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What is SEO (Search Engine Optimization) ?

From a search engine perspective, Search Engine Optimization is the process of making web pages easy to find, easy to crawl and easy to categorize.  From a webmaster perspective, Search Engine Optimization involves not only that, but also to make those pages rank high for certain keywords or search terms. 
To produce relevant search results, search engines must keep their ranking algorithms secret.  As webmasters and search engine optimization professionals learn to predict search engine behavior, search engines need to evolve and update their algorithms to stay always one step ahead of the most savvy webmasters and SEO's if they want their results to remain relevant.

How Do I Optimize for the Search Engines?

Search engine optimization begins even before designing your site.  It starts by selecting a very narrow and focused topic for your site, and choosing the right domain name.  You must then select the right keywords for each of your individual pages (keywords, or search terms, are what you expect search engine users will type in the search box to find a page like yours).
After that, site design can begin and, with it, web page optimization.  Web page optimization involves optimizing page copy for your selected keywords and making your web page design friendly to search engines. This usually translates into using your keywords several times in your web page copy, and building a site that offers good navigation, a straightforward architecture, plenty of text, and easy access to all the site's pages by following links from the most important pages.
The third step, the most difficult and time consuming, involves getting inbound links from quality sites related to your topic, with your keywords in the anchor text. It is virtually impossible to rank high in the most important search engines without a wide array of quality inbound links. Until now, reciprocal linking has been a common way to get inbound links.  Search engines, though, tend to favor one-way links developed naturally (over time) coming from many different sources.
As far as submitting your website to the search engines is concerned, it is not necessary.  Search engines find pages by following links on other pages.   Therefore, by getting a few inbound links (we'll explain how in our link building section) your site will be found and listed by the search engines.
This site is organized around the four main SEO tasks:

Domain Selection

After defining your website’s objective, your next step is to select a domain name.  Contrary to what most people think, this is not an easy task.  Probably the biggest decision you face here is to choose between a Company Name Domain and a Keyword Domain
Company Name as Domain Name
If we assume that, for example, you own a web design company located in Boston called Praxis Inc.,  you may want to register your company name as your domain name (praxis.com).  One advantage is that your customers already know your company name and it will be easy for them to remember how to get to your website.  Another advantage is that a company name domain looks professional when printed in collateral material.   The main disadvantage of using your company name as a domain, especially if you are a small business, is that it will probably not help you very much with the search engines if it doesn’t include some generic terms related to your field.
Keyword Domain
If search engine marketing is pivotal to your overall marketing and customer acquisition strategy, you may want to use what is called a “keyword domain”.  Keywords are generic terms related to your field, that you believe search engine users will most likely type in the search box to conduct a query.  If those keywords are part of your domain name, the search engines will tend to give your site better rankings for those keywords.  The disadvantages of a keyword domain are that the good ones are almost always taken, and that they tend to be long and look awkward when printed in company collateral.  For example:   boston-web-design-company.com may very well give you an edge over praxis.com when it comes to search engine placement, however, it won’t look very good (or fit very well) on a business card!
A good compromise can be achieved by adding one or two keywords to your company name, provided that the end result is not too long, for example: praxiswebdesign.com .
Tip: If you are just opening a small business, choose your domain name before you choose your company name.  Many times, people have registered their company and then found out that their company name is not available as a domain name.
Domain Name Extensions (.com vs. others)
A domain name extension (also known as a Top Level Domain) is the letter combination to the right of the domain name, after the dot.   Therefore, a domain name like yahoo.com has what we call a "dot com extension".  You will also find .net, and .org extensions, along with a host of newly popularized extensions like .biz, .name, .tv, .info, etc., as well as country level domains (.us for the US, .br for Brazil, .it for Italy, and so on.)
Originally, .com extensions were intended for commercial ventures, while .net's were intended for use by Internet Service Providers and .org's by non-profit organizations or groups.   Right now, this orignal classification is no longer accurate, and anybody can register a domain name with those extensions for any purpose.
You should, however, try to secure a .com domain.  Most users will type it automatically when trying to guess a company’s domain name, and most web browsers use it as the default extension when somebody types an incomplete domain in the address bar.  A useful trick if your .com domain is already taken, is to add dashes to separate the words, (for example your-company.com).  You must try to register at least the three most common variations of your domain name: .com, .net and .org, to prevent unscrupulous competitors to benefit from your hard earned traffic by registering your domain name with other extensions hoping that a percentage of your intended visitors will mistype your domain using the wrong extension.  If you operate a content site, I suggest that you register the .info variation of your domain name as well.
How can I know if a domain name is available?
To see if a domain name is available, you can go to the webpage of any accredited domain registrar, for example http://www.godaddy.com  or http://www.dotster.com, and use the domain availability search box. The search tool will immediately tell you if the domain name you want is available.  If your domain name is not available with a .com extension, it will give you the option to check for several other extensions.  The search tool also offers you the possibility of accessing the Whois function, which tells you who owns the domain name you want, in case it is already taken.
How do I register a domain name?
Domain names are registered on-line through accredited domain registrars.   There are thousands of companies that offer domain registration services.   However, some of them are more reputable than others. I have always used Godaddy.com, since it is one of the largest, has a good reputation, offers great customer service, and rock bottom prices.   Once you have checked that your domain name is available, you can register it by following the instructions on the screen and using your credit card.

Keyword Selection

You must now select the right keywords for each of your individual pages (keywords, or search terms, are what you expect search engine users will type in the search box to find a page like yours).
The best keywords will be those that are popular search terms (terms that people actually search for), and that clearly describe the purpose and the content of your pages. They will also have to be keywords for which there is relatively low competition.
There is no sense in trying to optimize your pages for super-competitive keywords where you don't stand a chance of ranking well (most one-word keyphrases fall into this category: for example, it would be impossible to rank well for the keyword 'book').  It would be better to target phrases like:
  • 'cook book' - easier but still competitive
  • 'italian cook book' - easier and less competitive
  • 'northern italian cook book' - easier and not as competitive. 
The more specific your keyphrase, the easier it will be for your site to rank well. You should therefore target keyphrases with three or more words to significantly improve your chances.
Choosing the wrong keywords can throw off your entire search engine optimization strategy. It will force you to re-work your pages for new keywords and wait for the search engines to re-crawl your site.  For this reason, a few hours trying to pick the right keywords is time well spent.
To start, take a look at your pages.  Look at them carefully and write down the words and phrases that best define your site. Try to build a list of two or three word phrases. Once you have developed this list of potential keyphrases you are ready for the next step: to analyze the demand and supply for those keyphrases, and choose the best ones (those with good demand and not enough supply).
Checking keyword demand
We will first check the demand for your selected keyphrases using a popular free tool: Overture's Search Term Suggestion Tool:
This tool will show you how many people search for those terms in a month's period in Overture , a popular pay per click search engine. This tool will show you only those searches conducted in Overture, however, the relative popularity of search terms will be very similar in other search engines as well (there are also other more sophisticated tools like Wordtracker , the tool of choice of most search engine optimization experts).
In addition to telling you if your selected keyphrases are popular search terms, Overture's search term tool will show you other keyphrases that you may not have thought about, which may be even more relevant to your site.
For example, if your first keyphrase was "Italian Restaurant", the Search Term Suggestion Tool will also display other popular related search terms, like:
  • "Gourmet Italian Restaurant"
  • "Northern Italian Restaurant"
  • "Italian Restaurant Pizzeria"
  • "Italian Restaurant Miami", etc.
You may also try other keyphrases, for example: "Italian Cuisine", and the Search Tool may come up with more specific keyphrases, like:
  • "Fine Italian Cuisine"
  • "Italian Cuisine Miami"
  • "Northern Italian Cuisine"
  • "Italian Cuisine Fine Dining"
  • "Gourmet Italian Cuisine", etc.
What you have done is to validate and enlarge your pool of popular, in-demand, potential keyphrases for your web page. The next step is to check the supply, or, in other words, how much competition there is for your selected keywords in the actual search engines.
Checking Keyword Supply
Now, get your list of keyphrases, go to Google ( http://www.google.com ) and type-in each of your keyphrases in the search box. Enter your keyphrases within quotation marks (to filter-out less relevant results), and see how many results each individual query produces, making a note of those with a relatively small number of results (less competition). You will stick with the keyphrase that:
  1. Best describes the topic and content of your page
  2. Is a popular search term according to Overture's Search Term Suggestion Tool
  3. Generates a relatively small number of results after performing the Google search.
If "Gourmet Italian Restaurant" is the keyphrase that best meets these three criteria, it will become your primary keyphrase. To get even better results, you can choose a second keyphrase to make your page more relevant to an even more specific niche. For example, if your restaurant is in Miami, you can consider "Miami" a second keyphrase (also called a 'qualifier'). Once you have chosen the keyphrases for your main page (homepage) do the same for the other pages on your site. 

Web Page Optimization

Once you have chosen your keyphrases, you need to optimize your pages for those keyphrases. You do that by positioning your keyphrases in strategic locations within your page. What follows is a checklist of tips and steps you can follow to optimize your page:
Keyphrases in the web page title:
  • Create a descriptive title for your page:  Your web page title is very important because search engines will display it as link text in the search results. The title must include your main keyphrases.
  • If you want to use your company name in your page title, unless you are a big company like Microsoft or Coca Cola don't start your page title with the name of your company. Start with your keyphrases.
  • Keep your keyphrase together. Don’t split the words.
  • Make the title short (8 words or less).
Keyphrases in your Keyword Meta Tag:
Search engines rarely use the Keyword Meta Tags any more (Google ignores them). However, place a list of your main and secondary keywords in the Keyword Meta Tag of your pages, just in case search engines decide to use them again.
Keyphrases in your Description Meta Tag: 
The Description Meta Tag is still important, since some search engines use them to go with the results link.  As its name implies, the Description Meta Tag must describe your site.  Remember to:
  • Use your keyphrases (main and secondary) in your Description Meta Tag.
  • Make your description concise and professional.  Avoid using hype.
  • Make it short (25 words or less).
  • Keep your keyphrases together.
Keyphrases in the body of your page:
It is important to use your keyphrases on your page, since this will help the search engines determine what your page is about, and its relevance to your chosen keywords:
  • Use your keyphrases several times, and place them as close to the top of the page as possible.
  • Place your keyphrases between Header Tags (H1, H2 or H3) in the first two paragraphs of your page. o Place your keyphrases in bold type phase at least once.
  • Repeat your keyphrases often to increase your keyphrase density. Repeating your keyphrases between 5 to 10 times for every 100 words in your page is considered effective. You must also take into account your visitors: they should be able to read your page fluently and effortlessly and the text must not sound awkward. (Remember that ultimately it is your readers who will decide if your page is worth the time they spend on it).
  • If you use a left navigation bar, the search engine will read it before the body of your page. Make sure you include your most important keywords there, too.
Other Web Page Design Considerations:
  • You must make your page easy to navigate by the search engines. Search engines heavily favor text over graphics, and HTML over other editing formats.
  • Use text heavily.  Avoid placing text in graphic format since the search engines won't be able to read it.
  • Avoid frames. Search engines have trouble following them, and they may index only the framed content page and not the navigation frame.
  • Avoid Flash and JavaScript: search engines don't follow either one very well.  If you use Flash, make an HTML version of your site available to your readers and the search engines. If you use a JavaScript navigation menu, include an alternate text menu at the bottom of the page, so it can be followed by the search engines.
  • Create a Site Map: that includes all the pages in your site, and place a link to it from your homepage. When the search engine follows your site map link, it will find and index all the pages in your site!
  • Make sure that all your internal pages link to your homepage.
  • Don't try to describe all your products or services in one page. It will confuse the search engine and dilute your page's relevance.  Instead, create different very focused pages, each with its own content and keyphrases, and optimize them too.

Link Building

Search engines rely heavily on links from other web pages to rank pages. This is understandable, since if search engines were to rely only on web page copy, it would be too easy to manipulate results. Inbound links from quality sites are more difficult to get and take time. Precisely for this reason, they carry significant weight.
Google's Pagerank™ search algorithm heavily favors inbound links. Other search engines, although they have their own algorithms, also place significant importance on inbound links.
Perhaps focusing on Google's Pagerank™ system will best help explain how links can help your page's rankings in search engines: When page A links to page B, part of page A's PageRank™ (Google's measure of web page importance) trickles down to page B, increasing page B's PageRank™. The more links to your page from important pages you can get, the more important your page will become.
Goggle PageRank™ (PR from now on) is a grade (on a scale from one to ten) that Google gives a page after performing a series of elaborate calculations (Google's PageRank™ algorithm) that take into account the number and quality of pages linking to it.
The closer a web page gets to a PR of 10, the higher its importance. A PageRank of 4 or 5 is considered good. Very few pages attain a PR of 10 (among those few are Yahoo! and Google itself, although PR is not constant and can change over time).  Although nobody knows for a fact, it is widely believed that PageRank is determined using a logarithmic grading scale instead of a linear one.  What this means in layman's terms is that it is much more difficult to move from a PR 6 to a PR 7, than it is to move from a PR 1 to a PR 2.  To read Google's explanation of PageRank™ go to http://www.google.com/technology/index.html .
To be able to see the PageRank™ of a web page, you have to download the Google toolbar, a free plug-in that works with your web browser. The Google toolbar provides you with a PageRank™ indicator (green bar) that automatically shows you the PageRank™ of the page you are viewing (a yellow textbox that spells out the page's PR will pop up automatically when you place your cursor over the green PR bar):
To download the Google Toolbar go to http://www.google.com/toolbar.html .
To learn all about the Google Toolbar go to: http://toolbar.google.com/help.html 
The Importance of On-Topic Links:
Focusing excessively on Pagerank is misleading, though, since it is not the only factor influencing rankings.  It is very important that the content of the page linking to you be closely related to your page's copy for best results.  A link from a high PR 'soccer' page to a 'mortgage broker' page may very well transfer PR, however, it is unlikely to result in any significant ranking boost for the mortgage broker page for search queries relevant to mortgage brokering. On the other hand, a link from a real estate agent's page to a mortgage broker's page will be considered a relevant and very helpful link from the ranking standpoint.
Link Anchor Text and Search Engine Behavior
As important as getting a large number of quality, on-topic inbound links is to have the right wording on those links (the link anchor text). Search engines are paying a great deal of attention to the anchor text of the links pointing to your site.
To give you an example of how important link anchor text is, let's suppose that you run a web design site, and that you want it to rank very high with the search engines for the search term "web design". If you had 100 links pointing to your homepage, and the anchor text of all of them said "click here", they wouldn't tell the search engines a whole lot about your site. The search engines will have to rely on your page copy or the copy of the page linking to you to try to find out if your page is relevant to web design.
However, if instead of "click here", the anchor text on those links said "web design", the search engines will assume that your site is an authority on web design, and will most likely give your site a higher ranking for that keyphrase.
Another proof that search engines pay a lot of attention to the link anchor text is the fact that most companies rank very high when the search term is their company name (since a company's name is normally the most popular anchor text used to link to it).
Good ways to build links:
Getting listed in quality directories
Since good directories use qualified human editors who choose listed sites very carefully using strict criteria, and place them in tightly focused categories, they are given significant weight in search engine algorithms.  In other words, if a link to your page is found by search engines in a quality directory, your page will receive a boost. Therefore, listing your pages in quality directories is very important.
The two biggest directories are Yahoo! ($299/year listing fee) and DMOZ (free, but listing your site can take months). To learn how to submit your site to the Yahoo! directory, go to this page: http://docs.yahoo.com/info/suggest/ .  To learn how to submit your site to the Open Directory Project, go to this page: http://dmoz.org/add.html .   There are also many smaller, high quality directories that are either free or charge reasonable listing fees, like:
They should be an important part of your link building program.
Exchanging Links
Exchanging links is another way to get inbound links, provided that you be very selective with whom you do it.  Exchange links with an unreputable site and you may be setting yourself up for severe search engine penalties.  As a rule of thumb, exchange links only with sites that you think will be beneficial to  your visitors.  When exchanging links, give the other party the exact link anchor text they should use to link to you, and try not to use the same keywords all the time, since using the same anchor text all the time can alert search engines of excesive link exchange, or unnatural linking patterns.
Submitting articles:
Writing articles as the best way to get your site indexed by the search engines. It is also one of the best ways to promote your website and get hundreds of quality links to your page. It will also help you develop credibility and establish yourself as an expert. The way you do it is by including a small bio (called resouce box) at the end of your article, and allowing other parties to freely reprint it provided that they include your resoucebox.  You can submit your articles for publication in sites like http://www.ideamarketers.com , http://www.goarticles.com or http://www.articlecity.com .
Renting links
Many high Pagerank™ websites rent text links to other pages. These links are really a form of adversising, although their main objective is not necessarily to generate traffic but to pass along Pagerank™. Links from pages with Pagerank™ of 7 and higher can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month. Links from pages with Pagerank™ of 5 and 6 are less expensive. Google is catching up to the practice of selling and renting links and is taking measures to discourage it.  I do not recommend renting links from unknown services with the intention of pumping up your Pagerank™. It is also recommendable to try to establish inbound links by other means (like directories) before you engage in link renting.
Posting in forums and weblogs
Since forums and weblogs offer plenty of fresh content, search engine spiders tend to crawl them often. If you are a prolific contributor to these types of site and use a signature file with a link to your page, having many entries may give you a relevance boost with the search engines.  This technique, however, has been abused so much that as of January 2005 Google and other search engines have decided to support a 'no-follow' filter, an attribute that can be set up by blog and forum owners so that guest comment links and signature links will not be followed by search engines.
Getting unsolicited links
The unsolicited link (also called natural link) is the most valuable link, and the most difficult to get. It occurs when you have content that is so remarkable that people feel compelled to link to you. You will most likely get unsolicited links when you post original ideas, voice strong opinions, serve a specific niche very well, or offer something of value for free (for example a useful online tool). An example of a site that has achieved high Pagerank™ mostly on unsolicited links is Jakob Nielsen's site ( http://www.useit.com ). The 'guru' of web usability has an extremely plain and unattractive site from the graphic standpoint, however, his great content and original ideas have compelled so many people to link to it that it is one of the world's most visited sites.

Making Inbound Links Look Natural
Search engines are becoming more sofisticated in detecting unnatural linking patterns.   For example, if all you inbound links come from the same site, or if they all have the same link anchor text, it will look abnormal and search engines may devalue your link profile.  Make sure that you get links from many different places, coming from pages with different PR (many links from low PR pages and some from high PR pages are better than all links from high PR pages) and that you use variations of your keywords in the link anchor text.  Also, try to get more one-way links (like directory links or resource box links) than reciprocal links.  The more you can make your link profile look natural, the better your pages will rank.

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