This morning I attended a Sitepoint webinar with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) experts Kristen Holden and Mike Hudson. In a field beleaguered by snake oil merchants and charlatans, it’s good to get some plain old commonsense advice on the topic, so I’m writing this post in an attempt to crystallise some of the ideas in my own mind and share a brief outline of the important points.

What is SEO?

In the most literal sense, SEO means what it says – optimising your website so it can be easily found and indexed by search engines. If you just put a website up without SEO, there’s a good chance your site won’t be found, no matter how good it is. I’ve seen businesses here in Tasmania with websites (often those built in Flash) that don’t come up on Google even if you search for the exact business name and town – a good indication that something has not been done correctly right from the beginning.

But simply being found isn’t enough – you need to be found by the right users. There’s little point getting to the top of Google results if the users that search brings to your site don’t find what they want.

Another important aspect of SEO is online reputation management. You may not be able to control what others say about you or your company online, but you can do a lot to counter any negative or inaccurate material by working to make sure the information you want seen comes up higher in search results. (Antony Mayfield’s book and blog Me and My Web Shadow is an excellent resource on this subject.)

The good news is, SEO is not black magic; a lot of it just comes down to common sense. While the algorithms that search engines use to decide how to rank pages are extremely complex, there’s plenty of good commonsense things you can do that will start you out on a good footing.

SEO is the foundation of your website, not an add-on

The mistake many people make is putting up a website first and then thinking about optimising it for search engines. Search engine optimisation should begin before a line of website code is written, and a good web developer will incorporate this as part of the process right from square one.

Right from the start, you need to think about questions such as:

  • What is the purpose of the site?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What keywords and phrases might they be searching with?
  • How will they find what they want once they’ve got to my website?
  • What do I want them to do once they arrive on the site? (buy something, sign up to a mailing list, etc.)

All these things should be thought out first, before deciding on the information architecture, or structure of your site. Sit down, work out what the site’s about, what’s important, and how the information will be put together.

Optimise for your users, not for search engines

Contradictory as it may sound, often the best way to rank in search engines is – don’t think about the search engine. Start by thinking what your site visitors will want.

  • High quality, relevant content – post good content
  • Up-to-date information – post regular updates
  • Easy to find information – organise your content logically

Focus on the quality, not the quantity of backlinks

Beware the “SEO specialist” who offers to get you thousands of backlinks for a fee. Like most things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This is the point that was reiterated throughout this morning’s seminar – one quality backlink is worth more than thousands of low quality links.

So how to get quality backlinks?

  • Write good content that people will want to link to and share.
  • Good old fashioned PR – Contact bloggers or owners of reputable websites in your field who you think may review or share your page with their readers. Email people (but don’t spam them), get your name known.
  • Encourage links to specific pages, not just your home page – include unique information on all your sub-pages.
  • Participate actively and helpfully in forums relevant to your field (don’t comment just for the sake of dumping a link!)
  • If there are REPUTABLE online directories for your field, ensure you are registered there. Directories that are vetted by a human being are worth much more than ones you can just submit to automatically.

Unfortunately there is no quick and easy way to building quality backlinks, it is something that should be considered as part of your entire marketing strategy.

Five things to improve search engine ratings

  1. Do your research – understand what people are coming to your website for, and what search terms they are likely to be using.
  2. Have unique and high quality content, and update it regularly.
  3. Make sure your content is organised properly and grouped in relevant ways.
  4. Get the right kind of backlinks.
  5. Get links to the right pages.

What shouldn’t I do?

Avoiding doing the wrong thing is as important, or even more important, than doing the right things. Some of these “black hat SEO” methods can end up getting you banned, and it can be a long slow process to claw your way back from there. A good rule of thumb one of the presenters mentioned is “use your conscience – if you think what you’re doing is a bit dodgy, it probably is.” A few things you definitely shouldn’t be doing include:

  • Paying for links
  • Paying for reviews
  • Dumping links on forums, blog comments etc.
  • Stuffing meta tags with keywords – search engines these days pay little or no attention to keyword tags, due to too many people trying to use this practice to boost their rankings through this method.

To this I’d add one more that wasn’t discussed specifically this morning – don’t put essential content exclusively in Flash or images. If a text-only browser can’t read your site, Google probably can’t either.

Even in a simple one-hour webinar there was way too much discussed to cover in a single blog post, but I’ve tried to get the important points together here as a bit of a starter guide on the topic. Thanks to Sitepoint for hosting this helpful webinar!