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Search Engine Optimization (SEO) In The Here And Now

1. Introduction

This article is written for business owners and management seeking to grow their businesses. Internet marketing is the most cost effective way of doing that and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is an important tool within Internet marketing. SEO deals with the natural or sometimes called organic positioning in Search Engine Report Pages (SERPs) for keyword searches. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) includes SEO and also Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising such as Adwords.

Update note: March 1, 2008
This article was written in 2005, which marked the 10th anniversary of Yahoo! The big news was about Google, the number 1 search engine. Google had to an extent lost its way. The search engine field was wide open, and that created some additional challenges for Search Engine Optimization. Surprisingly little has changed and the suggestions on SEO still hold good.

Update note: March 1, 2009
There have been significant developments in the past 12 months. Google is displaying information from many more sources in what it calls Universal Search. Nevertheless what is shown below still is relevant. The new areas of importance, Local Search and Mobile Search, are both priorities for Google and are still evolving. For more information on these as they may apply to your company, please contact SMM.

The article gives a complete description of the field and has two main sections. The next describes what SEO is all about. The third discusses how to apply this to your own website. For easy reference, the sections are numbered. Those who have some knowledge already may wish to jump to the section describing why Google now has problems. Thereafter they can jump to the bottom line on all this. There is an associated web page called the SEO Key that provides a checklist on what needs to be done in SEO.

Many website owners know that it is important to score high in the Search Engine rankings, such as those for Google, since this brings increased visitor traffic. "Spamming" letters often arrive in droves once the website is up. Guarantees are offered that certain positions will be achieved. The guarantees are false. Most of the methods are no longer effective, if they ever were. They were like crude shotguns. Effective Search Engine Optimization (SEO) now must be carefully done given recent search engine changes. A rifle approach is now required.

This article discusses this more precise SEO, which is now required. It is a current report written at a particular place and at a particular time. 2005 is a year of massive transition in the Search field. In a sense it is a gateway to a new search environment. In addition, 'Local Search' is one of the current challenges for search engines and location will need to be taken into account.

The real objective of a website is to be creating leads or sales. Other website aspects such as Usability and Conversions to Sales must be considered in parallel with working on SEO. Nothing should be done in SEO that works against these other aspects.

2. All About SEO

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is only one of the total armoury of tools in Internet Marketing. It deals specifically with getting higher 'natural' rankings in Search Engine reports for specific keywords or keyword phrases. A 'natural' ranking is an appearance within the Search Engine Report Page ("SERP") to the left of or below any Sponsored Listings.

SEO is only part of Search Engine Marketing (SEM). SEM deals with how best to market through the Search Engines. In addition to SEO, it includes Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising. SEM in turn is part of Internet Marketing, which includes other approaches such as e-mail direct marketing. It should be noted that PPC ads may be less well regarded than those that appear 'naturally' in the SERP's. This article deals only with what is achieved by SEO.

2.1 What SEO Isn't

Some people who offer SEO services are guilty of a misuse of terms. All search engines have Terms of Service, which specify what websites they will index in their databases. In summary, these TOS's require that the web pages presented to their spiders or robots are exactly those seen by their human visitors. The search engine robots are constantly surfing the Internet, following links from one web page to another, and cataloguing the content of these web pages. By clever programming, it is possible to show a different web page to the robot than is seen by a human visitor. This may involve Doorway Pages that the human visitor never sees on the way to the regular page. The web page seen by the robot can be constructed to get a high ranking in the SERP's. This is called cloaking and is one example of a breach of the Terms of Service.

Such practices may result in banning of the web pages from the databases. They are often designated as 'black hat' SEO. However it is a misnomer to call these practices Optimization. Clients sometimes do not realize that such methods are being applied to their web pages. They may be somewhat surprised when their web pages are no longer indexed by the search engines. A better term for these practices would be SED, or Search Engine Deception. If such a website is banned, the practitioners of SED immediately abandon the old domain and buy another new domain. Using 'throw-away' domains is another indicator of SED. Such methods play no part in a true SEO plan.

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2.2 Why SEO Isn't What It Was

This is perhaps the most important section in the whole article. We're about to describe the Google Cycle. It explains why SEO isn't what it was. The reason is that Google isn't what it was. Perhaps we're coming to the end of a 7-year cycle for Google, or perhaps it's a 7-year itch for its users.

On September 7, 1998, Google Inc. opened its door in Menlo Park, California as the Google history tells us. The company had two partners, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and one employee. There were other search engines around, but the interest in Google exploded. Google was rapid, relevant and very user-friendly. It became the only search show in town. Yahoo! and AOL used Google as their search technology. Ranking well with Google became Search Engine Optimization. Now in 2005 we are seeing the end of that Google cycle of market domination. There are perhaps three strikes against Google.

The first is the most crushing. The company built the relevancy of its search algorithm on more than 100 factors, but the most important was PageRank. This assumes that other web pages, which link to a given web page, are in a sense casting a vote for that page. PageRank is a measure of the number of links or votes for a given web page. Such links are often called back links. Google put much more weight on back links than did other search engines and it seemed to work initially. Google's relevancy seemed to be superior.

Perhaps it would have continued to work, if Google had kept the use of PageRank as a company secret. However revealing the measuring method may influence what is measured. When back links count, then automatic generation of thousands of web pages with suitable back links becomes very attractive. Others agree to link to thousands of other websites if the others would link back. Someone was beginning to stuff the ballot boxes. Google says that it now indexes 8,058,044,651 web pages so computer methods must spot the "false" votes. It has valiantly tried to do so with major revisions to its algorithm. The most Internet-shaking was the Florida update in November/December 2003. There have been others and one is happening as this is being written. Some experts feel that Google no longer uses PageRank, given these difficulties. PageRank is retained now for its marketing impact. Whether it does more than the Nike swoosh is questionable. In summary the first strike may be what was its strength - its own technology.

The second strike relates to the dynamics of the Search Engine market place. It really has been too good for Google up till now. Microsoft acknowledges that it overlooked the potential of the Search Market. Yahoo!, given it was a shareholder in Google, was happy to follow a collaborative route for a time. Both Microsoft and Yahoo! were being too shortsighted. The Internet is a very powerful societal force that is changing the way life is lived and business is done. The Search Market can be the economic driver of this process. There is a lot of money to be made. Finally Microsoft woke up. Yahoo! realized that it's best future was to be more independent of Google. So Microsoft as of February 1st has had its own impressive search engine running for real. Microsoft Search is creating order out of 5 billion pages. Given the time they have been operating, that compares very favourably with the Google 8 billion database number. Microsoft has also said it would be spending many millions of dollars on media advertising to promote its Search facility. So the battle is commencing. The advantage that both Yahoo! and Microsoft have is that they have in effect portals with many other offerings. Search is only one of the goodies they offer to attract and hold their audiences. Google relies almost totally on search. The battle among the three will be intense.

The third strike is that the management team at Google may find it difficult to take the tough commercial decisions needed to win this war. The triumvirate running the company is an interesting mix of talents and experience. A recent article in GQ, even if only partially true, points to serious problems in the management decision processes. The snafus that occurred in launching the IPO (Initial Public Offering) for Google have demonstrated some naivety. The Venture Capitalist stakeholders are torn. How can they try to modify the decision processes without destroying the motivation of the creators.

With three strong players in the Search market place, the market dynamics will be quite different. Even other smaller players like Ask Jeeves will be watched closely. It is likely that what is needed to gain high rankings with any of the search engines will become more similar. Search relevancy will need to be equivalent, since the pursuit of market share is likely to be done through the associated services that may be delivered with Search.

If you wish, you can jump to what now works for SEO or to the bottom line.

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3. How To Make SEO Work For You

You may be in one of two situations. If you are building a new website, then SEO must influence the 'website architecture'. Most web designers do not understand SEO, so other members of the website design team must handle these issues. Some compromises are needed between design considerations and SEO to achieve a selling-effective website.

If you are trying to improve an existing web site, then SEO may be more difficult. The large majority of websites are poorly constructed in terms of SEO. The best advice is "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative". Sometimes eliminating the negative can be very difficult.

3.1 Websites And Fine Restaurants

Some website owners assume that a two-step process is adequate.

1. Construct the website
2. Apply SEO.

This view is wrong. A simple analogy illustrates why.

Constructing a website is like constructing a fine restaurant. There are many similarities. Two functions are important with a website. Usability makes sure that visitors can move easily around the website. It is similar to the plumbing system in the restaurant. The plumbing system must be installed as the restaurant is built.

SEO should also be an integral part of the website construction. This can be likened to the electrical system in our fine restaurant. It might be possible to add on the electric system after the restaurant is constructed. However this would be nowhere as effective nor as aesthetically pleasing as doing it right from the start.

This analogy between SEO for a website and the electrical system for a fine restaurant will ensure the right things are done at the right time.

3.2 What Never Worked For SEO

In doing SEO, certain things do not work, never have worked and should not be attempted. The biggest No-no is the use of Frames. The SEO problems they create are only part of the damaging effect they have. They create Usability problems for human visitors. Unfortunately far too many web designers are completely unaware of the problems caused by Frames.

Other factors can prove equally difficult for SEO. Computers can only handle bits and bytes of information. The Search engine spiders look only at the text content of web pages as they try to assess what a web page is all about. The images mean nothing. A similar problem occurs with the use of Flash. The delightful effects seen by the human visitor are a big zero to a search engine spider.

You can check how your favourite web pageslook to a search engine by using a Search Engine Spider Simulator. If your web page has been well constructed for SEO, then there is a good deal of content for a search engine. Many websites will not be satisfactory and it may be impossible to correct them.

3.3 What Now Doesn't Work For SEO

As Google tried to make its PageRank system work, some webmasters were still trying to deceive the system. So counter-measures have been introduced. Although they do not ban websites, they do nullify the questionable practices.

Reciprocal links are without value now as are vast numbers of back links all from the same domain. Using the same identical keyword phrases for a multitude of back links is also likely useless. Indeed stuffing keywords into web pages may only serve to turn off human visitors.

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3.4 What Now Works For SEO

The search engines are all trying to deliver relevant SERP listings to customers and relevancy is defined by the customers. Search engines are trying to simulate the behaviour of human visitors if they had the ability to leaf through all the billions of web pages. Extreme web pages that try to overuse keywords would be a turn-off for customers and thus are turn-offs for the search engines.

Search engines are getting more sophisticated. One process in use is Semantic Analysis. This looks at the meaning behind the words. Using good English with a variety of words for the same product or service will not work against a search for that particular meaning. Even mis-spellings by searchers can be better handled through this. So web page content can be more literate and visitor-friendly.

Once the broad principles are clear, SEO requires careful and detailed work on all the elements of each web page once appropriate keywords and keyword phrases have been selected. The associated web page, SEO Key, gives the details of the work steps involved.

Once the Website content has been correctly constructed and the website launched, it is important to have appropriate back links, particularly from authoritative websites in the market place. This is beneficial for rankings in Google and will bring additional traffic directly to the website.

If you wish, you can jump to the bottom line.

4. Future Opportunities And Challenges

This article is very much a state of the nation report. It gives good guidance on what should be done now but some things will be changing.

4.1 Think Globally, Act Locally

One strength of the Internet is also its weakness. The Internet knows no national boundaries, a web page exists everywhere and equally exists nowhere. Although metatags do exist to define where a web page is "situated" as shown below, they are rarely used.

< "meta name ="geo.position" content="45.423;-73.611"">
<"meta name ="geo.placename" content="Montreal, Quebec"">
<"meta name ="geo.country" content="CA"">

NOTE: Extra quotation marks have been inserted to avoid them being treated as metatags.
So with SEO, you put your web page before the world, but it's tough to ensure that your prime prospects within say 100 kilometres will see it.

[Edit added March 4, 2005 - Chandu Thota on March 1 has added geo-positioning like this to his BlogMap. This is an ambitious and most interesting project to provide a map of all blog locations. He works for the MapPoint group in Microsoft, but this is his own personal initiative.]

A high proportion of businesses would like to target their efforts relatively close to home or in a specific geographical niche. The search engines realize this gap and are trying to work on Local Search. However at present, the Yellow Pages seem to do a more credible job, as per a report they published recently: Yellow Pages Association: Consumers Still Let Fingers Do The Walking. They noted there that:

The first survey found that 55 percent of respondents say they primarily use Yellow Pages--either in print or online--to search for a local business first, compared to 12 percent who use search engines and 17 percent who turn to newspapers.

Google in Canada is showing local search results that are produced in concert with Yellow Pages Canada. However the results are not very impressive as yet. This topic requires increased efforts from the search engines.

For the present, the best advice would seem to be to treat the location of a business as one of the keywords for which the website will be SEO'd. This advice is weak if no one would ever put the location in a search field. Businesses in the Greater Montreal area would be well advised to include Montreal as one of their key words, if they are looking for geographically close clients. This would be in addition to what may be their correct city or borough as per official registers.

4.2 A Possible Curve Ball - RSS Newsfeeds

The other major field where the search engines are scrambling is that of RSS Newsfeeds. Business blogging has taken off enormously and has enormous potential. Any blog represents a series of postings and each posting has the characteristics of a mini-web page. The search engines seem to favour blog entries in their listings. So far so good. However blogs can also produce RSS newsfeeds that are read by special software called newsfeed aggregators. Yahoo! is the farthest along in developing search for such newsfeeds but it is too early to say how useful the results will be in improving Search capabilities.

Conclusion - The Executive Summary

SEO is a powerful component in getting websites to deliver sales and profits. Effort must be applied early and effectively. If you are building a new website then:

Think SEO as you design the 'website architecture'.

If you are trying to improve an existing web site then the possibility of effective SEO may be more limited. However here the watchword should be:

Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

If now is the time for Search Engine Optimization for a new or existing website, SMM will be happy to help you figure out your best approach. Our help can be configured to meet exactly the needs you have. Our strengths, experience and creativity can complement those of your company. So write us a Message today on what you're looking for without obligation.

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Added to site 1 March 2005
Copyright 2005 Barry Welford, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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