Search Engine Optimization for Your Web Site

Whether your Web site is brand new or ten years old, managing how it appears to search engines is crucial to its success. The typical Web site gets 61 percent of its traffic from organic (nonpaid) search engine results, and 41 percent of all traffic from Google alone. Ensuring that the company's site ranks highly in search results is, for most businesses, a make-or-break proposition, which is why search engine optimization (SEO) is now a multibillion-dollar industry.

No one knows exactly what combination of tactics will maximize a Web site's ranking in search results, but a lot of smart people have developed some good approximations based on history and empirical evidence. I asked three experts--Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, and Michael H. Fleischner, author of SEO Made Simple --about what tips and tricks they thought someone just starting out in the SEO game ought to know. The best and brightest of their recommendations follow.

Know What Keywords to Optimize

Search engine optimization is useless if you don't know what you're trying to optimize. For some businesses, picking appropriate keywords is straightforward: A candy merchant would probably choose candy, chocolate, and similar terms. But other business sites face more-difficult decisions. What terms should an online store that sells many different products emphasize? And how should a general-interest Web site that covers a wide range of topics determine which search terms to focus on?

For starters, you should base your decisions about which terms relevant to your business to optimize on which terms people are searching for most often. One way to gauge search term popularity is to use an online keyword tool designed to see measure what general terms are searched for the most. Both the Google Keyword Tool and the SEO Book Keyword Suggestion Tool can help you get a quick, accurate sense of the search volume for any term of your choice, and they will recommend related terms that you might not have thought of.

Ultimately it's a numbers game: You need to optimize for terms that drive the highest traffic and are the most relevant to what your Web site offers. Optimizing your site for terms that no one ever types into a search engine won't generate any traffic for the site, no matter how conscientiously you pursue the optimization. So before you do anything else, carefully select a handful of relevant high-interest terms for optimizing.

Focus on Title Tags and URLs

Experts agree that your title tags should be central to your SEO efforts. When it comes to indexing content, search engines treat the words in these tags--the text that appears in the title bar in your browser--as the most important single element on a Web page. For that reason, you should load it with your keywords, and make every title tag on your site unique. Danny Sullivan says that you should think of the tags as being like the titles of hundreds of books that you've published and want potential customers to be able to find: "If you give them all the same title, no one knows they are about different things."

Years ago many people thought that URL structure was irrelevant and that only the actual content of a page really mattered. But search engines today consider keywords in your URLs much as they do keywords on the page itself. Though most publishing systems make it easy to use keywords in URLs, many such systems (like WordPress) default to simplistic URLs that consist of numbers instead of including keywords.

It is well worth your while to take the time to make keywords part of your URL structure. Thereafter, a piece about Quantum of Solace (for example) will look more like www.pcworld.com/quantum-of-solace instead of like www.pcworld.com/11/&id=27. And readable URLs don't just help search engines, says Rand Fishkin; they help users, too.

Each page of content on your site should link to by only one URL. Multiple URLs that refer to a single page of content can confuse search spiders.

Be Aware of How Others Link to You

I love it when readers link to Filmcritic.com, my movie review Web site, but a link like Filmcritic.com is cool has far positive impact on the ranking my site receives from search engines than a link like movie reviews. Why? Because search engines take into account the anchor text used to link to a site.

If you want to rise up in the rankings for a certain keyword or phrase, you need to encourage others to use those keywords in the anchor text for the link to your site, instead of just using the name of your site. To make this easy, you can provide the actual HTML code you'd like the linking site to use: Many linkers will simply copy and paste it on their Web site rather than taking the trouble to customize it themselves.

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