Muschamp Rd

Search Engine Optimization

This article is a little dated, I suggest you read my more recent posts in the SEO archive of my blog. A lot of what I said below is probably still true, but social media plays a larger part in search engine optimization than it did in 2005. I even wrote the proverbial Top 10 SEO Tips blog post.

While working at GVC I continued to be interested in search engine optimization. And for the first time, it could be considered almost part of my job. I spent a lot of time reading forums such as Webmasters World. When I took over as webmaster at GVC, after cleaning up our source control system, I started improving our homepage. The HTML was far from tidy and the design relied heavily on images and had almost no text. The first thing you need to remember about search engine spiders is they index text. You can't expect to do well for keywords that don't appear on your page as indexable text.

Although search engine optimization can definitely help your site rank higher in search engines, it is not a substitute for having a website which people are actually interested in reading/viewing. Thus before I provide some simple advice on search engine optimization I should preach the party line, content is king.

Rule of Five

The one thing you have total control over is the text on your page. If you want to do well for a given keyword or phrase you should endeavour to have the keyword or phrase actually appear on your page. Some people take it too far, but if you are serious about search engine optimization you should have your keyword or phrase appear in the following five places:

  1. Title tag
  2. Heading tag
  3. Body text
  4. italics or emphasis tag
  5. strong or bold tag

Although they were abused in the past I would also recommend putting your keyword or phrase in the description and possibly even the keywords meta tags. Just by changing the title tag of GVC's webpage I was able to improve its ranking for certain two keyword searches, this illustrates how important it is to choose an intelligent title for every html page. Heading tags have been in the HTML standard since version 1.0 but many so called web designers don't use them instead favouring pictures of words for their titles. Search engine spiders can not index pictures of words. The third key area to have your keyword or phrase appear is inside the body tag, by using the markup intelligently you will make your page both easier to read/scan and easier to index.

I was going to make a test page illustrating my advice, but while thinking of the keywords to use I decided against it. Some keywords are very difficult to rank highly for in the search engines examples include; anything of interest to the porn industry such as 'big tits' or any combination of a major city and the word 'hotel'. It would also be very difficult to rank high for say 'Microsoft Office' or 'Windows XP'. It would also be too artificial, I'm an advocate of natural search engine optimization. So instead to prove I know what I'm talking about I encourage you to check out some of the links I have at the bottom of this page or do a Google search for the following phrases:

The first two I made a conscious effort to do well for and am currently (June 18th 2005) number one for both of those phrases. The next two I'm not number one for but I was on the first page for the results which is a big deal.

How people search or using quotation marks

The average person does not use quotation marks when they search for stuff on the internet, nor do they use the other advanced features of Google available to them. If you use quotations you will get slightly different search results than if you do not. People are also unlikely to try multiple searches in multiple search engines, that is why it is so important to rank highly in Google in particular. When you look at your web logs you will sometimes be surprised just what terms people enter into a search engine and arrive at your website using... Although I currently don't receive visitors for the term big tits and am unlikely to start to receive any given how competitive that term is likely to be, I still get the occasional surprise as do others.

Linking

The rise of Google to prominence among search engines is largely due to the insight that each link to a web page is the equivalent to a vote for the content of that webpage. The other insight the founders or Google had was that not every vote was equal, some votes (links) counted for more as they were from respected websites. This system is known as PageRank.

There is much speculation as to how Google and its two main rivals Yahoo Search and MSN Search actually work, Google was originally based on PageRank but now supposedly considers over 100 factors including the onpage ones mentioned above, none the less linking is still vital to the web and search engine rankings. Some SEO experts advocate no external outbound links, they see it as draining PageRank from your own site and giving it to another. Clearly I do not believe in that. The web relies on linking. Some SEO experts advocate link exchanges or using other tricks to preserve PageRank.

Most people are concerned with acquiring incoming links. Numerous schemes have been developed to work the PageRank system. I've never been about that. If you build a good site, people will link to it of their own accord. You do however have total control over how you link amongst the pages on your website. This aspect of search engine optimization is often overlooked. However for less competitive keywords and phrases it can be very effective. Once you get to the top of the Google rankings not only will your traffic increase but people looking to link to a site on a given topic may choose yours.

Choosing Anchor Text

Just by using internal links, with well chosen anchor text, as well as following the Rule of Five, I was able to rank number one in Google for many of the names of my classmates when I put up my MBA photo gallery. In June 2005 my most popular classmate at least in terms of Google seems to be Ines Biedermann. Nothing special was done, this is an example of the benefits of adding good original content to your site. However to improve my rankings for say the term Gary Lau, adding an internal link to a page about Gary Lau should help. On the page I linked to the word Lau does not appear in the human visible text. If I was seriously trying to rank highly for Gary Lau I would have made sure the words "Gary" and "Lau" were both indexable. This paragraph is also a good example of how to satisfy the Rule of Five and still have readable text. To reiterate in addition to the Rule of Five, the two key meta tags, having internal links with your chosen keyword or phrase pointing to your web page will improve your rankings.

File Names and Domain Names

During the halcyon days of the 90s, people registared all sorts of domains, either to get rich through profiteering, or to stake out territory on the web. Search engine optimization was embroiled in all this and gave rise to a lot of domains being registered that went www.keyword1-keyword2-keyword3.com as they believed it was advantageous. One of the students in UVIC engineering had registered Beer.com and later sold it for a tidy sum, but Beer.com is currently not number one in Google for "beer". Think of the big successes on the internet and you'll find domain names like yahoo.com, google.com and amazon.com. This proves you can have a very successful site without having a keyword domain.

That said you should still choose a domain that is relatively short and easy to spell. Muschamp.ca although my middle name, fails in this regard. I always have to spell Muschamp and even the .ca causes some confusion. If you have a business you should endeavour to get a .com domain.

For file names and directory structure I think one should have a naming system and set up your website for ease of updating. Some SEO experts try to cram keywords in everywhere they can. This leads to URLs like this:
http://keyword1.keyword2-keyword3.com/keyword2keyword3/keyword1.html
I use file names which start with a lower case letter and capitalize each word. For directories I have a capital first letter. Or at least that is what I try to do, iPhoto's generated HTML does things slightly different.

Content Management System

Although this webpage, and all webpages were originally handcoded in HTML, those days are through. Now any website of just about any size should have a content management system or CMS. The one that I use was originally created for blogging, it is open source, has an active community of people using and extending the product, and now has more than enough features for most websites. That said there are many CMSs besides WordPress, such as Drupal, or Joomla. I've developed custom content management systems in the past, and for some larger websites that can be worth while. However the ability to just add plugins or snippets of code or take advantage of other people's efforts to improve the CMS are factors in favour of using an "off the shelf" system. If you use WordPress, it has always been search engine friendly, but there are lots of things people advocate doing to make it rank even higher in the search engines.

MBA Classmates

Image Searching

In addition to text searches, the major search engines are working on many new features including image searching. As the spiders can not truely 'see' the image they largely go by the file name and the text around the image, or at least they did in 2005. Here is a picture of some of my MBA classmates taken at the official end of the year party which for personal reasons I could not attend. It should be noted that I also use the alt attribute intelligently which helps both with usability and in search engine results.

Marlene and Gary Lau

Marlene and Gary Lau at the end of term party,
which I had to opt out of, they were still friends then.  Why aren't we all still friends now Marlene?

I cropped the original photo so that just Marlene and Gary were in the picture. I then renamed the file from mbaClassmates.jpg to marleneAndGaryLau.jpg. All this seems so unimportant now... They both used to be my friends, I never really understood why we aren't friends now. It must have been something I said or did, or more accurately something Marlene thinks I said or did.

File Size

Previously it was thought that end users wouldn't scroll and thus webpages should be short. This led to a strong desire to have important information appear above the fold. Although this was an issue perhaps with banner ads and internal debates on where information should appear on a corporate website, it is not so important in search engine optimization. Some SEO experts believe you should have your keywords appear at the very top of the file or at least immediately after the opening body tag, the size of the file is not a large factor. However the more words you have will affect your keyword density which is also a factor in search engine rankings. End users have also shown a willingness to read longer web pages if they are interested in the topic.

Patience

Another important thing to keep in mind when doing any search engine optimization is the importance of patience. It takes time for the spiders to index your site. Google generally indexes faster and more frequently which gives it fresher results than its two major rivals. This is one of the reasons Google is the most popular search engine currently. This webpage was uploaded to my webserver on June 19th, 2005. Although I placed a link to it from my home page, it will still take considerable time before it appears in the search results.

Once you get a webpage or site into the search engine's index that is not the end of SEO. Even if you magically appear as the number one result for your chosen keyword or phrase through careful search engine optimization, there is no guarantee you will stay there. Other sites who are competing for the same keyword or phrase will tweak their site or new pages will be indexed.

Another thing to keep in mind is you are dealing with a moving target or a collection of moving targets. The search engines are also tweaking their algorithms in an attempt to provide more relevant results to their users. They also change their algorithms to penalize what they consider spam. As a result, if you are truly serious about dominating the results for a given keyword or phrase you must monitor which pages are being returned by the search engines and continually adjust and improve your page.

The easiest way to improve your rankings once your page is in the index is to add new content which links to and is linked from your already indexed page. This is also where the concept of reciprocal links with other sites or engaging in a link campaign is most effective.

Why Search Engine Optimization matters to you

As a web surfer search engine optimization can help you find interesting and relevant information. It can also prevent you from finding the information you are looking for and instead direct you towards an irrelevant page. Since search engine optimization is not going away you should be aware of it. If you have a website, even a hobby website, it can benefit from search engine optimization. If you are selling anything on the web or in anyway involved with branding or marketing even self marketing online, search engine optimization is vital to maximizing your success.

Places on my website where I make productive use of search engine optimization techniques include my resume.

Now I have to monitor the success of this page. I doubt it will rank highly for big tits there is a slightly better chance I will rank for search engine optimization but it being such a competitive phrase I doubt that. If you are thinking of hiring a SEO consultant simply Google or use another search engine such as A9 or Kartoo for 'search engine optimization'. Or you could Search the Web with Gigablast which is some people's favourite underdog in the search engine wars. Possible phrases where this page could actually do well are 'Gary Lau' or 'Marlene Lau'. Since I'd rather potential searchers end up at another page if they search for Marlene's name I'm going to add a link to the page about Marlene playing guitar at a fundraiser. The previous link also allowed me to demonstrate the title attribute which many SEO professionals advocate using to squeeze in more keywords.

Epilogue

Although this webpage was uploaded to my webserver on June 19th, 2005 it didn't appear in Google until well over a month later. It officially appeared in Google on August 2nd, 2005. I've written several additional followup articles: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Links to further information

Words and Images © Andrew "Muskie" McKay.
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