The world wide web holds over a trillion pages, according to Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly1. About 570 new websites are created every minute, says one PC Magazine study. These numbers are as difficult to comprehend as they are to quantify. There is a mind boggling amount of information on the Internet, and more is being created every second. So the question on everyone’s mind is, “How can I get more traffic to my website?”
The answer is: Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Before digging into SEO, we must first establish a basic understanding of what search engines are and why they exist. Search engines are computer robots “or spiders” constantly scanning and indexing the Internet. Search engines exist to help users (i.e. real human beings) find relevant content they are searching for on the web. With the nearly infinite amount of information on the Internet, we must have a way to sort and make sense of it. Search engines act much like interactive library card catalogs in helping us to do so. They help users find what they are looking for.
Google, the world’s most powerful search engine, processes on average over 40,000 search queries every second. How did I find this out? Of course, I “Googled” it! Google is to search engines as Kleenex is to tissue paper. They are often used synonymously, and while not technically accurate, I will occasionally do so for brevity’s sake. I will also use the word “Google” as a verb, meaning to search using a search engine.
When you “Google” a word (aka a keyword or keyword phrase), the search engine returns a list of websites on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP) with short descriptions and links for the user to choose from.
Now that we have a basic understanding of how search engines are used, let’s take a closer look at Search Engine Optimization. SEO is the process of making improvements on and off a particular website with the goal of gaining more exposure on SERPs returned by a specific query. The ultimate goal of SEO is to gain first-page, top-place ranking in the “organic” search results for a specific keyword (or group of keywords). The organic search results are free, earned positions, and the No. 1 ranking on the first page of a Google SERP gets the lion’s share of the traffic. More exposure in SERPs ultimately leads to more visitors finding your website. More visitors finding your site means more customers and revenue for your business.
The SEO industry is ever evolving, and the process of SEO is governed by extremely complex, “algorithms” (page ranking formulas) developed by Google, as well as Yahoo, Bing and other search engines. Each search engine has its own proprietary, top-secret algorithm, which is tweaked and changed constantly in order to maintain relevance and to prevent people from abusing the system. In addition, search engines are always trying to improve their products to deliver timely search results that are most relevant to the person searching. Without happy users, the search engines themselves can become irrelevant (remember Ask Jeeves?). All this tweaking and changing of formulas means even if your site is ranking well today, it could change dramatically with the introduction of a big algorithm update. You may have heard of “Panda” or “Penguin”; these refer to updates Google made to its algorithm in past years.
Dozens of factors influence the formulas that determine what website will garner a number 1 ranking for a specific keyword or phrase. Not all of these factors are the same (or carry the same amount of weight) between different search engines. You may be surprised to find out that not only is there no shortcut to optimize your website, there is a fair amount of conjecture and experimentation involved in SEO.
But here is the good news. While search engines are ever-changing and highly intricate, you don’t have to be a computer genius to understand the general concepts and apply them to your website. Further, there are many SEO techniques you can do yourself. (You may need the help of a web developer for some of the more technical aspects.)
Green Thumb SEO vs. Sore Thumb SEO*
Your website needs to be search engine friendly, but you should avoid getting carried away trying to optimize your website for robots. It is possible to over-optimize your website, which will be obvious to Google that you are not truly earning your high rankings.
I like to classify SEO techniques into two broad categories: “green thumb SEO,” techniques that search engines recommend, and “sore thumb SEO,” techniques search engines discourage. Green thumb SEO tends to produce results that last, whereas sore thumb SEO may get a website penalized or even banned permanently once the search engines discover what they are doing.
When applying Search Engine Optimization techniques, if you are not sure which is which, consider your intentions. If what you are doing is going to be useful to a user on your website, then it is probably green thumb SEO, which means it will help your website thrive and assist in your SEO efforts. If what you are doing is solely to help your rankings, it will likely stick out like a sore thumb to the search engines and to users, and thus, it is probably something you should not be doing.
Above all, you must remember that humans are the ones who will actually drive your business to success. If you follow the guidelines laid out in this book, while focusing on the usability and purpose of your website as it provides real value to real humans, you can sport your green thumb and always remain on the good side of the search engines.
Measuring Progress with Google Analytics
There are many tools and resources available to help in your SEO efforts. I will introduce several in this book, some of which are free and some of which are paid. I won’t be getting into precisely how to use each of the tools, but you should be aware of them as you get more serious with your SEO.
Google Analytics is one of the most essential tools you need to measure and track your SEO efforts. Google Analytics is an industry standard tool, and it is free! Until you know what to look for, avoid using other statistics programs offered by your website host or CMS as these may have inflated or inaccurate numbers.
Resource: To sign up for Google Analytics, visit www.google.com/analytics.
You may need a web developer to help you install the Google Analytics code on your website, but it should not be difficult or expensive for them to do. Whatever you do, don’t skip this important step! Start tracking your results and progress immediately. These metrics will help you better understand and track your return on investment.
Once the code is installed on your site, you can see exactly how many people are accessing your website, from what parts of the world, at what time of day, what pages they are visiting, for how long and so much more. Warning: once you start tracking, you may find yourself addicted to looking at your analytics. It’s incredibly interesting and often surprising!
There is so much data collected it may seem overwhelming to wade through. But at the very least, start tracking the information, and you can always hire an analyst or SEO expert to help you make sense of it later.
*Author’s Note: The SEO industry has classified good and bad SEO techniques as “white hat SEO” and “black hat SEO.” I find these terms insensitive to people of color and have purposely omitted them from my book. I call on you to adopt “green thumb SEO” and “sore thumb SEO” as the new industry standard.