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SEO: Terra incognita

SEO: Terra incognita

Is SEO yet another marketing balloon or a vital part of the corporate web site strategy?

By Vitaly Dubravin

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a set of techniques to show the webpage on the top of the search results. Everyone desires to be on the first page in Google. It guarantees more traffic to the site along with more customers and advertising revenue as a result.  At least, this is the way SEO is presented to newbies by the SEO-optimization companies.  SEO is positioned as a magic wand to convert barely working website into a cash cow in a matter of weeks. Should you hire a SEO expert to reshape your website? Or do it yourself (may be it is not a rocket science after all)? Or just ignore it… (can it be yet another Y2K bubble)? I’ll try to provide you enough food for thought to make the right decision yourself and not to fall into a con artist’s hands.

SEO is all about search. Let’s compare how we search in the physical/real world and how our behaviors are different on the Internet.

Real world search.

Imagine you’ve decided to change your wardrobe and have some, probably vague, idea of what you want. There is no way to get a feel of the dream outfit on the Internet – you cannot try it on! Local store is the best choice. Here are some “filtering” criteria to define a short list of shops:

  • Brand. When I want to impress people around me, my first choice will be a well-established brand, like “Hugo Boss”, “Ralph Lauren”, and “Versace” etc.   If I need something to wear while paining my house, then I’ll try to get something cheap and not too ugly from JC Penny or Marshalls.  Brand equals quality to me.
  • Location. Will you visit a store on the 5th Avenue or go to a street shop in Chinatown looking for an authentic Rolex watch? I mean the store, not an intersection near the store….
  • Shopping or usage experience. I will not buy even a shirt from the sales person in a suite, tie and sneakers.

We use tacit knowledge of brands and locations to judge a seller’s credibility. This knowledge is influenced by the marketing campaigns and recommendations from the trusted sources (friends, family members, personal experience).  Shopping in a new place (even on the other side of the globe) is easy for as long as you see known brands or get a trusted advice on location.  When you know nothing about the place, you usually take local magazines or Yellow Pages looking for big page ads. “These guys should be doing well if they can afford an expensive ad space” – sounds stupid, but works. Random street search in the unknown town is your last choice.

SEO (if exists) does not play a substantial role in real world situations. I walk into the store because it says “Ralph Lauren” or “Macy’s”, not because there is a banner that says “pants, shirts, socks, shoes, ties, jackets, suites, jeans, hats, coats”.

Virtual world search.

Virtual world (the Internet) is not much different.  Brand works exactly the same as in the real world, though brand may exist in the virtual reality only, like well-established Facebook, tabUp etc.). We use search to find the website of a known brand, or a specific product on that website. A search engine like Google does this exceptionally well.  I can buy anything I want in a matter of minutes for as long as:

  • I saw, touched, tried it before in the local store (just want to get it for less)
  • Or blindly trust this seller (“Apple cannot be wrong! I’ll buy anything they make”)

Location has a different meaning on the net. It may be a position in the directory service category or a search results page.  Both should be addressed to bring people to the site.

First, you have to do research to establish product/seller credibility when you step into unchartered territory. I usually find major players in directory services, like DMOZ – for global or Dirbe – for local (actually dirbe is more than just a directory service – it’s an intelligent combination of directory information with website information – kind of best of both real and virtual worlds). Then I’ll read reviews in trusted professional magazines or newspapers (like New York Times). Niche (moderated) forum may be a good source as well, but it is hard to find one with semi-professional opinions (like DPReview).   Comments on shopping sites and open blogs are mostly useless – either posted by Internet brigades, trolls or bots.

Not all people are rational while dealing with the wild Internet. Many still use search, hoping to get meaningful results right away. Here is where SEO becomes handy. It lets you get to the first page in Google (Bing) search results, just by rearranging page information and building backlinks to your site.

Search engine (I’ll use Google as an example) uses 3 major qualification criteria to define your page position on search results:

  1. Paid ads. This is the most expensive way to keep your site on the top of search results. It may be considered to boost site visibility, but cannot become a long-term strategy.
  2. Page rank. This is one of the core ideas of Google algorithm.  Pages are ranked between 0 (garbage) and 10 (complete trust). Page rank is defined by the number of backlinks to this page from other internet pages. The more backlinks and the higher the rank of referring pages, the better rank will be assigned to the page. Rank is not updated frequently, so it may take a few months to see rank changes.  Use Page Rank Checker to see you current page rank.
  3. Content relevancy. This is one of the well-guarded secrets for every search engine. There is no credible information about relevance algorithms and all publications are based on the prior SEO experience and understanding of how the search engine should work, in case the author will build one.  The trouble is that Google, as well as all other search providers are constantly tweaking their algorithms. That makes prior experience less valuable. If someone tells you he knows how the search engine works, he is either going to jail soon for breaking an NDA or is simply lying.

Common recommendations for page content optimizations are:

  • use unique page titles on every page – title tag
  • add page description – tag description
  • use a reasonable amount of keywords relevant to the page content –  meta tag keywords
  • pay attention to word frequency – make sure words relevant to the page subject appears 5+ times on the page.
  • insert external links in moderation. Too many external links are considered bad. 2-5 links are good for a short page (about 500 words)
  • always add an alternative text to the images
  • never put an image or flash on a page without a text – search engines cannot read it and your page will be considered blank (at best).
  • great looking java script sites are invisible for search engines. Page is considered blank, no matter how much content you render on the page using client-side java script.
  • follow “once click – one page” rule. Don’t try to put all website content on one page. Let people surf your web. More URLs are considered better.
  • check your domain registration expiration (where you bought your domain, like Network Solutions, GoDaddy). Try to maintain 5-10 years till expiration.

You may use tools like SEO Site Checkup or SEO Workers for page assessment.

All these steps are not too sophisticated and are easy to implement especially when you are not a professional site developer. Consider using open source tools like Drupal, WordPress, or Joomla for your site. All of them have modules to automate SEO activities.

SEO optimization attracts many con artists. They guarantee a substantial traffic increase to your site within weeks and it will cost you a fortune.  But this will not be a real traffic relevant to your site. They often put adult content in keywords and hidden text on the page. Such content was and remains the most popular search terms and your site will get very popular with almost 100% bounce rate. Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Google will soon mark you as an adult site and will artificially lower your rank or put you in a sandbox (you will never be found again). So you just wasted your money and have to start all over again with a new domain name.

Website is too important in today’s world to allow strangers to mess with it. Focus on the site usability and value of your content. Viral marketing is the best way to promote your site. If it works (you see a “hockey stick” in Google Analytics), then you may simply ignore SEO tricks all together. If you want the growth curve to go steeper, then look at my recommendations above. If your analytics graph is flat, then SEO will not help and you have to redefine your product.

(originally posted on CIO.com)

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