12 Essential Tips for Search Engine Optimization

By James Maguire | Posted July 19, 2006

Across-the-board search engine improvements have resulted in a huge increase in the number of pages that show up for a query. That means it's more important than ever to know how to keep your site ranking at the top of the list. We found a search engine optimization expert to help us get better results by, well, doing a search.

If you type "search engine optimization" in to Google, you'll get more than 55 million results. Hundreds of SEO firms compete aggressively to be ranked highly for this term. After all, if you run a top SEO company, yours should rank highly for 'search engine optimization,' right? Bruce Clay's SEO firm, Bruce Clay, Inc., ranks No. 2. (The only result higher than his is SubmitExpress, which offers a free submission service.)

Some industry watchers say that Clay, who's been doing SEO since 1996, invented the term 'search engine optimization.' Whether or not that's true, Clay, whose SEO seminars are as popular as rock concerts, is a master of the subject. But even he admits he doesn't know everything. Search engines don't reveal exactly how they rank sites; Google in particular is famously secretive about its algorithm.

Still, Clay operates under the assumption that there are 106 variables in the Google algorithm. He can't be sure — nor can anyone else. If Google were to reveals its methodology, "spammers would have a field day," he says. "We can come up with a reasonably complete list," he says, perhaps 60 to 80 of the variables used to rank sites. However, the full list remains as secretive as the ending of the "Da Vinci Code."

Yet Clay is sure of one thing: As the engines get more efficient in spidering and crawling the Web, the number of pages that show up for each query is expanding exponentially. For instance, "Last fall, the query 'comedians' produced 617,000 pages. Now it's over 14 million in Google," he says. "I don't believe that's because there are that many more Web sites."

Search engines are getting more efficient at identifying the keywords on the page, he says. "They're actually indexing more of the content. Where [in the past] they might have indexed the first 100 or 150 words, now they're indexing whole content pages."

Which leads to a pressing question for merchants: Given that the engines now devour entire pages — meaning that everything on every page counts — what's the best way to set up your pages to rank highly? Clay provided some of his top tips:

1) Use All the Tags
It has become common practice among some SEO experts to dismiss the meta keyword tags. Since so many site owners have spammed using the tags (by stuffing their meta tags with attention-getting but irrelevant keywords) search engines have learned to ignore them, some experts say.

But Clay, noting Google's 100-plus variables, says meta keyword tags must be part of the mix. "Otherwise there'd be no way to get that count." Moreover, while at one point all the engines claimed they didn't index it, "Now Yahoo says they do index it," Clay says.

A page's description tag is also worth taking time with, but it's not as important as the critical title tag — a page's title tag is scrutinized with great care by the engines.

In writing the all-important title tag, Clay advises merchants to follow common practice. It's not beneficial for the title tag (or any of the tags) to be abnormally large or small, or stuffed with keywords. "If you look at the top results for a particular query and they all have four words in the title, what are you going to do? You have to look at what [the engines] are rewarding to determine how to play in the same space."

2) Online Stores: Beware of Templates
Many Internet merchants buy store-building programs that give them templates to assemble their pages. But some of these programs handle page titles and tags in a cookie-cutter fashion (or, the merchant doesn't know how to edit the pages.) Consequently, "E-commerce sites are generally recognized as being search engine unfriendly," Clay says.

"We've gone to stores where every page on the store says 'Welcome to my site' — that's the page title." Clay recommends that merchants use state-of-the-art store software, or, at the very least, they go through and make sure each page has unique title and meta tags.

3) Don't Spam
Some merchants, knowing that using popular keywords in body copy boosts search engine ranking, cram these top keywords into their text. Like the electronics site that boasts, "Our iPod helps you download iPod music fast to your iPod — your iPod will have more music than your friend's iPod. "But the engines have learned to filter for overuse, so this technique gets you nowhere — and alienates potential buyers. Similarly, merchants put "hidden" words on their pages, like using red font in a red box — it's not visible to users but the spiders pick it up. Again, engines filter this out.

4) Online Stores: Content! Unique Content!
"Make sure you have sufficient content to compete with the people that show up in the search engine results," Clay says. This means posting lots of articles and other helpful information — links, "how-to" pieces and detailed, unique content that's available nowhere else.

Also important: are you adding content regularly? "You have to expand your content," he says. "Content is probably one of the largest deficiencies of Web sites."

And remember, Flash isn't seen as content by engines; neither are images, although the ALT text that accompanies images is read by spiders.

A problem for many stores is that they sell using a database of non-unique content. If you sell CDs, for example, you're probably selling with the same titles and artist descriptions that everyone else is using."The search engine looks at your site and sees that you're using the same 150 words as 400 other sites, and then the manufacturer, who's clearly the expert, uses the same 150 words." In a case like this, only manufacturer benefits. "So you need to have unique content — even for manufacturer parts," Clay says. "Or, supplement those 200 words with 200 words of your own. You can use their words, provided that it's a minor part of the page."

You can see a dramatic example of the need for unique content by typing a common phrase in to Google. Often, at the bottom of the page, Google will say, "we have omitted some entries very similar to the 14 already displayed." Google filters out all duplicated content. "The search engines want to give you 10 options, not one option 10 times."

5) Get Inbound Links from Top Sites
The engines know that expert sites link only to worthwhile sites, so they'll increase your ranking considerably if you're linked to by a recognized "hub" site in your field. There are many ways to gather these links. "If I'm a realtor, I can get inbound links from the Chamber of Commerce if I go out and speak for free."

6) Reciprocal Links Are Good for Traffic, Not Ranking
Because it's common knowledge that the more links to your site, the higher it ranks, millions of obscure sites have furiously e-mailed other obscure sites to trade links. But the engines have caught on and now tend to discount these reciprocal links. These reciprocal links might draw some traffic — and they are indeed useful for this — but they won't help ranking.

"The search engines believe that an inbound link, in order to contribute to your ranking, has to be of a testimonial grade," Clay says. That is, it must be from a well-known site with substantial traffic. But a reciprocal link is merely a bartered exchange. "It's advertising without money trading hands. Google has announced that it's well over 95 percent complete in filtering out advertising and bartered exchange. They worked on that all winter."

7) Link to Experts
Some merchants, wanting to retain all their traffic, create few links to related top sites. But this strategy backfires. "If you don't say, 'hey, I know an expert when I see one,' you're not much of an expert yourself," Clay says. "If you don't link out to anybody, it's the kiss of death."

8) Use Your Keywords in Your Interior Links
Create the links on your site using the keywords you want to be found for. "Don't link from Page A to Page B using 'click here,'" Clays says. (Unless you want to be found for the term 'click here.') If you want to be found for "Men's shoes" build links that incorporate the term "Men's shoes."

9) Is Your Server Fast?
If your pages load slowly — through no fault of your own, but merely because your Web host is overloaded — it hurts your search ranking. Make sure you host with a company that provides rapid load times.

10) Read Google's Webmaster Guidelines
Google's guideline page for Webmasters is considered the bible of the search engine optimization industry. No hype, no "gray hat" techniques, just helpful hints by the search engine that rules the world. Read it and change your site accordingly.

11) Use a Site Map
Placing a site map on your site makes the search engines happy with you. "A site map ensures that none of the content on your site is orphaned" Clay says. 'Orphaned' pages are pages that have no link path from your home page. With orphaned pages, "you're assumed to be doing something deceptive."

Your site map shouldn't have more than 100 links on each page, but you can link site map pages together.

Clay is also a believer in uploading a Google site map. Here's information about Google site maps.

12) The Big One: Educate Yourself
Merchants can hire an SEO expert to improve their site, but it's invaluable that the merchants themselves know the basic principles of SEO. Read and study, examine what other sites are doing, talk with as many experts as possible. First, this will allow you to do some or all of the work yourself, saving a great deal of money, and also, you'll be able to know if you're getting your money's worth from your SEO expert.

Adapted from ECommerce-Guide.com, part of Internet.com's Small Business Channel.

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