SEO: An Introduction

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) refers to the process of adjusting a website’s structure and content with the intention of improving the site’s visibility in search engine results.

 

How Search Engines Operate

Search engines operate by utilizing specially designed programs called "crawlers" which search rapidly through webpages and extract details about the site's contents.  The information extracted by the crawlers is added to a storage area called an index, which the search engine accesses each time a user submits a search.  Each search engine has its own specialized algorithm which searches the index for the submitted search terms and determines which sites will be most likely to contain the information the user is looking for.  By optimizing a website's structure to match parameters in the search engine algorithm, a developer can increase the probability of having the site selected as a high-ranking result when a user submits a relevant search query.  By achieving a higher search ranking, more potential users will be drawn to the site and will be more likely to trust it.

 

Optimizing Website Structure

The ultimate goal with SEO is to design a website which will be fast and easy for a crawler to navigate, and which contains enough information to give the crawler a good idea of what the site contains.  There are many factors to consider in search engine optimization, with varying degrees of importance.  

The most important factor to account for when designing a website is the quality of the content.  Naturally, having real, helpful information on a site is much more beneficial to a user than having large quantities of useless or repeated information.  Low quality websites will draw fewer return visitors and will keep users engaged for smaller amounts of time.  Both of these negative effects are quantifiable and are in fact tracked by crawlers to determine which sites tend to giver users the best experience.

Keywords are important to include in your content to give the crawlers a good idea of what the site is about.  Keywords should include specific words which tell what is being talked about, as well as common industry terms or related phrases.  More success can be gained by including terms which users outside of the industry will be likely to use.  Terms like “Magnesium sulfate heptahydrate” are excellent and will tell the crawler exactly what your concert is about, but a user who is researching the topic or unfamiliar with the terminology may be more likely to search for “epsom salts.”  It is also important to note that “Keyword Stuffing” or the practice of jamming large amounts of keywords onto a page (visibly or invisibly) is not appreciated by search engines and will typically result in action being taken agains the site in the form of lower search rankings or, in serious cases, removal from the search results altogether.  

As far as the actual architecture of the site is concerned, the single most important factor is the HTML title tag.  Crawlers look for this specifically, and it will determine how a site gets indexed.  Title tags should accurately describe the contents of the webpage, using specific keywords.  An effective title tag will ensure that a user finds the site when they search for specific keywords.  

Meta tags don’t provide an actual boost in search rankings, but this is typically the content that appears as a snippet below the link to the site in the search results, so it should look good.  Like the title, it should contain several keywords and provide a clear overview of what will be found when the user clicks the link.

Frequent updates to content increases the quality of a website’s content, which has already been discussed as an important factor.  Staying recent will also provide direct search result rankings if a related search term or subject suddenly becomes more popular then average.  Many search engines will give a boost in the rankings to websites with the most recent information about a trending topic.  Here, care must be taken again to avoid meaningless updates or updates with little real value.  This will ultimately succeed only in decreasing the usefulness of the site, and therefore the quality. 

Since a crawl is performed very quickly, the most important information needs to be immediately available and visible.  Javascript and Flash can hide text from crawlers and may make it unclear what the page actually contains.  Whenever possible, avoid overcomplicating the content and keep it clean, simple, and informative. 

There are also ways of increasing crawler efficiency by restricting access to pages that are unnecessary for the crawler to read, or which have information unrelated to the content of the website.  Utilizing robots.txt files and 301 redirects when appropriate will make the crawl process more efficient, and will better reflect the content of the website.

Navigation in general is important the crawl process, as well as the user experience.  A website that is easy to navigate with few clicks will make a user feel more comfortable, and will allow a crawler to more easily reach each page that it needs to.  Including a sitemap is a good way to tell the crawler exactly where it needs to go, as well as helping users who may struggle with navigation.

Mobile device friendliness makes it more convenient for all users to access information on a site, and both Google and Bing will provide a slight boost to search rankings for sites that accommodate mobile users.

Adding alternate text to images is a small, yet effective way of telling a crawler what is included on a page, since it cannot see what an image actually contains.  

Descriptive urls of the form www.domain.com/vacations/2015/minnesota are much easier to understand than those like www.domain.com/2015/2344=?45h3lkjl&&-0100-1.  They make navigation easier for users and crawlers, as well as ensure that users are not discouraged by strange-looking urls which could give the impression of untrustworthiness.

Sites that load faster can slightly improve rankings, and also make users more comfortable and happier with results.  Waiting for a long time for a page to load can discourage users and they may look for answers elsewhere, which can actually negatively affect the site’s rank.

Many factors are listed above, and each should be considered in some way when designing a website.  As a general guideline, the site should simply be appealing, full of high quality content, and easy to navigate.  

 

How Links Affect Search Ranking

Search engines will also take into account many external factors which will help it to gain a better understanding of what the site contains, as well as how useful other people think it is.  Among these factors are the amount of time users spend on your site, whether or not they return to the search engine after a visit (supposedly because they did not find the information they were looking for), the location of the user, and the number of places across the web which link to the site.

The most important of these is the number of links to a website.  If a site is linked to many times, it shows that users value the information that the site contains.  But beyond simply amassing large quantities of links to the site, it is important where those links come from.  Links from blog posts, comments, and untrustworthy websites will not score as highly as links from other industry leaders or sites with good reputations.  

Crawlers can also look at the anchor text that is used inside a link to get a better clue about what the site actually contains, and what users think about it.  

Websites that provide users with a good experience and new, valuable information will be more often linked to than sites which simply answer a question.  Creating video tutorials, doing research which others might benefit from, providing open-source software, or offering a useful product or service for free are all methods for drawing new users as well as increasing the odds that they will link to the site and spread the word. 

Social media presence can give a site a boost as well.  Google will give a higher ranking to sites with more google+ activity, and if a website has a Facebook presence, it makes it easier for users to share the site with their friends.

 

Violations

Search engines are aware that people will try to manipulate their algorithms to gain higher search rankings.  To combat this, they have included measures to identify these attempts and will take action against them by reducing their search rankings or removing them from the index completely.  It is unlikely that an accidental violation will result in penalties, but care should still be taken to avoid any risk.

Low-quality content is a large determining factor in whether a site will be valuable to a user.  If a site contains low-quality, duplicated, or unoriginal content, it will be less likely to be included in search results.  The best way to avoid penalties for low-quality content is to make the website unique, and offer information that other sites do not. 

Cloaking refers to the act of creating fake sites or hiding content from the view of users to trick the search engine into thinking a site is more relevant than it is.  This is very frowned upon, and will result in major penalties. 

Keyword stuffing has been mentioned already as a bad idea.  It is easy to detect, and will result in lower search rankings.

A history of DMCA takedowns or piracy will hurt a site’s reputation and make it less likely to appear high in search results.

Overuse of advertising on a website is distracting, inconvenient for users, and difficult for crawlers to navigate.  Too much advertising will result in a lower search ranking.

Paid link schemes and link spamming are both serious offenses, and will result in severe penalties.  Both of these violations hinge on creating large numbers of links to a website to make it look more credible, and are taken very seriously by most search engines.  In most cases, evidence of these violations will result in removal from the search results.  

Summary

There are literally hundreds of ways to optimize a website for search engine results.  In fact, Google uses over 200 indicators to determine which sites will appear for a given search.  Search engine optimization is not a one-time project that can be completed in a weekend or scheduled for a day of work.  Building a website’s reputation and establishing a strong base of links takes time, and results may not appear for months.  Rather, SEO is an ongoing process, and one that should always be considered at all stages of website design.  Generally, though, if a site is full of high-quality, unique content, is easy to navigate, and provides something of value to a user, it will likely perform very well in search results and encourage users to return and share their discoveries with others.