So What's this Search Engine Optimization Stuff All About then?
By Chris Ridings
© Chris Ridings
It's been a long time since I've written an article. To be perfectly honest I haven't seen the need to write another article about topics that have been covered so often. But this topic is different and is one that has been significant lately. This article is about the what and why's of Search Engine Optimization and is intended for web designers and clients.
Search Engine Optimization (henceforth abbreviated to SEO) is the optimization of web pages/sites to rank higher in the search engines. Here we're not talking about pay per click search engines where you bid for rank but normal algorithmic search engines such as Google. i.e. we're talking about free traffic. What makes SEO so significant in marketing web sites is it's extremely good return on investment.
One of the uninformed arguments that is often used against SEOs is that nobody can know how the search engines work. SEO is a science, whilst no-one can know the specifics we can know what improves ranking. The search engine is merely a black box.
Any black box takes an input, does something to it and produces an output. Let's take an example black box that isn't a search engine. If we feed the letter 'A' into this black box we can observe it outputs the letter 'B'. We might make a guess at this point that the black box outputs the letter after the letter input. We have a certain confidence in this theory that is quite small. If we then feed the letter 'B' into this black box we can observe it outputs the letter 'C'. We can be slightly more confident in our theory. If we then see that 'C' outputs 'D', 'D' outputs 'E' and so on we can start to get pretty confident in this theory. The point is that at this stage we don't know the specifics of how the black box works but we can be pretty sure that if we want it to output the letter 'R' then we should input the letter 'Q'.
Search Engines are the same as our black box. An SEO spends a great deal of time seeing what output comes from a search engine when particular web pages (each with unique properties/factors) is input into it.
It's not a precise science. Take our black box example. If we entered the letter 'Y' we'd expect it to output 'Z' but because we don't actually know how the black box works it might surprise us by outputting 'G'. So it's never 100% sure but it is clear that somebody that has analyzed the black box in depth is highly likely to be able to get it to produce any particular desired output.
If we think about search engines again the input is a search query, say 'gold dust', and the output is the list of web pages. A simplified view of SEO is that given enough time, knowledge, and probably money an SEO could achieve high rankings for any given term.
I say this is a simplification because some SEOs are cringing right now at the simplification. Why? Let's say your web site was selling home made cards. What point would there be to you being high in the rankings for 'scotch eggs'? None. There's clearly a second part to SEO - the business part and probably the most significant part.
SEO is also about picking the searches phrases that are best for the web pages to show up high for. Both in terms of the budget to achieve those high rankings and the return the web site owner gets from it (i.e. ROI). SEOs use analysis tools and research to try to work out which phrases best match the site and its goals. Having all the knowledge of how to rank highly in the search engines is of no use if it isn't applied correctly - what are the odds of someone searching for 'scotch eggs' actually wanting to buy a home made card? Practically none. So there goes another myth about SEO: contrary to some statement SEO is not detrimental to a user's search experience.
To put it simply what you can expect from a good SEO is to get your site to rank well for search phrases that relate to your site and its goals/purpose and in the most cost effective way possible. They will apply knowledge which is gathered from a lot of observations and will often make several adjustments to get your site the best ranking possible.
Ready for the down side? Everything I've written above is about good SEOs (Search Engine Optimizers). Clearly because we're working in a black box scenario one of the things that the industry suffers from is the fact nothing can ever be 100% proved. That makes it easy for people who don't actually know anything about SEO to proclaim themselves SEOs. The industry has its share of bad eggs who could do more damage than good for your site. Whilst the number of bad eggs is often, in my opinion, significantly overstated you would be wise to do your research before hiring your SEO. You wouldn't hire a designer without seeing samples of their work would you? The same is true for SEOs.
Now you have an understanding of SEO and how it's achieved. Let's talk about it within the design process. To do that we need to understand the types of techniques an SEO can use to improve rankings. There are essentially two types: off page factors, and on the page factors. Off page factors means things like links to the site which has no effect on design. On the page factors mean things within the source code of the web pages. i.e. it could effect design. Let's repeat that "on the page factors could effect design".
Let's cut to the chase here. You could have the spiffiest, flashiest, most well designed, well written, syntactically perfect web site in the whole wide world but I'm guessing you probably want someone to see it right? Unless you're megacorp then most of those people seeing it are probably going to be from search engine traffic. Without that traffic then spending that cash on the spiffiest, flashiest, most well designed, well written, syntactically perfect web site was a waste of money. So although SEO does impose some limits on design (in my opinion not very significant ones) it's a compromise that only the barmy wouldn't make.
Web designers, of course, will agree with me because they want their customers to be happy, to meet their goals and they probably want to design for more than the few customers who don't require search engine traffic.
Basically, what I'm saying is that the SEO and web design industries have a little recognised symbiotic relationship. Interestingly it's a symbiosis between a science (SEO) and an art (Web Design).
Before the stubborn few give me examples of sites that rank well without having used an SEO let me just say that they are the significant minority and they could all DO BETTER WITH AN SEO.
Because SEO sometimes involves on the page work it is something that is ideally thought about during the web design process. Some designers dislike SEOs because they change things in their designs. Why do they do that? Because the design has been done first with no consideration for how the site is going to attract visitors. This problem is instantly eliminated if an SEO is brought in at the beginning of the design stage. Because SEOs also do a lot of research into the phrases people are likely to use to find the site there may also be information about the target user that arises that would be useful to designers.
In general an SEO can work on a site after it has been designed but it's much harder. An SEO will always try to preserve the design of a site but small changes are sometimes needed. Generally SEOs coming across such a site will work on off the page factors first to see how good a ranking can be achieved and then change on the page factors only if they are strictly necessary. The finished result is unlikely to be significantly different but it may change slightly.
As if to prove me right there are a small but growing number of companies that combine SEO and design into one process. Other design companies have relationships with SEOs they like to deal with. Both are positive moves as far as site owners are concerned. My personal preference if I was having a site designed would be to opt for one who had a relationship with a professional SEO who did only SEO (or at least a design company who has a full time SEO) both jobs are highly skilled and specialized.
Instead of a summary I'm just going to list a few bullet points of what I've said here:
o SEO is about getting search engine traffic for phrases that suit your site and its purpose
o The search engines give the traffic for free so whilst you pay to have your site SEOd the ROI is one of the best available
o SEO can be done to pre-existing sites but some parts of SEO can impact design so it is even better when incorporated into the design process
o SEO is a specialized skill requiring lots of observations of how the black box (the search engines) works
o SEO and Web Design is a little realized symbiotic relationship - you want visitors to that perfect site right? And you want them to have a perfect site to go to?
o For the vast majority of sites search engine traffic is the most significant form of traffic
o Some design companies (thankfully) incorporate SEO into the process either by themselves or through a relationship with a professional SEO. Get one of those (or if you're a designer - be one of those)
o Ignorance doesn't make your profits go up : If you still don't understand SEO then do some research. You might start at my forum: http://www.searchguild.com or take a look at some of the big name resource sites: http://www.searchenginewatch.com , http://www.pandia.com/searchworld