Archive for the 'content' Category

Search Engine Optimization: There are No Free Lunches

Friday, January 12th, 2007

I don’t think there is any area of the web which has more snake oil being peddled than the area of Search Engine Optimization, aka SEO.

I get emails every day from outfits guaranteeing that I will get top-ten listing on Google, Yahoo, and MSN… All I need to do is sign up with these guys and pay them a lot of money. Amazing… they don’t know what I am selling, what my website content looks like, or how much competition I have… But they can still guaranty me top-ten listing. How can they do that?

The answer, of course, is they can’t. This is the web-age equivalent of the old UHF TV ad’s for veggiematics or some other poorly manufactured household product. You will pay them some amount (and it will vary all over the map… from a few bucks to thousands of dollars depending on how dumb you are) and, wonder of wonders, you won’t get top-ten listing Google, Yahoo, or MSN. The only difference between the ten dollar haircut and the thousand dollar one will be the ingenuity and creativity of their explanations of what went wrong.

So now you are both ripped off and ticked off… Are you going to sue them? If you only paid a few hundred it’s not worth it… If you paid them thousands then either they’re long gone to some South American country or they’ve put half their ill-gotten gains into hiring fancy lawyers to defend themselves.

The actual ranking algorithms of the major search engines are closely guarded secrets and there is a whole industry of folks reading tea leaves trying to reverse-engineer them.

But I think one can establish some pretty good guidelines based on simple common sense. So here are Denholm’s Common Sense Laws of Search Engine Optimization:

  1. The major search engines are genuinely trying to produce search results that are as useful as possible to their user base.
  2. What makes a website useful to their user base is content.
  3. The only thing that search engine spiders and crawlers can analyze is text. So it is only text (and not images) that matters.
  4. Apart from the content itself, the only thing that will matter to search engines in terms of ranking will be the number and quality of other sites that link to yours.
  5. The only additional thing you can do is to make sure that your content is properly indexed using metatags and h1, h2, h3 element tags.

Any attempt to “game the system” will only have temporary success and will, ultimately, backfire once the search engines figure out how the gaming works. Note that I am talking about “natural ranking”, not sponsored links or pay-for-click. The latter are, indeed, available to the highest bidder. But it is the natural rank that matters. Most search engine users either knowingly or instinctively ignore sponsored and pay-for-click listings.

So, the bottom line is that you want to have your website filled with as much useful text content as possible. Use meta-tags and h# tags to highlight for the search engines which keywords best describe your content. Get authoritative incoming links that tell the search engines that others find your content of value. Do not establish reciprocal links with sites which have no logical connection to yours. That is merely the latest form of gaming the system and it will not help… And it probably hurts.

Good incoming links are likely to be those from professional organizations, chambers of commerce, trade groups, large companies, government agencies, universities, etc. One of our customers is a kayak dealer. He has incoming links from about 20 kayak manufacturers. My belief is that has a serious, positive impact on his search engine ranking.

And even if you have all the above in place, your ranking will still depend on how many other websites are competing in the same conceptual space and how good their content is, and their incoming links, and their keyword indexing.

There are no magic bullets and anyone who claims they can guarantee a high search engine ranking on the major search engines is blowing smoke.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t try to optimize your site for search engine visibility. I frequently see sites that seemed to have been designed for stealth instead of visibility.

Apart from having good content, good indexing of said content, and incoming links from good sites that have a logical content-based reason to link to you, there are some things that you can do and some things you can avoid:

  • Do not create entire sites using Macromedia Flash (or any other dynamic architecture such as PHP/MySQL, Cold Fusion, or ASP). The search engines cannot be bothered figuring out how to analyze websites where navigation is dynamic and all content delivered dynamically will be ignored. The sole exception to this is where your dynamic mechanism uses mod_rewrite (or an equivalent) to mimic static links. (Note that Flash is fine for individual animated images… Just don’t build the site navigation using it.)
  • Do write compliant, valid HTML or XHTML and do validate your HTML/XHTML against the W3C validation engines. The search engine spiders and ranking algorithms depend on your code being correctly written in order to analyze your site. If your code is poorly written and incorrect, they will ignore your site. Note that your site can look fine to a human viewer using a browser and still be “broken” from a spider’s point of view.
  • Do use alt-tags if your site is based on image content. The search engines “like” images but the alt-tags are the only way they “understand” what the images represent.
  • Do submit your websites to the search engines when you first create them and after major changes or updates.
  • Do promote your website address in non-web channels. Use it in print advertising, your letterhead, business cards, press-releases. This does not help directly with your ranking but it does increase traffic to your site… And a surprising number of people actually search for a web address rather than enter it directly in the browser.