What is Search Engine Optimization?
I've been talking to various people about improving my Web site and they keep talking about SEO. I've figured out that SEO = Search Engine Optimization, but I don't really understand what it means to improve my site on a search engine?
You have begun to peel away the veneer and are learning about the real truth of the Internet. Design is important, your product line is important, customer service and a sustainable differentiator are all important, but they're all focused on what happens once someone gets to your site. That, as it turns out, is only half the challenge.
The field of search engine optimization is focused on getting potential customers to your site in the first place. SEO and a good site go hand-in-hand, of course, because you both need to have a smart strategy for attracting traffic and a site that encourages those visitors to become customers.
When I think about search engine optimization, I really think about what I call "findability", the ability for your potential customers to find you when they're searching for your product or service on the network. Try it yourself: go to a site like Google and type in a few prototypical searches. For the Boulder Colorado Daily Camera newspaper, as an example, does it appear for "Boulder daily newspaper" or "boulder paper", or is it in the no-man's land of result page 33 or even 174? And how about for "boulder movie listings" or "restaurant reviews, boulder"?
There are two major facets to findability worth considering, one of which is related to your on-page and on-site design and structure, and the other is more focused on the popularity contest of becoming a well-linked site.
In the former case, best practices start with you making sure that you identify keywords or key phrases that are most likely to be sought by your potential customer. If you're a pet store, your key words might be "pet store" or "pet store Boulder" but they might also be for specific specialties, like "macaw colorado" or "discount organic dog food". The more specific your keywords, the better results you can obtain. It's a lot easier to rank well for "organic gluten-free pizza boulder" than "pizza", needless to say!
Once you have a list - and just about every online business should be able to quickly generate at least 100 keywords - you should then do "keyword research" to figure out which of them are actually commonly used as part of a search. A tool I like is Wordtracker.com (try the free demo to get the sense of it). Why bother? Because it's not worth putting effort into ranking for "organic gluten-free pizza boulder" if there's only one search a month for that phrase.
Now the fun begins. On your site you begin to weave these keywords or key phrases into your prose, your page titles, article headlines, and even possibly create specific subpages (or blog entries!) targeting those key ideas. I can easily imagine a pet store site having a specific page about "discount organic dog food" which might talk about the pro's and con's of this kind of food and having a "buy from us" button to turn readers into customers.
According to Google (search for "google webmaster guidelines"), you should have descriptive text for your page title, page headlines and even filename to help the search engine properly categorize your information. That's why "Welcome to Acme Pet Food" is terrible, while "Acme Pet Food: Your source for discount organic dog and cat food" is good and "Discount Organic Dog Food, from Acme Pet Food of Colorado" is better. Remember too that each and every page on your site should have a unique and descriptive title.
There's a lot more to SEO than that, but get your filenames, your internal links (you aren't just using the link text "store" to get people to your online store, are you?), your headlines and your page titles right and you're well on your way to improving your findability.
The other half of the coin is "inbound links", because one of the most important criteria that modern search engines use to figure out which of the millions of pages that match a given query should be #1 is popularity. The logic is unassailable: if you have good content, lots of people will point to it. Therefore more links better content.
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