SEO for the Clueless

Any occupation boasts particular practices, principles, and jargon that appear totally opaque to those not in the know. Search engine optimization is no exception. If you’re clueless about SEO, or find as an SEO that you sometimes need to explain what you do, and why, to clients or at cocktail parties, keep reading.

A conversation with a reader who understood that he needed to do something to make his site stand out in Google, but didn’t know what, drove home to me just how much we talk in a way that others don’t necessarily understand. It’s not their fault; whether you realize it or not, as an SEO you deal with highly technical concepts every day. If you’re trying to help someone with their simple mom-and-pop website, you’re probably introducing them to these ideas for the first time. Even the owners of larger e-commerce sites aren’t immune to this kind of ignorance.

If it helps, here are two points to keep in mind. First, ignorance is curable. Second, whoever you’re helping probably knows far more about their own product or field of expertise than you do – so they’re clearly not stupid. They’ll catch on better to what you’re trying to explain if you gently prod to see how much they know about the way search engines, web sites and the Internet work, and then build up slowly from that basis.

At this point, if you’re an experienced SEO, you may be wondering if it’s worth the effort. If the client already knows they need help to optimize their web site, and they’re willing to hire you, does it really matter how much they understand about the actual process of SEO? In a word, yes. If they understand how the process works, they’ll understand why you need to do what you’re going to do to their web site – which is, for most people, their “baby.” Furthermore, they’ll understand why it’s an ongoing process, not something you can do just once and be done with it. They’ll cooperate more with you, bringing their own knowledge to bear while respecting yours – and that kind of help is priceless.

Now, if you’re one of those people who knows that search engine optimization is important, but feels overwhelmed when you encounter the jargon or the billions of details that all seem to be of life-or-death importance when it comes to your web site, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to talk to  you. Well, guess what? The rest of this article is addressed to you. So we’re going to step back from all of the details surrounding SEO, and start with the very reason for its existence – which is contained in the first two words of the field.

Quite some time ago I wrote an article explaining how search engines work (and sometimes don’t). I won’t rehash it here. Briefly, search engines use computer programs to try to determine what a web page is “about.” If the Internet is a thick, scholarly book, a search engine is the index at the back of the book. If you look for “bookcases and bookshelves” in the book’s index, that’s akin to putting those terms in the search engine – and the page numbers given are like the search engine’s hyperlinks.

But computer programs aren’t quite like humans when it comes to creating indexes. They don’t really understand the meaning of words – at least, not yet. That’s the genius of Google. In a sense, it harnesses millions of humans to do its work. Google’s algorithms can understand that when a web site – or more precisely, the human behind the web site – links out to another page, it’s a statement that the page being linked to is relevant to what is being talked about. SEOs and search engineers often describe this by saying that a link to a site is a “vote” for that site. I’ll be talking more about this from a slightly different perspective in the last section of this article.

While search engines have trouble understanding the meaning of words, they’re perfectly capable of seeing what words are used as part of the link. So if I wrote “I love the variety of ice cream offered by Ben and Jerry’s,” and attached a hyperlink to the Ben and Jerry’s web site on those last three words, the search engine would know that the phrase “Ben and Jerry’s” is relevant to that site. Going further, the search engine might notice that I mentioned “ice cream” and “variety” in the same sentence, and think that those words are relevant to the Ben and Jerry’s web site as well. So when you put the phrase “Ben and Jerry’s” or perhaps “ice cream variety” into Google’s search box, Ben and Jerry’s web site might turn up near the top of the search results.

This is a massive oversimplification, but it gives you at least some idea of what is going on. The number of factors Google actually checks to decide where to list a web page for any particular search term may be anywhere from 50 to 200, depending on who you ask. The crucial thing to remember, though, is that Google is measuring what humans are telling it. So if you want to do well in Google, you need to provide something that humans want – something that they’ll search for and tell other people about.

Search engine optimization as a field sprang up when search engines started getting more and more effective at helping users to find what they were searching for on the Internet – and every time you use a search engine to find something online, you validate the field’s existence. The whole point of SEO is to help your web pages rank high in the search engines for terms that are relevant to your site. This is not the only way to attract visitors to your site, but it is the path that many (if not most) web sites take.

Traditionally, SEO has been divided into two flavors: on-page optimization and off-page optimization. I’ll discuss off-page optimization in the next section. On-page optimization deals with everything you do on your web page. When I use the phrase “web page,” I’m talking not just about what someone sees through a browser, but also the formatting and the code behind the page.

Web browsers are set up to read a special language called HTML. HTML stands for Hyper Text Markup Language. HTML simply tells the browser that certain parts of pages are to be treated in particular ways, so when a visitor views the page, the information on it will be displayed in particular ways. Things like the number of columns, tables, background and text colors, and pretty much everything you see on a web page, is controlled by HTML. (Again, that’s an oversimplification, but you get the point).

HTML also controls things like page headers, footers, section headings, and the like. When a search engine spider visits a web page to index it, it can read the HTML well enough to tell that certain words are in parts of the page that a reader would consider more important – like the title of an article or a section heading. So if a spider sees that the title of an article on a web site is “Making Fruit-Flavored Ice Cream,” it would figure that these words are very relevant to the article.

Not everything a programmer puts in a page’s HTML will be visible to a site visitor. But some of it will be visible to the spider. For example, your page’s title shows up above the address bar in a browser – and also in the results pages of the search engine. But when a visitor is on your page, he or she will be reading your content. Yet a search engine will know that the title, enclosed by title tags in HTML, contains words that are relevant to your web page.

Just as search engines know that words located in the title and section headings of a web page indicate what’s important to that page’s topic, they also know that items located in other sections of a web page are less important. For example, businesses often include a copyright notice or links to contact information in the footer of every web page. A company selling an ice cream maker might have a page of recipes titled “Ice Cream Recipes for the Dream Machine” with their company address in the footer. When it comes to the page’s content, it’s the recipes that are important and relevant, not the company address – and that’s how the search engines see it as well.

There’s a lot more to on-page optimization than I’ve described here. The job of an SEO demands attention to all kinds of details. But I’ve hopefully given you some idea of the principles behind on-page optimization.

The term “off-page optimization” covers everything that tells the search engines what is important and relevant to your page, but isn’t directly on the page. The majority of off-page optimization, then, is concerned with building links to a page. Link building is perhaps the most challenging part of SEO.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most important. Search engine algorithms give more weight to links when trying to determine a page’s topic, and its relevance to that topic, than anything else. But not all links are created equal.

When Google first came out, it based its search results on the idea that every time a web site linked to another web site, it amounted to the linking web site casting a vote for the linked-to web site. When the linking web site used particular text in the link, Google’s algorithm decided that the web site being linked to must be relevant to that text. This turned out to be somewhat revolutionary, and it’s why Google gives such good results today.

For example, if I wrote something like “My favorite SEO forum keeps me up-to-date on all the latest techniques,” Google would figure that the web site I linked to has something to do with SEO forums…and if someone searched Google with the key word “SEO forum,” that link would count as a vote saying that the site is relevant for that search.

Now here’s the problem: back then, Google’s algorithm seemed to count all votes equally, so SEOs quickly learned how to game the system to get their sites to the top of search engine results for their chosen keywords. Google, of course, counterattacked by tweaking its algorithms. Links still matter a great deal, but there’s more of an emphasis on the quality of the site linking to you, and the quality of the link itself.

Now let’s talk a little bit about how on-page and off-page factors relate to each other. If you put up fresh content on a regular basis, such as by writing a blog, that’s an on-page factor – and one of the points that Google is known to look at when ranking a web site is how frequently it posts fresh content. If you write a post that lots of people read and link to, those links are an off-page factor. If you deliberately wrote a post that you hoped would get a lot of links, and you worked very hard on it, and you did in fact get a lot of links, that’s called “linkbait.”

The idea of writing linkbait has grown with the advent of social web sites. I’m talking about places like Slashdot, Fark, Searchles, and others, whose whole point of existence seems to be linking their members to fun and interesting content. Social media like this changed the game of SEO once again; some abused this new way to get attention for their web site, while others learned how to use it carefully and effectively.

Every time the Internet changes dramatically, it affects SEO. Is it any wonder that this seems like such a crazy field? And yet, it comes down to the basics of marketing and business: give the customer what they want. It’s finding out what they want, making sure you have it, and getting the word out that you do have it without annoying anybody, that’s the challenge. Now there is much more to search engine optimization than I’ve covered here, of course. I hope, however, that I’ve given you a basic idea of what SEO involves. At the very least, you can point your friends, family, potential clients, and curious cocktail party attendees here. 

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