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SEO techniques — the ones that really work.

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Performing search engine optimization on a crap-filled site just makes it slightly less crappy. — David Meerman Scott

Hmmmm. A picture of a cat in a litter box and a quote that refers to "crap." Am I giving the impression that search engine optimization, or SEO, is, well, crap?

Let me put it this way.

Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of everything is crud. — Theodore Sturgeon

Tuck's Corollary: Ninety percent of SEO techniques as promoted today are crud. And ninety percent of what's left over is probably crud.

Ah, cynicism! I think I'm biased because of my experience on numerous Web design forums and blogs discussing SEO. There are some useful nuggets of information buried in them, but 90% of what's there (and that's a conservative estimate) is badly written, half-literate spew, mostly strung-together buzzwords that neither you, I, nor, likely, the writer, understand. Somehow, in the minds of these lusty, goggle-eyed posters, cobbling together some "keyword-rich" content will increase their "bounce rate," "spoof" the "Google algorithm," and "optimize" their "Google ranking," ultimately making them rich, rich, RICH! ""My Web site is so SEO-friendly that when you search 'lavender pony cowflop bouillabaisse", my site is ranked #1!!! I'm ready to spend all those HOT DOLLARS I'm going to earn, you betcha!"

Pardon my cynicism.

SEO techniques will not make you rich any more frequently than answering those Nigerian 419 e-mails will make you a millionaire. (But hey, if you respond to e-mails that begin: "I am Mr.David Mark. an Auditor of a BANK OF THE NORTH INTERNATIONAL,ABUJA (FCT). I have the courage to Crave indulgence for this important business believing that you will never let me down either now or in the future," then you should stop reading now and do your own Google searches. Start with "SEO stuff make money rolling in dollars wahoo!" You, too will Get Rich FAST! And I can't help you.)

But there are tried and true SEO techniques that will actually help your page get higher Google rankings, help visitors find your site easier on Google and the other popular search engines, and don't require you memorizing a lot of semantically meaningless buzzwords, trust anonymous bank officials from mysterious places, or sacrificing chickens under the moonlit sky. While this page will be anything but comprehensive, I've pulled together a few techniques that do work.

Most of this comes from the Forty Agency, a Web marketing firm that doesn't seem to buy into the SEO hype, but does understand that within reason, SEO techniques do work. Some information comes from Shirley Kaiser, though this article goes off the reservation a bit. More sources are cited in the body of the page below.

Without worrying about the buzzwords, here are a few phrases that do apply to your site and you should be able to recognize:

Every time someone pulls up or surfs into your site, you get a hit. A single visitor can, by poking around your site, generate a lot of hits.
Keyword Density
The amount of times your site repeats key words or phrases ("keywords"), especially in the home page.
Keyword Stuffing
Arbitrarily ramming keywords into your content without regard for meaning or sense, in the forlorn hope that your page will rank higher in Google as a result.
Page Rank
Google ranks pages from 0 to 10, with 10 being an incredibly awesome page as far as site hits and so forth goes. Page ranks depend primarily on the quality and quantity of inbound links ("backlinks") to your site — in other words, other sites linking to yours.
Search Ranking
Somewhat arbitrary ranking based on where your site "ranks" on the Google search results, based on search words and phrases.
An XML page indexed by Google to help it find your pages.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Search engine optimization techniques basically ensure that your HTML and CSS code is organized and structured well, making it easy for Google and the others to search it quickly and thoroughly.

Search engine exaggeration tries to fool Google by "keyword stuffing," repeating words and phrases that you want associated with your site over and over and over again throughout your site's content. Sometimes people even try to hide keywords on the site through a number of (generally ineffective) methods.

Search engine deception involves all-out spoofing, often involving creating entire pages that aren't designed for human consumption, but exist solely to grab the attention of the search engines and drive traffic to the site. Deception techniques are often known as "SEO black hat" methods. They are immoral, sometimes border on the illegal, and usually result in the Decepticon site owner getting banned by his ISP.

Want to optimize your site for search engines? 90% of your effort should be turned towards making your Web site standards-compliant (as this site is dedicated to helping you do!), organized well, and filled with well-written content. This should be part of your design from the planning phase. You can't "tune up" a site with SEO and expect decent results. SEO should be part of the design from the outset.

There's no voodoo, no pagan rituals, no blood sacrifices and no Stonecutters guild. Honestly, it's just marketing with a background in technical knowledge. — Rand Fishkin

All of these practices will not only help your readers better understand your site, they'll also help search engines index and interpret your site well, which in turn leads to better rankings. — Forty Agency

Clean code, which means well-structured, well-organized HTML and CSS, helps the search engines dig through your site with a minimum of fuss and difficulty. The easier it is for the search engines to "spider" (walk through) your content, the better chance you have of having your site well and accurately represented in potential site visitors' search results. Semantically structured code helps the engines determine the proper relationship between chunks of content.

Good writing is for your site visitors, not the search engines. Good, well-written, reasonably fresh content draws visitors and keeps them coming back for more. It also attracts other site owners who will, eventually, begin linking to you. Organizing your writing to keep the important information towards the top of the page (remember, Web users skim, they don't read), breaking up the large chunks of text, using descriptive headings, writing clearly and grammatically, and other common-sense techniques will do you far more good than esoteric, arcane "content techniques" SEO "wizards" recommend. (I've actually seen posters — a lot of posters — ask if computer-generated content will help their site get noticed. Maybe, but I doubt the kind of notice some "writing" program will engender is the kind of notice a site owner really wants.)

Good structure helps both your site visitors and the search engines find their way around your site quickly and efficiently. Sitemaps help here, but you should spend a lot more time ensuring that your pages are organized sensibly, your site navigation is clear and easy to use, and other techniques that this site emphasizes.

Almost inevitably, I find that the sites people want optimized (and that the SEO firms work on) are crap filled. They're poorly written. They ramble on and on in an egotistical way about what the companies' products do. They're filled with industry jargon and corporate gobbledygook. — David Meerman Scott

Focus on the User, Not the Search Engine

I'm not saying some of these techniques don't work, in a limited and short-term fashion. Submitting your site fifty different ways to or Digg will generate some hits quickly. It will also irritate the users who realize that the fifty different recommendations you submitted don't link to fifty different sites, but to yours and yours alone. There are many ways they can have their revenge, and they will, believe me.

Want to attract users and backlinks? Make your content relevant. People come to your site for a simple reason: to fulfill a need. If they want to learn to rebuild a transmission for a 1968 Ford Fairlane, and that's what your site tells them, then do it well. Write it so that Fairlane fans, and other fans of antique cars, will want to visit and revisit your site, not because of SEO voodoo, but because your site is worth visiting and revisiting.

Blogs are, generally, good ideas, not only because they garner participation from your site visitors and give you an opportunity to keep cranking out fresh content, but because they pump up your ranking. Linking to your blog posts, or your comments, on your actual site pages is a good idea also. Remember, the blogs are there to inform and involve your community; SEO benefits come along with that. If your blog isn't there for your visitors, it isn't helping your SEO either.

And make it easy on your site visitors to remember your site. I'm hoping that "Best Practices Web Design" becomes the go-to phrase for this site. Plug it in, this site comes up. I hope.

Keyword Stuffing

Matt Cutts, an SEO guru at Google, gives an extreme example of keyword stuffing. I won't reprint it here, because, well, I can't, but go take a look. Gee, why doesn't Google like the guy he uses for his example?

Here's a more reprintable example, from Search Agency, and one that happens in one form or another every, say, .0025 seconds somewhere on the Interwebz:

If you're looking for tennis shoes, you've come to the right place. Our website is the best place to buy tennis shoes. You won't find better tennis shoes or cheaper tennis shoes anywhere else. We invite you to check out our great selection of tennis shoes.

Um, gee, you think this site sells, what? Tennis shoes, perhaps? Maybe you felt like the site was writing as if it thought its visitors were idiots. Well, it does, but moreover, it thinks Google is staffed by idiots who will fall for this technique. "Wow, if we repeat the same phrase seventeen times, Google will rank us higher than the bigger sites that only use the phrase a few times!" No, actually, Google will penalize the site for keyword stuffing by dropping its page rank and plummeting it into the abyss of 20th-page results.

The content on each of your Web pages should be written naturally, with just a few variations of your main keyword sprinkled throughout. Write for your readers first — and then take care of the SEO. Oftentimes, you can’t even tell that some of the most well-written Web pages have been optimized for SEO. — Search Agency

Back in the day, sneaky SEO vooderizers used to "stuff" keywords into their meta tags:

More about meta tags.

something like this (culled from site):

<meta name="keywords" content="knife, knives, butterfly knives, switchblade, spring assisted knife, sharp, steel">

The voodoo guys thought that ramming a dozen different variants of the basic conceptual term "knife" (and I've seen far, far worse examples) would ram their site way up the Google rankings. It probably got their site banned for unethical SEO practices. It certainly didn't give them the results they wanted. Several years ago, because of rampant meta-tag stuffing, Google drastically de-emphasized the importance of meta keywords and descriptions, rendering them all but worthless in getting your site ranked.

As the guys at the Forty Agency tell us:

How often have you searched for something, and then clicked through on the top results only to find a junk page crammed with keywords but little useful content? Did you stick around? Did you buy anything?

It's an issue of quality vs. quantity. You might be able to increase your hits, but you'll receive a lower percentage of conversions because your pages don't match the expectations held by users clicking through from search engines.

You can determine your "keyword density" — ideally between 5% and 20% on your home page for words and phrases you want associated with your site — by visiting this site: Keyword Density Analyzer Tool. This is to help you in a legitimate fashion, not "stuff" your site with meaningless "keywords".

And using some sensible repetition of key phrases (as opposed to keywords) helps your placement. For example, my site might do well to emphasize the phrase "web design" or "basic web design" or "web design for beginners" a bit more in the home page.

Search Engine Deception

I am not going to go into any depth here, partially because I find the entire idea ethically repugnant, and they don't really work except in the very short term. We're talking about things like "link farms", "content generators", "gateway pages", "cloaking", stuffing keywords into comment tags, sneaky redirects, spamming blogs with garbage festooned with links, and other practices that have nothing to do with connecting to users, and everything to do with trying to sucker visitors into visiting a site. Search engines like Google know all about these techniques, and some are considered "terms of service" (TOS) violations, which means that Google (or Ask, or Bing, or …) adds those sites to their ever-expanding list of Sites Not to be Listed. You don't ever want to get onto that list.

Things to Avoid

There are some things you should either avoid outright or be careful in using.

First up is Flash. Some people code their entire sites in Flash. Very snazzy looking, sometimes (when they don't go overboard), but Flash doesn't parse well in search engines. The more reliant your site is on Flash, the less likely it is to be picked up by the searchbots. SEO expert Mark Cronin reminds us that while Flash has a place in Web building, that place is not front and center:

Flash has its place on the Web: it's great for interactive components such as sophisticated learning activity games with audio and video, and 3D animation. It's better served as components of an HTML/CSS site than as the technology that powers the entire site. … Flash can be SEO-friendly and web accessible, however, it's more difficult when compared to using open web languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Second up is JavaScript. I'm not saying not to use JavaScript. I use it in every site I design, and while I understand some people's reluctance to enable JS on their computers, I don't code primarily for their needs. Having said all that, using JS to contain content is not good practice, both for the searchbots and for screen readers. Using JS for main navigation or layouts is worse. Don't do it.

A lot of SEO wannabes overcrowd their home page with links, in a useless attempt to appeal to the search engines by showing a ton of links to outside pages. "Link stuffing" annoys readers and, when taken to the extreme (i.e. over 100 links on a page), actually works against your hopes of a high search engine ranking. Same with redundant links; if you're linking to the same page over and over again, whether by accident or by an attempt to bamboozle the searchbots into thinking you're a "special friend" of that site, don't.


The guys at the Forty Agency sum it up nicely:

The time, effort, and money spent on search engine optimization (particularly of the exaggerating or deceptive kind) can often be put to better use by working on improving the quality, content, and structure of the website itself.

It's not difficult to rank quite highly for your desired keywords, and to do so with very little traditional optimization. The big secret is to simply provide your users with what they’re looking for in an understandable manner. Be straightforward, label things clearly, etc. This form of SEO is not only the most effective kind, it's also the easiest and least expensive.

… It takes a lot of time and effort to 'stay ahead of the law' with deceptive SEO, however, long-term approaches to SEO requires much less ongoing maintenance (and associated cost) — and frankly, it's much more fun!