Web Developer Class: Understanding and Utilizing Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

By Michael Rohde

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a ways and means to help improve the amount of traffic that reaches your site from having your site appear in search engine results. Various forms of SEO have been around for many years. Ten years ago, if you wanted Yahoo and Alta Vista to index your site, you would have to perform rudimentary tasks such as using <META NAME> tags. These tags provided the basic information that let search engines know what your site was about, who wrote or created it, and when it was published. In addition, you could add meta tags to keep search engines away from certain pages that you didn't want the public to find. For example:
<META NAME="spiders" content="NOINDEX, NOFOLLOW">
At the beginning of the Century, web developers also created crawler pages, which they would then submit to the search engines. Still to this day, you can submit your site to the search engines in various ways. Yahoo operates a paid submission service that guarantees crawling for either a set fee or cost per click. Such programs usually guarantee inclusion in the database, but do not guarantee specific ranking within the search results. However, if you properly engage SEO techniques, paying for inclusion in search results, not including advertising, is the equivalent to unnecessarily spending money. Apart from Yahoo, Google offers Google WebMaster Tools. These tools allow you to create an XML Sitemap feed that you can submit for free to ensure that all of your web site pages are found.

These days, meta tags are no longer used, but the idea and basic premise of adding meta tags in web sites is still prevalent. The reason that meta tags are no longer used is because many marketing departments started cheating with their meta tags and took advantage of their purpose. Google discovered that not all meta tags pertained directly to the site and thus their search results were skewed and visitors were pointed to sites they might not necessarily have wanted to visit. Because of that, meta tags have evolved into the concept of keywords, the proper use of H1 tags and other techniques.

Of course, the same marketing departments that exploited meta tags try to exploit current SEO standards, but they are considered Black Hat organizations and their techniques can hurt them in the long run. Examples of black hat techniques include spamdexing (repeating unrelated phrases), link farms (any group of web sites that all hyperlink to every other site in the group), participating in keyword stuffing (when a web page is loaded with keywords in the meta tags or in content-pretty much an outdated technique) or article spinning (rewriting existing articles or parts of articles). Search engines are now set up to find black hat sites and then remove them from their indices. Your best bet to rank high in search results is to be honest with your SEO.

The best part of SEO, and the reason why marketing departments enjoy utilizing it, is that it's basically unpaid search results. Sure, you're paying your employees or using your own time to effectively put SEO into practice, but you're not buying advertisements.

Effective SEO requires the HTML to be configured correctly. Therefore, all web developers should be very familiar with SEO best practices. For example, search engines such as Google look for keywords within H1 tags. If your H1 tags contain the terms, "Fireworks safety precautions" then you are one step closer to optimizing your site to be placed in the search results when someone searches for "fireworks safety."

Another honest SEO technique is to social network your content. If many different sites contain links to your site, then you've taken another step to effective SEO. When blogs first made the scene, it was very common practice to do link sharing. For example, if you found five other blogs that all discussed cooking, and you have a cooking blog, then it would be great practice to place each other's links on all of the cooking blogs.

This practice is still performed today, but in the past few years it's slowly being replaced by linking to your site on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN, Digg, Reddit and other social networking sites. Another great idea is to submit your content to aggregator sites. For example, if your site focuses on video games, then it's a great idea to submit your articles to sites like N4G and Gamekicker. Chances are, if you are writing on a popular enough topic, then someone else has created an aggregator site to combine all the articles from all the different sites into one location.

This linking technique is crucial to Google to the point where they trademarked the term "Page Rank" and an extremely complex formula on how they determine search engine results. If you have the time and the patience, you can study theWikipedia page that breaks down the algorithm.

To oversimplify the algorithm, do what you can to get other sites to link back to your site and use keywords effectively. Make sure to use keywords in titles, to describe images and in links. All of this will improve your PageRank. To help determine which keywords are working for you, you can study the keywords visitors use to find your site. You can find this information within Google Analytics. If you have the resources you should also try and determine which keywords visitors use to find other sites that are similar to yours.

After all this, you might now be wondering, is my content appearing as search results? Enter Google one more time. You can set up a Google alert that informs you every time a new keyword appears as a search result. For example, you can set up a keyword alert for the name of your site. That way, every time the name of your site appears as a search result, you will be notified. This is also extremely helpful when other sites are referencing your site without your knowledge. It's always a nice feeling to know that another site picked up on one of your articles and is now referencing your site.

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