In some people’s minds Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is an art darker than witchcraft; to others, it’s something incredibly proscriptive: do A, B, and C, and you’ll be number one in Google searches. Fortunately, SEO is not voodoo (or my pantry would be filled with chicken necks and newts instead of olive oil and cereal), but unfortunately it is not as simple as checking off boxes on a to-do list. It’s somewhere in between, and far more interesting.
Google doesn’t reveal the exact parameters collected and processed by its famous algorithm and its web-crawling “robots” (the automated programs that access websites to catalog them for Google); to do so would tip its multibillion dollar hand. SEO experts do have a few sources to go on. For instance, Google publishes a guide to SEO for webmasters. (The words of Google engineers are analyzed like the congressional testimonies of Alan Greenspan.) Others have attempted to reverse engineer Google’s algorithm themselves.
So then, SEO is pretty simple: make a site that’s great for people, and Google will reward you. That sounds awfully zen, and I think the truth is a little more complicated. For instance, Google says they’re trying to hone their algorithm to think like a person, but in reality, the algorithm is thinking how Google engineers think people think.
What does that mean for you? Though I don’t pretend to be an SEO expert, I’ve read through some SEO advice and source material, and I think there are some fundamental tenants:
Content. Your content should be well-structured. From the very beginning, we ask our clients to create content that is hierarchical and well-organized. It’s a good idea to start from an outline and work from there.
Keywords. When developing content, make a list of keywords that fit your organization and/or content. Use these keywords on all levels of your structural outline.
Links. Every page of your site should have a link out. It’s not necessarily true that the more links on your page, the better (there’s a risk that Google will think your page is spam and lower its ranking). Also, and perhaps more crucially, you need to get other sites to link to you, especially high-quality sites. Google puts special weight on .edu and .org sites that link to yours.
No dirty tricks. Stay away from so-called “black hat” techniques…like loading your page with irrelevant keywords, creating multiple sites with duplicate content, using affiliate programs to populate links, and so forth.
If you’re interested in learning about SEO in greater detail, the team at SEOmoz has put together a (long) Beginner’s Guide to SEO. I haven’t read the whole thing, but at least it has some nice illustrations!