Search Engine Optimization (SEO):
A Brief Primer

Optimizing web sites for search engines is, for the most part, optimizing sites for Google, which conducts significantly more web searches than all its competitors combined. The details of the algorithms that Google uses to rank search results are a carefully guarded secret, but web developers have some fairly solid ideas about what Google and others use to rank search results and what techniques are a waste of time or counter-productive.

Meta tags

Meta tags are invisible to the site viewer. They provide information to search engines and social media sites, but the degree to which they affect search engine rankings is a matter of debate, and is subject to change.

Google and other search engines once made extensive use of meta keyword tags in evaluating search results, but most developers believe Google's current algorithms do not consider meta keywords or give them very low weight. This was largely a response to abuse by unscrupulous developers who would load the meta keywords tag with words and phrases that were very popular search terms, but had nothing to do with the page. Today this is, at best, a waste of time, and may actually decrease a page ranking.

This doesn't mean all meta tags are useless. The meta description tag is important. It might not affect search ranking, but it can dramatically affect how many people click the search result to go to a page. The text in the meta description tag is displayed in the search results preview. Crafting a brief but compelling description of the content on that page and including it in a meta description tag can make a big difference in site visits. Getting on page one of Google search results is great, but there are still nine other results competing for the attention of the potential visitor. Good Meta Description text can ensure that visitors click on your page, rather than the other nine.

The meta og:image tag is used by search engines and social media sites to determine what image to display as a preview. For example, if a visitor shares a web page on Facebook, it will usually display a preview image. If you don't specify which image, it might not pick the best one. Using good images and the right meta tag can ensure that the most compelling images are displayed, increasing traffic to your site.

Alt tags

A picture is worth a thousand words and the vast majority of successful web sites make extensive use of images. But search engines and visually-impaired people can't easily see and process these images, so alt tags were created to help. As was the case with meta keywords, some developers abused them, filling the alt tags with words that were not descriptive of the actual image with which they are associated, but were just designed to increase traffic.

It's not clear to what degree Google and other search engines use alt tags in determining search ranking. But one thing is clear: You should still use them, and you should use them as they were intended. Images on your site should have brief but descriptive alt tag text. It may be incorporated into search results, especially image searching, and it will definitely enhance the experience of visually-impaired people visiting your site. Trying to game the system by filling alt-tags with unrelated but popular search terms will likely get you penalized.

Page Structure

While "keyword stuffing" as described above is definitely bad practice, you still want to use words and phrases that are commonly used search terms on your page, as long as these words and phrases are worked into the content in a natural way. And where these words and phrases are used can make a big difference. Text within header and title tags are given more weight than regular paragraph text. To optimize page visibility, you need to understand what words and phrases are the most likely to be used as search terms by the people who you want to attract to your site, and how to best structure your site to incorporate these search terms.

Links

One of the reasons Google rose to such dominance in the search-engine market was its recognition of the importance of links in determining search results ranking. The more pages that link to any given page, the more popular the content on that page is, and thus the higher that page will rank in search results.

The more pages that link to your page, the better. One way to increase page links is through pursuing link exchanges with other sites. If you link to a few other sites and they reciprocate with a link to yours, it could benefit all of you.

There's one other way to increase the number of links to your site: Fill your site with high quality content:

Content

The best SEO technique is the most obvious and straightforward: Create quality content.

The beauty of the Internet is that the cream tends to rise to the top. A badly designed site full of factual errors, sloppy writing and unappealing images isn't going to succeed just because someone spent a lot of money on "SEO experts." Paragraphs full of awkwardly worded sentences that have no function but to string together a bunch of frequently searched terms send a clear message: This is not quality content.

Contrast this with a site full of interesting, informative, entertaining content, with clear, professional writing, backed up by solid research, ensuring that highly searched keywords are appropriately included in titles and headings and accompanied by compelling images, all presented with a good design, displaying attractively on an array of screens and devices. That's what people want.

Are you going to give it to them?


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