SEO for Absolute Beginners
Spend enough time looking for freelance writing and you’ll see three letters pop up all over the place: SEO. Judging by the amount of effort put into it, you’d think that SEO, or ‘search engine optimization’, is incredibly important when you’re managing online content – and you’d be right. But with all the jargon being thrown around, it’s hard to know where to start. What’s PageRank? How do I get indexed? How does keyword density work? Here’s a quick guide to search engine optimization from the ground up.
At the most basic level, search engine optimization is exactly what it sounds like: making sure that people can easily find your website through search engines. The difference between good SEO and bad SEO is the difference between your pet blog being the first result when you search for “iTunes hacks” and being the four hundredth. A well-optimized website can draw several times the amount of traffic than a poorly-optimized website, and bring in an equivalent increase in ad clicks and revenue. But it’s not easy. Google claims to use more than two hundred different algorithms to check how relevant a website is to any given search, and in the interest of fairness it refuses to tell anyone what these algorithms are.
Fortunately, there are a few things that search engines have to take into account. A web page that mentions “iTunes hacks” twenty times is more relevant to the search “iTunes hacks” than a page that mentions it only once, so if you want people who search for “iTunes hacks” to find your website first, you can simply make sure that the phrase appears multiple times. This is called ‘keyword density’, and it’s one of the major tools in a SEO guru’s kit. However, repeating certain phrases won’t do any good if nobody’s searching for them. To build good keyword density, find out what people are searching for and work those phrases into your website. One easy way is to use Google Insight, a free tool that offers useful statistics. Try to be as specific as possible – if you’re a small website, you’re not going to show up on the first page of people searching for “gardening”, but you might be in the first few results for “gardening in cool temperatures”.
One fool proof way to make your website search-engine-friendly is to collect links from other websites. Speaking roughly, linking to another website is like admitting it’s got better information than yours. A website with few outgoing links that’s linked to by hundreds of other websites – like Wikipedia, for instance – is ideal. Be careful about putting links on your website, and if you have to, use a ‘nofollow’ tag. That way the link isn’t indexed by a search engine: it doesn’t hurt your website’s SEO, and it doesn’t help the SEO of the website you link to. You can also funnel traffic towards a certain page of your website by linking to it from other pages. Links within your own website don’t harm your SEO. Of course, getting linked to isn’t exactly easy. Why would another website sacrifice its optimization to help yours? Unless your content is useful and relevant, that’s not going to happen.
Using the title tag and metadata is the easiest way to advertise your website to search engines – in fact, that’s the point. Metadata is information that doesn’t show up on your website, but gives search engines an idea of what your content is all about. You can just list keywords here without worrying about working them into sentences. Aim for words and phrases that people might search for, and use what you’ve learnt from keyword density research and tools like Google Insight. There’s really no good excuse for poor metadata, but don’t rely on it alone. If it were that easy to get good SEO, everyone would do it.
Here’s the Catch-22 of SEO: the best way to get a high search engine rank is to get a lot of traffic, but you can’t get a lot of traffic without a high search engine rank. The more people who visit your website, the easier it becomes for other people to find your website through Google. You’ll naturally accumulate links over time this way, too. Keep this in mind when you’re struggling with keyword density and not seeing much increase in traffic. When you start out small, you’ll see small improvements, but stick with it and you’ll get exponential returns.
Remember that this advice is all basic stuff. If you’ve got the money, shell out for a SEO expert who understands more complicated concepts like image indexing and URL normalization. Better SEO will boost your traffic – but keep in mind that so will good content. Search engine optimization is a way to advertise your website’s content, and if you’ve got nothing that readers are interested in, shelling out for an expert is a waste of money. As long as you cover the basics, attracting traffic is like constructing a baseball stadium: if you build it, they will come.