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Search Engine Optimisation Explained :: Part 1

Aug 17, 2007
What actually is search engine optimisation? There is confusion in the minds of many, as evidenced by the varied approaches seen within any cross-section of web sites. A lack of understanding is apparent on the part of many web designers whose design techniques ensure that search engines cannot penetrate to any internal content!

SEO is the art of clarification, with a clear emphasis on the principle that "form follows function." Thus, it is semantic, pedantic, and language-orientated rather than a marvel of technical wizardry. The bottom line is that it does not matter how good your site looks, if no one can find it.

Many designers obsess on form, building sites that serve as monuments to their creative genius. In an ideal world a site would be designed to fulfil its "function" of attracting clients and making sales, and its "form" would be a supporting element in an overall strategy aimed at achieving a "return on investment" for their clients.

SEO is a Moving Target
In the past 2 years the major search engines have developed a habit of revising their relevancy ranking algorithms, amending listing options, changing alliances, altering customer base, changing names and content sources, not to mention buying and selling each other.

There are several immutable laws that, if adhered to, will ensure your site prospers, and delivers the elusive ROI. The goal is generation of "qualified traffic" - defined as those who come to you because they want what you offer, and not by accident.

The Two Approaches to Traffic Generation
The two approaches to raising the profile of a web site, SEO and PPC, are quite complimentary. Because it is difficult to optimise a site for a very wide range of keyword phrases, PPC marketing can greatly extend your reach. Optimise your site for the major keyword terms, and use PPC to target less obvious, lower volume keyword search terms.

Site Optimisation
First and foremost in generating traffic is site optimisation which, after the initial outlay, generates "free" traffic from search engines based on your ranking for particular search terms. This is the "Content is King" approach, and requires us to persuade the search engine that we have the content most relevant to the search. Volume and organisation is important, and we must ensure that search engines can index all supporting content.

This may approach may be chosen when you are quite prepared to pay to ensure people find your site, sometimes because its cheaper than rebuilding it! You "bid" for sponsored listing placement, and pay each time a visitor clicks on a "sponsored link" on a search engine and goes through to view your site. PPC allows you to generate traffic even if your site is poorly optimised, but is the most expensive long term option.

An advantage is that PPC campaign setup can allow the viewer to go direct to the page with the content most relevant for the term being used, e.g. by-passing splash pages.

The two PPC heavyweights are Google's Adwords, and Yahoo Search Marketing. Each has a slightly different approach, but both are affordable and have easy set-up processes for establishing advertising campaigns. Copywriting is the key, as limited title and description space will have you sweating as you try to squeeze a sales pitch into a 35-40 character title!

Search Engines
There have been huge changes in the search engine scene in recent times, from the spectacular rise of Google to the demise of Northern Light as a public search facility. Overture purchased AllTheWeb and AltaVista, and in turn was purchased by Yahoo. Google now supplies search results to almost half the lesser search engines - Anzwers, AOL, Netscape, ICQ Search, IWON etc.

From an SEO perspective the changes are more fundamental than that, and relate more to directory vs spider-based indexing. For a long period of time, an accurate listing in both the human-edited Yahoo Directory and the Open Directory were crucial to search engine traffic. Back then, even the spider-based engines such as Google placed great emphasis on directory categories, and if you were not listed in Open Directory, Google might not index you at all!

Both those directories seem now to have passed their "use-by date" in terms of delivering direct traffic but Google and Yahoo still place great emphasis on their links. Listings in the DMOZ and Yahoo directories are of tremendous credibility value to your site, and are the best links of all to have!

Between them, Google, Yahoo and MSN, account for almost 90% of all searches performed on the web, and all three of these search engines now derive their bulk content from spider-based indexing processes. Therefore, it is more crucial than ever before that your site is optimised to allow your content to be indexed by search engine spiders!

Some Immutable Laws
There are some rules to be followed for success to occur...

Form Follows Function
Decide what role your web site should fulfil in your business plan. Build and maintain it to meet the defined functions. Keep it simple, make it fast and clean and above all, avoid any technology which impedes functionality. This includes unnecessary animations or graphics which slow page load times, encouraging visitors to move on to more responsive sites.

Databases can be a serious impediment to indexing of internal content and in many cases are total overkill, especially for smaller sites. Usually, they defeat the goal of creating multiple unique pages by serving generic Title, Description and Keyword meta-tags. They also generate complex URL's which search engines cannot always penetrate, and even the creation of Site Map pages is rendered overly complex. Any URL with an "&" or a '?" in it has the potential to at best impede or at worst block a search engine spider's access.

In many cases the use of databases is gratuitous and unnecessary, a fast-fix solution to the designer's goal of churning out a site at the least possible cost and the greatest possible profit. In many cases an HTML template approach would have been better.

Templates, if thoughtlessly implemented, may create equally serious impediments to unique page content. I.e. many template implementations do not provide for unique, page specific meta-tags. Having one generic Title, Description and Keyword meta-tag on every page of the site is a truly appalling, but common, design "feature."

You Never Get a 2nd Chance to Make a 1st Impression
Splash pages annoy people! This is a serious tactical mistake when you are trying to convert window-shoppers into clients. Attention spans on the Internet are short, and there are plenty of "good" sites to choose from. Eliminate every impediment and impel your visitors directly into the "guts" of your site.

The dreadful "Click to Enter Site" splash page with no content expels potential clients into cyberspace, looking for a "better" site that delivers immediate gratification to their quest.

Worse, the search engines place primary emphasis on the entry or Home page. If this page has no content, you can guess where your rankings are going to be! Nowhere, because the search engine cannot find enough content to even categorise the site, let alone establish its relevancy to a query.
About the Author
Ben Kemp is a free-lance IT consultant and one of NZ's longest serving SEO practitioners.

The SEO Guy (NZ)
Email: bjk@TheSeoGuy.co.nz
Web: http://www.comauth.co.nz
Phone (+64) 09 9743553
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