This guide is written not from a perspective of an industry insider, but is instead aimed at a layman. Rather than getting bogged down in the intricacies of writing code to positively influence search engines, this article will take a step back from that and concentrate on the history of this discipline as well as some theory.
To start off with lets give a reason why Search Engine Optimization (SEO) should matter to you. Lets say you are a small business that is selling shoes. You invest a couple of thousand dollars in a competently designed website. Your website is published but you receive no visitors and visitors equal money because they will hopefully be buying your shoes.
So in order to get visitors to your website you write a list about how you will publicize it.
At number one on the list is paying for advertising space in the print media, whether national or local publications, or niche magazines. Advertising like this has been done for centuries and clearly does work judging by the billions of dollars spent every year.
At number two on your list is Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising which on the World Wide Web is mainly run by Google AdWords, Yahoo! Search Marketing, and Microsoft adCenter.
You’ve all seen these types of adverts in Google search results: they always in the right hand column. It works as a bidding system. You pay, say, $1 to Google every time somebody clicks on your advert and visits your site. If you pay more than $1 then your advert will appear higher in the list and so consequently you will receive more visitors. The amount that you pay for an advert depends on how competitive your niche and keywords are. For instance, you will pay more to advertise with a keyword like “home insurance” (extremely competitive) than you would “Gardening Services in Salisbury, Connecticut” (not very competitive).
Done correctly PPP advertising will yield a financial return. This industry is called Paid Search Advertising and although related to Search Engine Optimization, it is a separate sphere in its own right.
Getting back to your list.
At number three is SEO. At the most basic level of explanation this means getting to the number one spot in the search engine results for your niche or keywords. Going back to the previous example then this means that if somebody types “Gardening Services in Salisbury, Connecticut” then your Salisbury-based gardening site is the first result in the list.
Why is being first so important? Won’t being number two or three or even number 27 on the third page do?
Time and time again investigations into people’s user habits revel that users are more likely to click on a result if it is on the number one sport. They are then more likely to click on the number two result than the number three result, but less likely to click on the number two result than the number one result. Simplified, the higher on the list you are the more visitors your will receive.
So how do you get to number one? And now here is the rub – the only people who can truly answer that question are the search engines themselves. They keep their formulas – like the Coca-Cola and KFC recipes – a secret.
This is because if they were completely open with their formula – technically called algorithms – then every two-bit spammer in existence would take advantage of this in order to get their Viagra or porn site to dominate the search engine results. Google would crumble into uselessness over night.
What they do is give us some information. Enough so that we can safely calculate that if we do X and Y then our website will eventually succeed in receiving a more prominent profile in the search engine results.
We know that if we put keywords into certain places on a page such as between the header or title tages, then this is beneficial to a SEO campaign. The search engines bots look at these prime spots on a web page and consider them indicative about what the subject matter of the entire page is about. The trouble comes in that which we don’t know, or at least that which we are unsure about.
Many of those involved in SEO often guess about the unknown factors, sometimes they make educated guesses, other times the herd mentality prevails. Consequently, because of the vast grey areas SEO has a bad reputation amongst many people.
As SEO professional Laura Callow wrote recently: “Personally, I’m really, really tired of the uninformed or the simply ignorantly arrogant stating with utter conviction that SEO is a ‘waste of time’ and that it is conducted only by ‘snake-oil salesmen’. Actually, effective SEO is pretty hard work, it’s not that easy, and it is a big deal. In my books, SEO remains misunderstood by the masses and I’m fast turning into Ms. Cranky-Pants when it comes to answering these detractors.”
Laura is right – there is much to learn from SEO.
So as stated above the layout and code of a website (called on-page optimization in the SEO industry) can be changed and that will make the website more attractive to search engines. This is only maybe a 25-30% slice of the complete SEO pie. The rest is down to incoming links: links that point towards a website.
Let me introduce to you academic Albert-László Barabási. In the 1990s he carried out a famous study into how the World Wide Web has evolved organically and he found that despite no one person or body organising the expansion of the WWW, a very definite structure had taken shape rather than just chaos.
At its centre were a few hub websites and around them were the many node websites. The hub websites were the most important as they had a vast number of incoming links pointing at them. To give an example, BBC.co.uk is a hub website as there are tons of links going towards it from every conceivable direction, while the node websites can be counted in their millions.
His formula for this reads:
D(k) = Z(k) -A
This is probably one of the most important mathematical equations from modern times. It underpins the growing discipline of network science as well as the the main search engine algorithms. You’ve heard of the thesis about six degrees of separation? And that we are connected to anybody else on the planet by no more than six places? Well that originates in the work of Barabási.
The central part of the search engine formula is based on the importance of being linked to from these web hubs. An incoming link from the BBC or the New York Times newspaper is far, far more important than a incoming link from Old Miss Tibbles Salisbury Cat Lovers site.
In the search engines eyes this really is a BIG thumbs up to your site. If these hubs are linking to your site then its value goes up in the eyes of the search engines and they deem it suitable for greater exposure in the rankings. Google doesn’t employ people to manually review every single site. It is reliant on automatically interpreting the quality and number of incoming links so to judge the worth of a site.
So if incoming links in SEO are extremely important and how do you get quality incoming links? That’s another tutorial for another time. The point of this article is merely to emphasis the importance of SEO and its potential effect on the fortunes of any one website if understood and implemented correctly.