First Things First
So you want to expand your business or not-for-profit and increase the visitors to your site – you start looking for quotes on SEO. Unfortunately, throwing money at SEO in the hope of achieving a big rise in visitors rarely works. The most important aspects of a successful website are accessibility and providing content that is useful. Before you start worrying about SEO, figure out exactly what it is that you want your website to say.
If you haven't already, we suggest you check out the bigger picture with our posts An Introduction to Marketing (with Purple Cows!) and Marketing on the Web: What's Different and What Works. If you already have a well organized marketing strategy, read on.
The History of SEO
Search Engine Optimization was largely developed in the mid-90's as search engines came into popularity. SEO, at its most basic, is a technique for making web sites appealing to search engine in order to achieve a high search request ranking. In the early days, this could be accomplished largely through trickery - search engines were largely unsophisticated and could be fooled into giving a poorly designed and visited site a high ranking. Techniques like 'keyword stuffing' – writing a search phrase over and over on your site –might have actually worked.
Search Engines (notably, Google) that began by developing search engine 'rankings' for a site have now increasingly moved to a system that establishes whether a site is 'trusted' or not. Search engines have become more advanced and they now currently evaluate geolocation, networks of sites linking to that site, even grammar. Today a search engine like Google uses hundreds of algorithms in evaluating a site when it provides search requests.
Unfortunately, it is still quite common to find disreputable, 'trick-based' SEO Marketers in the web industry. As of 2010, even large organizations such as the San Francisco Chronicle regularly fall victim to legal but essentially worthless SEO services. The techniques that worked in 1998 rarely work today and no one can promise you a top ranking.
How To Rank Well in Search Engines
Okay, so you've deleted the spam email you received promising a “top spot in Google!”
SEO Factor 1: Good Content
Without question, the single most effective technique at getting a high search engine ranking for a particular term is good content. Let's say you sell canoes. A beautiful site with limited information will be quickly outranked by a poorer quality site that includes the definitive guide to purchasing a canoe.
Internet users are selfish - they are interested in relevant content and rightly so. If Google recognizes that numerous people are visiting (and linking to) the terribly-designed-and-programmed web site as a guide on how to purchase a canoe, then that site is more relevant to the search term “how to buy a canoe.” Since the purpose of a search engine is to return relevant information, the terrible site with good detailed content wins every time.
Search engines appreciate a site with well-organized content, well-written articles and natural language. Reasonable use of search engine keywords (e.g., 'canoe guide') helps, but isn't a primary factor anymore.
SEO Factor 2: Good Programming
What happens if two sites are roughly equivalent in terms of content? The next thing to consider is the site programming. Your platform should be 'search engine friendly'. This is shorthand for saying that a search engine finds it easy to index the site for relevant information. A page title like:
...is okay, but a page title such as:
"Sustainable Web Design and Consulting | CartaNova.ca"
...is much better.
As in our big-picture guide to online marketing, the key metrics here are accessibility and relevance. Your site should be accessible to search engines through the smart use of page titles, content headings, and internal links. The content should be relevant and, if possible, original.
In the course of evaluating a site there are hundreds of factors that are involved. You can read a list of Search Engine Ranking Factors here. For the business owner or not-for-profit organizer, if you have a site where every page is unique, navigation and menus are easy to use, and each page has a unique link and page title (in the top bar of your browser) then you're doing well.
SEO Factor 3: Good Links
Trust is an important measure in all social relationships and this measure extends to search engines as well. Google and other search engines value relevant links to your web site. The amount of value roughly corresponds to the 'trust' that the search engine places in the site(s) linking to you, the site(s) linking to that site, and so on.
To put it another way, a link from the Wikipedia page on 'Sustainable Design' to CartaNova.ca would do more for our business than 100 paid-for links from a 'link-building' agency. This doesn't rule out commercially licensed links though - web directories such as Renewable Energy World maintain a high Google value by operating a relevant blog source for Renewable Energy news. The companies which are listed on REW are thus 'buoyed' by the value of the REW site.
With most paid directories, there is a factor of diminishing returns - as your listing becomes less unique, you lose value. So asking your clients, customers and constituents to link to your site is of paramount importance. Linking creates an effective (and free) 'community of interest' that displays both relevance and trust to Google and other search engines.
SEO in the Future
As Search Engines become more sophisticated into the future, will SEO even matter? We think so and Google SEO-Guru Matt Cutts agrees. [video]
In summary our advice on Search Engine Optimization is the same as our advice on online marketing - be unique, be accessible, be relevant.
Editors Note: This article is intended for small business owners and not-for-profit organizers. For a more technical treatment of the subject we recommend SEOmoz's beginners guide.