Saturday, 24 May 2008

Just what IS SEO?

Search engine Optimization is one of the most confusing areas for new webmasters. We all know it's something we should get to grips with, but there are so many conflicting points of view, it's hard to know who to listen to.

The reason is simple: no-one, not even Google, knows precisely how their search algorithm works.

It's a classic case of chaos theory - it follows definite rules, but without knowing the initial conditions, you can't predict exactly what's going to happen.

I like to compare it to weather forecasting. You can make a good guess about certain things, but sometimes things will happen that no-one expected.

Some new webmasters assume that there's a list of rules written down somewhere, a series of IF-THEN statements that dictate how Google serves up results. If only it were that simple!

The Google search algorithm is now a mass of fixes, patches and add-ons, each one included as a result of some past 'fault' and each one aimed at improving the relevancy of the results.

Google employs teams of 'quality testers' who examine the results for specific search terms and rate them in terms of relevancy. This information gets fed back to Google and if the results do not rate highly enough, they tweak an area of the algorithm, rinse and repeat. And this is ongoing ALL THE TIME!

Because of this endless process, sometimes a loophole will open up and erratic results will appear in top 10 positions. At that point, hundreds of posts will spring up on the web explaining how to exploit this loophole. But by the time most of us have read them, the loophole will have been closed!

And because these posts can live forever on the web, you can still read information that was only briefly relevant five years ago. All of which feeds into the SEO myths and folklore. And of course there are 'SEO gurus' out there who will charge you a small fortune to temporarily exploit loopholes and give you a quick boost in your traffic. But what happens when that dies down?

There are reputable SEO companies out there as well, but they will admit that there are three areas of knowledge in SEO - things they definitely know, things they think they know, and things they guess at.

So what's the best way to do SEO? Not surprisingly, the answers come from Google themselves. They provide a ton of information - webmaster tools, blogs, videos - all of which explain the situation from their point of view. There may be brief opportunities to exploit situations that arise from time to time, but my advice would always be to do what Google tells you to do because their search algorithm is constantly being perfected in that direction.

Get the basics right - include separate titles and descriptions in ALL your pages so that each page is distinct and slant your content towards a keyword / keyword phrase (in other words, what is this page about?) keeping the content natural but with your chosen phrase emphasised (density of around 8%, no more than 10%)

Sorry there's no magic answer, but the best guideline is the one that Google give you: design content for users, not search engines. If in doubt, ask yourself: if search engines didn't exist, would I still do this? If your answers are always 'yes', you'll have nothing to worry about.

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