SEO 101: Back to the Basics and Why You Should Care

Why you need to know the basics of SEO, and how to improve your website’s search engine ranking.

Quick: who’s your SEO expert?

If your answer is “me,” “nobody,” or “what’s SEO?”, then it’s probably time for a refresher.

First, the Basics

When you do a search on Google, Bing, Yahoo!, or one of the many specialty search engines, you typically get two sets of results: one is essentially paid advertising, where a business pays the search engine provider to place their ads at the top of the list for a given set of search terms. The other is the actual search results, determined by querying the search engine’s vast index of websites.

The order in which the results are listed is not random. Search engine companies devote a good chunk of their R&D budgets to fine-tuning the sophisticated algorithms they use in an attempt to order the results by relevance to the original search terms.

A web search typically produces millions upon millions of search results. Obviously, not all of them will fit on the first page, which users almost never navigate past. The key, therefore, to getting your site on that first page of results lies in understanding the ranking algorithms that the search engines use, and crafting the content of your website accordingly.

Search engines are notorious both for keeping these algorithms a closely guarded trade secret, and for tweaking them from time to time, which makes the task of understanding them that much harder. This science (or art) is called search engine optimization, or SEO. A whole industry of SEO consultants has grown up around the fact that the search engines are so secretive about their algorithms.

Why You Should Care

It’s easy to think that most or all of your site visitors either already know how to find your site, or would simply search for your business name. In real life, the vast majority of web traffic is driven by search engines rather than traditional advertising media.

Not everyone knows your business name or has ever even heard of you, but if they search for something you sell, shouldn’t your business be at the top of the list, or close to it? Of course it should— and knowing what your site visitors want is an important way to get new customers. To be listed at or near the top of the search result list, you need an SEO strategy.

An SEO strategy consists of making sure that those aspects of your site that the search engines emphasize in their algorithms are designed to maximize the relevance to users’ search terms.

Understanding SEO Algorithms

Because no one outside of Google (and probably very few insiders) know the details of Google’s ranking algorithm, SEO is mostly educated guesswork, but we do know a couple of things that the algorithms consider important:

Navigable site structure: Your home page should have links to every important page in your site, and those pages should have links too. A search engine’s web crawler program should be able to discover your entire site through the links on its pages. Having a site map page helps the web crawlers even more, because all the links are in one place. If you run an e-commerce site, there should be a URL for every product category and every product.

Keywords are… well, key: Every page in your site should have keywords in the content. Keywords are simply the terms that users will type into the search fields on their favorite search engines.

Coming up with good keywords requires some detective work, because the search terms that real visitors use aren’t necessarily those that immediately leap to mind. Do some market research among your existing and prospective customers to find out what search terms they use for the products or services you sell. Then, use these keywords in the content of each page:

  • The text itself
  • Headings, especially the main heading on each page
  • The title tag, which should include both a reasonable title for the page and your brand
  • The meta description tag, which search engines use to display a short description of the page in the search results
  • The “alt=” text of key images, such as a product photo
  • The URL

Working keywords into the text of a page in a way that reads naturally takes some skill.

These are the main things that search engines consider, although there are many more tweaks that can be done to improve a site’s search rankings. Your web developer will be familiar with technical strategies, and there ad many online resources than can guide you in doing the market research, crafting effective keywords, and working them into your content.

How to find these resources? Do a search, of course. The real experts in SEO will be at the top of the list.