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An Introduction to SEO

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This post is part of a series called SEO Fundamentals for Web Designers.
Let’s Get Started With SEO!
Managing your Site's Accessibility for Search Engines

SEO is hot. Thanks to fierce competition between websites it’s become more important than ever for online success. But what exactly is SEO? Which approaches are recommended and which tactics should be avoided? In the following weeks we’ll find an answer to these questions. Today we start this Tuts+ Session with an introduction to SEO.


What is SEO?

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. It describes a series of techniques which improve the visibility of a website in search engine result pages. The goal of such optimization is to rank as highly as possible for a certain search query. Naturally, this is easier said than done...

Optimization techniques can be divided into two categories:

Techniques that search engines recommend as part of good design are called white-hat SEO. They are considered safe and produce long term results.

Black-hat SEO on the other hand, uses techniques that are disapproved of by the search engines. Websites that employ these techniques can suffer a ranking penalty; worst case scenario being complete removal from the index. For some examples of black-hat SEO, take a look at DesignHammer's 17 Black Hat SEO Techniques to Avoid.

When we talk about SEO we usually refer to Google as a search engine. After all, Google has a market share of 91%, making it the most important search engine. But the techniques we’ll be discussing are just applicable for Bing and Yahoo as well.

SEO Glossary

In the following articles we'll be using certain SEO-related keywords. Knowing the meaning behind these terms can be useful for newcomers. Below you'll find an alphabetical list of terms we'll be frequently using.

  • CMS: Content management system, for example Wordpress or Drupal.
  • CTR: Click-through rate, the percentage of users that click on a link.
  • GYM: Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, owners of the biggest three search engines.
  • Link juice: Link quality that is transferred between sites/pages.
  • Long tail: More specific keywords, e.g. "navigation bar photoshop tutorial"
  • META tags: Code in the head-section of a website that is used on search engine result pages.
  • Organic traffic: Traffic that comes from search engines.
  • PR: PageRank, a measure for the link popularity of a website.
  • SEO: Search engine optimization. Techniques that are used to make your website rank more highly.
  • SERP: Search engine results page. The page with the most relevant web pages for your query.
  • Spider: A bot that is used by search engines to crawl and index websites.
  • Stuffing: Using the same keyword too often on the same page.
  • UGC: User generated content, a great way to add unique content to a page.

Why is SEO Important?

SEO is all about ranking. But why is this position so important for websites?

In late spring of 2011 Slingshot SEO conducted a study about the CTR of search results. They compared the position of a website in the SERP to the respective click-through rate. This is the outcome of their research:

SERP click-through rate

The result is clear: higher ranking = higher CTR. For companies who make most of their money online, such as web shops, this can be a matter of life and death. Thanks to SEO these companies can improve their organic traffic (and income) significantly.

Good SEO is not something you do without a game plan. A good place to start our SEO efforts is learning how search engines work. This information can give us some ideas on which tactics work and which are useless.


How Search Engines Work

The internet is incredibly large; there are (currently) approximately 50 billion indexed web pages and without search engines it would be impossible to find useful information in this clutter. It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

number of indexed web pages of the internet

Search engines bring order to this chaos. By building an index they can show you the most relevant web pages for your search query. But this index changes frequently. New websites are added daily, web pages are redesigned, new files are uploaded, etc. Because the internet is a dynamic entity, search engines need a tool to help the index stay up to date.

That’s where crawlers come into play. These automated robots scrape web pages for information; they index links, images, videos and other files.

Here’s how a search engine uses crawlers to create search engine result pages:

  1. Discovery: The crawler finds your website, either via a link from another website or via the Add URL page. Currently, Google only follows href and src links.
  2. Indexing: The web pages are processed and indexed. Note that not all content types can be indexed (e.g. some rich media types or dynamic pages).
  3. Results: When you enter a query, search engines analyze their index and show you the most relevant web pages.

In order to show you the most relevant results from their index, search engines need to use a ranking system. There are several factors that are taken into consideration and understanding these factors is essential for your SEO success.


Search Engine Ranking Factors

Relevancy is determined by over 200 factors. It’s impossible to discuss them all, partially because it would take too much time, but mostly because we don’t know all of them. However, research has identified several elements that are important:

Links

When we talk about links, we talk about PageRank; the link analysis algorithm used by Google. It was made by Larry Page (hence the name PageRank) and Sergei Brin, the company’s founders.

This algorithm takes quantities of links into account - every link to a website is seen as a vote for that website. The more links you get, the higher you will rank.

One thing you should keep in mind is that this is not a democratic system. Not every link has the same weight. Links from authoritative websites have more influence than links from less popular websites.

Keywords

The keyword distribution on your page is also important. Google checks how often the search query can be found on your page. If it appears in your domain, url, title, header tags, content... the page will be considered more relevant.

Site Age

Old is gold. Google considers older websites to be more authoritative than new websites.

Freshness

Frequently updating your website is a good idea. Add new pages or update old ones. Fresh pages are a sign that the website is not dead.

Other Factors

As I’ve said before: it’s impossible to discuss all the ranking factors. There are others, such as site speed, AuthorRank, site structure... but these are some of the most important.

If you want to know more about search engine ranking factors, I suggest you read Search Engine Ranking on SEOmoz.


Algorithm Updates

Do the words Google Panda and Google Penguin mean anything to you? No...?

Over the years there have been several algorithm updates. These updates are meant to increase the quality of search results. Two recent updates with a big impact were the Panda and Penguin update. The Panda update went into effect in February 2011. It affected almost 12 percent of all search results. The Penguin update was announced in April 2012 and affected approximately 3.1% of search queries.

This means that a sudden drop in traffic (an unusual, long-term drop that doesn’t correct itself), might be caused by a change in the ranking algorithm. Check the date in your analytics program and cross reference it with this overview of algorithm updates. Find out what might have caused the problem and adjust your web pages accordingly.

With these updates negative SEO saw the light of day. Negative SEO occurs when a competitor’s site is targeted by a huge amount of low quality links. If the amount of these low-quality links is high enough, Google might penalize the website. For more information about negative SEO, check out this infographic on TastyPlacement (Google recently released a tool to counter these practices, but more on that later).


What About Mobile SEO?

Mobile SEO is logically becoming increasingly important as the market of smartphones and tablets continues along its upward trajectory. Did you know that in 2011 more smartphones were sold than PCs (488 million vs 415 million respectively)? Optimizing your website for mobile devices has become a must.

Up until a year or two, we saw a lot of mobile subdomains, for example m.company.com. These subdomains hosted a website that was specifically designed for mobile devices. As a result, it was completely detached from the original site (often with less content).

Thankfully there's a more labor-efficient way to show your content to mobile users: responsive design. A responsive design adapts itself to the current screen size by using CSS3 media queries. This means that you only need to develop one site instead of two.

Responsive design is recommended by Google(!) because of the following benefits:

  • A single URL is easier for users to interact with.
  • A single URL helps Google's algorithm assign the indexing properties for the content.
  • Reduced loading times because no redirection is needed.
  • Responsive pages can be crawled by any Googlebot, improving crawling efficiency.

One thing you should keep in mind is that searches on mobile devices are usually shorter than on desktops. If your content is targeting mobile users, optimize for these shorter search queries.


What's Next?

Now that you have a little background information about search engine optimization, we can take a look at some of the things we’ll be discussing during the following weeks. The posts can be divided into 3 categories:

  • Site-wide SEO: Techniques that are used site-wide and have an effect on all pages.
  • On-page SEO: SEO tactics that can be used on an individual page.
  • Off-site SEO: Tactics that are beyond our website.

Hope to see you again soon!

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