3 steps to improved web site findability, or: SEO the organic way

14th February, 2010

Article

There are a lot of SEO (search engine optimisation) consultancies out there who offer to boost your site into the upper reaches of the search engine results pages (or SERPs). High-end SEO techniques can be somewhat arcane, and keeping on top of what works and what doesn’t is a pretty full-time job — which is why I’m a designer, not an SEO consultant. But a fair bit of what is required to achieve decent search engine rankings can be done simply via the basic premise, design and upkeep of the site. This is sometimes called Organic SEO, and here are my tips for getting it to work for you.

1. Content is King

Fact: sites that contain healthy quantities of relevant and helpful material that is regularly updated or added to will fare much better with Google than those which contain just a few terse pages. Newspaper sites, for example, rank highly for that very reason, but blogs that have a specialist subject and structure their posts well (plenty of use of keywords, correct use of headings, etc) also do well. If your pages simply give brief, bare-bones descriptions of your products or services then you are unlikely to score as highly.

If SERPs placement is important to you it is, therefore, a smart idea to design your site from the outset so that it can be easily updated with fresh content — and then do so. (Look at the dates of recent postings on this site and you’ll see that I’m not the best example of a regular updater!). A blogging engine or basic CMS (eg. Wordpress or ExpressionEngine) is typically the easiest way to do this, although the new breed of ‘content editor’ services such as Cushy CMS, PageLime and Unify provide the ability to easily edit the content that you already have.

The content that you post should ideally be relevant to your site’s main subject, and original — don’t post other people’s articles, because apart from the copyright issues that this raises Google can detect duplicate content on different domains and will penalise you for it.

Your copy (that is, the text of the articles or blog posts) should try and make use of your key words or key phrases — those search terms for which you have decided to try and optimise the site. This aspect needs careful thought, as common search terms are hugely competitive (which, in pay-per-click terms, means expensive) and you are unlikely to get anywhere near the first few pages of search results. A better tactic might be to corner the results for certain, very specific searches — a technique known as Long Tail SEO.

2. Building pages: be as POSH as possible

By POSH, I’m referring to Plain Old Semantic HTML. Using the right element tag for the right job is one of the bedrocks of web standards. But it’s not just the standardistas who’ll love you for it; Google and Co. will appreciate your efforts also because it makes it easier for the search engine bots to divine the real meaning of a page. A well structured page, where the hierarchy of information is set forth by a solid structure of Heading tags (h1-h6) can go a long way to boosting your credibility with search engines everywhere.

Do not use tables for page layout (they reduce the ratio of content to code). Do not build your site entirely in Flash (search engines can read Flash content to an extent… but they don’t generally make a great job of it). Do not use Frames, otherwise your ‘framed’ content will most likely end up being viewed out of context, with all the other bits of your site — navigation, for example — missing. And do not, ever, have your text solely in the form of an image. Search engines cannot read an image of text any more than you can drive a photograph of a car.

Also, don’t forget to give your pages Title and Description tags and to include metadata as appropriate. And give your site a robots.txt file to prevent the search engine bots trying to (or succeeding in) indexing stuff that you’d rather they didn’t. It all helps.

3. Incoming!

Inbound links (that is, other people linking to you, not your page of links to other sites) are given significant weight by Google when it assesses how credible your page is. More inbound links, more credibility. But not all links are equal, and those from well respected sites (even if they’re only well-respected by Google) carry a lot more weight than those from some link farm in Chechnya.

Of course, inbound links are a lot harder to get than outward links. But one of the best ways to get them (and the most valuable in SEO terms) is, again, to have great content on your site. Aim to make your content so compelling, interesting, and just plain useful, that people will want to link to it from their site simply in order to make themselves look good and ‘in the know’.

To sum it all up

My belief is that if you look after the basics — good, fresh content, well-formed page markup, and inbound links — then a hefty proportion of your SEO work is already done. I’m hesitant to put numbers to it, but I’d guess that its probably about 60-75%. This is what is called Organic SEO. Going further than that is, of course, possible, but it can often involve hiring an SEO firm to perform a mixture of ‘out-fox Google’ jiggerypokery and pseudo-voodoo, and I, for one, am not convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs. I’m also certain that if you don’t attend to the fundamentals noted above, any professional SEO expertise is going to be more expensive than it might otherwise have been, because they’ll have more hurdles to overcome.

One last thing: If anyone ever guarantees that they can give you the no.1 spot on a Google results page for anything other than a ludicrously over-specific search phrase then they are lying. Google keep their page ranking algorithms notoriously secret, and every SEO ‘expert’ out there is, in reality, simply playing a well-educated game of Best Guess.

There are no guarantees in SEO. However, just by following a few simple rules you can often improve things considerably.

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