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Search Engine Optimization

Definition: The process of increasing the amount of visitors to a website by ranking high in the search results of a search engine

If you want your online business to be successful, it's a good idea to optimize your site on a regular basis to make sure it's got a good position in the web's top search engines. And it's important to keep on top of the latest developments in the search engine industry and what key tactics you should--and shouldn't--use to optimize your site to make sure it gets a high ranking with all the major search engines.

For the past few years, the major search engines have been preparing to square off against each other and battle it out for the industry's top spot. Google has been No. 1 for a while now, with Yahoo! and MSN coming in at numbers two and three. Keep in mind, however, that Google and Yahoo! power many of the smaller search engines. For example, Google powers the free listings featured on AOL and Netscape, plus the paid listings featured on AOL, Netscape, Ask Jeeves, HotBot, Teoma and Lycos. Yahoo! powers free listings featured on AltaVista, AllTheWeb and HotBot, plus the paid listings on MSN, AltaVista and AllTheWeb.

Search engines frequently change the algorithms they use to rank sites. They don't want unscrupulous site owners manipulating their indexing methods in order to get high rankings. By doing so, they damage the integrity of free search. As soon as the search engines become aware of a trick being used by "search engine spammers" to boost their site ranking, they figure out a way to catch them.

The search engines don't want to be manipulated by marketers. They want to provide the best unbiased results possible for any given search--or they'll lose users. That's why they need to change their algorithms so frequently-to stay ahead of the tricks people use to get top rankings.

So be careful! You don't want to catch yourself employing a great strategy promoted by a marketing "expert," only to find out it's a tactic the search engines hate! That could get you booted off their listings in no time flat. Let's take a look at what exactly the search engines are looking for when indexing sites--and what they'll punish you for.

The Dos
There are still a lot of legitimate ways you can optimize your site to generate or maintain a high ranking without angering the search engines and causing them to drop you from their list. Here are some of the best things you can to do ensure your site has a high ranking:

1. Ask relevant sites to link to your site. In the past, scoring a high ranking with a search engine was all about positioning your keywords in "prime real estate" positions in your text and site coding. All that has changed, however, because these days, links are king.

Search engines place a huge amount of importance on the number of sites that link to yours. But it's not just the quantity of links that matter, it's also the quality. Search engines look at how relevant the links are, that is, how much the content of the linking site has in common with the content on your site. The more relevant, the better.

Search engines also look at how important the linking site is. What kind of online presence does it have? How much traffic does it get? For example, your site will get a higher ranking if it's linked to by sites such as BBC.com or nationalgeographic.com instead of, say, the personal homepage of your friend's neighbor's kid.

2. Pay attention to keyword inclusion and placement. Keywords may no longer be the sole determining factor of a site's ranking, but they're still pretty important. The most useful places to include them are:

  • In your domain name--only make sure your keywords are in the root of your URL, not the stem. For example, if your main keyword phrase is "cell phones," try to get a domain name such as "www.cell-phones.com" instead of "www.mobileusa.com/cell-phones." Some search engines will actually penalize sites for including key words in the stem of a URL.
  • In the title tags in your source code
  • In the meta description of your site. This is much less important than it used to be, but it can't hurt.
  • In your meta keyword tags

And be sure you only include relevant keywords. Search engines will penalize you if you try to sneak in keywords that have nothing to do with the content of your site.

3. Create content-rich information pages to direct traffic to your site. An easy way to boost the number of pages that link to your site is to create some pages yourself. However, you have to make sure these pages contain valuable content that provides people with useful information. Search engines hate "pointer pages" that have no content and exist only to add to the number of links pointing to a site.

Be sure the information relates to the content on your site and has your keywords placed in advantageous positions. This will boost the ranking of your pages with the search engines and ensure they get lots of traffic-which they can then redirect to your site.

4. Submit your site to online directories. Be sure to submit your site to important directories such as Yahoo!, the Open Directory Project and About.com, as well as smaller directories. Your listing on these directories will help your ranking with the major search engines.

5. Multiply and conquer. Create a community of related sites that link to each other. Why stop at only one information page? The more content-rich sites that point to your site, the better.

You can also boost the number of links that point to your site by dividing it into several separate sites that all link to each other. This works especially well if you sell a number of different products or services. If you build a different site to focus on each of your products and services, then you can also concentrate the use of specific keyword phrases on each site. That's another great way to boost your search engine ranking.

The Don'ts
Now that we've covered the dos, here come the don'ts. Although these questionable tactics have worked well in the past, the search engines absolutely hate them. If they catch you using any of these tricks, they may go so far as to drop you from their listings.

1. Beware of irrelevant links. Yes, it's a good idea to get a lot of different links pointing to your site, but the search engines only like relevant links. If they find sites that have nothing in common with the content on your site linked to your Web site, they'll lower your relevancy rating.

2. Beware of irrelevant keywords. Search engines hate finding irrelevant keywords on your site-especially in your meta tags. If they catch you using keywords that have nothing to do with the actual content of your site, they'll penalize you for it.

3. Don't "keyword stuff" your meta tags. In the past, people used to repeat their keywords in their meta tags over and over again. This used to get them a high ranking with the search engines-but not any more. Search engines are on to this trick and will punish you for it by dropping your ranking.

4. Don't create "link farms." Link farms are the evil cousins of the information pages we discussed above. In the past, some spammers used to build multiple "doorway" sites that existed only to multiply the number of links pointing to their sites. Unlike content-rich information pages, these doorway pages would usually only include a string of keyword terms that would earn them a high ranking with the search engines. The search engines have caught on to this tactic, however, and will drop you from their listings if they find you using it.

5. Avoid "free for all" link pages. Don't bother placing links to your site on pages where everyone and their cousin is invited to put up a link. Such sites have extremely low relevancy ratings and will cost you points with the search engines.

The following resources are good to check out to keep you on top of the changing world of SEO:

Search Engine News. Planet Ocean's online resource, "The Unfair Advantage Book on Winning the Search Engine Wars," is updated monthly and provides excellent optimization tips and information on the search engine industry.

Search Engine Watch. This free site is another rich source of tips and information on the search engine industry. Paid memberships are available for more advanced content.

Search Engine Guide. This free site contains a lot of useful information about the smaller search engines on the Web and who you should submit your site to in order to get a better ranking with the bigger search engines.

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