February 19, 2014

By Lila Wallrich

SEO (or “Search Engine Optimization” for the uninitiated or imprisoned) is perhaps the most mythologized and misunderstood abbreviation in the Internet alphabet soup. Achieving top rankings in search results is highly sought, involves many factors and is often hard to tell if you’re doing it right. This combination of hype and uncertainty incentivizes many business owners to pay an expert and hope for the best. It likewise incentivizes many web developers to become “SEO experts,” overpromise on results and move on to the next client before the prior one figures out what just happened. (By the way, anyone who guarantees “top ranking” is to be treated with utmost suspicion and a red hot poker.)

So let’s bust some myths and set the record straight on the most salient details.

The hard truth about truly optimized SEO is that it

• Takes considerable planning during initial web development
• Requires maintenance thereafter
• Is prone to circumstances beyond your control

While Google isn’t the only search engine around, it’s the only one that matters, so let’s not pretend otherwise. Google freely offers general guidelines for doing SEO right and just about all of it can be accomplished without a degree in computer science. However, Google is also secretive about the finer details of how it ranks sites and has gotten pretty good at detecting and punishing companies that attempt to game the system. Your best bet is to perform the recommended due diligence rather than seek easy short cuts.

Because honest SEO takes time and effort, it doesn’t come cheap. So, if you’re thinking of having a site built, or goosing the ranking of an existing site, let’s give you a better sense of what you’re really paying for—or how to save money by taking on some of the tasks yourself.

Massage the Metadata
Many Americans became familiar with the term “metadata” when they learned the National Security Agency collects our telephone metadata. (The data is the conversation; the metadata is information about the conversation—your number, the number you called, how long you talked.) On a website, the metadata comes down to the unique names and phrases you use to describe elements throughout the site. This helps Google (and users) know what they’re looking at. For example, on a bakery site, a descriptive page name such as “Custom Cakes” is better than something generic like “Products.”

Same goes for the images you use. The website visitor just sees a pretty picture, but Google reads the image’s filename and the embedded description so it can direct users to content they’re searching for. Therefore, it would be better to name that image file “double-chocolate.jpg” rather than keep the alphanumeric gibberish name created by the camera.

There are actually many more similar details to plan for and technical tweaks to consider, but ultimately it comes down to clearly labeling every asset that comes with a website.

Make it User-friendly—and User-tempting
The way Google sees things, it exists to help users find quality content. It has designed its software to value intuitive navigation across multiple pages covering unique topics. To illustrate this point with a common mistake, consider the entrepreneur who assumes the best way to convince the world of his commitment to service is to sprinkle familiar promises and buzzwords all throughout the site. For the data-driven reader, being forced to wade through mission statement verbiage at every turn is tedious and unhelpful. A website should contain no unnecessary words or pages, just as a machine should have no unnecessary parts. Each inclusion should say something valuable and distinct.

You also want to help lead the reader along in their search. To steer them toward more detailed information on your new chainsaw, for example, it’s better to use a descriptive text link such as “Discover the benefits of a self-sharpening chainsaw” rather than the sadly familiar refrain of “For more information, click here.”

In short, each page should serve a unique function and include the kind of wayfinding tools that makes it easy for readers to find relevant information, both on your site and on other sites.

Now that You’re Done, You’re Not Actually Done
Quality isn’t everything. SEO is also a popularity contest. Consider two side-by-side retail stores that sell the same products with the same descriptions and prices. However, the store on the left simply posts its name and business hours on the door. The store on the right puts some thought and creativity into the display window and a changes it regularly to pique passerby curiosity with new promotions, new products or even just a funny observation. The web version of this store will attract more traffic just as surely as its brick and mortar counterpart would. When Google discovers new content on your site, that’s an SEO plus.

Google also looks for outsiders linking to your site. So if you’re constantly creating fresh content (such as in a monthly blog) and promoting it through social media, email blasts and other such means, you are more likely to create buzz in the public sphere and encourage links back to your site. Establishing that kind of popularity (especially if you’re a new kid on the block) takes time and dedication, but it pays in the long run.

Finally, Google provides free analytical tools that allow you to collect information about the nature of your web traffic. This can help you identify what’s your most and least popular content, make tweaks accordingly and quantify the results of those tweaks. Learning to use these tools doesn’t take a genius, but a knack for analytical thought does help. It also helps to pay attention when Google announces that it’s modifying the rules of the game, which it does regularly.

You’re Not Alone
SEO is not absolute. It’s relative. Even after your diligence has built the kind of ranking you’d hoped for, new competitors may always enter and disrupt your environment. Popular upstarts could very well knock you off your Page One perch. This is just one more reminder that decent ranking requires a well-built site, but great ranking requires regular maintenance and a commitment to growing your audience.

If you want people to find your business online, allow for the time and budget it will take to help search engines make the introduction.

We would, of course, be happy to help with that.


Recent Industry Posts