Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) - it doesn't have to be expensive

The important thing to remember with website ranking on search engines is that nothing is going to change overnight. It’s a long, slow process of refinement and improvement as the web crawlers re-visit your site and gain a better understanding of it and how it relates to other sites. Unlike a TV or magazine campaign that can have a response within minutes or days a SEO campaign (like a brand awareness campaign) can take weeks or months to become really effective. Anyone who tells you different is just after a nice (usually fat) fee.


These are very important as they allow you to provide a description for the site and a selection of keywords to help the various engines categorise you. Ideally the title, description and keywords would be relevant to the purpose page itself (ie not generic across the site) – so people get what they’re expecting when they click on a link – and match the actual text on the content of the page (if you have keywords that are not in the body text on the page then their value is reduced from a search perspective).

The keywords (and body copy) on pages should match the search terms / criteria that you expect your target audience to come looking on. It doesn’t do any harm to examine competitors tags (and remember, they’ll do the same to you) to see what makes them successful! Asking people in the target market what they’d expect to search on to find the site and make sure that their feedback is integrated into the copy and keyword development process also avoids taking too narrow a view.

(1) Title should not exceed 64 characters (including spaces) and the description and keywords should be less than 250 characters.
(2) Don’t ‘spam’ your own pages with hidden keywords that are visible to a search engine but not a human viewer. It’s a bad (discredited) technique.
(3) the different search engines use different criteria to rank (eg Google and Yahoo!) so make sure you use a balance of techniques.

Descriptive text for images.
If you have an image on the site with a meaningless filename and no alt tag it effectively makes it useless to search engines. Not having an alt tag also means that users viewing the site with images turned off are unable to interact fully (both for navigation for sighted users or screen readers for sight impaired)

Internal linking.
The easier it is for a human to get from one part of the site to another, the easier it is for a search engine (and the more inter-connected the site appears to be).

Any content that is three or more clicks from the homepage (or hard to navigate back out of to the homepage or other content) has a reduced perceived value for the site.

Don’t always link just to the page itself, use anchor tags (on destination pages, and within the current page itself) to make for an apparently more complex site.
External linking.
In conjunction with the in-coming links (described below) where other sites add to your value by directing visitors to you, you can also influence that by linking to popular / valuable sites (much as a textbook cites references).

How interconnected a site is counts as a metric that search engines can employ when ranking. Isolated, insular sites with no external links (in or out-bound) tend to rate lower than sites where the boundaries are less obvious.
Don’t hide your content (why Frames, JavaScript and Flash are not a search engines friend).
While dynamic displays using javascript to load content onto a page if it’s not there and visible (in some form) in the raw page that the engine sees then it can’t index it.

If you use frames make sure there is a <noframes>…</noframes> version containing important content.

If you make use of javascript to load navigation or content, make sure there is a <noscript>…</noscript> version that makes the links and content visible.

Acrobat documents, Flash and copy in graphics are, to a large extent, less visible to a search engine than pure HTML text. Most of the search engines can handle PDF and Word documents but hide vital copy in a SWF or GIF then don’t expect it to get indexed.
Validate the HTML and CSS.
While it’s not going to hurt much, having invalid HTML or CSS on your site may impact the ability of a search engine to extract meaningful content. Test your pages with the W3C Validator to make sure they're good.
This is a file stored on the server which tells search engines where they can, and can’t go. The simplest form provides explicit permission to go everywhere (if no file is present that is the implicit assumption). If there are pages you don’t want appearing in search engine results then they should be explicitly excluded using a robots.txt file.
Note: Secured pages (eg hidden behind a password pop-up or logon screen) won’t be indexed as the search engine has no way of entering a username/password.

There is only so much that you can do on the site itself to get it ready and optimised for search engines. There are also some things you should avoid (multiple entry pages filled with keywords that simply redirect to the homepage, pages that appear differently to search engines than human visitors, ‘welcome’ pages with a flash intro that don’t give engines anything to find etc)

Most of your work takes place ‘off-site’, and these activities will have more of a long term effect than any in-house changes (although unless they are also optimised the off-site work will be, to an extent, wasted):

Register your site with search engines.
This is best done manually. Initially just pick the ‘big’ engines and directories (Google, MSN, Yahoo, A9 etc) to focus your efforts on – while the smaller engines may generate traffic it will be at a much lower return for your effort.

If there are specific engines that serve the target market don’t forget them – if you use a search engine on a daily basis chances are so do your prospects.
Some search engines provide free listing inclusion, and some also offer a premium ‘quick turnaround’ – this may or may not be of value to you and should be viewed as part of a long-tail advertising activity rather than having a tactical quick ROI.
Ensure your site is registered with Alexa. (part of Amazon and the A9 search engine) ranks sites according to reach and traffic for people with the Alexa/Amazon/A9 toolbars installed. It provides site information and a matrix of where people visit it from and where they go (and related, possibly competitor, sites). You should ensure that the site contact details are up-to-date, and consider getting a customer to write a site reference.
Check your site reputation with anti-phishing tools.
A concern that many web-surfers have today is that sites cannot be trusted. Check your rating with the anti-phishing capabilities in toolbars such as Netcraft (IE and Firefox) and the MSN add-in for their toolbar (IE only).
This is probably the single most important thing you can get. It does not matter how good your site is, how well crafted your keywords and copy are – you live and die by your page rank. A great site with no incoming links is an undiscovered country. While it may make a great holiday destination there are no major airlines serving it so the only visitors will be people who already know about it.

You need to get other sites (ideally high-traffic, popular sites) to include links to you. Getting people to mention the site (with a link) in forum posts, blog entries and travel journal sites also helps add to the credibility.

Adding your site to free-for-all link exchanges and other ballot-box stuffing measures will hurt your site in the long term as most of these schemes rapidly become discredited and sites using them correspondingly ‘marked down’.

Links from a high traffic, highly popular, highly ranked site helps to mark your site up – if they consider your site to have value then part of their reputation ‘rubs off’ onto you by association.
Build a Google Sitemap.
This helps Google to navigate your site and find relevant content.
Buy Adwords or advertising on third party sites.
Some may view it as cheating, and it’s only effective as long as you keep paying money (although it can be a good stop-gap until you reach the tipping point and attain a good, sustained, page rank on the search engines) but purchasing adwords (for Google. Yahoo and MSN have their own equivalents), advertising with specific sites or through a trafficking agency will (hopefully, depending on selection of keywords and choice of creative) drive some traffic to the site.

Even if nothing above makes sense… have a read of Googles SEO advice for webmasters - it helps to dispel a lot of the myths about SEO and the miracles that some people may claim to offer. While some things that are relevant to Google the rules can be different for MSN or Yahoo! Common sense, a long term plan, and a willingness to tweak the text content (including things like Alt tags on images) and actively pursue links from relevant sites to help the search engines find relevant content will pay off.

Remember the different search engines use different criteria to rank (eg Google and Yahoo!) so make sure you use a balance of techniques and keep up-to-date on what they are recommending, a well as reputable third parties.

Good luck, and if you'd like a cost effective personal review of your site feel free to contact us,

If this information has saved you time, effort and making an expensive mistake, maybe you'd like to

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