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A common sense explanation and realist approach to Search Engine Optimization

I was reading through some articles on my father in law’s company blog /ebscospring/ in relation to ISO certifications. I started to leave a comment that eventually turned into an article, in reference to a post requested at the behest of the individual managing SEO for them. Even though SEO is not necissarily relevant to networking, it has come up quite a bit lately. Hopefully, my experience can provide some light in a rather conveluded maze of tactic.

SEO is a tough game. Most people get wind of the concepts and they build the following punch list in their heads:

Step 1. Build a website.

Step 2. ?

Step 3. $$$

Most people even realize you need people to look at it, and you need Top Search Order to make it easily accessible to your perspective audience. About this point is where we make big mistakes or just waste our own time.

Beware the printed book in the day and age of the Internet. But beware the Internet too…

It has long been a common topic in the web design field, but has recently become a common conversation within both IT and even at the executive level in companies. People have written countless books on what you can and can’t do, and how to ‘cheat’ the system. Most of it’s either useless because the internet and hence search engines change so fast that by the time you’ve bought the book the concepts have changed. Or in some instances, especially where the author has the ‘trick’ that’s going to make you millions, outright fraud.

So the obvious next step? Search the internet. Probably wrong again. Humourous though since we’re discussing search. The opposite problem exists when researching SEO on the internet. You’re reading this. I am no expert, yet I feel my experience could help someone else. I have knowledge of the field and most don’t. But I’m probably not the best person to take advice from, as this isn’t my primary function in the enterprise. The internet is full of countless people doing what I’m doing. The difference is I feel I’m correct, because my perception is my process has worked for me in the past. Granted, I have a little in, due to a relationship I’ve maintained, but still. It would be much better for an actual person with Google or Bing to publish an article on this. Oh, but they do, they have entire portions of thier websites that say basically what I’m going to divulge. ‘There is no trick.’

From the Bing Webmasters Blog : /bing-seo-faq/

SEO is fundamentally about creating websites that are good for people. The most basic advice we can give for achieving optimum rank for your site in Bing is to do the following:

Develop great, original content (including well-implemented keywords) directed toward your intended audience

Use well-architected code in your webpages (including images and Sitemaps) so that users’ web browsers and search engine crawlers can read the content you want indexed)

Earn several, high-quality, authoritative inbound links

Google sums it up even better basically stating, that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

From the Google Webmasters Tools : /google-seo-faq/

When dealing with SEO consultants or organizations:
—No one can guarantee a #1 ranking on Google.
—Be careful if a company is secretive or won’t clearly explain what they intend to do.
—You should never have to link to an SEO.
—What are some other things to look out for?
—owns shadow domains
—puts links to their other clients on doorway pages
—offers to sell keywords in the address bar
—doesn’t distinguish between actual search results and ads that appear on search results pages
—guarantees ranking, but only on obscure, long keyword phrases you would get anyway
—operates with multiple aliases or falsified WHOIS info
—gets traffic from “fake” search engines, spyware, or scumware
—has had domains removed from Google’s index or is not itself listed in Google

That brings us to SEO Services. There are even guys out there that all they do is specialize in SEO. They go to search conferences and spend lots of time researching and speaking with Google, Bing, and Yahoo trying to extract information out of engineers in the hope they can figure out the magic formula. I won’t say they’re all frauds, because some are really good, but they’re almost all frauds. Realistically if you contract someone to work on SEO for your company, unless they have Google Search, Bing or maybe Yahoo Search on thier resume, you’re probably wasting your money. Instead look for someone who has expertise in DNS, and Web Development, preferably one that doesn’t have Flash, Dreamweaver, and Frontpage as the ‘main topics’ on thier resume, and has been in the business for 10 or so years. Granted, expect to pay big bucks. The Google SEO FAQ mentioned above has great information on how to deal with hiring a company/consultant to perform SEO and what to watch out for. And if you’re cheap like me, you just read the documentation posted on Bing Webmaster FAQ and Googles Webmaster Tools sections, and abide by the suggested site design specifics.

So in that, I will say I am no expert. I have never worked for Google, Bing, or Yahoo. In fact this isn’t even my field. I have done lots of programming in the past, and a large chunk of that has been in Web Development. But until five years ago, I had never even heard the acronym SEO (Search Engine Optimization). However, I have had the priviledge to stay in contact with a friend I went to college with who has worked on the Bing team for about 4 years now. He shall remain nameless, until I get his permission to link his profile to this article. He has been extrordinarily helpful on SEO questions in the past. So I figured I would divulge all that I’ve learned from him. Just in case you’re thinking I’m gonna shed some light on a loophole, I’ll cut to the chase. None of this is bing SEO trade secret information. The outcome is, do it the hard way, and do it well.

SEO, Getting back to the Basics: Reputation.

SEO is more than having keywords on the page. It’s about reputation. You have to have the keywords in order for the search engine to understand what content is important. But the ‘butter’ or what hands down increases search order, regardless of engine, is simply extrasite links. If a website with a good reputation links to your page, when the search engine crawls through their site, the link is noted and hence increases your site’s reputation.

There is a caveat to this concept. Common sites where people gather and have the availability for someone to post infomation unrelated to the owner of the sites wishes and possibly at the cost of thier reputation (facebook, myspace, twitter, etc.) put “nofollow” tags in the HTML code for the anchor/link. The “nofollow” tag prevents the link from being referenced by the Search Engine preventing thier reputation from affecting your and their reputation. If you have a comments section on your blog and you don’t intend on moderating the responses, or a guestbook/comment section on your website, look into this. I ALWAYS insert the “nofollow” attribute in the links that get posted into comments sections. However there is a tradeoff. If everyone does this, it takes significantly more effort to trade links with other bloggers so you can both increase your reputation. So if you have the time to moderate your comments section, you may prefer to only flag links you don’t approve of with “nofollow” in post, or allow people that are members/subscribers to post links without the attribute to preserve your relationship with that individual.

Names—specifically, Domain Names

In relation to owning a domain name, you need to. It’s that simple. http://www.geocities.com/my_great_company sites and thier like are the worst place to host your businesses website because they are not in any way professional. I am sure we’re all in agreeance, but I put that out there because I actually had a client ask me if it was worth spending the money to pay the yearly cost for a domain name, when there is so many ‘free’ options. And this can single handedly pool you together with the miscreants of the internet. They’re completely anonymous places to store information, pictures, video, you name it. That always lends itself to bottom dwellers. I only pick on geocities, because Yahoo seems to have agreed and has already shut it down. I’m sure we all had a geocities site at one time. But that time is over.

This brings me to a common point most people don’t realize. By using sub-domains (my_great_company.othersite.com) of other major websites to host your content can affect or simply prevent you from aquiring or improving your reputation. You should consider migrating external sites that host your content to a subdomain of the previously noted domain you or your company owns. Then all the views on your blog will generate links because people enjoy reading it so much they link other people to you. WordPress is a perfect example and has seen the value in outright providing this option for only $13/year. It is a trivial process and includes creating a few DNS records from a the web admin’s. You SHOULD do this. /sub-domain-mapping/ I don’t because I already own too many domains, and at some point my wife is going to cut me off. Plus, my content gets automatically published to either /code-project/ and /root-admin/ depending on whether its techical or programming in content. And they spend time and effort on SEO, so I’ll just allow them to continue in that avenue and people can read the content there. Instead I just forward the entire protocolSyntax domain to this page. I’m married to a soon to be Ph.D. in Finance. Don’t judge me.

So post setup of your sub-domain when someone on wordpress links your site, you get the full hit as the search engine sees the link points to ‘mygreatcompany.com‘ or whatever you choose to name it. instead of ‘mygreatcompaniesblog.wordpress.com.’ You can also do similar things with your companies profile on the facebook, and LinkedIn although it’s more of a professional appearance perk than an SEO perk, as these sites use the “nofollow” flag last time I checked. Still, it looks great having ‘facebook.mygreatcompany.com‘ show your facebook page.

Tweets, Twits, and the Short Url.

Consider buying a short url, and by buy I mean ‘try and find one that has relivance to your company’, if you’re going to use twitter significantly. Find one of the cheaper ones that don’t end in com, net, or org. I bought ‘rypl.co‘ for the normal 15$ registration fee. Of note, Most if not all 2 and 3 character domain names have already been purchased and hence you have to purchase it from an individual who is looking to make big money as they’ve sat on it and a hundreds others paying the yearly fee since the ’90s. They want a return… badly, so don’t get greedy. 4-5 letters will work fine. You can even get tricky by using foreign suffixes to shorten the name, such as: http://bit.ly/ did. This has two benefits. You can get cute with it and use all the letters to spell out something, but most important it’s cheaper, and most likely not bought up yet, which means 15$ instead of 15,000$. To give you an idea of how insanely expensive this can get, ‘fb.com‘ sold to facebook for 8.5M USD.

The real meat and potatoes in owning a short Url—you can use it instead of the tinyUrl websites out there in your twitter posts. Your admin will need to write a page forwarder that turns the shortened Url into the original Url and performs the redirect as well as an admin page for you to create shortened Urls with. Also make sure any short Url that fails resolution, fails to your website’s main page.

This accomplishes two things, when the search engine crawls websites with twitter embedded in them and sees your links it tags them. Note, depending on the website, the “nofollow rule” can prevent this. Second, if the website does follow a link and it’s old and no longer works on your page, it forwards the engine to the main website instead of bit.ly or ow.ly’s. The more and more, the Search engine sees that the majority of the links forward to your content at your main webpage, both domains will become statistically entwined and affect each other’s Reputation. So the increase in one site will mean an increase in your site. Also make sure the forwarder does not blindly forward with a redirect. You want the forwarder page to be limited in content so it’s fast, but you still want content on the page, (no media, just text) so when it forwards the engine sees the link in the page to solidify the statistical relationship between the two sites. For example, a simple message:

Thank you for visiting My Great Company…
forwarding you to : http://www.mygreatcompany.com/subfolder/link.html

This allows people with browsers that don’t auto-redirect to click through the redirect page and it gives the engine something to see that is referencing your site. Some go a step further and redirect to a forwarder at the main website, for ex:

http://short.Url/3ff3kd9sjc3l

redirects to

http://www.ebscospring.com/redirect?go=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.example.com%2Ftest%2Flink.html

which redirects to

http://www.example.com/test/link.html

NOTE: Once you are on your main website, there is no need for content in the redirect. Make sure the link provided has the nofollow attribute if it points to an external website outside of your domain. It is my opinion, that the short Url forwarder is less likely to have an eye kept on it, and is more likely to be taken advantage of. So at the very least if people are forwarding through your site, Google and Bing WILL NOT TAKE THAT INTO CONSIDERATION WHEN DETERMINING reputation based on that link.

By utilizing a forwarder on your main page in addition to the short Url forwarder, you can link to websites and applications outside of your domain and still retain any Reputation gained by the link existing on places like twitter, blogs, and news outlets when you comment or respond. You still want to be prudent with what you point your link to. As you don’t want the search engine to ‘determine’ you are a pointer for a shadow site trying to gain reputation through feeder sites. Also, be careful with linking to Q&A sites as these are commonly site rippers which hijack content from other sites and fill in the page with Advertisements. The last thing you want is the engine to decrease your reputation because the site you are linking to is ‘cheating’ or attempting to manipulate the search engines reputation system.

This is a personal thing, just because I believe what you like to shows support of, and you don’t want to ostracise your visitors. Rules I live by:

  • I would completely avoid extremist reiligous, political, or news sites, picture storage sites, and obviously any sites that contain reference to hate speech or illegal/immoral activity.
  • NEVER send non-professional links with the forwarder, even if you aren’t sending it to the general public or a mailing list. Keep in mind anyone can forward a link in an email or copy and paste it into facebook.

I shouldn’t have to even mention the last one, but a certain marketing department, I won’t name, has done this on more than one occasion. Immagine the horror if the photosharing site reindexes, and the short Url that you sent to some coworkers that had a funny picture of a cute kitty cat in a rooster costume, instead forwarded you to a photo search of the photosharing site with the two keywords returning responses with an 18+ viewing audience. Just to be save, for forwarding jokes and funny pictures use bit.ly or one of the many other tinyUrl sites. It will save umbarassment.

Now to move to the positive. Short Url Forwarders are perfect for twitter, paper based advertisements, commenting on other bloggers articles, or direct business to business messages (such as in the tagline of a short email). I see them showing up all the time, on billboards and in magazines even. In this aspect you might provide an option to produce semi-coherent short Urls, that can be generated via user request. For example, ‘<<http://mygr8.co/freeT‘ advertising a free t-shirt. The idea behind this is its easy to remeber as opposed to ‘<http://bit.ly/8dzdi3audc.’

Keyword Seeding… Old Hat

Keyword seeding is a simple concept that I have been told time and time again, does not work, yet every website recommends this. I know people swear by it, but unless someone can find a google engineer and have him tell me it works, I’m going to stick with what I’ve been told.

Keyword Seeding Simply usually is touted the following ways:

  • Saying the magic keyword you want to get hits on as many times as possible in the same page. People even go as far as in the webserver code generating the word 1000 times and hidinig it in non-visible <DIV> and <SPAN> tags throughout the page. Not only is this pointless, but it’s a waste of bandwidth, it slows down the performance of the page, and it’s all around a misconception of how keywords are used.
  • Enclosing words through the page in a tag that making the text larger or louder to signify a keyword. If this does actually work, it will drive the people that actually want to read your content away, because it distracts the viewer, and lends to a non-professional and poorly laid out site.
  • Putting words that have high hit ratioin Google Trends and Analytics and are generally irrelevent to your content to get a higher percentage of traffic hitting your site.

Both Google and Microsoft’s Bing employ fuzzy logic to detect possible word seeding. I got the impression that this was recommended to my father-in-law, but it could have simply been a miscommunication or misunderstanding. Either way, it is a very common misconception, and it really comes from a misunderstanding of what the search engine is doing.

To use keywords properly:

  • Put key words relevant to your site, and the page’s content in the <meta> tag section of the <html> section of the page. Or if you’re using wordpress or similar, simply cagetorize and tag the article with relevant information. (WordPress will manage your <meta> tags for you)
  • Organize and highlight sections of your article with Headers using <h1> through <h3> tags and try and use acurate descriptive words that are peticular to either your industry or are very specific tothe topic, and include those same words in your <meta> tags or blog tags.
  • Most importantly, write about the important concepts that you have tagged in the proper headings that are structurally significant to the article.

For example, if say I wrote about springs use the word spring in your article title or in the sub headings throughout the article, and maybe tensile steel springs are something I’m speaking about in a section. My header could be ‘Tensile Steel Spring Manufacturing in Winter.’

I know nothing about springs, but you get the point. If there are problems or solutions to those problems discussed there, people will search, find, and hopefully come back. Since I’m already writing about springs, manufacturing, and the industry anyways, the natural flow of the document will provide the necessary reference material to increase the accuracy response in the search engine. The accuracy of the keyword index in the search engine however is only relevant to my blog about springs. It does not move me above anyone else that has a high accuracy response to the search term springs. There are so many web sites that make reference to springs, most of them junk, that my website still ends up just being an accurate response, not a better response

Remember earlier when I stated it’s all about reputation? It is. People get hung up on keywords like they’re magic. Being accurate is only important if you are the only person with those keywords on your page, which will never happen, unless you’re making up words. And who is going to search for a word you made up?

Keep in mind, you’re competing with Millions of websites that do nothing but seed keywords for hits. These sites find common things people search for, which is highlighted on Google Trends website, and fill pages full of them all over the world and then link all the pages together to try and increase their search order. Everyone has experienced the one search item that’s got keywords in every ‘FAQ’ and ‘How do I’ website out there. And you can’t actually get a good result, and what is the first thing you do. Hit the back button. So even if you could compete in keyword seeding, which you can’t, and even if it worked, which it doesn’t, don’t do it. It’s bad juju and if I do a search for something important to me and I get your site with nothing of relevance, I will find you.

Always remember, if it sounds like a quick easy way to increase hit count, it probably isn’t going to work in the long run. It might work shortly, because people do find holes in the system, but overall it’s a fruitless endeavor. The goal of Search Engines is to provide the most acurate response to the requestors query, because the requestor is thier customer. So, they are always looking for ways to improve that accuracy, and the last thing you want is for the search engine to decide you’re attempting to circumvent their algorithms to pick up hits or gain search preference. Unfortunately the best way is the slow way.

SEO Top 5 for Blogs

Things you should always keep in the forefront of your mind when dealing with SEO.

1. Change is good. Post to your blog or corporate news section often. The search engines see this as a commitment from the website owner to providing fresh up-to-date information, and the opposite of that is stale, stagnant, yesterday’s news.

2. Quantity is good, but is irrelevant without quality. Provide Accurate information you think other people will find interesting and important. No fluff. Don’t waste your visitors time cause they won’t come back. It’s not a facebook post about your day. Be casual but not over-personal.  Be engaging, and find things that are generally relatable so you’re readers don’t feel like they’re reading a technical manual. It’s not a news article, so the articles should have your personality, but probably not be about a family outing either, unless you blog about family outings… then by all means. What it comes down to is people read blogs for two reasons, to learn something, or to be entertained. Aim for both, settle for one.

3. Avoid angry or negative speech. Unless you’re a politician or are selling insurance, focusing on the positive or benefits of something as opposed to the negative aspects leaves readers with an excited perspective on the information being presented. I have the hardest problem with this, because my sarcasm comes out in my writing, and has offended people in the past. Just of note, it’s never intended.

4. Network. Read other peoples blogs/news articles where you can comment relative to the things you deal with. People reciprocate. If you comment on something and they relate, they’ll usually research you finding your blog, and do the same. This is the idea behind twitter, only a little more forceful. People subscribe and thier subscriptors pump content to them on release.

5. Any time that you can provide diagrams, imagery or even listed items to give visual representation to your text is always well received. Considering the internet is a very visual experience, providing a good diagram or picture can help stimulate the learning process. In the case of entertainment, photos and video can give great context to the topic as well.

Feel free to comment if you disagree or agree. Like I said, I am no expert, but I’ve found in working with clients in the past this has worked well. Hopefully others will find this info relevant in thier SEO attempts and useful as well.

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