Search engine optimization, or SEO, is a critical part of marketing your business on the Internet. Internet marketing has great power to drive results because for the first time in history, companies can target their efforts to specific markets. You don’t need to pay for large marketing campaigns where most of the people being exposed to your ads are not potential buyers of your product. By searching for a specific phrase, your customers are actually telling you what they want to spend money on and you can focus your marketing efforts on targeting those customers.

Optimizing your website for search engines is the process through which a web site owner makes sure they are targeting customers by selecting specific keywords that customers are searching for. SEO providers use technology and marketing tools to make sure your website is indexed and visible to search engines, such as Google, Bing and Yahoo. These search companies rank web sites based on their algorithm’s perception of the value of your site compared to your competitors, based on the content within your site.

Keywords become search results

Think about the last time you searched for something on the Internet, “new cars in Hawaii” for example, or “carpet cleaners in Honolulu”. As of the date I am writing this article, the search term “carpet cleaners in Honolulu” yields 384,000 results on Google. Think about it, if you were searching for a carpet cleaner, are you really going to click “Next” 384 times to see every page of 10 results each page? How many pages down the list are you willing to click, before you actually choose a company to interact with? Two pages, four pages? What if your company showed up on page 10, and your prospective customers never clicked past page 2?

What are search engines looking for?

So here’s the question, what are search engine algorithms looking for to determine where in the list of results your website shows up? You want to be on page one, but how do you do it?

You need to understand that search results are not set manually. You can’t complain to Google that your search results are low because even Google does not have control over their own search results. Rankings are determined by mathematical algorithms which trigger positives and negatives when looking at website in relation to all other websites within a category. Search engines are in competition with each other, and if they allow websites to game their algorithms, customers over time will begin to realize it and out of frustration move on to other search engines that are able to generate more relevant results.

Through experimentation and research, as well as input from Google and Bing themselves, we can deduce certain truths about how to improve search rankings.

Inbound links are keyInbound links are key

An inbound link is when another site links to your site. This relationship tells the search algorithm that your site has something of value and someone else is trying to tell the world that this is the case. Using inbound links as a determining factor in relevancy is what made Google the dominant company in search. Larry Page and Sergey Brin realized that they could not manually determine the quality of millions of sites, so let they let the Internet do it for them.

Don’t try to game inbound linksDon’t try to game inbound links

Many SEO companies will claim that they can increase your inbound links, for a fee, by creating such links for you. The problem is, over time, Google and other search engines become aware of these “link farms” and may blacklist any sites using them. Once you are black listed, you are out of the search engine and it can be almost impossible to get back in.

Create sites for usersCreate sites for users

Websites should be focused on their ultimate goal, serving customers. Content should be focused on the customer’s need, not search rankings. Search algorithms have become very smart, and they will actually penalize a site for attempting to portray itself as something that it is not. Let’s look at an example, on the day I am writing this, the most searched for phrase on Google is “Pittsburgh Steelers”. Trying to game a search engine, we could take our carpet cleaning company’s web site and repeat the phrase “Pittsburgh Steelers” across the entire site, trying to get a search engine to rank us higher. This is a very easy way to get yourself blacklisted and while it may have worked 10 years ago, algorithms are much smarter today.

Create a logical site hierarchyCreate a logical site hierarchy

A sight hierarchy has to do with the structure of your site. A web site is a series of pages connected by hyperlinks. Think about how many clicks a customer needs to make to get the information he or she wants. Less clicks are better for the customer, better for you as it leads to better conversion, and search engines favor a well thought out, logical content structure. In my opinion, every bit of content on your site should be reachable from within 3 clicks.

Use proper programming techniquesUse proper programming techniques

Pages should be written using clean simple code that adhere to accepted web standards and are generally error free. Meta tags, mainly the title tag, should be descriptive. ALT tags should be used on images. Human-friendly URLs should be used. If you don’t know what these things are, you need to hire a professional website designer. See our article on Technical SEO for more details (coming soon).

Minimize rich-media contentMinimize rich-media content

While fancy animation using JavaScript or Adobe Flash may look cool, generally the content is invisible to search engines. On many occasions I have had customers as for text to be displayed as a JPEG image or within a Flash animation because they want the specific words or even letters to line up in a very particular way, but these strategies make it very difficult for search engine algorithms to know what the content of the page really is. In many cases, a good designer can use proper CSS to create a result that is almost as good, and search friendly. You can actually go to to see what your site looks like to a search engine. If you are missing key content, it is probably inside a non-searchable element and you are not getting the results you want.