Saturday, May 10, 2008

Understanding Search Engine Optimization

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SEO Explained for Small Business Owners

Posted: 14 Apr 2008 08:17 PM CDT

SEO explained for Small Business
Let’s face it. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a complicated subject—and not only is it complicated, but the professionals don’t even agree about what works best.

On the other hand, it’s become pretty obvious that SEO is no longer something businesses can ignore. Especially small businesses.

Where does SEO fit in with small businesses, home businesses, and freelancers? How can a small business owner make sense of the many parts? Is SEO practical or effective for small business?

These are all questions I’ve been asked repeatedly by clients, and I’m pretty sure they are questions that are on the minds of many business owners out there. With that as my motive, I’ve created this article to explain everything a business owner should (and shouldn’t) know about SEO.

What is SEO and Why You Should Care

Google Search Example
Search Engine Optimization is about getting more traffic by improving your rank in organic search. By organic search, I mean free search. So at it’s root, SEO is about getting free long-term exposure for your business.

Now there is an important distinction to make regarding types of SEO. There are generally considered two types of SEO, white-hat and black-hat, and they vary based on their primary goal. White-hat SEO is about making your site easy for Google to read, creating valuable content with relevant keywords, and building links in an honest fashion (more on these later). Black-hat SEO is pretty much about tricking Google into ranking higher, and doing anything dishonest to influence your search positions. There are several blurry areas, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to stay firmly within white-hat territory.

Now that we have that finished, let’s move on to the interesting parts.

Why you should care about SEO

The internet is only growing, and people are spending more and more time immersed in its digital waters. At the very center of this trend are search engines—they are the primary way of finding or being found on the internet. SEO is about getting you ranked well and helping you profit from search engines.

  • SEO brings traffic. As in, people looking at your business.
  • SEO increases visibility, so your business can be found.
  • If you set yourself up correctly you can benefit for years.
  • SEO helps manage your company’s reputation online.
  • SEO is a necessary step to marketing your business online.

If you want to expand your business onto the internet, there really isn’t another choice but to understand and implement good SEO practices. Without them, chances are you won’t get very far online.

Code, URLs, and Crawlability

The first step in optimizing your site for search engines lies with making the code and URLs of your website “crawlable”. Just as a quick warning, these are things you should know about, but you should probably have your web guru implement them.

The code

Basically, in order for you to rank and get traffic from Google or other search engines, they have to be able to read your website. The key point is that search engines can only read text. This means all of your images should have a textual description, you should have a lot of textual content, and you shouldn’t have an entirely flash or javascript website.

Here’s a quick test to see if search engines can read your site. Run your website through this Keyword Cloud tool and look at the different keywords that come up. If there are a lot of them, and they accurately describe your site, then the search engines can read it. If there are only a few words, or none at all, then you probably have a code problem. I’d go to your webmaster from there.
Good and bad code structure

The URLs

Once search engines can read your website, they index (save and file) each page based on the unique URL (the address you type into the bar). This is important because some websites don’t have a unique URL for each page, which leads to the content getting all mixed up in the search engines. If your website does this, chances are you won’t rank well in Google or any other engines. Take a look at the picture below for examples of good and bad URLs.

Not only are unique URLs important, but having keywords in the URL is also important. Search engines count URL and Title Bar keywords heavily, and if you aren’t using them then you’re missing out on a vital piece of SEO.
Good URLs and Bad URLs


This is something that we’ll look at more in the content section, but it needs to be at least brought up with regard to code. A properly optimized website will use semantic code to market headings, paragraphs, lists, etc… This means that each part of your content is given a relative importance. Google uses this prioritization to figure out which keywords are important, so you should ask your webmaster to make sure your website is coded properly to use these standards.

Content and Keywords

The content and keywords of your website are both things you probably have control over (you might even be able to edit them yourself), and are both parts of SEO that you can implement yourself.


Content includes any text, images, audio, or video that you put on your website. For this article we’ll focus on text, since it is the primary way Google understands your website. The others need to be described with text in order for Google to register them.

Here’s the simple overview of content and SEO:

  1. Content is good
  2. More content is better
  3. Lots of content is the best

Content is what search engines rank. If you have a lot of content, you will have more pages that can rank, and more ways to get traffic. So the more content you have, the better.
More content is good

But it’s not quite that simple, content quality is very important. A high quality article will get a lot of traffic from social media and will get more links, which is a big factor in SEO (see the next big section). Also good content will be relevant to your website and have relative keywords in it. So don’t just throw up a crappy page and expect it to rank well—your content needs to be well thought out and provide some good value.


When Google reads your content, it distills everything into a list of keywords (check out this tool for an example). It is those keywords and phrases that control what searches your website will show up for, so they are of crucial importance.

There are three important things to consider when looking for keywords. Is the keyword relevant to my business? How often is the keyword searched for? How competitive is the keyword?

Keyword Relevance You want to find keywords that have to do with your business so that they will bring in traffic that is valuable to you. A good way to come up with relevant keywords is to just brainstorm and come up with a list of words and phrases your target customer might use to find your website.

Keyword Popularity You need to find keywords and phrases that are being searched for regularly, or else you might rank #1 and get no traffic. Once you’ve got a list of relevant keywords I recommend using the excellent SEO Book Keyword Tool from Aaron Wall. It will show you how many times your phrase is searched for daily, and lists any variations that are also being searched for.
SEO book keyword popularity tool

Some Keywords are DifficultKeyword Difficulty Once you have a nice list of popular and relevant keyword phrases, it’s time to cross out most of them. Many keyword phrases, and most individual words, are extremely competitive and very difficult to rank for. When you’re just starting out, it’s best to go for the easy ones first. Here’s a tool that you can use to find keyword difficulty. I’d make sure to start with your least difficult phrases.

Content Structure

It’s important to structure your content in a way that is semantically correct. This means using the right heading style for each heading, and using them in order of importance. A properly structured page will look like an outline with big headlines, little headlines, and paragraphs. This semantic structure helps accessibility, helps people scan your pages, and help search engines rank you properly. Here’s an example of good and bad page structure:
semantic content structure

Popularity, Links, and PageRank

Once you’ve dealt with code, content, and keywords, the rest of SEO is kind of like a big popularity contest based on who links to you. Each website that links to you is saying “hey, this site is cool” so your ranking goes up a little. But it goes a step further than that.

Do you remember what happened in high-school when one of the cool kids said something was cool? That something all of a sudden became much more popular than if a normal kid had said it was cool. Google works in much the same way—links from authority sites count much more than links from a new website. The end result of all of this is something Google calls PageRank, similar to link popularity in other search engines, all of which is basically a measure of how important your website is online.

More Links, Higher PageRank, Better Rankings

Links are good
In order to give your site more weight, and get ranked higher, you need to build links from other websites—especially authority sites (sites with high trust and high PageRank). There are many different ways to get links to your site, some are good, and some are bad.

Some good ways to get links include quality directory listings, blog comments, writing articles, guest posts on blogs, and social media. Here is a great article about the fundamentals of link building if you want some more information.

Get Trustworthy and Natural Links

Probably because of the number of people competing for search rankings, it has become reasonably common for businesses to try cheating the system. Most of this cheating involves the process of automatic link building, and most of the time it works terribly.

In order to defeat the cheaters, Google has made trust a key element of ranking well. This trust is not built upon the number of links you have, but on the type and quality of each link, and the overall appearance of all of your links (your link profile). Because of this trust system, it’s very important for you to get links naturally and really aim for quality links.

Link Quality

Getting a quality link has several parts to it:

Originating Page The page that the link comes from needs to be a quality page, with relevant content, and not too many other links. If the page is a “links page” and has little text and mostly other links, it probably isn’t a great source. Also important is finding a page that has a relatively high PageRank itself.

Anchor Text Anchor text is the text that actually links to your website. Good anchor text will have relevant keywords in it. Bad anchor text will be irrelevant or just a URL.

No-Follow This point needs to be here for accuracy, but it definitely complicates the matter and is something that you should probably ignore if you’re new to this. Basically, a link can be formatted such that it won’t transfer any benefits to your site. These links are called “No-Follow” links, and shouldn’t necessarily be avoided (they can still send traffic) but they won’t help your search engine rankings.

Basically, you’re looking for other up-standing citizens of the internet who will link to your content because it provides value. If you try to pay for links, or get free links with no editorial control (anyone can get in), chances are you’ll end up with low quality links.

Getting Links With Content

One of the best ways to generate links is by creating outstanding content and publishing it on your website—you want to create the type of article that is so in-depth, or of such high quality, that other people can’t help but link to it. This type of content is often called linkbait because it is designed to get links. Some people find that a term a bit spammy, but either way the fact remains that you can get good links by creating really valuable content.

Should You Pay For This Stuff?

Whether or not you should pay for SEO services depends on your situation and your marketing goals. If you want to build a popular website that generates a significant number of leads, it’s probably going to be necessary to get some SEO help. On the other hand, if you only have a business card website that helps you sell in person, and don’t really want to sell or market online, then it might not be worth the time or expense to go after search traffic.

Consider whether or not you’ll be able to get a return on your SEO investment. If you send more people there, will your earnings go up?

If your website can’t generate leads, or sell your product, or make money, then you might want to think about that in more detail before investing in SEO.

When thinking about investing in SEO, it’s a good idea to see what resources you can afford to spend. You may be in a position where you want to pay someone to do all of the work for you, or you might be in a situation where it’s better to spend the time and do it yourself.

Whatever your situation, I always recommend hiring a professional to deal with things like code and website structure. It’s very rarely worth it to learn highly technical parts, especially considering they change frequently in SEO. The content and link building are things you can do on your own if you have the time and energy.

Further Reading

Search Engine Optimization is a huge topic, with thousands of articles written about each and every part. For those of you that still have questions, or want to look into things in more detail, I highly recommend the following resources:

The SEO Success Pyramid — This is a fantastic visual resource put together by a friend of mine named Matt McGee. It’s one of the best explanations of SEO that I’ve ever seen.
The Blogger’s Guide to SEO — This is a great overview article that goes into more specifics and details of search engine optimization. Most (if not all) of the advice Aaron Wall gives for bloggers applies just as well to small business owners and freelancers.
Search Engine Guide — Search Engine Guide is an excellent resource for all sorts of small business information and search marketing information. It’s one of my favorites.

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