One of the things that is essential to the success of any product, online and off, is whether or not punters know about the product. When you are a business on the web a big part of this comes down to how you are visible and how visible you are to the major search engines.
How are you visible?
You see it is not just enough to be indexed by a search engine, you need to be returned by the search engines when a person running the search enters search key words that are relevant to your offerings. Obviously it’s not much good if your business is selling dental equipment and you are the first result returned when people enter “Thundercats” into google (however rockin’ we all agree Cheetara is). Basically, you want people to find you, but it is more important to have the right people find you.
How visible are you?
As well as being found using relevant search terms, your site needs to be near the top of the search results as possible – it’s generally accepted that people just don’t click on the items near the bottom of the first page of results nearly as much as they go for items near the top of first screen of results. And just forget about thinking they look on page two or three. Like the proverbial needle in a haystack, it’s a big ask for people to find your site. The fact is that if you don’t turn up on the first screen-ful of results for your keywords, you may as well take your bat and ball and go home because people will just not find you (well not enough of them).
So how does one become visible to the search engines? Shh! Come closer boy, if ye be interested in being at the top of the search pile then ye be interested in the black arts of <whisper>search engine optimisation</whisper>… dum dum duuummmm!
What is Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)?
Simply put SEO is any activity undertaken to improve your position in internet search results for your desired keywords.
Sounds great, I’ll take two!
Unfortunately there is no guaranteed path to success when it comes to SEO, but that is to be expected whenever there is competition for a scarce resource and when the motivations of the parties involved are at odds.
Because the likes of Google want their users to find the things they are searching it is easy to see that Google has a vested interest in returning real and meaningful results to each search request. If people knew the exact algorithms, you can bet people would start to game the system for personal benefit, which would result in a drop in quality of the search results that Google would be serving up. For this reason search engines don’t share the exact details of the inner workings of their search algorithms.
So, not surprisingly SEO techniques are a bit of a black art, as search engines are effectively “black boxes”, with each search engine working different (although maybe similar) ways. So people interested in improving their standing in the search results have to try to work out what is happening by inference, by changing in inputs into the equation and examining the effects that these changes have on the output (the search results). But this is not as simple as it sounds as websites don’t exist in a vacuum. A site will be listed in search results relative to other sites. The factors that influence a particular sites relevance are in constant flux. So you might tweak your site and find that you have jumped two spots up in the results, but was the jump caused by your tweak or was it because of something one of your competitors did? Or because some independent third party made some change? The end result of this is everyone trying to work this out are feeling around in the dark, making best guesses about what is actually happening behind the scenes on the ol’ google servers.
SEO is also a rather secretive pursuit. This is because if a “sure fire” technique is discovered, everyone will start to use it. And if that happens that technique is going to lose it’s effectiveness pretty quickly, much like trying to get someone’s attention by shouting over the crowd at a sporting event as opposed to a library (an exercise I’ll leave to the reader).
To make things even more complex we also have to consider the fact that googles algorithms are not static creatures, but constantly evolving in relation to their environment (le interweb). Google might think of a way to improve a certain algorithm needs tweaking, or they can make changes to react to what is happening on the internet. For instance if the good folks at google find out people are successfully gaming an aspect of their algorithms they are likely to take steps to counter this activity. A good example of this is the keywords html metatag. Back in the dark ages of the internet this tag was used by search engines to help determine what search keywords for which the site should be returned. This worked for a short period until people started putting in all sorts of unrelated keywords in this tag, and now this tag is pretty much ignored by all and sundry (ref: but how can we ever know for sure?).
Now the thing is this: Since Google can do whatever they want, a technique that google takes a dislike to could end up backfiring on those who (ab)use it. They are also believed to have a human component to their search which adds a whole new level of difficulty in working out the best ways to perform SEO. All this leads to a lot of conflicting information being out there, with what was good one week suddenly becoming bad the next and techniques that seemed to have a positive effect actually having had no effect at all with the positive effect due to something completely unrelated.
Because of secretiveness and unverifiable nature of these techniques SEO attracts more than its fair share of dodgy operators offering to improve your search rankings. That’s not to say that the majority of people offering SEO services aren’t legit, just that there a lot that are bad eggs around. Some will attempt to game the system and will do anything if they think it will get them ahead, regardless of the honesty of their actions. This might sound alright at first, everything’s fair in love and business and all that, but these dodgy techniques can really backfire. Yes, these unscrupulous techniques might benefit you search results, at least until google cottons on to what is happening and puts your site in the sin bin, whilst the SEO skips happily away with your money.
There are also dishonest SEO professionals who make grandiose claims that they can’t really back-up. Unfortunately these claims are almost impossible to call out as no one knows the full story except for google, and they’re pretty tight lipped about it all.
All this bad behaviour has led to a general feeling of sleaziness to surround the entire “industry/profession” so if you are going to hire the services of a professional SEO consultant make sure that you get them to tell you exactly what they are planning on doing, and if they can’t/won’t explain their plan, or if what they do tell you sounds dishonest then you should definitely consider whether or not you really want to use their services, because in then end you’ll be the one who has to live with the consequences of their actions.
That’s all for this week, but next week I’ll be looking further into the do’s and don’ts of search engine optimisation.
Ciao for now beautiful people.