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The AtHomeNet Search Engine Optimization Guide

A beginner's guide to Search Engine Optimization Guide, its practices and guidelines.

What is included:

  • What is SEO?
  • A Brief Overview: How SEO Operates
  • Homepage Search Engine Optimization
  • Master Your Keywords
  • 20 SEO Copywriting Hints
  • Google Analytics
  • Links to More Information and Resources

What is SEO?

SEO is the active practice of optimizing a web site by improving internal and external aspects in order to increase the traffic the site receives from search engines. Firms that practice SEO can vary; some havea highly specialized focus while others take a more broad and general approach. Optimizing a web site for search engines can require looking at so many unique elements that many practitioners of SEO (SEOs) consider themselves to be in the broad field of website optimization (since so many of those elements intertwine).

Why does my company/organization/website need SEO?
The majority of web traffic is driven by the major commercial search engines - Yahoo!, MSN, Google (although AOL gets nearly 10% of searches, their engine is powered by Google's results). If your site cannot be found by search engines or your content cannot be put into their databases, you miss out on the incredible opportunities available to websites provided via search - people who want what you have visiting your site. Whether your site provides content, services, products or information, search engines are a primary method of navigation for almost all Internet users.

Search queries, the words that users type into the search box which contain terms and phrases best suited to your site carry extraordinary value. Experience has shown that search engine traffic can make (or break) an organization's success. Targeted visitors to a website can provide publicity, revenue and exposure like no other. Investing in SEO, whether through time or finances, can have an exceptional rate of return.

Download the AtHomeNet Search Engine Optimization Guide

How Search Engines Operate

Search engines have a short list of critical operations that allows them to provide relevant web results when searchers use their system to find information.

  1. Crawling the Web Search engines run automated programs, called "bots" or "spiders" that use the hyperlink structure of the web to "crawl" the pages and documents that make up the World Wide Web. Estimates are that of the approximately 20 billion existing pages, search engines have crawled between 8 and 10 billion.
  2. Indexing Documents Once a page has been crawled, it's contents can be "indexed" - stored in a giant database of documents that makes up a search engine's "index". This index needs to be tightly managed, so that requests which must search and sort billions of documents can be completed in fractions of a second.
  3. Processing Queries When a request for information comes into the search engine (hundreds of millions do each day), the engine retrieves from its index all the document that match the query. A match is determined if the terms or phrase is found on the page in the manner specified by the user. For example, a search for car and driver magazine at Google returns 8.25 million results, but a search for the same phrase in quotes ("car and driver magazine") returns only 166 thousand results. In the first system, commonly called "Findall" mode, Google returned all documents which had the terms "car" "driver" and "magazine" (they ignore the term "and" because it's not useful to narrowing the results), while in the second search, only those pages with the exact phrase "car and driver magazine" were returned. Other advanced operators (Google has a list of 11) can change which results a search engine will consider a match for a given query.
  4. Ranking Results Once the search engine has determined which results are a match for the query, the engine's algorithm (a mathematical equation commonly used for sorting) runs calculations on each of the results to determine which is most relevant to the given query. They sort these on the results pages in order from most relevant to least so that users can make a choice about which to select.
  5. Although a search engine's operations are not particularly lengthy, systems like Google, Yahoo!, AskJeeves and MSN are among the most complex, processing-intensive computers in the world, managing millions of calculations each second and funneling demands for information to an enormous group of users.

    Keywords and Queries
    Search engines rely on the terms queried by users to determine which results to put through their algorithms, order and return to the user. But, rather than simply recognizing and retrieving exact matches for query terms, search engines use their knowledge of semantics (the science of language) to construct intelligent matching for queries.

    How to Conduct Keyword Research
    Keyword research is critical to the process of SEO. Without this component, your efforts to rank well in the major search engines may be mis-directed to the wrong terms and phrases, resulting in rankings that no one will ever see. The process of keyword research involved several phases:

    1. Brainstorming - Thinking of what your customers/potential visitors would be likely to type in to search engines in an attempt to find the information/services your site offers (including alternate spellings, wordings, synonyms, etc).
    2. Surveying Customers - Surveying past or potential customers is a great way to expand your keyword list to include as many terms and phrases as possible. It can also give you a good idea of what's likely to be the biggest traffic drivers and produce the highest conversion rates.
    3. Applying Data from KW Research Tools - Several tools online (including Wordtracker & Overture - both described below) offer information about the number of times users perform specific searches. Using these tools can offer concrete data about trends in kw selection.
    4. Term Selection - The next step is to create a matrix or chart that analyzes the terms you believe are valuable and compares traffic, relevancy and the likelihood of conversions for each. This will allow you to make the best informed decisions about which terms to target. SEOmoz's KW Difficulty Tool can also aid in choosing terms that will be achievable for the site.

    Critical Components of Optimizing a Site
    Each of the following components are critical pieces to a site's ability to be crawled, indexed and ranked by search engine spiders. When properly used in the construction of a website, these features give a site/page the best chance of ranking well for targeted keywords.

    Accessibility
    An accessible site is one that ensures delivery of its content successfully as often as possible. The functionality of pages, validity of HTML elements, uptime of the site's server and working status of site coding and components all figure into site accessibility. If these features are ignored or faulty, both search engines and users will select other sites to visit.

    The biggest problems in accessibility that most sites encounter fit into the following categories. Addressing these issues satisfactorily will avoid problems getting search engines and visitors to and through your site.

    • Broken Links - If an HTML link is broken, the contents of the linked-to page may never be found. In addition, some surmise that search engines negatively degrade rankings on sites & pages with many broken links.
    • Valid HTML & CSS - Although arguments exist about the necessity for full validation of HTML and CSS in accordance with W3C guidelines, it is generally agreed that code must meet minimum requirements of functionality and successful display in order to be spidered and cached properly by the search engines.
    • Functionality of Forms and Applications - If form submissions, select boxes, javascript or other input-required elements block content from being reached via direct hyperlinks, search engines may never find them. Keep data that you want accessible to search engines on pages that can be directly accessed via a link. In a similar vein, the successful functionality and implementation of any of these pieces is critical to a site's accessibility for visitors. A non-functioning page, form or code element is unlikely to receive much attention from visitors.
    • File Size - With the exception of a select few documents that search engine consider to be of exceptional importance, web pages greater than 150K in size are typically not fully cached. This is done to reduce index size, bandwidth and load on the servers, and is important to anyone building pages with exceptionally large amounts of content. If it's important that every word and phrase be spidered and indexed, keeping file size under 150K is highly recommended. As with any online endeavor, smaller file size also means faster download speed for users - a worthy metric in its own right.
    • Downtime & Server Speed - The performance of your site's server may have an adverse impact on search rankings and visitors if downtime and slow transfer speeds are common. Invest in high quality hosting to prevent this issue.
    URLs, Title Tags & Meta Data

    URLs, title tags and meta tag components are all information that describe your site and page to visitors and search engines. Keeping them relevant, compelling and accurate are key to ranking well. You can also use these areas as launching points for your keywords, and indeed, successful rankings require their use.

    The URL of a document should ideally be as descriptive and brief as possible. If, for example, your site's structure has several levels of files and navigation, the URL should reflect this with folders and subfolders. Individual page's URLs should also be descriptive without being overly lengthy, so that a visitor who sees only the URL could have a good idea of what to expect on the page. Several examples follow:

    Search Friendly Text
    Making the visible text on a page "search-friendly" isn't complicated, but it is an issue that many sites struggle with. Text styles that cannot be indexed by search engines include:

    • Text embedded in a Java Application or Macromedia Flash file
    • Text in an image file - jpg, gif, png, etc
    • Text accessible only via a form submit or other on-page action

    If the search engines can't see your page's text, they cannot spider and index that content for visitors to find. Thus, making search-friendly text in HTML format is critical to ranking well and getting properly indexed. If you are forced to use a format that hides text from search engines, try to use the right keywords and phrases in headlines, title tags, URLs and image/file names on the page. Don't go overboard with this tactic, and never try to hide text (by making it the same color as the background or using CSS tricks). Even if the search engines can't detect this automatically, a competitor can easily report your site for spamming and have you de-listed entirely.

    Along with making text visible, it's important to remember that search engines measure the terms and phrases in a document to extract a great deal of information about the page. Writing well for search engines is both an art and a science (as SEOs are not privy to the exact, technical methodology of how search engines score text for rankings), and one that can be harnessed to achieve better rankings.

    In general, the following are basic rules that apply to optimizing on-page text for search rankings:
    • Make the primary term/phrase prominent in the document - measurements like keyword density are useless (see kw density myth thread), but general frequency can help rankings.
    • Make the text on-topic and high quality - Search engines use sophisticated lexical analysis to help find quality pages, as well as teams of researchers identifying common elements in high quality writing. Thus, great writing can provide benefits to rankings, as well as visitors.
    • Use an optimized document structure - the best practice is generally to follow a journalistic format wherein the document starts with a description of the content, then flows from broad discussion of the subject to narrow. The benefits of this are arguable, but in addition to SEO value, they provide the most readable and engaging informational document. Obviously, in situations where this would be inappropriate, it's not necessary.
    • Keep text together - Many folks in SEO recommend using CSS rather than table layouts in order to keep the text flow of the document together and prevention the breaking up of text via coding. This can also be achieved with tables - simply make sure that text sections (content, ads, navigation, etc.) flow together inside a single table or row and don't have too many "nested" tables that make for broken sentences and paragraphs.
    • Keep in mind that the text layout and keyword usage in a document no longer carries high importance in search engine rankings. While the right structure and usage can provide a slight boost, obsessing over keyword placement or layout will provide little overall benefit.

    Building a Traffic-Worthy Site
    One of the most important (and often overlooked) subjects in SEO is building a site deserving of top rankings at the search engines. A site that ranks #1 for a set of terms in a competitive industry or market segment must be able to justify its value, or risk losing out to competitors who offer more. Search engines' goals are to rank the best, most usable, functional and informative sites first. By intertwining your site's content and performance with these goals, you can help to ensure its long term prospects in the search engine rankings.

    Usability
    Usability represents the ease-of-use inherent in your site's design, navigation, architecture and functionality. The idea behind the practice is to make your site intuitive so that visitors will have the best possible experience on the site. A whole host of features figure into usability, including:

    • Design - The graphical elements and layout of website have a strong influence on how easily usable the site is. Standards like blue, underlined links, top and side menu bars, logos in the top, left-hand corner may seem like rules that can be bent, but adherence to these elements (with which web users are already familiar) will help to make a site usable. Design also encompasses important topics like visibility & contrast, affecting how easy it is for users to interest the text and image elements of the site. Separation of unique sections like navigation, advertising, content, search bars, etc. is also critical as users follow design cues to help them understand a page's content. A final consideration would also take into account the importance of ensuring that critical elements in a site's design (like menus, logos, colors and layout) were used consistently throughout the site.
    • Information Architecture - The organizational hierarchy of a site can also strongly affect usability. Topics and categorization impact the ease with which a user can find the information they need on your site. While an intuitive, intelligently designed structure will seamlessly guide the user to their goals, a complex, obfuscated hierarchy can make finding information on a site disturbingly frustrating.
    • Navigation - A navigation system that guides users easily through both top-level and deep pages and makes a high percentage of the site easily accessible is critical to good usability. Since navigation is one of a website's primary functions, provide users with obvious navigation systems: breadcrumbs, alt tags for image links, and well written anchor text that clearly describes what the user will get if they click a link. Navigation standards like these can drastically improve usability performance.
    • Functionality - To create compelling usability, ensure that tools, scripts, images, links, etc., all function as they are intended and don't provide errors to non-standard browsers, alternative operating systems or uninformed users (who often don't know what/where to click).
    • Accessibility - Accessibility refers primarily to the technical ability of users to access and move through your site, as well as the ability of the site to serve disabled or impaired users. For SEO purposes, the most important aspects are limiting code errors to a minimum and fixing broken links, making sure that content is accessible and visible in all browsers and without special actions.
    • Content - The usability of content itself is often overlooked, but its importance cannot be overstated. The descriptive nature of headlines, the accuracy of information and the quality of content all factor highly into a site's likelihood to retain visitors and gain links.
    • Overall, usability is about gearing a site towards the potential users. Success in this arena garners increased conversion rates, a higher chance that other sites will link to yours and a better relationship with your users (fewer complaints, lower instance of problems, etc.). For improving your knowledge of usability and the best practices, I recommend Steve Krug's exceptionally impressive book, "Don't Make Me Think"; possibly the best $30 you can spend to improve your website.

    Link Bait
    When attempting to create the most link-worthy content, thinking outside the box and creating a document, tool or service that's truly revolutionary can provide a necessary boost. Even on corporate image or branding sites for small companies, a single, exciting piece of content that gets picked up en masse by your web community is worth a small fortune in public relations and exposure. Better still, the links you earn with an exciting release stay with your site for a long time, providing search visibility long after the event itself has been forgotten.

    With content that generates links becoming such a valuable commodity, creating solely for the purpose of gaining links has become a popular practice for talented SEOs. In order to capitalize on this phenomenon, it's necessary to brainstorm. Below are some initial ideas that can help you build the content you need to generate great links.

    • Free Tools - Automated tools that query data sources, combine information or conduct useful calculations are eminently link worthy. Think along the lines of mortgage calculators and site-checking tools, then expand into your particular area of business/operation.
    • Web 2.0 Applications - Although the term Web 2.0 is more of a buzzword than a technicality, applications that fit the feature set described by the O'Reilly document do get a fantastic number of links from the web community and followers of this trend. Think mashups, maps, communities, sharing, tagging, RSS and blogs.
    • Collaborative Work Documents - Working in concert with others is a good way to produce content more quickly and with generally higher quality. If you can get high-profile insiders or several known persons in an industry to collaborate, your chances for developing "link-bait" substantially increase.
    • Exposes of Nefarious Deeds - Writing a journalistic-style exposÚ detailing the misdeeds of others (be they organizations, websites, individuals or companies) can generate a lot of links and traffic if done in a professional manner (and before anyone else). Make sure you're very careful with these types of actions, however, as the backlash can be worse than the benefit if your actions provoke the wrong type of response.
    • Top 10 Lists - Numbered lists (of tips, links, resources, etc.), particularly those that rank items, can be a great way to generate buzz. These lists often promote discussion and thus, referencing.
    • Industry-Related Humor - Even the most serious of industries can use a bit of humor now and again. As with exposÚs, be cautious not to offend (although that too can merit mentions) - use your knowledge of stereotypes and history inside your market to get topical laughs and the links will be yours.
    • Reviews of Events - Industry gatherings, from pubcrawls to conferences to speeches and seminars, can all garner great links with a well-done review. Write professionally, as a journalist, and attempt to use as many full names as possible. It's also wise to link out to all the folks you mention, as they will see the links in their referral logs and come check you out.
    • Interviews with Well-Known Insiders -
    • Anyone inside an industry whose name frequently appears in that industry's internal press is a great candidate for an interview. Even if it's a few short questions over email, a revealing interview can be a great source of links and esteemed professionals are likely to answer requests even from smaller sources as they can benefit from the attention, too.
    • Surveys or Collections of Data - Offering large collections of industry data culled from polling individuals, an online survey or simply researching and aggregating data can provide a very link-worthy resource.
    • Film or Animation - Particularly in industries where video clips or animations are rare (i.e. Geology, not Movie Reviews), a high quality, entertaining or informative video or animation can get more than a few folks interested.
    • Charts, Graphs or Spreadsheets - These standard business graphics should certainly include analysis and dissection, but can provide a good source of links if promoted and built properly.
    • High Profile Criticism - Similar to the exposÚ system, well-written critiques of popular products, companies, sites or individuals in a sector have the ability to pull in quite a few links from folks who agree and disagree.
    • Contests, Giveaways and Competitions - Giving away prizes or public awards (even if they're just website graphics) can get a lot of online folks interested and linking.
    • Trend-Spotting - Identifying a story ahead of the crowd is commonly called "scooping" in journalism. Do this online, and all (or many) blog posts on the subject will reference your site as the first to "call it."
    • Advice from Multiple Experts - If you're creating an article that offers advice, pulling opinions from the well-known experts in the industry is a great way to make sure links flow your way. The experts themselves will often be inclined to link.

    There are dozens of other great ways to get bloggers, writers and website editors in your field to add links to your site. Imagine yourself as an industry blogger, seeking to cover the most exciting, unique trends and pages in the sector. If this individual stumbled across your content, would they be likely to write about it? If the answer is yes, it qualifies as link-bait.

    Growing a Site's Popularity
    While developing a great website is half of the SEO equation, the other half is promotion. Search engines are very particular about growing their ability to detect artificial manipulation and link spam, so effective SEOs who want to promote sites to the fullest extent must use natural, organic link building processes in order to have success.

    The techniques and approaches described below are all ultimately designed to improve search engine rankings by growing the number and quality of links that point to a website. However, each also offers natural growth of your user base and provides visitors that come through systems other than search engines. Strangely, although the goal of SEO is better search rankings, the best sites in each industry often receive 50% or fewer of their total visitors from search engine. Why? Because if thousands of visitors are anxiously visiting your site via bookmarks, links and direct type-ins at the address bar, you've achieved the content and status necessary to not only be ranked exceptionally well, but have visitors that know your site and want to visit, no matter what the search engines say. This methodology is particularly valuable because a site that doesn't rely entirely on search engines for traffic, ironically, has a far better chance of getting visitors through them.

    Community Building
    Creating a user base that develops into a full-scale community is no easy task, but it's one of the holy grails of online marketing and promotion. The idea is to develop frequently updated content in the form of a blog, forum, wiki or other muti-user input system that can become a central reference and gathering point for a significant number of individuals in an industry.

    Once a community is established, the input of individual members and coverage of events in these systems are natural sources for incoming links from bloggers and writers in the field, be they members or simply browsers. In addition, many members who run sites of their own will point to the community as their gathering place, creating even greater link value. Community building requires finesse and good online relationship skills, but the rewards are tremendous.

    Press Releases and Public Relations
    Influencing mainstream or niche press outlets to cover your company or its actions can be a highly effective way to drive attention to your site, which, if link worthy, can earn a fantastic number of links in short order. Press release sites like PRNewsWire and PRWeb are good starting places for driving traffic and links, and as both feed the major online news search engines (Yahoo! & Google News) they can provide high visibility as well. Optimizing press releases is a unique practice in and of itself - placement of text in the title and in visible headlines, compelling story writing and proper content structure are all important elements. One of the most touted experts in this field (Greg Jarboe) runs a site with specific advice (SEO-PR) on the subject of optimizing press releases in particular.

    Beyond releases, however, is influencing journalists to write editorial news stories about your subject and including a link or mention of your site. Some of the most highly touted PR (public relations) firms in the world charge a fortune for this service, but on a small scale, it can be performed in-house. The trick is to have content and information so compelling and interesting that journalists would love to cover it. If you have the makings of a great story with a near-perfect fit for your site, email a few journalists whose work you've found to be on similar topics. Don't start with the New York Times, though. Go local, independent and friendly to increase your chances of success. For a great example of how standard PR techniques operate, read Paul Graham's article on the effectiveness of PR firms on the web.

    Building Personality & Reputation
    The cult of personality on the Internet provides excellent opportunities for charismatic, well-written individuals to make headlines, friends and links through online networking. A variety of social interaction sites operate across industries on the web, delivering ready-made sources for building a reputation and earning links. The keys to this methodology are to provide honest, intelligent contributions to existing discussions while maintaining a connection between yourself and the communities.

    Online forums are great places to start, and can frequently lead to additional venues for the engagement of your colleagues. In building a successful reputation in an online forum, honesty, integrity and openness provide the best chances to be taken seriously and seen by others as an expert on your subject matter. Forums typically offer a built-in system for referring folks to your site - the signature link. Although debate exists on whether search engines count these links for ranking purposes, there can be little doubt about their effectiveness in driving forum visitors to your site. One last tip for forums is to use a single link to your site in your signature - ensuring that people identify you with one unique online property, rather than several. Combining these effective techniques of forum posting and signature links with blogging can also be very valuable.

    In addition to forums, outlets like blog comments (which frequently use the "nofollow" attribute, and are thus valuable for live visitors but not search engines), ICQ Channels, chatrooms, Google groups and privately hosted boards or chatrooms can all serve a similar purpose. Stay consistent in each format - using the same voice, avatar (the accompanying photo on many forums) and username in order to build reputation and recognition.

    Conclusion: Implementing an SEO Strategy
    The process of SEO is not easy to tackle, largely because so many pieces of a site factor into the final results. Promoting a site that writers on the web are unlikely to link to is as deadly as creating a fantastic website no one will see. SEO is also a long-term process, both in application and results - those who expect quick rankings after completing a few suggestions in this guide will be deeply dissapointed. Search engines can often be frustratingly slow to respond to improvements that will eventually garner significant boosts in traffic.

    Patience is not the only virtue that should be used for successful SEO. The strategy itself must have a strong foundation in order to succeed. The best site's adhere strictly to these guidelines:

    1. nique Content - Something that has never before been offered on the web in terms of depth, quality or presentation (i.e. a unique value proposition)
    2. Access to an Adoptive Community - Connections or alliances with people/websites in an existing online community that is ready to accept, visit and promote your offering
    3. Link-Friendly Formatting - Even the best content may be unlikely to be linked to if it displays ads, particularly those that break up the page content or pop-up when a visitor comes to the site. Use discretion in presenting your material and remember that links are one of the most valuable commodities a site/page can get and they'll last far longer than a pop-up ad's revenue.
    4. Monetization Plan - Intelligent systems for monetizing powerful content must exist, or bandwidth, hosting and development costs will eventually overrun your budget.
    5. Market Awareness - If your site is targeting highly competitive terms you should make available, an online marketing budget, including funds for link buying, and hire or consult with someone experienced in bringing newer sites to the top of the SERPs.

    If you take these steps and have a robust knowledge of the methods described in this guide, you are ready to begin an SEO campaign.

    Credit Source:
    Beginner's Guide to SEO by Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz.org

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