Gone are the days when you can put your desired keywords in a meta keyword tag and expect them to work with the search engines. Google especially doesn’t look at meta keyword tags, preferring to analyze the text on the page itself to determine what the page is about. It goes back to the days (in the 1990s) when car salesman, for example, would put “sex” in their keyword tags, while adult sites would put “porsche” in their keyword tags, all in an attempt to lure people who were really looking for something else.
So now search engine optimization (SEO) is more complicated, and a bit of an inexact science and applied art, with lots of practitioners of varying degree of skill and ethics. There are “black hat” and “white hat” techniques, the former liable to get your site banned from the search engines if discovered. Lots of grey in the middle, too. It’s a cat and mouse game between the search engines and those who would try using tricks to influence them.
Google and Bing’s goal is to give searchers the results they’re looking for. They would prefer that everyone follow a few basic rules such as having good content, appropriate titles and headers, and make your site accessible to users. They don’t like hidden text, unnatural prose or overly “optimized” pages.
And now, the social network is becoming an important determinant of a site’s ranking. If real people are sharing your page on Facebook and tweeting it on Twitter, the search engines are configured to conclude that it is useful and interesting. Even as a small business, you can and should do a lot for your website by having a Facebook page, commenting intelligently and appropriately on blogs and in forums using your web address, having a LinkedIn profile and generally showing that you’re a real person with a real business and something to contribute.
Back to on-page SEO, however, which is still important:
Basically, you have to think about what terms the people you are targeting are actually using when they’re looking for someone like you, then build them into the text on your site in a natural way. There is no point in trying to optimize a page for keywords that no one would ever use. And on the other hand, certain keywords might be too competitive to easily achieve a high ranking for. There are some good tools for doing keyword research, particularly free ones created by Google. One great tool is Google Trends. Google Webmaster Tools also has some very useful tools, accessible to the webmaster of a site. There are many others, including the old standard, Wordtracker.com which has a free trial version as well as a paid subscription service.
If you are in a niche market, the “long tail” keywords (or keyphrases) may be good targets for you. Basically, if you want to rank highly for a general keyword, you’re up against a lot of general information sites. Any searcher looking for your service that way will quickly refine their search to include more specific keywords. If you add another more specific word, you will more easily come out on top. The trick is to find out what those keywords might be – the “long tail”.
Once you have determined which keywords (including keyphrases) you should target, you can make sure that they occur in the title tags (what appears in the top bar of the browser), in the header tags on your pages, in links pointing to pages, and in your text, but in a natural way – without overdoing it. SEO types are always coming up with formulas for optimum “keyword density” on a page, always trying to second guess the secret algorithms of the search engines. Meanwhile, the algorithms keep changing as search engines try to generate more natural results. And the question, “Is SEO dead?” crops up in SEO forums once in a while.
So as I see it, you have two choices. Either you spend a lot of time, or money to buy someone else’s time, to try to keep on top of the algorithm changes, which may be worthwhile if you’re operating in a highly competitive internet market, like consumer electronics or online pharmaceuticals. This kind of work is typically taken on by an SEO firm that does a lot of research to analyze changes in search engine algorithms and then makes regular tweaks to your web pages. There are many other companies out there who pretend to be this kind of firm, or employ various shortcuts, or use “black hat” techniques that could end up getting you banned from search engines, so buyer beware. The alternative is to make a point of having your appropriate keywords in your title tags, headers, text, alt tags behind images, link text, file names, domain name (only if you’re starting out, otherwise, keep your well-aged domain name), etc., and include keyword meta tags for those search engines that do look at them, making sure that they reflect the content of the page. Above all, have lots of good, original content for the search engines to sink their teeth into.
When building or servicing a webpage, I am always keeping the search engines in mind and following the second choice above. I follow the general trends in search engine optimization in order to avoid the pitfalls and to be able to build ongoing searchability into the page. Most of my clients can’t afford to spend several hundreds of dollars a month it takes to pursue the first route. However, from time to time I do some SEO work on a site to try to improve its ranking for certain terms.
And if a client discovers a search term that their site should be ranking for, we can build it into the site, and make sure it’s in the title and header tags as well as being discussed on the page, in context.
One of the most important factors in getting your site ranked well is the number of inbound links – preferably one-way, coming into your site from other relevant sites of quality. Understandably, that can be seen as other people rating your site as important, and that’s why it’s so significant. Exactly which sites are linking to you matters. Beware of offers to get your site linked from lots of other sites. You don’t want to get into a bad neighbourhood – and bad neighbourhoods and “link farms”, do exist.
Once you have a website, you may get offers to exchange links with another website. Examine these carefully. They aren’t as useful as they used to be, at least as far as Google is concerned. Often the inbound link you are obtaining in this way will be buried on a page that no one can find. And think about how that link is going to fit in with your site. If it’s not relevant and useful to your users, forget it.
In 2007, Google started to come down hard on paid links. So watch out for that, too!
The best way to attract inbound links is to have a really good site with useful content that others will want to link to.
Frequent updates to your site will bring search engines AND PEOPLE around more often. I have long observed this with some of my clients. If you like to write, a blog on your site can be useful for attracting inbound links and also for keeping the search engines coming around.