UX & Web Design

A guide to Search Engine Optimisation

Search Engine Optimisation or SEO is the use of a variety of techniques to improve where a website is ranked in search engine results. High ranking can lead to an increase in visitors.

Natural and paid search results

In most search engines, results fall into two distinct areas: Organic or Natural search results and Paid search results, also called Adwords or Sponsored results.

Paid search results

Paid search in a search engine works on a Pay Per Click basis. Sites bid on search key words or phrases relevant to their target audience and pay only when their ad is clicked.

This has been the largest contributor to Google's revenue over the last few years, but interestingly it is estimated that this accounts for only 12% of the results clicked. According to clickz.com there were an average of 1.2 billion searches a day in 2007, so this 12% is still in excess of 1.4 million clicks a day.

The results of these paid search results are immediate - should you pay enough, you will instantly be on the first page for your bought keywords - and the success of your investment can be monitored.

Natural search results

Therefore 88% of clicked links are natural or organic search results. Natural results are generated by the search engine 'robots' trawling the internet for websites and ranking the pages they find through an algorithm that takes into account, amongst other things, page titles, page headings, hierarchy and the words on the page.

The 3 strands to natural SEO

Natural SEO is based on solid foundations, and whilst the results aren't as immediate as Paid Results, they will be longer lasting. There are three strands to natural SEO, all of which should be treated with equal importance.

1. Technical

If your website is built in the right way, it makes it easier for search engine 'robots' to discover and index your content. Building your pages in the following way will help make your site more accessible to search engines:

  • using a logical website structure with descriptive URLs
  • using semantic markup (a separation of presentation and content)
  • using correct meta tags (such as the title tag)
  • using correct headings (H1, H2 etc)
  • using microformats (ways of standardising data in a way that makes the information accessible to both humans and machines)

If moving pages, redirects at the old URLs need to point to the new home of that information, allowing search engines to quickly begin indexing the new pages, rather than having to discover the page again.

Search engines browse the internet in its barest form - javascript is turned off and they can't entirely access flash elements - so your page should work when all styling is removed.

Good code, therefore, equals good SEO.

2. Content

On the web, content truly is king. There are increasing examples around the internet of copy being written purely for the search engines with paragraphs being crammed with an almost unintelligible repetition of key words. It is not the job of your site to create content for search engines. Your audience is your readers, not a search engine robot, so your content should be in the language of your consumers.

Copy written for search engines may get people to your site, but they won't stay unless they can engage with the content. Headlines should be appealing and intriguing, the sort of thing people will link to, whilst also containing your industry keywords. The first 100 words of any page carry more weight and should therefore summarise the content of the page - this is also useful as people, when reading on the web, tend to make a descision as to whether to read a full article based on the opening paragraph.

Increasingly seach engines are returning cross media searches, such as videos and images and naturally, the more content you have, the more there is to index.

3. External

External natural SEO involves other sites linking to yours, and it is here when Twitter, Facebook and the rest usually get bandied about. All of these could be beneficial to your site but only if they are relevant to you and if they are well maintained. Maximising the benefits of social media does take an investment of time.

It's also in this area of External natural SEO where the bulk of 'bad practices' happen. The search engine benefit of having other sites linking to yours has led to numerous nefarious methods to acheive this. The most common of these is spamming in the comments sections of sites. By leaving a comment and a link to their own site, spammers effectively vandalise someone elses site in order to increase their search engine ranking.

Other bad practices include hidden content on your site (for example, lists of keywords in white text on a white background) and the setting up of 'shadow' domains which automatically redirect a user to an unrelated site. Search engines come down hard if they discover the practice of hidden text and may remove a domain from their index entirely.

The main thing to remember if approached by a company offering SEO, is that no-one can guarantee a number one ranking in Google or any of the other search engines.

Real Time Search

As social networks have increased in popularity and evolved, so has the way in which people use the internet to search for information. When an event happens, there are posts on Twitter within seconds, whilst it can take over fifteen minutes for the first story to be indexed by Google. Whilst this a very immediate way of accessing information and responsive to events and trends, this content can be wildly inaccurate and subjective and the sheer density of it can be overwhelming.

Summary

The majority of SEO is common sense web development and quality content.

Your site should have good copy, written without jargon with a human audience in mind, about something that people want to read.

The old rule in advertising applies just as much to websites - the worse your product (in this instance, your website content), the more advertising (Paid Search here) you will need. Usability, accessibility and search engine optimisation go hand in hand. The better built and more considered your site, the more it is accessible to everyone - humans and search engines alike.

In other words, find yourself a good web developer and fill your site with high quality content and you'll end up with an search engine optimised site, without the need for an external SEO company.

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