SEO (Search Engine Optimization) both the bane and boon of many a person's existence. It's a known fact that the best way to get traffic to your website is by simply having your site show up in the first page or two of the major search engine's results. Visitors that come in from those search engine results pages (referred to as SERP) have two main things going for them. They are more likely to buy, and they didn't cost you any money to get there. Getting your site onto those first two pages can be a struggle, and people are always watching what you are doing and gunning for the top spot. You have to keep aware of all of the latest tactics and methods and measure yourself against your competitors.
Yes, competitors. Many people aren't aware of the competitive nature of SERPs positioning, but it is. Keep in mind that you are ranked in comparison with the other sites in the results. If the search engine thinks that your content is more relevant, then you rank higher, if it is determined that your content is less relevant, then you fall in the results. If they know what they are doing, the other sites showing up for the searches you wish to rank high in are watching you, and the other sites on the first two pages to see what they are doing, and if they are rising or falling.
So how do you ensure that you can rank well against the other sites out there and rise in the SERPs? Well, for starters, let's assume that there are only three search engines, because frankly, Google, Yahoo, and MSN (in that order) represent the majority, the vast majority of searches. And Google represents the vast majority amongst those three. For the purposes of this article we'll focus only on Google. If you do right by them, what you do will be good for other search engines as well.
Before we go any further it's important that you understand the nature of SEO. It is not an exact science. The exalted minds inside the Googleplex do not share their secret sauce with the unwashed masses. The reason for this is simple: if they revealed exactly how their logic works, it would be exploited--this has happened before. The methods for performing SEO are based upon the trial and error of many, many internet users as they worked out what works, what doesn't and what will get your site unindexed - or worse: banned.
This is important. There are good and bad ways to optimize your site. The bad ways are called 'Black Hat'. Sure, they may work for awhile, and some Google can't (or doesn't bother to) pick up automatically. However you can report a site to Google as using Black Hat SEO tactics and Google will remove that site from the index (meaning it won't show up in search results). Removing a site from the index is usually only done for a certain amount of time and can be appealable. Banning is far more severe and banned sites are often gone for good with no way to get Google to add it back to their index. Beware of a lot of things that seem shady. If you think they are shady, chances are that the folks at Google will think so too and if one of those other sites in the SERPs wants to rise up and they visit your site and see your shady tactics, they won't hesitate to report you.
Yeah, it's a bit unfair, but it's the world we live in. Google's not alone in this--the other search engines will do it too.
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's dive into the two ways to optimize your site.
On Page Optimization
This is what most people think of when they think of SEO. In reality it is the less effective of the two methods, though as Google improves its ability to determine real content from fluff it is getting more valuable. A bit of history first.
Back when people started realizing that they could make or break their business by where they came up in the SERPs, they started adding all sorts of content to their sites to improve their ranking. The most common of these was the meta keywords. These are words that are placed in the code on a website that tell the search engines what the site is about. Way back when the 'net was young, the search engines believed these keywords. They don't anymore. People abused the keywords system by putting their competitors names in them, or by even putting completely bogus words in. A site looking to sell more jeans would put Britney Spears in their keywords to get people to visit them inadvertently. Needless to say, keywords play very little importance anymore. I have gotten sites to the #1 position on Google without using keywords at all.
As the search engines got wise to the whole bogus keywords thing, they started looking at all of the content on a website. They can only read text, so images and animated graphics (like flash) were ignored. People learned tactics to place all sorts of text on their site that was invisible to users, but that the search engines (looking at the source code) would see. So search engines started to distrust the websites themselves.
You're asking yourself how they can know what a site is about then. They asked themselves the same question and came up with an obvious answer: they can't. But other humans can. This is called 'Off Page Optimization' and is covered in the second type of optimization.
They never really disregarded the webpage entirely, but they lowered its importance in their overall factoring of a page's importance and relevancy. However, as their savvy increases and they have more computing power to analyse content, search engines are starting to consider the page's content as being more and more important. They can often discern the difference between human generated and computer generated text, and can tell if the content on a page is relevant to a particular topic or not. As they do this more, the page itself will continue to get more important.
There used to be a lot of tactics and tricks to get the search engines to pay more attention to your page, but the number one tip is now this: Write human readable content (don't try to write it to load it with terms and keywords) that has value and real relevancy. Make sure that you do use the words and phrases you think people will search for, and do use them more than once, but don't go overboard. Bolding and using larger fonts (and H1 tags) will help as well, but don't overdo it. If you make your page look too wonky it will not work for the second type of optimization.
Here's a quick rundown of things to make sure you do.
Make sure the page title is descriptive - make it different with each page if you can:
Use the meta description tag and make it good - this is what most search engines show as the blurb about your site on the results page.
Don't worry alot about your HTML formatting. Search engines are used to reading crappy HTML and they don't care too much.
Make sure you use your keywords in your copy more than once.
Do bold them if it works in your content
If you can make it work, use an H1 or H2 tag. If you are comfortable with CSS you can make the text in them smaller (this is becoming less and less important).
Make sure to use alt and title tags on images. It lets the search engines know what the image is about and can cause your images to show up on the Google image search. Use title tags on your links. It will help the search engines know more about the page you are linking to and improve relevancy. Don't put too many links to other sites. Links out lower your page's importance.
Off Page Optimization
This is also called 'Off Site Optimization' which is a misnomer. Search engines care little about 'websites' and care more about 'web pages'. The reason for this is that they don't link to a site, they link to a page. So what is this mysterious type of SEO you ask? Well, if you read the on page part above you will have learned that Google and the other search engines decided that they couldn't trust the page itself too much as too many people put fake content on a page to generate traffic. So they decided that the best way to know if a page was relevant was to let people do it for them.
How do they make this work? Well, they simply look at who links to you and what their page is about. If your page is about sewing, and another page that Google knows people like is also about sewing and it links to you, then your page is probably not misrepresenting itself. This is the driving force behind what is called 'Page Rank'. Page rank is essentially a calculation of the importance of the pages linking to you vs the relevancy of your content to those pages. If a page about banking links to a page about peanut butter, then chances are that the search engines won't assign any importance to that link, but links between pages of similar content have high importance.
There is also a nebulous thing that we know exists, but don't know how to quantify. It is the matter of how much a search engine trusts a site. Sites with high trust have their outbound links given more importance than sites the search engine does not trust. An easy way to determine if a site is trustworthy or not is to think about it yourself. The folks at the search engines are humans, they will trust the same sites you do and distrust the same sites you do (give or take a bit).
Link/Banner farms - sites with nothing but links to various other sites. These used to work, but the search engines wised up and now having a link farm link to you will hurt, not help.
Sites with a lot of advertising on them - The search engines know that these sites are mostly computer generated and have no valuable content, and so don't pay any heed to what they link to.
Black Hat Sites - sites that use questionable SEO tactics aren't ones that you want linking to you. Google is suspicious of them, no reason to make it suspicious of you.
Directories - There are two types of directories. Automatic and Human verified. Google knows which are which and if your site is listed on a human verified directory (meaning that someone looked at your site and verified that your description and content match the category you chose to have it listed in) then it knows that your content is relevant to the description you gave. Find the directories for your market (just google things like sewing boston directory or whatever your niche/market is and you'll find some to list in.
News Sites - Many news sites allow you to post comments on them. Don't spam, but find some relevant articles to your site and post a few comments. Its not advised that you place your link right in the article (unless you think it applies) but rather have your link in your profile.
Sites with high page rank - This is key. There is little point having sites with no page rank link to your site with no page rank. You want sites with high page rank linking to you. Install the Google toolbar and select yes when it asks if you want to view pagerank. This will let you know how other sites rank and help you determine where to try to get links.
There are a lot of other tips and helpful bits of information out there and I'll be posting a few more specialized articles about them. While there is a lot of bogus software and ebooks out there that will literally tell you no more than what you have read above, there are some that will help you carry out the suggestions above. They'll suggest directories, give you reports on how well you rank against your competitors and many other things. Most you can do on your own, but they take time. Good SEO software should mainly remove the tedious, manual tasks involved in SEO and help you focus on more important things like niche research and adding actual, valuable content to your site.