The Dark Art of SEO
by Dharma Kelleher
What is SEO?
SEO is short for search engine optimization, which is the process of optimizing a website so that it ranks well in search results on Google and other search engines. The idea is that the higher your site ranks in the search engine results, the more traffic your website will get and the more sales you will make.
There is some truth to that thinking. If someone searches for your name, your company name, a book your wrote, or a product you sell, you want your website to be at the top of the list, or at least on the first page of results.
But if your name is Betty Jones or you wrote a memoir titled My Life, then there may be a lot of other people or books with the same name. Getting to the top of that search engine results page may be challenging.
And even if you do end up at the top of the list, if your website doesn’t look professional, then visitors may not stay long. So SEO isn’t the end-all and be-all of online marketing, but it can help.
How Does SEO Work?
Google keeps the details of its search algorithms a closely guarded secret. That’s why I call SEO a dark art. No one really knows exactly how it works. But there are some general principles that most SEO experts agree will improve your search engine rankings.
Early Days of SEO
In the early days of the Web, keywords were the magic bullet for SEO. So web developers would configure webpages with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of keywords. Pretty soon, a lot of websites were trying to game the system.
Google got wise to this and decided inbound links should be part of the equation. And up sprang link farms that claimed to link to your site for a small fee or in exchange for you linking to their site.
So over the years, Google has continually tweaked its algorithms to better serve users (the people doing the searches).
The key to SEO today is relevance. People searching for truck tires don’t want Google to pull up a site that sells vacuum cleaners (unless that website also sells truck tires). So Google ranks sites based on how relevant the content of a site is to various search terms.
Relevance is determined by the actual words used in the site’s content, including page titles, headings, and page URLs (web addresses). If you have a lot of blog posts or pages talking about birdhouses, then your site will rank higher when people search for birdhouses.
Relevance is also measured by how many other highly ranked, similarly relevant sites link to yours. So your search engine ranking for your birdhouse site will improve if Birdhouse Digest links to your site (perhaps you were quoted in an article), but not so much if Motorcycle Mania links to your site. People looking for birdhouses wouldn’t find Motorcycle Mania relevant to their search.
Links from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, despite their popularity, don’t affect relevance ranking because those are social media sites, not birdhouse sites.
Relevance is also measured by how long you’ve had your website. A site that has been selling birdhouses for decades will rank higher than one launched last week. Renewing your domain name for more than a year helps as well.
One of the latest criteria for higher rankings is mobile-friendly design, sometimes called responsive width design. In other words, a website that adjusts the size, placement, and display of elements on smaller screens will rank higher than those that do not. If your site forces visitors to zoom in and out, scroll back and forth horizontally, you will take a big SEO hit.
Don’t Game the System
Whenever you’re building or updating your site with improved SEO in mind, focus on making a site that is relevant to searchers. Content, headings, connections, and mobile-friendly design will help greatly. But if you think of a way to try and game the system (called black hat SEO), Google will blacklist your site if and when you are caught. Blacklisted sites don’t show up at all in searches.
A great way to get started, if you have a standalone WordPress site, is with the free WordPress SEO plugin by Yoast, one of the original WordPress developers. This plugin makes it easier to write SEO-friendly content.
Dharma Kelleher writes gritty, engaging fiction about gay, trans* and queer-identified characters. She works as a professional web developer for ZenPunk Web Works. Her hobbies include riding motorcycles, making snarky comments on Facebook, and shocking people with her latest haircut. Learn more about her and her writing at dharmakelleher.com.