Good SEO

Paul Boag wrote a post at his site Boagworld asking a number of questions about SEO. I started writing a comment at his blog, but it quickly grew to become longer than his post and the questions and comments that he had about SEO, so I decided to post my response here.

In Paul’s post, Why I don’t get SEO, he came up with five reasons why he had doubts about SEO. My response doesn’t address his concerns in the order that he asked them, and it touches upon some of the comments written by others as well. If you have questions or concerns about SEO that aren’t addressed in this response, please feel free to ask them in the comments below.

What is Good SEO?

Good SEO is not “cheating the system,” or “manipulating search results.” Good SEO is part of a marketing plan that makes it more likely that the good content you create will be found by people who might be interested in what your web site has to offer.

SEO should begin with an identification of the objectives behind a site and the audiences the site was created for, an understanding of the best way to present information for those audience members and allow them to complete tasks that they may have arrived at the site to fulfill, and research regarding the words and phrases that they might use to find that site and expect to see on its pages.

SEO consultation can include suggestions for improvement of information architecture, HTML coding, avoidance of approaches that may keep search engine crawling programs from indexing content that a site owner might want indexed, keyword research, competitive analysis of others within the same market, development of unique selling propositions, improvement of conversions, the addition of analytics and education on how to use analytics to make positive and meaningful changes to a site.

SEO is more than creating great content, or including some keywords in titles and headings that you might hope to rank for, and following good practice in design involving standards and intelligently structured semantic design.

SEO is more than good web design

Good web design does help, but some days I scratch my head and wonder if good web design is the exception rather than the rule. Here are a small number of design related problems I often see on web pages:

1. Poor page titles, or no titles at all. A Yahoo study of 1,000,000 random URls described in a pending Yahoo patent filed in 2008, Generating Succinct Titles for Web URLs (US Patent Application 20100049709), noted that 17 percent of the pages they found didn’t have page titles.

2. Many site owners include important textual information such as their address in pictures of text, rather than actual text. A common example are sites where that information is extremely important, such as the address of the business behind sites for restaurants, shops and businesses that provide services in specific geographical areas. The Google Webmaster Guidelines note the following:

Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn’t recognize text contained in images. If you must use images for textual content, consider using the “ALT” attribute to include a few words of descriptive text.

Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn’t recognize text contained in images. If you must use images for textual content, consider using the “ALT” attribute to include a few words of descriptive text.

3. Many content management systems and ecommerce platforms are set up so that pages can be accessed at more than one URL, which can lead to search engines not indexing all of the pages of a site that they might, and having link equity, or PageRank being spread amongst the same page at more than one URL. I’ve seen at least one site that had the same page content indexed by Google at more than a thousand different URLs.

Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft were all granted patents last week on methods that they might use to address that problem, but there’s no guarantee from the search engines that they are using those methods on every site that they find, and resolving those problems rather than hoping the search engines will understand them is a best approach.

In a recent interview with Google’s Matt Cutts, he suggests solving the problem of duplicate content at different URLs:

Typically, duplicate content is not the largest factor on how many pages will be crawled, but it can be a factor. My overall advice is that it helps enormously if you can fix the site architecture upfront, because then you don’t have to worry as much about duplicate content issues and all the corresponding things that come along with it.

4. Many web hosts set up domains for new site owners so that the same content can be displayed on those domains both with and without a “www.” While the search engines may pick up on the fact that the same content exists at more than one domain, usually they don’t.

5. Many websites fail to use words in title elements, heading elements, anchor text, and page content that their intended audiences will both likely search for, and expect to see on their pages.

SEO isn’t about taking great content and stuffing it with keyword phrases, but rather about creating great content that includes intelligent choices of words used within that content, meaningful images used on pages, and multimedia content that can be indexed well.

Why site owners can’t just create great content

The number and kind of ranking signals that search engines use to rank pages go beyond good web design as well. Microsoft noted in their paper, FRank: A Ranking Method with Fidelity Loss (pdf), that they based their rankings of pages on 619 different query dependent and query independent features.

Google representatives have stated a number of times in the past few years that they look at more than 200 different signals to determine how pages might be ordered in search results.

There are a number of initial steps that a site owner can take that make it more likely that a search engine crawling program can find all of the URLs on their site, index the content found there, and display those pages in search results.

But, an SEO has no control over changes that competitors might make to their sites, or search engines might make to their algorithms, or the interest that potential visitors might have in the products or services or information found upon a site. There are no absolute guarantees.

Marketing is an ongoing endeavor, and effective SEO is also an ongoing endeavor that requires a knowledge of the framework within which a site exists on the Web, going beyond an understanding of how to present pages to search engines and visitors. An SEO constantly studies search engines, often including reading patent filings and white papers and blog posts and press releases and interviews from the search engines, experimenting on sites that aren’t mission critical, and observing and anticipating changes about how the Web (and not just search engines) works.

Google Principle Engineer Matt Cutts recently wrote a post, Google, transparency and our not-so-secret formula, at Google’s European Public Policy Blog about some of the efforts that they take to educate web site publishers, including publishing hundreds of research papers, participating in conferences and forums, and through many blog posts and help pages. They do provide a great amount of information, probably more than most site owners can manage to keep up with, which is why it can be helpful to have an SEO work with them.

Search engines do have sophisticated algorithms that they use, based upon human assumptions that attempt to address problems programmatically, sometimes at the cost of false positives and false negatives. For example, Google announced a couple of months ago that they were starting to expand some queries to include synonyms for words used in searchers queries. They stated in the Official Google Blog post, Helping computers understand language, that the method worked well most of the time, only failing badly in one out of fifty searches.

Two percent sounds like a small number, but when you’re talking about possibly billions of queries a month, it could amount to a fairly large number. Here’s what the Official Google Blog post stated about their approach to expanding queries based

Most of the time, you probably don’t notice when your search involves synonyms, because it happens behind the scenes. However, our measurements show that synonyms affect 70 percent of user searches across the more than 100 languages Google supports.

We took a set of these queries and analyzed how precise the synonyms were, and were happy with the results: For every 50 queries where synonyms significantly improved the search results, we had only one truly bad synonym.

Good SEO enhances the quality and usability of web sites

Good SEO should enhance a visitor’s experience with a web site rather than damaging it, or entail stuffing pages with unreadable content, or mean adding unusable navigation that doesn’t advance that goal .

Good SEO should help with the creation of intelligently crafted copy rather than excessive copy.

Good SEO should lead to navigation that makes it more likely that people can and will visit pages that meet their informational and transactional needs.

The goal of SEO is to make it more likely that a site owner meets the the objectives behind their site and visitors find what they are looking for.

SEO is responsive

SEO is not a broadcast approach to marketing. It’s not a one time ad that shows up on TV or the Radio or a newspaper. SEO is passive in relation to broadcast media. SEO can be used as part of a marketing plan that also includes those approaches, but it recognizes that people will go to a search engine when they have a need to find information, or a task to perform that they can do online.

A website is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If pages from a site are visible in search results for queries that people are performing to meet those needs, rather than when the owner of a site decides to broadcast what their business or organization offers, it can often be more effective than TV or Radio or Print.

One of the questions that I ask people when they first start doing SEO for their sites is, “What is it about your site and what you offer that gets people to talk about it, to recommend it to others, to bookmark it and link to it?” A web site should appeal to people, and SEO should not only avoid getting in the way of that appeal, but should enhance it.

Good SEO adds value to a web site and to the person or business or organization behind that site, as well as creating a better experience for people who have needs that they are trying to meet through the Web.


Author: Bill Slawski

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