The Zen of SEO – Part 1

October 23rd, 2011

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In this two part series, we’re going to break down some SEO concepts that every business owner (and web designer alike) should understand.  We’re not going to get too techie, there are plenty of guides and resources online that can help with that.  Instead, we will discuss the philosophies and ideas that are essential to understanding SEO.

In part one, we will discuss the basic tenets of SEO for any size web page, whether it’s a simple one page site or a large eCommerce store.  These tips are the foundation of any successful SEO strategy and many of them should be a part of the web development process itself, rather than something that is addressed after the fact.

It’s important to understand how different SEO is from any other kind of web service. There is no silver bullet to achieving the blissful state of high rank. There are many factors that search engines take into account and they all must be understood to reach what we refer to as the “Zen of SEO.”

Before we begin, there’s one overarching idea to keep in mind when trying to understand SEO:

At its root, SEO is about establishing trust with search engines by developing a quality website that delivers quality content.

Keep this concept in mind as we move forward, and all the ideas we present will make a lot more sense.

1. Content and Substance

SEO strategy starts with impeccable content.  Having quality content that is relevant to your keywords is the essential element of SEO.  What IS good content, though?  The short answer is:  you are writing for people, not robots.  For example, having “good content” does not mean having as many keywords as possible to trick the search engine into believing your site has something of value to offer.

The longer answer is this:  good web content is targeted (rich with keyword variations), engaging, clever and useful, meaning visitors are more likely to stay on your website longer and hopefully share it with others.  Ever been to a site that reads like a string of keywords?  It’s unlikely you will stay on that site for long, or re-visit it, for that matter. Search engines notice this behavior over time and it’s their job to return the most useful result.  A site that retains its users and is shared is considered to be more important and trusted.  And this is truly the core principle of SEO:  a trusted site ranks higher than others.

Some clients ask us questions about “tricking the robot” by hiding keywords and other tactics. These methods will not help sites gain trust and while you may see a short-term gain, the long term impact can be disastrous (such as getting blacklisted).  As time goes on, search engines look towards the quality of the content more than any other factor, because that’s the what the Internet is truly about – sharing quality information.

2. Find Your Focus

When you first set out to optimize your site, you need to meditate on what you want to be found under; only, instead of returning to your breath, you want to return to the central focus of the service you are providing to your core audience, and develop your keywords from that base point. This means getting to truly know your business, your product or service, your customer, and it also means getting to know your competition. How many other sites are competing for that keyword? How long have they been doing it? The more broad your keywords are, the more resources (read: time and effort) it takes to achieve good rank. For example, can you focus locally before regionally? If so, you might want to start there.

Next, you want to make sure you’re targeting search terms that people actually search!  Having a #1 rank for a keyword is only valuable if you get traffic from it, and what you think people search might not be searched at all.  Someone familiar with optimization can help you find out what relevant keywords are searched for your industry and thus worth putting resources towards.

Don’t get tunnel vision though and get too focused on certain keyword terms. Long tail searches, the near infinite variations of keywords that users might type in to find what they are looking for, are also important.  For example, one of our clients wanted to rank for “barber schools orange county”, and with our optimization they also rank well for “barbering colleges near orange county california,” a long tail search variation.  Tying back to tip #1, having quality content will ensure you rank for as many of these variations as possible, not just one variation.

Finally, realize that you can’t rank #1 for all your desired search terms.  Find the ones that are the most valuable that are going to drive most of your traffic and focus there.  It’s much better to specialize and rank high for a handful of search terms than to rank modestly for many.

3. Less is More

When we help companies develop their web presence, many request features such as a Blog or News Feed that will allow them to always have fresh content displaying on their website.  While having content on your site that is frequently changing is important for the user experience, it really only helps your site rankings if the content is relevant.

It’s a common misconception that search engines need to see fresh content on a regular basis to consider the site still important. If you have well targeted content (this includes images, too, if they are optimized), you don’t need any content on your site changing at all to retain a high rank for a certain keyword. That said, we still recommend having dynamic content, for your users’ sake, especially when it’s dynamic AND relevant.

4. Form before Function

A Zen Garden performs several functions for its community (a place for ceremonies, and so on), but it is also designed for its users to appreciate its aesthetic nature. Design, while not directly related to SEO, must be considered because it determines what happens after a user finds your site. A site that is organized well and designed beautifully is often more effective in lead conversion. If you rank high for a search and users are simply clicking onto the site and leaving, you are neglecting to benefit from your high rank (and your abandon rate could mean that you might not retain that rank for long).

Having a website that is aesthetically pleasing, engaging AND optimized is the key to website success. Beyond increasing your chances that the user will want to buy your product or sign up for your service, the more time a user spends on your site – because it is both relevant to their search and nice to look at/interact with – the lower your bounce rate becomes. Ideally, it even might be shared across the vastness of the Internet, which can earn you points with search engines, making it more likely you will continue to rank high.

5. Code is Haiku

Have you ever tried to find something in a disorganized closet?  Not only is it hard to find things, but it’s time consuming to look. If your website isn’t built with standards you are making the search engine crawlers dig through your cluttered closet to find what they need, and they’re job is all about speed so they don’t like anything that slows them down.  The Web Standards movement was established as a guidebook for web designers to create code that is structured in an efficient and semantic way which enables the crawler to move through the site with ease, as well as having a site that is optimized to load quickly.

Keep in mind that crawlers won’t spend all day trying to find their way around your site if the code is messy and the site loads slowly. They will take what they can get and move on.  The easier the crawler can get through the site (which can involve many factors, such as well organized internal links), the more likely the crawler is to index more of the site quicker, increasing your chances of ranking more often.

Hopefully this primer gave you some new insight to understanding the foundation of how search engines and websites interact together.

In part two, we’re going to cover the much talked about Social Media component, the importance of having a site that is well linked to and, the biggest SEO secret of them all…

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