Search Engine Optimization (SEO): It’s a term any Web developer is intimately familiar with, and even the most novice Web site owner/developer/writer has heard of. But if you’re just getting started with building your own Web presence, you may not really understand what this term is all about, or how important it is to you.
In simple terms, search engine optimization refers to the practice of designing Web pages to show up as high as possible in the list of results shown when a person searches the Web. Most Web developers spend considerable amounts of time studying exactly what the major search engines use to determine placement in the list of results. Although search engines design the results page to make it seem that they have scoured the entire Internet and returned the page with the results most relevant to your search terms, this is not entirely true (Actually, it’s just short of a bald-faced lie). In truth, search engines look at a wide variety of factors to determine placement, not just how closely the text on the destination Web page matches the text you are searching for. There are many other factors being considered, including hidden HTML codes inside your page called META tags. These tags were initially designed to allow Web designers to give search engines a brief description of your Web site/page’s contents and some suggested keywords that apply to your page without displaying this to the visitor, but that are often misused and abused today. Search engines also display sites that are updated frequently higher in their results than sites with more static information. Although this sounds like a good idea, keep in mind that not all content needs to be regularly updated. A good source of information on the life and death of Socrates probably doesn’t need to be updated on a weekly basis. But by far the most common measure of your site’s quality, according to most search engines, is the number of other Web pages which link to your site. And links to your site from sites that are ranked higher in the search results page count more than sites that the search engines have ranked lower. The number of visitors to your site also plays a vital role in the placement the search engines give to your Web site.
I can’t begin to imagine how much money is spent every year by people trying to “optimize” their Web sites to improve their placement in search results, but I suspect it is, at the least, a multi-billion dollar-per-year industry. Web site owners and developers spend countless hours tweaking words or codes on their site to raise their rank one or two places. And then there are the scams, the frauds, and the tricksters who convince people to spend good money on a product, practice, or service they claim will improve a site’s search engine ranking.
Once a servant of the Web with a noble goal of helping visitors find their way, search engines have become the cruel, unforgiving masters of the Internet, and almost all Web sites succeed or fail based on their search engine rankings. But this should not be the case.
I’m not at all opposed to search engines. I use them daily at work and at home. And I’m a big fan of some of the spin-off technology from search engines such as Google (This blog is provided on a Google-owned platform, and if you haven’t tried some of free software offered in the Google Pack, you’re missing out). Search engines are, of course, a necessity for the World Wide Web. Who could imagine life without Google, Yahoo!, MSN Live, or Ask.com? And, to a certain extent, search engine optimization is and will continue to be a necessity as well. But not in its current state.
But there’s a distinct difference between thinking about search engine placement as you design a Web page or write an article, and spending more time worrying about how the search engines will see your Web site than you do about how your visitors will see it. Unfortunately, the balance has tipped. In the early days of the Web, Web site designers and content writers came up with their own best ideas, and the search engines tried to lead people to the content. Now, search engines dictate the rules and regulations for building a search-friendly Web site, and Web designers contort their ideas and content to fit into these “guidelines.” If you want your site to be noticed, you simply have no choice but to build it according to the standards set by Google, Yahoo!, and MSN. Therefore, most Web designers spend considerable amounts of time and money learning the rules of SEO before writing a single line of code or content.
While that may not sound bad, it is often what I consider to be a fatal mistake of most entry-level Web sites. If you’re trying to sell a product online, for example, you can’t go in it thinking you’re going to be able to compete with sites like Amazon.com right out of the gate. Yet most start-up Web sites immediately start worrying about search engine optimization, and invest all of their time and/or capital in trying to increase their search engine ranking, rather than trying to get their business up and running. The fact is, however, that a new Web site is, by default, entering a very over-saturated market. Trying to get the site running by making sure it shows up within the first page of search results is just the wrong way to go about things. Developers need to start with a smaller vision…trying to capture interest in their small niche and gradually expand their influence and impact as people slowly begin to notice them and turn to them as a source of information or reliable goods and services. Instead, start-ups need to think outside of the Web and imagine how they might start up a company in the “real” world. If you want to start a new newspaper, for example, you probably don’t want to jump right out of the gate by spending tens of thousands of dollars on putting up a billboard in Times Square urging millions of readers to subscribe to your paper instead of the New York Times. Instead, you might start out with a smaller audience, smaller expectations, and a smaller purpose. Start a neighborhood newspaper, or ask your local coffee house if they will hand out copies of your newspaper and try to build up an audience gradually. The same holds true for the World Wide Web. You have to figure it will take, at a minimum, several years for you to build up a sizeable Web presence by starting off small and slowly spreading the word about what you have to offer. And if your goal is to make money from your Web presence, you probably don’t want to quit your day job until you have successfully established an unshakable place in the market.
Search engine optimization should not be the life or death of a Web site. Good marketing, good PR, and an excellent resource, product, or service should be the keys to success. Don’t mistake search engines for PR and marketing, either. They do not serve either purpose, although many people treat them as if they do. In fact, most of us are guilty of, at least sometimes, believing that the top few search results are the “most reliable” that we are going to find. Yet, honestly, most of us are also far more likely to trust a link provided to us by a Web site we know and trust as a reliable source of information even more than the “most reliable” search engine result. As a general rule, gradually building up your Web site to serve the needs of your visitors will, over the course of several years, also increase your search engine placement. So it’s a much better idea to think small at first and grow gradually, rather than trying to attract millions of people to your Web site the first day it goes live on the Web.
It’s time to move past letting the search engines dictate how the Web is built, and who gets to see it. If more Web sites would worry about providing good content, products, or services than search engine placement, the quality, influence, and general usefulness of the Web sill grow exponentially.
That’s all for today. I’ll dig into this a little deeper in my next post when I explain how the search engine giants are suppressing many new innovations that could exponentially expand the size and influence of the Web even while they allow poorly designed, insidious Web sites to attain prominent placement in their search results. I’ll also touch on how the burden of SEO on Web developers has led to a whole new level of greed and theft with the introduction of search engine advertisements.