or “news at a glance” pages preceding the regular content areas.

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