As most of you reading this will know, search engine optimisation, or SEO, is the art of promoting websites in order to achieve high levels of traffic and visibility from ‘organic’ web searches. The ideal outcome of good SEO is to appear as high as possible in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for key words and phrases.
I am not an expert on SEO. Until two weeks ago I couldn’t have told you the importance of good SERPS (or even what that meant!), how simple SEO changes can make a difference or even who Matt Cuts or Rand Fishkin or Aaron Walls are. I am most definitely not a substitute for top quality SEO training. What I can offer is a fresh pair of eyes and a beginners perspective on SEO and some of the most important things to take away in the early days when faced with massive treasure trove of information that is available.
Three core practices of SEO
There are three principles that are central to most SEO texts I have read:
- Understand how your pages will look to a search engine spiderMost search engines index content through the use of web-crawling software called ‘spiders’. Most of the time this is done without human intervention at all. As spiders only search text (which includes things such as alt variables in image tags), it is important for you to know how your page looks when only scanning the page source. This understanding allows you to tailor your content for machine scanning while still keeping it attractive for your human readers.
- Have the how-to knowledge and the access to change your pages in order to optimise results for each search engine you want to rank highly onSEO is not a set once and forget type of activity. It requires a lot of fine tuning and tweaking in the early days so you need to be able to have the access to make constant changes to how your pages are set up, which requires both the knowledge on how to do it and the access to your server to make the changes. One happy side benefit of these SEO changes is that they can often make your site easier for humans to read/search/understand as well.
- Stay away from Black hat activities if you are in it for the long haul The search engines are not at all shy about penalising or even banning sites they feel are gaming the system and abusing the search engine guidelines. If short-term ‘cut and run’ gain is your aim, I guess black hat stuff might be for you. If you are looking to build a long-term investment with authority and status, you should think twice before delving in to the darker arts.
White Hat v Black Hat
If you’re as new to this as I am, talk about ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ SEO can be confusing. Just like in a classic Western flick, white hats are the good guys and black hats are the bad guys. If it seems very Spy vs Spy well, that is because it sort of is when you think about it.
White hats tend to follow the guidelines of a search engine and try and stay within the rules. The aim here is to have quality content for users as a base and then work out the best way to make the site attractive and accessible to spiders and other search engine crawling mechanisms. The aim of the game here is to build authority. White hat is the long term view with the long term payoff.
Black hat activity is all about circumventing the rules, often for short term gain. Short term gain is the key here as black hats have to keep one step ahead of the game as the search engines keep changing the rules and tweaking their algorithms to shut them out. Some black hat techniques include using hidden text (for example tiny fonts or text the same colour as background) and ‘cloaking’, or making a web page look totally different depending on whether it is being looked at by a spider or a normal web surfer.
There is an excellent conversation between a black hat SEO and a white hat SEO at SEOmoz that should provide you with a good overview of the different philosophies.
My short summary above covers only a small part of the SEO industry but is a good place to start for the complete SEO newbie like myself. In the future, I will look at some basic design and optimisation issues that can make a substantial change in your blogging philosophy while remaining simple enough that even I can implement them without too much hassle.