How to Get Found - SEO Principles

You've got a shiny new domain and a state of the art server, now it's time to put the word out.

Making your site easy to navigate for viewers is important. If you want them to stick around, your site's got to be easy to figure out. Making your site easy to navigate for search engines is just as important though, if you want people to find you in the first place!

Google Logo

I don't have to sell you on the importance of the search engine or its critical role in the internet. Spend about 30 seconds imagining how you would find anything on the internet without search engines. Now consider how many people use Google to reach a web site even when they already know the URL. And how often do you shop for something online by searching for the product on Google first?

SEO, or search engine optimization is a general term for steps we'll want to take to make our web site more visible and accessible to search engines. SEO is part of the broader topic that is internet marketing.

Google is by far the largest search engine in use today so I'll primarily address them, but most search engines work very similarly. You can safely assume that most things you do to make your web site Google-friendly will also make it Bing-friendly, Yahoo-friendly, etc.

How Search Engines Work

When you actually think about it, the jargon is pretty corny. Search engines work by "crawling" the web using automated "spiders" (also called "bots"). Get it? Web? Bots are scripts that download, read, and catalog all of the content on the internet. They follow links to jump from site to site, and run through domain names like dictionaries.

My portfolio web site has had almost 30,000 "pageviews" from search engine crawlers in the last 3 years.

Searching Google happens almost instantly, but every single search queries massive databases of information to find you the most relevant results.

If you think this requires an absolutely immense amount of processing power and computer storage, you're right.

Here are some interesting statistics on Google's energy usage. There's also a link to learn more about Google's energy management practices.

What Are The Spiders Looking For?

Dozens of things, in fact. Here are some of the criteria you should include in your site to make it better found.

URL

Even though its short, the domain name of your web site is one of the single biggest factors in determining what your web site is about.

Title

Along the same lines, the <title> tag in the head of your HTML file is very important.

Keywords and Meta Tags

We've only talked about the charset meta tag, for telling the browser what character set we're using. There are actually several other meta tags which search engines look for. Some of them include keywords, description, and author.

Actual Content

This should go without saying, but the actual content on your pages is very important. Are the keywords in your meta tags mentioned on your pages? What other words appear frequently? Headings are weighted more than body text.

Site Structure

All of those semantic tags we talked about help Google understand the structure of your pages. Google can often pull the author, date, and other information about an article effectively if it's located in your <header> or <footer> tags. They can also more effectively map out your site by looking at your <nav> content. Also, structured data is gaining a lot of traction with HTML5.

Inbound Links

Google rates the credibility and relevance of your site largely by how many inbound links you have. In other words, how many other web sites consider yours relevant, or a good resource, by linking to you? This is considered especially credible to Google, since you rarely have control over who links to your web site. Other web sites also have very little to gain in their own search rank by linking to yours, meaning a link is usually an honest credit.

Dates

Google periodically returns to your site to check if anything has changed. Web sites that are updated more frequently about a given topic get bumped up in search results. Things happen much more quickly in the internet age, but even if you went to the library to look something up, you probably wouldn't dig out a 1974 World Book Encyclopedia.

Advertising

This is an easy one, but if you've got the money to spend, Google has sponsored links at the top of its search results that businesses can pay for. They are very expensive.

All of these things will help your ranking with search engines, but what about things that can hurt your rank?

Black Hat SEO

Black Hat SEO is refers to disingenuous methods that artificially boost your search rankings. You should never use any of these techniques, because they will ultimately hurt your standing significantly in rankings!

Keyword Stuffing

Be sure that the keywords you use on your site are genuinely relevant to your content, and don't use too many. It's better to be concise than to reach for terms that are only vaguely related to your content.

Craigslist is very susceptible to keyword stuffing.

Invisible Text

Some web sites have been known to hide extra text and keywords on their pages, using CSS to position it off the screen where users will never see it.

While this is necessary and fine for many web site designs, Google does not index any content on your pages that initially loads with display:none.

Doorway Pages

Doorway pages are a technique that involves heavily tagging pages for individual keywords, and using those pages to funnel users to the same destination. This is a frustrating practice for web site viewers and so Google frowns upon using it.

Case in Point: JCPenney

If you did any holiday shopping online in 2010, you may have noticed something very peculiar.

If you searched for "dresses" on Google, JCPenney was the top hit. "Bedding" returned JCPenney first, along with "home decor", "area rugs" and "skinny jeans". JCPenney even appeared above Samsonite in searches for "Samsonite carry on luggage".

JCPenney hired a company called SearchDex to handle it's online marketing and SEO, and they decided to try something different.

SearchDex planted thousands of inbound links to JCPenney's homepage on hundreds other web sites that it managed. Most of these web sites were abandoned, out of date, and irrelevant. But with enough links, and since Google rates inbound links with a high degree of credibility and relevancy, SearchDex effectively cheated JCPenney to the top of many Google searches.

This went on for several months until a New York Times article blew the whistle. It's a really interesting read about SEO tactics and online advertising. You can also read shorter summaries here and here.

When Google ultimately responded to these reports, JCPenney was effectively buried several pages deep in search results within a matter of hours.

Resources

While very few people are privy to exactly how Google's search algorithm works, they do want us to know how to optimize for it. After all, helping web sites optimize for Google makes their search results more relevant, and motivates more people to use Google and its services.

Google has several resources and tools to help us optimize our sites for what they're looking for. Collectively they're called Google Webmaster Tools and they're completely free to use!

These tools also include Google Analytics, a very powerful and free method for measuring who is visiting your web site and how they found you (along with many, many other things).

You should spend some time on Google's webmaster tools, but rather than all of us signing up right now, I'll show you a few of the features through my account.