Search Engine Optimization

Getting on Top of Google

These days everyone wants to know about search engine optimization. Entire corporations have mushroomed around the subject. It is likely you have already been approached by salesmen promising you better exposure, a top position in the search engines, or more traffic to your website.

SEO, or Snake-Oil?

How do you know if an SEO provider is legitimate or not? SEO companies usually charge a hefty premium for their service. How can you be sure your marketing dollars will be well-spent with them?

With literally billions of web pages in existence, and more being added continually, getting on top of Google gets more difficult every day. The whole process can seem mysterious, volatile and as unpredictable as a horse race.

There are lots of search engines on the web, including Google, Yahoo, Dogpile, AltaVista, Bing, and many others worthy of mentioning, but for the sake of brevity, we will refer to all the search engines as “Google” here, as Google remains the industry’s standard, (and many of the others actually use Google’s results to contribute to their own).

No one can absoutely guarantee you a top spot in Google. Google operates independently of any third-party organization, so it’s a tricky business to influence them. Beware of anyone who claims to have a “special” relationship with them. Google endorses no one in particular, and they have a vested interest in producing accurate results, so they work hard to circumvent any attempt at fooling them. They have published an excellent article here on the subject.

In web code, there’s no “silver bullet” to fool the search engines into putting your site at the top. (But there is one pretty good trick, which we’ll get to later in this article.) Your best defense against getting swindled is a working knowledge of how the search engine system operates.

So, How Does It Work?

There are two basic kinds of search engine systems — directories, and crawlers. The directories require actual data-entry by a warm-blooded human somewhere. The crawlers are “bots” that search through the web, gathering data. (“Bot” — a shortened form of “robot” — is a term coined by programmers to describe any kind of software that can perform its given task on a continual basis, as if operating on its own.) Most search engines are actually a combination of both crawler and directory.

The crawler bots in many search engines will comb the entire world wide web, reading page after page, following all the links it finds to other web pages, and sending the text it finds back to the search engine’s directory. Google actually has a cache of text from web pages in its directory that its crawler has found — in effect, duplicating only the text from all over the web — and it is that huge cache that it accesses whenever anyone performs a search.

The aim of SEO is twofold: the first step is to get their crawler to scan your site accurately, following its links to all the other pages in your site; and the next is to assure that your site is well represented by words that people would most likely use in a search. But, how do you get to the top of page one?

Page Rank: It’s a Popularity Contest

Page ranking is the industry term for good search-engine placement, and link popularity makes that happen for you. Link popularity — getting other web sites to link to yours — is the single most effective way to improve your page ranking. (The higher their own page ranking, the more likely another site’s link will improve your own ranking.)

Getting others to link to you is easier said than done, but once you have exhausted your resources among friends and colleagues, you can try to get listed on “phonebook,” “directory” or “press release” sites that exist for almost every industry — like trade associations or chambers of commerce — many of whom accept submissions for links. You can find them by performing a search for a site like yours. Some of them may charge for links, but many do not.

To find out who is already linking to your site, you can perform a Google search with the “link:” operator, like this:

link:www.yoursite.com

(Remember to leave no space after the colon.)  This article by Google will show you other special operators you can use in searches.

Words Are Key

Key words — words you would anticipate someone using in a Google search to find you — need to be present in your site, and readable by a search engine’s crawler.

Imagine you were a prospective client trying to find a business or enterprise like yours. Think of the words you would use in that search. These would be the words you should have well-represented in your site. Although you should use these words as much as possible, keep the information in your site readable, and rich with information, not just useless stacks of key words.

Several places on a web page can effectively take advantage of the use of key words:

  • Live text — Content that is actually written on the page can be read by the crawlers. But if a picture on the page contains a caption or a headline, for instance, crawlers can’t read it.
  • Title tags — This content is not seen in the page, but above it. (Look to the top of your browser window and you will see the text, “Search Engine Optimization.” )
  • META tags — Two types of META tags — Keyword, and Description tags — can show up near the top of the page’s HTML code, though they are not seen on the actual page. You can read them if you use your browser to view the page source (usually accessible under the browser’s “View” menu). Google largely ignores the Keyword META tag, but they do pay attention to the Description tag.
  • Image alt tags — These tags are for the benefit of browsers that read only text, (such as LYNX). They can also be seen with the “View Page Source” command.

Take advantage of these HTML tags, as well as the readable text on your site, to maximize the use of pertinent search words. When editing or writing copy for the hidden tags, be sure to keep the tag content unique from page to page, and make sure it relates to the page’s actual content.

Link Architecture

Make your site easy to navigate. Be sure there are enough text-based links within your site for the Google crawler to find all of your site’s pages. External links (to other sites) can enhance or diminish your page ranking, depending on the relevance of the sites you link to. Especially, guard against any coding errors or broken links on your site; avoid confounding Google’s crawler at all costs.

Keeping It Clean

There are some sure-fire ways to ruin your page ranking. When Google discovers pages using these practices, it eventually removes them from its listings:

  • Duplicating content — Google often disregardes or completely eliminates duplicated content intended to repeat key words, so it’s best to avoid it.
  • Using bots to write pages — If you’ve ever seen sites listed in Google that don’t make any sense, but have lots of words stacked in them that relate to your search, you have probably encountered a bot-written page.
  • Stacking up on tags — Including two or more META Desctiption tags, or META Keyword tags on your page is a sure-fire way to get bumped.
  • Hiding words — Putting in text loaded with keywords that doesn’t show up because it hides behind other elements, or is written in white on a white background will surely get blacklisted.

Beware of SEO providers who include links to your site on various other web sites they maintain, in order to fool the search engines into perceiving your page as having high link popularity. They may refer to them as “directories,” but these are actually called “gateway” sites, as they are intended only as “link-farms,” not actual content to be read by people exploring the web. This practice is generally frowned upon by Google, as is anything that populates the web with useless, non-readable pages intended to manipulate their results. It could even result in a temporary moratorium on their listing your site.

We have known of clients who contracted with an SEO company that listed them on their gateway page, and then included a link on the client’s site back to the gateway page, (to enhance its own page ranking). That gateway page also listed many of the client’s competitors on it. In effect, the client ended up paying a premium for the privilege of including a link-trail leading to their competition, right on their own site!

The Bottom Line

The best of the SEO companies actually provide search-engine marketing. They research the best key words, advise you on your site’s content and do the old-fashioned person-to-person contact work to improve your site’s link popularity.

If you wish to hire an SEO company, be sure to get a detailed quote from any SEO company you intend to consider; make certain they can explain to you exactly how they intend to produce results for you. Also, compare the cost of gaining “organic” placement through SEO against a campaign of sponsored links such as Google’s AdWords. (You may find the latter considerably more cost-effective.)

Many SEO providers can wreak havoc with your site’s design and content, installing their own links, headlines and footer copy throughout. (This can be an artist’s nightmare, so if you care about your web designer, keep them in the loop on this process.)

Although we are not primarily an SEO company, Berto’s Web can provide you with the code, keywords and consultation required to maximize your site’s visibility. Feel free to contact us for more information.

What About That Pretty Good Trick?

Oh, yes — the pretty good trick is to use key words in your site’s own domain name. For instance, if you were looking for, say, dumb fortune cookies, you could type “dumb fortune cookies” into the Google search field, and the first entry to come up will be “www.dumbfortunecookies.com.” Try it!

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