Basic SEO Theory

As a Web design professional, I am often asked if I can help with search engine optimization (SEO), to which I almost always say “not really”, and then spend 20 minutes typing out the information I am about to share.

The truth is, I am certain I could help with SEO, but more often than not I choose to avoid the arduous task of managing expectations when it comes to SEO results. The problem, in my opinion, is that I would say most non-/semi-technical folks have a rather skewed idea of what good SEO means. I blame this largely on the seedier side of the SEO industry, which tends to utilize the layman’s lack of knowledge and implausible slogans (“Let us put you at the top of Google’s listings overnight!”, etc.) for profit.

What this creates is a climate whereby SEO becomes a product that can be packaged and purchased, which in-turn fosters an attitude of being able to buy good Search Engine Results Page listings, ie. I pay an SEO expert $X,XXX.XX and I get to be #1 for my targeted Google search terms. Of course, if this was possible — those top spots would simply be consistently taken by the companies with the largest budgets and search engine results would become irrelevant, which would then lead to the search engine becoming irrelevant as well.

<sarcasm>At a guess, I’m willing to bet Google and its contemporaries have their eye on that.</sarcasm>

This isn’t to say that there aren’t good SEO experts, it’s only to say that in an industry with so many charlatans, it can be a painfully time-consuming process determining who to trust. All the more reason to at least have some understanding of SEO yourself, if for no other purpose than to know what you should expect.

The biggest thing to understand is that SEO is labelled as “organic marketing” for a reason. While the tasks are relatively simple, maintaining great SEO can be time consuming, as well as require constant vigilance and flexibility, as what worked last year might not work this year.

I personally hold value in a few key things when looking at setting up good SEO on a site I am creating, they are:

Content

Having good content on your site may seem like a no-brainer piece of advice, but it’s more complicated than it sounds.

There is a bit of an art to writing content with a healthy balance between keywords (i.e. terms/phrases people would search for through a search engine), marketing-ese to sell your topic to visitors, and useful content that people actually want to read.

Good content will present itself in an organized manner that stays on a well-focused topic. It should be rich in keywords, but not so much so that it takes away from the prose and readability of the content.

Page titles

By page titles, I don’t mean the text that’s in a large bold font, I mean the <title> tags in the <head> of your HTML — sometimes these are the same, but they don’t have to be. I’ve seen SEO gurus load these with a straight list of keywords, but I dislike this as its SEO value is questionable and it takes usability away from the site. Rather, I suggest making sure your page titles are on-topic to the keywords you are looking to attract, and relevant to the specific page they are being displayed on. They should be relatively short and to the point, with the most relevant keywords at the beginning.

Example:
GOOD: “Cat care tips for pet owners”
On-topic, short, solid keywords
BAD: “cats, tips, pets, dogs, cat food, dog food, house cats”
Keyword rich, but not unique to the page, plus terrible for site visitors
BAD: “Petland Food Inc.”
Many sites have the same page title (often company name) on every page. This will do little to help your SERP ranking. If you want your branding in the title, make sure it’s displayed after the relevant page title.

URLs

You’ll notice when you search for a term in Google the results display the keyword (in bold) as found in the page title, a relevant chunk of the content, and in the link’s URL.

With straight-HTML created sites it was easy to maintain decent URLs that contained keywords. If you had a page about cat grooming, you called it “cat-grooming.html” and you had inherent SEO. However, most modern Web sites are built on content management systems (CMS) that are often built in PHP or ASP. Because of this you can get some very ugly URLs that have no connection to the content.

Fortunately, any CMS worth its weight will have built-in (or add-on) Search Engine Friendly (SEF) functionality to re-write the URLs into something friendly to search engine bots (and site visitors). So, instead of seeing www.catgrooming.com/?pgid=335&c=34_aad you should see www.catgrooming.com/tips/grooming-your-feline/.

HTML structure

This is something that may be more difficult to adjust if you are not the one designing your site. However, if just getting started with a site’s design, it is worth mentioning to your designer that you want to make sure your markup is semantically laid out.

What this means is, you want to be using proper heading tags (<H1>,<H2>,<H3>, etc.) in a hierarchical way. The page’s title/topic should be in the largest heading tag on the page (<h1> or <h2> usually), and subheading should be in a gradient transition to higher-numbered tags (<h3>, <h4>, <h5>, etc.).

Additionally, you will want to make sure the page’s overall structure also fits this ideal. The bots that search your site don’t get the benefit of your ace designer’s well-crafted eye candy. To them it is a simple a chunk of code. Where that code falls can effect what it views as important.

Take the following common design mistake as an example. You have a site with a header, left sidebar, content and footer. a pretty common setup (see visual representation).

A designer not concerned with semantic markup may simply layout the page in the following order: HEADER, SIDEBAR, CONTENT, FOOTER. Unfortunately, this causes the bots to believe the text, links, etc., of the sidebar are more relevant than that in the content area – which rarely is the case. It is therefore important to layout the page as HEADER, CONTENT, SIDEBAR, FOOTER in the HTML, while using CSS to control the end display.

Semantic layout is not black and white, but rather very much a sliding scale. Sometimes it is simply not possible to have the most logically hierarchical markup and maintain particular features of the site. Take the hits where you need to, and just do your best.

Linkbacks from other sites

I should say, linkbacks from other authority sites. The principle goes something like this: Site A is a great and powerful site that has been around for ages (think NYT.com, Yahoo, TechCrunch, etc.), Site A links to Site B for whatever reason. Google sees this link and figures, “hell, if Site A thinks Site B is good, and we think Site A is good, then Site B is probably good too.” And the value of linkbacks for SEO is born.

Now, any fool can go out and get your site linked to on a hundred thousand sites overnight, and many will try to charge you bags of money to do just this. Don’t buy it. Getting natural linkbacks from other sites is tough work, but is the only truly valuable form of linkbacks.

There are a number of ways to do this, but really, in principle they all relate to creating content that people are interested in reading.

Age of site/Page Rank

This goes back to the “authority” bit in the section above. With new sites created and abandoned every day, it makes sense that Google pays attention and values sites that have been around for a long time, or have earned a higher Google Page Rank. It doesn’t necessarily make them a better source of information, but as a fuzzy rule, it does hold weight.

Additionally, this is often the reason sites that have followed all the rules above still aren’t owning their desired keywords – particularly when those keywords are in highly competitive markets (travel, web, consumer electronics, etc.).

If you feel you’ve done everything perfectly, and still you’re not getting the SERPs you feel you deserve, perhaps a bit of patience is in order.

Meta Descriptions and Keywords

Ah, meta tags. If I had 10 cents for every time I’ve had clients sweat about their meta tags, I would be writing this from a tropical beach somewhere and not worrying about the piles of work I still have to get done today.

Well, here it comes folks – they don’t matter. I think I just heard the SEO community collectively frown and growl. So, perhaps an explanation, before I get hate mail.

There was a time when the top search engines used meta descriptions and meta keywords to determine what a Web page was about. The meta keywords tag was the first to be dropped as a decider, and for several years now has not been used by any major search engine to help index the page. Why? 1. because they’re too easy to fake, and 2. they’re just not needed, bots can scan the entire contents of a page and get their own keywords. In short, they are valueless.

Though it has taken longer, the meta description tag is quickly going the same way. When the meta keywords tag became obsolete many webmasters/designers/SEO folks turned to the meta description as a way to bulk up their site’s keywordiness. Somewhat predictably this caused search engines to develop better ways to determine what a site is really about. As, remember, a search engine has a responsibility to the end user – the dude searching for “all-natural woven monkey-hair toupees” – not the company trying to make sure their listing is at the top of the SERPs so they can sell more toupees.

And that brings us right back to content. Without much value left in the meta description and virtually no value in meta keywords, it makes it all the more important to ensure that your content is well written and keyword rich.

Certainly there is much more that makes up the rather complex “science” of search engine optimization, but that should give at least a basic overview of what I feel are the key elements to good SEO. I look forward to additions, corrections or questions in the comments.

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