One of the constantly hot subjects on the web is Search Engine Optimization. Search Engine Optimization is, at best, a way of managing the content and code of a web site so that it best represents what the site is trying to do. At worst, it’s a scam to trick an innocent search engine algorithm into thinking a site is relevant when it’s not.

What about “black hat” SEO?

Black hat SEO is closely related to unethical SEO. There’s a key difference: Black hat SEO is about undertaking high-risk SEO techniques: techniques which may get your site banned by search engines. When knowingly used by high-risk companies, these techniques are black hat SEO. When used to dupe unwary businesses, it’s just unethical.

The core philosophy of SEO is that you can raise the visibility of a web site by massaging the content, the code, and by building links to the site. This is true and reasonable. The practice is sometimes more extreme, unfortunately. SEO is too often an attempt to raise the visibility of a site by exaggerating the presence of certain key terms, and perverting the intent of meaningful and semantic presentation of information.

Best practice search engine optimization should balance an accurate portrayal of your company and services or products with key phrases that your business needs to rank for in order to be found online.

SEO is based on the knowledge that all Search Engines use patterns called algorithms to find and rank the web sites they list in their search results. These patterns look at many factors to decide whether your site is relevant to a query. Search engines are understandably secretive about the rules of their search algorithms, so it is hard to know exactly what they are looking at. However, some factors are fairly certain:

  • the number of inbound links to your site (who is linking to you),
  • the position of the search term on your site
  • the anchor text of links pointing at your site.

Although it is important to have specific search terms present on your site, the phenomenon of Google bombing depends on the importance of inbound anchor texts. Google bombing is a unique situation, however, and certainly not recommended for a legitimate business. If you want to consider the best principle for designing content and link texts simply keep this in mind:

Search engines want to find the same thing your users want to find: quality, relevant information.

Although search engines are not yet capable of thinking in the same way as a human visitor, the programmers designing these algorithms are real human visitors – and these thousands of dedicated scientists are spending their working hours trying to figure out what about a web site makes it valuable to a human.

Don’t consider search engines as a separate entity from your human visitors. Instead, consider a search engine as a type of disabled visitor – one who is blind to your images, can’t access your Javascript based navigation, and doesn’t really care about the beauty of your flash animation. The search engine isn’t your market, and can’t be considered when it comes to conversion potential, but it’s extremely important when it comes to perception of relevance.

There are fundamental baselines for smart web site construction which can aid your marketing scheme, and which will also help human users in accessing the information they need.

Links are ultimately, mostly out of the control of the web creator. You can ask other sites to link to you, and you can purchase links on some sites (at some risk to you), but the most valuable way to gain links is by creating link-worthy content for your site (sometimes called "linkbaiting") or for other sites that may provide a link to your site in biographical materials or your byline. This requires time and commitment to accomplish, but is effective. Not only does it provide links, but also "mind-share" – your site and the information you provide is brought in front of a larger audience. This audience will have an awareness of your site even if they don’t immediately visit.

What about accessibility and SEO?

Accessibility offers a few inherent benefits for SEO. The most common metaphor is to consider that a search engine robot is the most frequent disabled visitor your site may receive: it’s blind, it navigates with Javascript disabled, and if it can’t operate a link it stops cold. Since one of the principles of accessibility is about ensuring that your website can be navigated and understood by a blind visitor who is unable to use Javascript, these characteristics are an easy win for a well-designed accessible web site.

Best practice accessibility also requires other characteristics of benefit to SEO: use of proper h1, h2, and other heading elements are important for both. Use of unique title elements which clearly describe the page are valuable for both purposes.

Accessibility features can be abused for SEO, however.

A good example of how a tool for accessibility can be misused through SEO is by examining the title attribute. A little explanation the title attributetitle is a means of providing additional information about any element of a webpage. This is significantly different from the title element, described above — which is used to provide search engine results links and is displayed in the header area of your web browser.

Links can have a title attribute explaining where they go, acronyms may have a title providing the expansion of the abbreviation, etc. To an accessibility consultant, the title attribute is a great place to offer assistance to the visually impaired by providing a short, concise explanation in the title. To an SEO consultant the title attribute may be a great place to repeat keywords. Rather than saying "Link to Homepage", they may say "Widgets, gidgets, gadgets and more home page".

This is not unreasonable once, but when there may be 25 title attributes which all begin with the same phrase it can be very tedious for a visually impaired web user who is listening to the page as read by a screen reader. The title attribute is not, in fact, an element which is read by a screen reader using default settings. However, if it has been enabled this is presumably because that visitor needs the information contained in the title attribute – and this excess verbiage will not be helpful or appreciated.

Positions of importance for keywords include headings, emphasized text (bold or italics), and text which appears early in the page when viewed in a linear fashion. What does that mean? In most HTML (HyperText Markup Language) based designs, the positioning of elements is accomplished using the table element. Like a table in a word processing document or spreadsheet, the content must appear in a left-right, top-bottom format. However, in a standards based, accessible document, the code is usually presented using an alternate method which is non-linear. The appearance of the elements on the page does not necessarily match the appearance in the HTML code. Thus, your well-written content can appear first to search engines.

What do SEO companies usually try to sell?

Ah! I’m glad I asked. A quality SEO or SEM company will want to change the content of your web site. They’ll focus on element layout, analytics, and effective writing to redesign your web site with a focus on an improved ROI. There are many potential problems to be looked for – whether you are using images in place of text, whether you are using styling to create your headings rather than using the appropriate heading tags, etc. They may also offer advice on how to build links in to your site and what is important to avoid. They may assist you in creating a program to add more relevant, meaningful content to your site in order to draw traffic.

A less-than-reputable SEO company (and there are many) will utilize a number of unethical tricks to attempt to change your standing. They may utilize hidden text – page content that is concealed so that visitors can’t read it or utilize unethical methods of acquiring links to your site, such as software which takes advantage of software flaws in some sites to automatically create links.

My relationship with SEO

My personal opinion about SEO is that much of what you may see is a scam. There are absolutely quality companies providing these services – but there are many companies focused too heavily on poor practices.

Whether the company is espousing “ethical” SEM practices or not is sometimes difficult to ascertain. The terminology is fuzzy, and legitimate search marketing professionals may work in “Search Engine Optimization,” “Search Engine Marketing” or “Internet Marketing,” among many similar terms. Identifying those who follow best practices in the industry is a challenge. There are many articles which describe some of the questionable practices found under the disguise of search engine optimization:

Any time you consider hiring a company for search engine optimization, reflect on these issues.

Creating a standards-based, semantic web site which intelligently uses the key terms for your industry is a crucial first step – but that is only the tip of the iceberg. The difference between search engine friendly and search engine optimized is significant. Moving forward from friendly to optimization is primarily an issue of marketing strategy and research. If you are presenting your content in a clear, logical manner, you have successful potential. If you want to bring your site to the forefront of a competitive industry – you’ll need to spend a great deal of time considering your web site marketing.

Focus on providing good content and services and spend your money on publicity and advertising strategy. Marketing is the real core of search engine optimization.