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Search Engine Optimization: 
Elements of an SEO Strategy

Ian Lurie, Portent Interactive, Seattle, WA

Of all the areas of Internet Marketing, Search Engine Optimization is the most misunderstood, and potentially the most important to your marketing efforts. There are millions upon millions of pages of web content out there -- you can work hard, build a great site, and then be totally lost in the shuffle. SEO is important. It's also a very complex process that requires patience, careful planning and a long-term approach.

If you're just getting started with:

  • Selecting an SEO firm

  • Trying to start a search engine campaign on your own

  • Reviewing your current SEO efforts

...read on. This article should provide you with a high-level review of the SEO process, dispel a few SEO myths, and help you understand legitimate optimization strategies.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, defies easy definition. But here's a short version:

Search Engine Optimization
Using keyword analysis and other legitimate practices to gain the highest possible search engine and directory rankings, under a given key phrase, for a given URL.

Every SEO professional in the world just cringed, so I'll break this definition down a bit and hopefully prevent a hail of angry e-mails:

Keyword Analysis is the process of mining keyword search data to find the best balance between the keywords you need and the best potential search niche. More on this later.

Search Engine means an automated search engine. 'Search Engines' include Google, AlltheWeb.com, Yahoo (powered by Google plus their own directory information), AOL Search, Ask Jeeves and MSN Search. A search engine obtains its results from 'spiders' or 'bots' -- small programs that come to your web site read it in much the same way you would: By reading the content on a page, and then moving from page to page via links. A directory, on the other hand, is built at least in part by human beings reading sites and other information and deciding where each site fits into the directory structure. Yahoo's directory area and Open Directory are both examples of directories.

Ranking is the numeric rank reflecting your position in the results list when someone performs a search on a particular set of keywords.

Highest Possible means getting as close to number one as you can. Sometimes you just can't get that number one spot. Maybe someone else has a 400-page web site solely dedicated to the key phrase for which you're attempting to optimize. Or maybe they're paying a fortune in advertising. That's life, sometimes...

Key Phrase is the keyword or set of keywords someone types into the little 'search' field in Google or Alta Vista or any other search engine.

A URL is the address of one page on your site. Most search engines display keyword search results and provide a link directly to the page most relevant to those results, rather than your home page. It's very, very important to keep that in mind when you build and optimize your site.

Legitimate Practices is a pet peeve of mine. A true search engine optimization campaign will not use practices such as page or content cloaking, redirects, or lists of links (so-called 'link farms') but relies on good coding practices, well-written content, steady link popularity work and site features that will be every bit as valuable for site visitors as for search engine ranking. Anything less is a short-term fix that will likely reduce your rankings more often than increase them.

So, the long version of the definition would be:

Search Engine Optimization
Using keyword analysis, good coding practices, well-written copy, link popularity analysis and careful site organization to move a web page as close to the number one search results position as possible for a given key phrase, in both search engines and directories.

Hey, that's not so bad after all. But how do you get started? First, you separate reality from myth...

SEO Urban Legends

There are quite a few SEO myths out there. Here are my favorites:

The Keywords META Tag Matters. Mostly wrong. Only Inktomi pays any attention to the keywords meta tag. You should do something basic, but don't bother putting in keywords that aren't supported by your page content.

Search Engines can read Flash, images and video. Sorry, and Ford isn't selling a flying car yet, either. Search engines can read one thing: Text. Anything else, while perfectly legitimate as a design tool, will not help your ranking. And relying too heavily on Flash or images may reduce your site's visibility. Google is one partial exception -- they can read some links in Flash, but still have very limited ability to read Flash content.

Mirroring my site in multiple locations will improve ranking. Actually, just the opposite. Duplication of content will generally have no effect or, worse, reduce your ranking in major search engines. Most search engines now have rules against this form of 'spam' and may reduce your ranking or ban your site altogether.

'Doorway' pages improve ranking. Pages that have lots of keywords but then quickly redirect to the main site will not help you in major search engines, such as Google. And, if someone catches you and reports you to Google or the other search engine, you may be banned altogether. A 'landing' or 'bridge' page, though, that's designed to be as useful for users as for search engines, and does not redirect the user, can help by providing keyword-rich content that's genuinely worthwhile.

Firms promising to get me #1 rankings in 10,000 search engines for $99.95 can help. I alternate between tooth-grinding and hysterical laughter when I see these ads. First, there aren't 10,000 search engines. Actually, there are probably 10-20 you should really worry about. Getting listed in the other thousand or so is largely a waste of time. Second, no one can guarantee any ranking in any search engine for a specific keyword. Period. And finally, the price is less than half the cost to get an express submission in a single directory (Yahoo). Chances are anyone trying to get you to spend the $99.95 is operating a 'link farm' where they list dozens, or hundreds, of sites. While they won't hurt your ranking, they won't help, either. To learn more about how to choose an SEO firm, check out Google's article: http://www.google.com/intl/mr/webmasters/seo.html.

Firms charging me more money and guaranteeing a #1 ranking on Google can help. This is the latest SEO scam. I can get you a number one ranking on Google, too, as long as I get to pick the keyword or can get you ranked under a fairly unique company name. But no one, and I mean no one can guarantee a #1 rank under a specific keyword. Even Google says so.

Forget the myths -- if an offer seems too good to be true, it is. The truth is that search engines are now almost savvy enough to read your pages like a human being would, so anything that will drive away a typical site visitor will also probably reduce your ranking. Things that will increase your search engine ranking include:

  • Well-written content

  • Good, clean HTML code

  • Useful, relevant TITLE tags

  • Useful, relevant DESCRIPTION tags

  • Relevant, appropriate links from other web sites

There are some basic steps that, well executed, will do more to increase your page rank than an ocean of snake oil.

The SEO Campaign Process

A typical SEO campaign starts with keyword analysis, and then emphasizes insuring your site doesn't impede search engine bots and follows up with ongoing link and traffic analysis. If you like pretty pictures, here's one:

search engine optimization process diagram

What's a Bot?
A 'bot' is a program used by a search engine to read the content of your site into a directory. I mentioned this briefly in 'What is Search Engine Optimization?' above. Keep up, now....

Step 1: Keyword Analysis. Ah, keywords. If you say the right word enough times on your site, you'll get that coveted #1 spot, right? Wrong. Choosing the right keywords starts with you making a list of the keywords or phrases under which you'd like to be found, and typically ends up somewhere completely different. Typically, selecting the best keywords is a four-step process:

  1. List the keywords and phrases under which you'd like to be found.

  2. Find out whether anyone searches on those keywords, and whether they're searching for relevant items.

  3. Find out how many other sites are struggling for rankings under those keywords.

  4. Pick keywords with the same meaning but a better search-to-competition ratio.

Maybe I want to rank #1 under 'Search Engine Optimization'. Guess what? There are 686,000 other URLs in Google trying for that spot. Hmmm. But wait! Under 'Seattle Search Engine Optimization' there are only 19,000. So, I targeted that key phrase, instead. And guess what? We got a #3 ranking.

Don't forget about relevance, either. If you want a high ranking under 'tires', you're going to have your work cut out for you. And in the end you'll likely end up getting found for 'bicycle tires', 'automobile tires', 'spare tires' and who knows what else. Is it worth it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But you have to do your homework to find out.

Data Mining and Keywords
If you're doing a campaign for a large site, you may end up testing and comparing thousands of keywords and phrases. Having a good data-mining tool (even Excel will do) on hand is important when you're doing keyword analysis. We use S-Plus, by Insightful Software. It's saved our lives, and clicker fingers, several times.

There are several tools that help you research the number of searches and competitors for keywords. Wordtracker (http://www.wordtracker.com) is a good one -- don't depend on their results from Overture, though, unless you're specifically preparing an Overture campaign. Metacrawler's MetaSpy tool is worth a look, too. Ideally, look at results from a few different sources.

Keyword analysis is the hardest part of a campaign, in number-crunching terms. It requires a lot of work and may not tell you what you want to hear. But in my experience it's critical to a successful campaign.

Step 2: Search Engine Readiness. Almost every web site we review has one or more problems that will prevent search engine bots from properly reading all content. Typical showstoppers include:

  • An all-Flash or all-images home page

  • A home page that automatically redirects to another page

  • Pop-up ads (does anyone really read these things?)

  • A site full of pages with fewer than 400 words on a page

  • Broken links

  • Navigation that is generated by JavaScript


A major step in any SEO campaign is making sure that the site will present the friendliest profile to search engines. Happily, the investment in optimizing will also pay off in a faster, more universally compatible site.

Step 3. Content and Site Preparation. You've done your research: You know which keywords match your message, and your site's HTML code is one big search engine welcome mat. Now it's time to make sure that your site contains those keywords. This is where I most often see folks get confused -- should you rewrite your web content to emphasize keywords? Yes, but with extreme caution. Should you make small, appropriate changes? Yes. Here are my guidelines for content preparation.

  • Don't write for keywords (much). This almost always leads to stilted, hard-to-read prose. Writing keyword-rich content that really works for users is an art form. Be careful.

  • Do a little careful editing. If you use the word 'car' but 'auto' is the keyword you need, chances are you can do a few replacements without marring your carefully crafted copy.

  • Spend time on the titles and description tags. Make sure every page in your site has a unique, relevant TITLE and DESCRIPTION tag.

  • Never use an automatic page generator. Tools like WebPosition Gold offer to generate optimized pages for you. Don't. They tend to hurt your ranking as much as help, and they generate ugly, ugly pages.

  • Write more stuff. More content is almost always better. If your site is just missing a specific keyword or phrase, but you think it's important, then your potential customers probably do too. By adding a few more pages, or a white paper, or some other content focusing on those absent keywords, you'll likely help visitors and improve your keyword ranking at the same time. And, the more text-rich your site is, the better the odds that you'll catch longer, stranger but really important key phrases that you can't anticipate.

Step 4. Link Analysis. Quite a few major search engines (Google, most importantly) weigh your 'link popularity' when ranking your site. A more accurate term, though, is 'link analysis', because these engines don't just count up the number of links to your site. They look for links near and containing relevant text. So a page full of links, one of which happens to be yours, won't help very much. But a link from a related site, near a short paragraph that contains relevant keywords, will probably give you a boost. Having keywords in the link itself is even better. A quick example:

http://www.portentinteractive.com doesn't help much.

For search engine optimization, visit http://www.portentinteractive.com is much better.

For search engine optimization, visit Portent Interactive where 'search engine optimization' is the link to Portent, is the absolute best case.

There are a few ways to build your link popularity:

  • Contact sites that relate to yours and request a link exchange. This works really well, but obviously takes a long time.

  • Syndicate your content. If you can provide an easy way for interested webmasters to link directly to relevant stories on your site, you provide an instant link popularity boost, and get your message out to boot.

  • Start an affiliate program. If you sell a product, consider setting up an affiliate sales program.

Google's 'One Site, One Vote' Rule
Google awards a lot less weight to a link to your site if that link is on a page with lots of other links. That's why so-called 'link farming' doesn't work. Ideally, you want a link to your site from a page that includes relevant content and not that many other outgoing links.

Step 5. Submit your site. Many search engines, Google included, allow you to submit your site for free. Generally you can submit your home page and let the search engine crawl the rest of your site. Some directories and engines offer paid 'express' services, and some, like Teoma, require that you pay for URL submission. Which engines you choose depends on your budget and campaign.

Step 6. Review, Revise, and Keep Going. Think you're done? Wrong -- search engine optimization is an ongoing project. At least once per month, review your rankings, site traffic reports and link popularity and tweak your site as necessary. The tools you need to measure results are:

  • Site traffic reports. Any web hosting company should provide you with a web site traffic report, and almost all of the reporting tools in use today provide a 'referrals from search engines' section. Take a look at this section for a good measure of campaign results.

  • Link counts. Use the link: command on Google (see above) to determine your link popularity.

  • Your keyword list. Search on the relevant search engines to see if your ranking has improved.

  • Your brain. You have to interpret what you see, and decide whether changes are warranted. There's no hard and fast rule for this, and no magic formula. Sorry about that...

So now you'll get instant results, right? Well, not quite...

A Word About Expectations

Search engine optimization can take time. Even Google only refreshes its entire index once a month, so don't expect instant results.

If your first registration run doesn't generate increased rankings within a month or two, don't panic. Look at your site traffic and search on the keywords you chose. Make sure that the search engine you're checking actually includes your site, too -- most likely the bots just haven't gotten around to 'crawling' your site.

Still stumped? Find a professional. Sure, we cost money. But you may have missed something about your site that's preventing a good keyword rank, and a second set of eyes can help.

A Solid Marketing Strategy

Obviously, Search Engine Optimization is a big job. But nothing can send more traffic to your site, for lower per-click cost. If you follow the basic steps, and keep at it, you will definitely get results. What's really, really important is to make sure you don't award too much weight to one step (such as link popularity) at the expense of the others. A well-rounded campaign will provide solid, long-term results.

What about pay per click?
Pay-per-click services, such as Overture and Google Adwords, are very different animals. If you've done your keyword analysis you're halfway there, but there are other tasks. I've not talked about them in this article because, well, they need an article of their own. Check back soon...

About the Author
Ian Lurie is an Internet marketer in Seattle, WA. He started his web design and marketing firm, Portent Interactive, in 1995. Portent offers complete Internet marketing support, including search engine optimization, e-mail marketing, and web design and development. Recent projects include SEO and production for www.princesslodges.com, SEO, marketing strategy, design and production for www.dessy.com, and, on the more whimsical side, frida.filmateria.com. Ian has a law degree from UCLA and has successfully avoided practicing law for almost ten years.

Thank you to Elisabeth Archambault, who contributed insights to this article based on her experiences as owner of
BuckWorks Online Shopping Directory. Her article on Building Reciprocal Links is a useful introduction to the topic of building link popularity.

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