A Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization

Chances are that you’ve experienced this: You put up a few web pages, fill them with the product of your hard work and creativity, and wait. After a few days, weeks, or even months, you only see a tiny trickle of hits. Maybe the only people visiting your site are your friends, even though it would actually appeal to a wider audience.

What happened?

The web is a large place, filled with all kinds of sites on all kinds of topics. You already know this, that’s why, when you go to find something, you use a search engine. Your potential visitors are no different, and in order to catch their attention, you need to do a bit of work to make sure search engines can find your site. This is where search engine optimization or SEO comes in. SEO is the art of making your page search-engine friendly.

Sound complicated?

Well, it’s really not so difficult. The first thing you need to do is to create something interesting. Write it, draw it, or photograph it, then post it all together for the world to see. That part’s probably already done, which is great because it is by far the most important step to a popular website.

The second thing you need to do is make sure you are giving search engines what they need to index your content. Major search engines like Google, Yahoo, and MSN actually look at your pages in a very simple way. Images and fancy effects get ignored, and all the textual information gets stored and analyzed. If you’re wondering how services like Google Image Search work, they look for text, too. That means if your page relies on images, you need to describe them. Visible descriptions are great, but just as handy are comments added to a little HTML feature called the ALT attribute, which looks like this in an image tag:
An example image, not very exciting
The ALT text is part of what search engines will look for, and it is also what gets displayed if you hover your mouse over the image for a few seconds. If the image later gets broken, or the page needs to be read off the screen to a blind person, ALT text gives people something to fall back on.

HTML provides a few other tags that allow you to hide information in your pages for search engines to find. One that you’re probably already using is the TITLE tag, which goes in the HEAD section of every page and specifies the title that will be displayed at the top of the browser window, in a user’s history, and in a page of search results. These titles don’t have to be very short, in fact they shouldn’t be. You have about 6 words to work with before Google gets annoyed, so put a quick tagline for your site right there in the TITLE tag. Here’s an example:
Al’s Frisbee Emporium
Al’s Frisbee Emporium – For all your flying disk needs
In the case of the second title, Al has clued Google in that his page is about both “Frisbee” and “flying disk”, so either of these terms might return a hit for Al’s site.

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As the web evolved, another class of tags was added to accommodate search engines. These are the META tags, and they serve no purpose other than to let search robots know what you’re all about. Here are the two important tags to know:

Replace the text “Describe your site here” with your own description in quotes, and the “Keywords, go, here.” with a list of words and phrases that describe your site separated by commas. Don’t put too many here, 10 is about the limit.

Because META tags are just for SEO, engines like Google and Yahoo don’t put much stock in them anymore, but the description still shows up in search results and it never hurts to include these tags.

Your third task is to get the word out about your site. You’re probably thinking “But that’s why I’m reading this”, and you’re right, but in order to get more popularity from search engines, you need to have a little bit first. Ever since Google revolutionized the way searching was done in the 1990s, major search engines have relied on the number of backlinks – or links to a page – to calculate that page’s popularity and ranking in search results. This helped Google filter out all that junk that Yahoo and AltaVista were still displaying and rise to the top. Whether of not you like the system you need to work within it for maximum SEO benefit.

The best way to get these links without paying for them is by word of mouth. Post on forums related to your site’s topic, and link back to your page. Leave comments on blogs, twitter, Facebook, whatever you need to do. As long as you don’t alienate people, you can’t hurt yourself by getting the word out. The only exceptions are scam and virus sites, don’t let your link end up on one of those if you can help it.

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