NOTE: This was originally published in December 2006. Some of the tips here may be seriously out of date. Feel free to comment if you think that’s the case. I’m republishing it here as I aggregate my online writing into one place.
Are you popular on the web? Can people find your site with little effort? Odds are that answers are probably NO and it’s all your fault. If you really want to increase your ranking on popular search engines such as Google, MSN and Yahoo, all you have to remember are a few little things.
Write content real people want to read.
The most common suggestion amongst the search engine optimization (SEO) experts is that all the content should be written so that people will want to read it, will remember your main points, and will hopefully tell their friends about you and/or your ideas.
Your goal should be to write content that is clear, concise and targeted at real people within your demographic. Focus primarily on topics you know and write things you would want to find when doing a search. Lastly, while writing, think about words that people would use when searching for content like yours and avoid using made-up, industry-specific, proprietary-sounding words to describe your ideas or product. Regular words work just as well and they are what people are searching for.
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo amongst others all have rumored to be adding natural language processing capabilities to their indexing algorithms. This is their latest effort to understand the meaning of a web page as a whole, rather than as a collection of distinct and independent keywords. The result is that they will get better at distinguishing between pages that are written for search engines and those that are written for people. Therefore, writing for people is the only successful long-term strategy since the search engines themselves target people and not each other.
Convince other websites to link to yours.
The original principle upon which Google was founded was very simple. Basically it was the idea that when one page links to another page, it is effectively casting a vote for the other page. The more votes that are cast for a page, the more important the page must be. In addition to this, the more important the voting page is, the more heavily weighted the vote itself is. For example, one link from an industry-leading magazine’s website can have much more impact than a thousand links from sites no one has ever heard of. This mechanism of determining popularity vaulted Google to a household name and made the search engines far more relevant than they had been before.
Today, most major search engines use some form of voting mechanism to determine a site’s popularity. Therefore, your goal should be to obtain as many inbound links from highly-ranked sites as possible.
The other benefit of getting linked from high-traffic sites is that they also refer high volumes of visitors to you directly – without the involvement of the search engine. Those visitors are then able to tell their friends (possibly by linking to you), which in turn perpetuates the cycle one step further.
However, obtaining the first few quality links can be challenging and the strategy for doing so varies with the demographic and theme of your content. In general, you should consider which kinds of sites you would visit to find links to topics and products like yours, then determine if there is a way you can solicit a link from them. Some experts call this technique “link bait“.
Sometimes you can write some guest content or possibly entice a reporter to do an interview or story about you. Other times you might be able to negotiate some sort of cross promotion deal. Regardless of what you do, you should try and avoid building up links to your site too quickly as the search engines are able to detect these bursts and look unfavorably upon them.
The last point I’d like to make about inbound links is that the words in the link text have a huge impact on the value of the link. Links like “click here for more information” give the search engines no context about what “here” is. However, links like “visit We-Create Internet Software for more information” tell the search engines what is on the other end of the link and thus are valued more highly. These types of links are also much more likely to be clicked when skimming an article.
Distinguishing yourself from the rest.
Years ago, any SEO expert would tell you that the first thing to do would be to make sure every single page on a website has a good meta-description and a concise and accurate list of meta-keywords.
Today there are very few search engines that even bother to parse the meta-keywords list and when they do, they compare them with the body of your content before trusting them. Therefore, they are a waste of time and you’re better off writing a few more pages of quality content than you are itemizing keywords for every page of a website.
What is important are meta-description tags, though not for the same reasons they have been in the past. Many search engines, Google included, will make use of a well written and concise meta-description as the text that appears under your link in a search result. A human-targeted, clear and enticing meta-description can enable a site that ranks fourth or fifth in the results to get more traffic than the site that ranks first. This is because once on the search results page, people actually read the summaries and descriptions before clicking on a link.
Think of the meta-description tag as a way to convert a searcher into a reader and thus make all the other search engine optimization efforts worthwhile.
Use markup that gives your content some semantic meaning.
Using HTML in a way that correctly gives context to the meaning of your content will enable search engines (as well as screen readers and text-only browsers) to understand what you are trying to say. If the search engines have confidence in their interpretation of your content then they will have a higher confidence when ranking you for searches relating to your content. Higher confidence leads directly to higher rankings.
NOTE: This is a very short summary of an hour-long presentation about semantic markup that Jeffrey Sambells and I have given in the past.
Guide search engines through your site.
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have all recently agreed on a standardized XML format for representing a sitemap. Instead of going into detail about how to create a sitemap, I’ll instead tell you why it’s important to have one at all. Sitemaps.org has more information on creating them.
A sitemap is like a tour guide, instead of the search engine wandering aimlessly around your site trying to discover every page of content, a sitemap provides a list of all of the pages, the last time they were updated and their importance in relation to other pages on your site. The search engine is thus able to find everything on your site quickly and efficiently, reducing the load on your server and increasing the chance of finding and indexing deeply buried content.
As a bonus, a sitemap gives a webmaster the ability to indicate to the search engine which pages are most important within a site regardless of where it appears in the menu structure.
Be patient, it takes time.
You’ve got good content that people are linking to, and your meta-description is ready to entice searchers into clicking on your link instead of the links for your competition, but when will you show up in the rankings? The only answer anyone can honestly give is “eventually” so be patient, its takes time. Sure, you can reduce the total time if you put lots of effort into SEO, but even then it can take weeks to get indexed and months before you see measurable results.
One reason for this is that search engines also consider various time factors when ranking your site in their search results. Metrics like how long it’s been since your domain was first registered, as well as how many more years before it expires show them how dedicated you are to your website. Search engines also consider the longevity of the links to your site from others, and weight medium-value, long-term links much more heavily than high-value links you only obtained yesterday.
In general it all boils down to writing good content and advertising your site. Word-of-mouth advertising is one of the most influential factors in achieving success and only worthy content, properly presented will solicit links. After that, all you have to do is guide the search engines to the content, tell them how important you think each page is relative to the others, then sit back and wait for the traffic to roll in.