Search engine optimization or SEO is quite the catch phrase these days, but most people don’t actually understand how it works. Your immediate goal is to be listed as high as possible in the search results when someone types in a keyword relevant to your site in Google, Yahoo or another search engine. The way to meet this goal is by understanding the search engines, not tricking them, as some sites try to do. For example, embedding commonly searched words into your code may have worked five years ago, but today, it’s a way to get your site blacklisted.

First Thing’s First – Get Your Site Indexed

Before your site appears in the search engines, it needs to be indexed. Search engines use spiders or robots that “crawl” through your pages. These spiders look at both the content on your site and the code behind your pages. Relevant information from your site is stored in a database so that your site will come up when corresponding keywords are entered in the Yahoo, Google or another search mechanism. Think of it this way, it is the job of the search engines to deliver to users the most relevant pages related to what they’re searching on.

When you first launch a site, there are two ways to go about getting it indexed. You can manually submit your site to the major search engines. The big ones are Google and Yahoo, but it is beneficial to submit your site to the following as well: MSN, Ask Jeeves, Lycos, AltaVista, and AOL. You’ll only need to submit the main page of your site, because what you’re actually doing is putting your Website in a queue with other sites waiting to be indexed.

The second way is to simply launch your site and let the search engines discover it. While Google tends to be the fastest in indexing new sites, it can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks for your site to be indexed. The best way to ensure your site is indexed in a timely manner is to have an inbound link to your site from another already indexed site. Many people actually recommend this approach over submitting your site to the index queue.

Structural and Formatting Considerations

Search engines regularly crawl and re-index websites, then update the search database accordingly. As such, you should be just as active in keep your site up-to-date with new pages and fresh information. You want to stay highly visible to the spiders and robots. Here are a few ways to do that:

Create a Site Map

The rule of thumb this: make it so every page you want indexed is no more than three clicks from the homepage. This best way to ensure that this is the case is by creating a sitemap. Having a sitemap on your homepage will serve as a conduit to direct the crawlers to all of the pages on your site you want them to crawl. Your sitemap doesn’t need to be fancy just an index to a book. It is a list of the pages on your site, generally organized by title or category which serves as the link text to the corresponding page. While the sitemap link on your homepage does not need to be front and center, it still needs to be there even though it’s probably not a tool your site visitors will use.

Create Friendly URLs

It used to be that most search engines would not index dynamically (or database) driven URL’s. What happens now is that the search engine will recognize these URL’s as dynamic and either crawl them more slowly or only crawl them if they have enough incoming links. A good rule of thumb is that the longer the URL, the less chances it has of being crawled. The goal, then, is to remove the query strings from your URL’s and replacing them with friendlier identifiers. You’ll find this will not only look good in the eyes of the search engines, but your site visitors, as well. A URL with real words is much easier to remember than one with questions marks, random letters, numbers and other symbols.

Keep Your Copy in Check

Web crawlers will not index more than 200KB of text per page, so if you want your pages to be indexed completely, keep your content under that limit. Or make sure the most relevant copy is at the top of your pages.

Increase In-Coming Links

Establish back links to reputable and relevant sites. Look for sites you feel comfortable being associated with, then contact them to see if they’re interested in swapping links. An affiliate program is a good way to establish back links.

Content Strategies and a Look Behind the Scenes

Now that you have a general understanding of how search engines work, let’s explore what else you need to do to your site to improve your search engine rank. There are two major areas to consider when thinking about search engine optimization: content and coding. Both play very important roles in SEO.

Keep your Content Fresh, Relevant and Well-Written

Do you have appropriate content on your website that matches the keywords or phrases you think people are searching for? Realistically, for every keyword phrase you want to win, you will need at least one page of carefully-written content. Search engines love Websites that are frequently updated with fresh content and information. This includes adding pages to your site. A good rule of thumb is the more pages, the better. A few ways to maintain fresh content is through techniques like news articles, press releases, blogs and tips.

Behind the Scenes

Now for the more technical side of things. When addressing the rest of your website address the following areas:

Title Tags – A Great Platform to Promote Keyword Density

Get in the practice of use unique title tags on every page. The title tag is displayed at the top of the page (on the blue bar of your browser). Maybe your company name is Bikes and More. When the user clicks on the page for mountain bikes, you don’t want to the user to see just Bikes and More in the title. Instead, change it to Quality Mountain and All-Terrain Bicycles at Bikes and More, or something to that effect. Every page should have its own title. Keep the title around 40 characters and make sure you use keywords in the title that users are typing in to find those pages on your site.

Meta Keyword Tags

Metatags are essentially keywords that appear “behind the scenes” of you site in the html code but can’t be seen by users. While meta tags aren’t as important as they used to be, since there is a history of misuse with these (for example adding sex as a meta keyword tag) they are still important. For every page, choose the keywords that are most closely matched to what you are displaying on your page.

Meta Description Tags

Add meta description tags to every page. The meta description tag is what appears under your title in a directory listing – it’s a summary of your page’s content. Keep it under 200 words and don’t cram it with keywords. Think of it as a brief summary to what the viewer will find on your page. Use it as an opportunity to sell your page.

A Few Tips and Other Things to Consider

When creating headers and navigation on your homepage and throughout your site, avoid images. For your header, it’s ok to have an image or graphic, but don’t let it take up the entire width of the page. Instead, also include relevant keyword copy in your heading – like your company tagline. For your navigation bar, there is really no reason not to use keywords as your links – this gives your pages greater relevance in the eyes of the search engines. But, if you feel you have to use images or graphics in your navigation bar or header for aesthetic purposes, remember to use appropriate ALT tags for the images.

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