Search Engine Optimization: Ten SEO Fundamentals

Research and read the thousands of articles related to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and you will discover most agree on simple, standard techniques that are fundamental to proper SEO. Basic techniques that assist search engines in collecting and categorizing information about your website. These are the practical, long-term optimization strategies that should be part of any modern web development effort - so your site has a solid SEO foundation from the start.

Now I'm sure a collective groan just erupted - everyone understands this - but what most are interested in is how to control it...how do you manipulate the search engines? After all, that's what you're looking for right? How do you go from a nobody to a somebody overnight - from page thirty on google to page one! What's the secret?

Well, I'll be honest - I don't know. Yup, I admitted the ugly truth... there's no secret formula. Do you know why? Because Google and other search engines pay very, very smart people lots and lots of money to continually tweak, refine, and improve their search engines to counteract and/or penalize underhanded SEO techniques that are intended to manipulate their results. So as quickly as "gray techniques" are discovered, they're curtailed by the search engines. And very often with disastrous results for those sites which have implemented them.  Google has some very good advice on what to consider when evaluating SEO professionals.

I'm sorry, but this is the ugly truth the SEO scoundrels won't tell you. Don't get me wrong, quality SEO companies won't promise outlandish results overnight - instead they'll develop and implement sound strategies that cater to and engage search engines. And you'll find they implement many of the fundamental SEO techniques listed below.

Think like a human.

Think like a human that's performing a search. This is what modern search engines do: they analyze your site's text and underlying html components (collectively known as the content) and catalog and rate it accordingly. And when a search request is made, the engine returns results that match most closely and that are most relevant to the search term, or more likely, search phrase that was input. It's really that elementary.

So make sure you have content on your site that's relative to your business, product, or service. Think what people will type into a search engine to find you - or more likely your type of product or service. Think about if you were looking for a shampoo for your cat - if you already knew the brand, you'd type this in and get a listing of results. So do I have to mention, on your site, make sure you mention your product or company name, repeatedly. But what if you didn't know the product? What would you type? "What's the best cat shampoo." "Top cat shampoo." "Safest cat shampoo." Ah, this is the search engine optimization sweet spot. You want to have content on your site that includes these terms and phrases - and the more the better. But don't be fooled by the notion that quantity is everything - quality counts. Modern search engines recognize and reward good, human-like writing.

So what are the ten SEO fundamentals?

The basics to search optimization can be easy to implement. The hard part comes in creating quality content that's relevant to your potential customers - those searching for your products or services. But the discussion regarding content is best left for a later article.

1. Page Title Tags

The small text located in the top browser bar, which in Internet Explorer is the top blue bar, has become increasing important. This tag can be used to associate keywords and phrases with your page content, and today most search engines use the page title as the link displayed during results. Creating compelling, understandable page titles can help to increase clicks when your title is displayed among assorted results. One thing to avoid: starting your page titles with your company name. This was common practice several years back - but as search engines have gotten smarter and the page title has increased in importance, this has become a negative, as words and phrases at the start of a page title carry more weight. We generally recommend that the company name be appended to the end of the page title unless it makes sense to include it earlier (i.e., about Nuvonium or Nuvonium services). Further, search engines often limit their evaluation of title tags to 60 characters - so it's best to keep relevant words and phrases at the start.

2. Meta Keywords and Meta Description

Most search engines have demoted the importance of meta keywords, which are found in the html head structure which is readable if you view your page source. However, this doesn't mean they should be excluded or skipped. While they may appear at the bottom of search engine algorithms they still count a bit. Therefore be sure to include meta keywords, but tailor them according to the page content. The use of keywords that reflect or repeat key phrases that appear in your title and within your page content can help to build a relationship between those words and phrases and your content. But don't overdo it. Keyword stuffing, repeating the same words and phrases, is a definite no-no. Most search engines will get the point after a few occurrences and penalize you for blatant repetition.

The meta description is also found in the html head area source code, but it's value has increased recently, since it's often used as the descriptive text displayed under search engine results. Hence, tailoring your meta description so that it describes your page's content can increase click-through rates - and again, it provides another opportunity to relate keywords and phrases to your page's content. Further, Google often analyzes this description as a measure of duplicate content: If you subscribe to Google's Webmaster Tools and take advantage of their site map feature, Google will indicate duplicate page titles and page descriptions - situations you should correct.

3. Make use of the <h1> through <h6> html tags

Search engines evaluate pages similar to humans, in that they scan for headlines, and these are designated in html by using the <h1> through <h6> tags. It's a good idea to incorporate these standard html "heading" tags and wrap relevant, but human readable phrases in them. You'll notice, if you view the source of this page, that the headings are wrapped accordingly in the <h1> through <h6> tags. You don't have to use all of them, but you will benefit if you use some headings - both from a readership and search engine perspective.

4. Wrap keywords and phrases in <b></b> tags.

The bold html tag <b></b> can carry some weight with search engines, and if you wrap key phrases to make them bold, this can help point out these phrases to both users and the search spiders. Don't be heavy-handed. Again, you need only apply this a few times - though we generally weigh the benefit of this practice against the annoyance it might cause the reader. Randomly bolded phrases can interrupt the flow of copy, so we're cautious with this one.

5. Title your links intelligently so they're friendly

When creating a link to a page within your own site or when linking to another site, it's important to make the link legible and descriptive. That is, avoid the generic phrases of "click here" and instead make normal or key phrases the link. So instead of using "click here" to learn more about Nuvonium - "learn more about Nuvonium" should be the link. Also, search engines often evaluate the text around links as part of their process. In addition, the simple text link can now be augmented with more information in the form of the "title" tag.

6. Use alt tags on your images

Since search spiders can't evaluate text displayed in an image it's considered good form to include the alt and title tags on all images. Not only does this provide the search engines with a description for the image - it also makes your site more user friendly, especially for the visually impaired. Another good policy to follow with images is to make the file name descriptive and include keywords and phrases if possible. 

7. Create a site map for humans and search engines

Providing a site map is useful for your visitors, both human and search spiders. The site map should include easily read, descriptive phrases for all pages in your site, usually in hierarchal list form. These phrases will be hyperlinks to their respective pages. Search spiders will follow these links and relate the phrases to your page's content. We should point out that this human-oriented site map shouldn't be confused with, nor replace the type of site map we referred to in item #2 when we described Google's XML site map. This type of site map should be utilized as well.

8. Relevant, quality inbound links

This is one of the toughest challenges and oft sought-after remedies requested of SEO professionals - building your amount of quality incoming links. In the early days, simply having tons of inbound links sufficed, but as search engines got smarter, they began to evaluate the quality of these inbound links. And today, the source of inbound links are weighted - not only on the incoming link's site reputation but also on whether the referring site is related and relevant to your product, business, or industry. Search engines even evaluate the server and ip address space of a source site. They can determine if the referring site is on the same server or within the same ip address space, demoting the value of the link accordingly.  It's truly an intelligent system today.

Therefore, you need to build incoming links carefully and concentrate on obtaining links from reputable and relevant sources - otherwise your inbound links will be essentially useless. A good source of incoming links is to author guest articles or posts on industry-specific blogs or online magazines. Or post for forums which are industry related - some allow posting back links within your forum posts, while most provide a URL link within your forum signature. And of course, there's always social networking sites, such as MySpace.com or FaceBook.com or social aggregator sites such as Digg.com or Reddit.com. For example, in our industry, DesignFloat.com is a good site. While the social media sites are difficult to gain reputation from, they obviously can increase traffic to your site if your content is found to be relevant and useful by their readers.

9. Create good content and keep it fresh

It can't be said enough: Content is king. All search engines want to tailor search results so that they're relevant to the search terms or phrase - but moreover, they want to direct search users to content that is useful. This is why search engines spend millions to continually update their algorithms and search intelligence. Modern spiders parse page text and page formatting, evaluating it's context and relevancy, and rating it based on semantics and today's lexica. The days of counting keywords in a page are long gone - the intelligence built into a search spider and search engine algorithm is exceedingly complex.

It's why content still rules, perhaps even more so today. Well written copy and lot's of it, provided it relates to your business, product, or industry, is invaluable. We always suggest a news or press release section be included in a site. Even if your press releases aren't actually released to news sources, frequent updates to this section will keep your site content fresh and will keep the search engines coming back more frequently. Adding articles, white papers, and case studies are also excellent methods for generating content that's both relevant and extensive. Just be sure to follow the above guidelines, keep title tags and meta descriptions distinct, and incorporate <h1> through <h6> tags

Add a blog to your site. Blogs offer a great opportunity to generate quick relevant content and provide an option for providing user feedback. Of course, user input can be problematic. If you decide to incorporate a blog, you'll need to consider if you wish to host the blog on your own server or if you want to take advantage of the many hosted blogging solutions. The latter can offer the benefit of keeping your blog in a separate IP address space, allowing it to help your site rank should the blog become popular and gain a positive reputation.

And of course, you can add a forum to your site. However, be very cautious with a forum. If you don't have staff dedicated to managing and monitoring a forum, it can quickly become a repository for crappy advertising posts. Not to mention, forums are generally meant to provide open discourse on subjects, so if you offer a forum on your site related to your company or product, you'll need to resist the temptation to edit the bad and leave only the good, or you'll quickly find your user base leaving you for less censored forums. And of course, a forum with no user participation isn't very useful at all, so make sure before you add a forum you actually have a group that wants to talk about your product, business, or industry.

Whichever tactic you decide upon to add content to your site, or if you incorporate them all, the most important thing you can do is to keep your content fresh. Make sure you add news snippets, or post articles, or make blog posts, etc. Otherwise, visitors to your site will see your content is old, and both humans and search spiders will visit less frequently or simply stop coming. Keeping content fresh will be the biggest challenge for most businesses, since generating content can be time-consuming and difficult. Of course, the web can be a resource for this - you can find services that will generate content for you; just be careful to evaluate this content – make sure it's well written and relevant to your audience.

10. Submit your site to search engines and directories

This seems rudimentary, but on occasion it's overlooked. When you bring a new site online, be sure to submit it to the major search engines. Each provides a page for submitting new URLs for free. And concentrate on the big guns - services which promise to submit your site to 50 or more search engines are a waste of effort and money. Get listed in major search engines and the smaller guys will find you.

In addition to submitting your site to search engines, you should also look to submit it to human edited directory projects. These directories catalog and list sites based upon categories. And rather than being found dynamically, you have to submit your site, generally under strict guidelines. Your submission is then reviewed by an actual human and if your site merits inclusion, you get listed. These directories can be beneficial, as they're looked upon favorably by search engines since they're edited by humans. Therefore, obtaining a listing can improve your site ranking and keep your site visited more frequently. A few to consider are DMOZ.org, and Yahoo Directory. And while we're considering options to search engines, be sure to examine your industry: Often you'll find directories or sites specific to your business type, or large compendiums such as the Thomas Register; though these may require paid listings.

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