Beginning Web Developer Course: Basic Search Engine Optimization

By David Fiedler

In the previous installment of this series, we pointed out that even a well-designed, high-tech website is useless without content. But even a great website with great content is useless if nobody knows about it, and that's why one of the main goals of any web developer is to own the top spot in the search engines - to be the first result when you search for the keywords associated with your site.

We're not going to discuss "secret" optimization tricks of the kind often sold in ebooks for incredible amounts of money, because most of those end up being detected and worked around by the likes of Google, Yahoo, and Bing. The really good techniques are the ones which are organic, or work in a natural way, because they aren't tricks at all, and become more powerful over time. These two approaches are sometimes known as "Black Hat" and "White Hat" techniques. Black Hat SEO isn't black magic or anything that will sully your soul; it's just more likely to get you into trouble with Google, and getting tossed out of Google is not my idea of a good day. For a quick overview of Black Hat techniques (in terms of what not to do), the Wikipedia article on "spamdexing" is a good start.

But even White Hat approaches can get you into trouble. In a number of landmark court cases, defendants were found to be guilty of trademark infringement for simply using their competitor's trademarked product names in a META tag. So let's be careful out there, while learning the basics.

SEO 101

So what are these mysterious META tags? They're simply HTML extensions that appear in the <HEAD> area of your HTML source code. Here are the (strictly White Hat!) tags ripped straight from the Webmaster Tips section page:
<META NAME="description" CONTENT="If you're a web developer or webmaster, 
this section is for you. With web development articles, tutorials, tips and 
tricks that you can use, HTMLGoodies will keep you informed!">
<META NAME="keywords" CONTENT="web development, webmaster, web design, 
tips and tricks, HTMLGoodies, HTML">
The Description tag contains a brief description of what's on the page. Write it well, and write it carefully, because this is exactly what a search engine will display when your page is found, and you want it to appeal very strongly to your target audience. Leave it out, and you're showing the world that you just don't care what people see when they find your site. You will now be able to spot careless webmasters easily, because when you Google their sites, they show up with whatever happens to be at the top of the page...maybe content (usually the wrong content), and maybe their fancy hierarchical menu!

The Keywords tag, obviously, is intended to contain your keywords and keyword phrases, separated by commas. A reasonable number of carefully-selected keywords, as illustrated here, is far better than blindly putting in every word you can think of that someone might type into a search engine to find your page. That was the prevailing "clever" technique five or ten years ago, but it doesn't work today. It can also lead to trouble...some with the search engines, and some with courts, as we mentioned above.

Good practice when working with these META tags is simply to take the time to use them. While it's true that META tags don't have the importance that they did ten years ago (and some search engines claim to ignore them completely), it's also true that they're so simple, many people simply ignore them, so that every page on their site will show up virtually identically in search engine results. Someone like you will then come along, carefully tune META tags for each of their pages, and suddenly you're not only showing up higher in the results, but with many different results all pointing to your site.

There Can Be Only One

Another easy-to-use White Hat "trick" is making sure the main headline on your page is actually HTML coded as the main headline, and by that we mean between <H1></H1> tags. There should be only a single H1 headline on a page, and it should be similar, but not identical, to the Description META tag. For instance, the headline on this article is "Beginning Web Developer Course: Basic Search Engine Optimization" while the Description could be something like "Basic Search Engine Optimization techniques are explained for beginning web developers". Using some of the same keywords in both of these (plus, of course, the Keywords META tag) will help the page score highly for those keywords, and even more when the actual content matches the description! That's the power and simplicity of White Hat SEO.

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