Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Search Engine Optimization

by Rick Hendershot, M.A.

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If you know anything about how websites work, then you probably know something about "keywords", and maybe even a little bit about the mysterious art of Search Engine Optimization. In this article I take a brief look at these two things.

How Search Engines work

In a nutshell, Search Engines create large indexes of as many web pages as they can. They do this by sending automated information gathering "spiders" out onto the web to crawl from one page to another compiling information about the pages they visit. Eventually all this information is stored, and the pages are "indexed". This involves categorizing web pages according to their subject matter. The search engines also store information about the "importance" or "relevance" of each page, so when a search is done on a given term, the search engine can return listings of pages in the order of their relevance to the term searched for.

For instance, say you do a search for "golden retrievers". The search engine will consult its index and return a list of pages about golden retrievers; and it will attempt to give you the most "relevant" pages at the top of the list.

Now if you were interested in having your pages listed in a particular category — say you are a breeder of golden retrievers — it would probably be helpful to know how the search engines analyze your pages. That way you could structure them so the search engines considered them more "relevant" and more likely to come up higher in searches for "golden retrievers".

This is Search Engine Optimization in a nutshell: structuring your pages so the search engines will place them higher in relevant searches.

Content (text) is King

Search engines primarily deal with words and numbers. They are really just huge databases containing information about the word content of millions and millions of web pages. In other words, they show an almost complete bias towards text (including numbers) as methods of conveying content, as opposed to images, animations, sounds, or design effects.

Is this because text is more powerful than images or sounds? Is it because the word "Violence" on a page more effectively communicates a message, than say a picture of a bloody corpse? Obviously not. It is simply because text (including numbers) can be analyzed and categorized much more easily than other types of non-text content. So text can be made much more search engine friendly than non-text content. The result is that search engine optimizers are primarily interested in words. They don't really care what your site looks like, how creative it is, or what it sounds like. All they care about is what is says in words.

This is one important reason that web designers are not necessarily good search engine optimizers. Designers care about appearances, style, colors, aesthetics, sounds, images, font styles. Search engine optimizers only care about text. When they say "content is king", they mean textual content. And as long as we are trying to impress the search engines, they are right. Content (text content) IS king, because that's all the search engine spiders are capable of reading and categorizing.

The Importance of Keywords and Key Phrases

Obviously the search engines need a way to analyze and categorize textual content. They do this by using what are called "keywords" or "key phrases". Think of how the "search" utility in your favorite word processor works. You ask it to search a document for all instances of a particular word combination — say, the word combination "golden retriever". The program does a quick scan of the document and highlights all instances of the word combination "golden retriever".

Now imagine you program your search utility to scan all documents within a specific folder on your computer. You tell it to give you a summary of all the documents containing the word combination — the keyword — "golden retriever", and you ask it to list these documents starting with the one having the most instances down to the one having the fewest.

You now have created a mini search engine.

The real search engines, like Google and Yahoo, have massive databases where they store information about and "index" billions of pages. When they "index" pages they store information about their content and do some preliminary ranking of their relevance.

Try putting yourself in the shoes of the automated spider that comes around and analyzes web pages. As a spider, you job is to go out onto the web, analyze the content of pages, and report back so these pages can be listed correctly in the search engine's database. So when searchers ask for information on "golden retrievers" they are given the pages most relevant to their inquiry.

How is the spider supposed to know what each page is about, so it can index and rank it properly? At the heart of the indexing process are "keywords" and "key phrases". The spiders look for keyword patterns in the structure of your page: what the title of the page indicates about its subject matter, the content of the major headlines, terms that are repeated and emphasized throughout the body of the page, the source and content of inbound links, the content of pages your outbound links point to, the subject matter of the images on your page.

All of this information gets added to the search engine database. Then, when someone does a search, they do it using "keywords". The search engine consults its database, and returns a list of pages that are the most "relevant" to the searcher's inquiry.

The 1st Law of the Web Universe

Once you know how search engines work, and once you discover that the majority of website traffic comes from search engines, you should become very interested in the "1st Law of the Web Universe". Here is what it says:"Search Engines categorize web pages according to keywords."

This "law" dictates that to get traffic, you MUST design your web pages around keywords.

Is this difficult? No, not really. But it does require some serious planning and analysis BEFORE you start building your site. Because not only should you build the right keywords into your web pages, but you should CHOOSE THE RIGHT KEYWORDS before you begin. The fact is, some keywords get lots of searches, and some get none. There are tools available to do keyword analysis before you spend the time and effort "optimizing" your pages.

The Bottom Line...

Find an advisor or company that properly understands how the Search Engines work, and how your keywords should cater to them. Find somebody who is prepared to do the sort of analysis described here for a reasonable cost. And, by the way, this is just the sort of service available at http://www.small-business-online.com/.

--Rick Hendershot,
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