Have you ever come across something like the following in a web design pitch?
Website design: £15,000
Search Engine Optimisation: £2,000
What's going on here? Fifteen thousand pounds on a website, and 'search engine optimisation' costs two grand more? What is it, and why break it out as a line item?
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) refers to any activity designed to get a website highly placed in the list of results returned by search engines such as Google. It gets broken out as a line item because it's possible to sneakily add to the overall cost by doing so, thanks to the mysticism that surrounds this dark art of the internet.
This article is about how you can make the most of search engines through good design. The idea is to build understanding by explaining the search engines' perspective, the types of SEO and what it means for you. Our fundamental point is that search engine optimisation is not something to be done apart from web design, it should be included as standard.
Everybody wants to be top of the search engines' rankings, for obvious reasons. One of our clients, Back in Action, is there for the keywords 'back in action' and also for many of their products, such as the Tripp Trapp. This is very pleasing, but - of course - we'd like them there for all of their products.
The ideal position is number one, but failing that, being 'above the fold' or even just on the first page will do. Above the fold refers to the area of a web page that can be viewed without scrolling down. Fail to list here, and the number of users that click on your link drops dramatically.
Of course, there can be only one winner, and only ten or so sites can be on the first page. All of the people searching want these top-ranked links to be the ones they need. They need the search engine to turn their badly spelt, badly constructed queries into results that show the most useful sites first.
Back in the day - in the years leading up to the dot-com bust in 2000 - everyone was developing search engines. Yahoo! still had actual people looking at websites, but Altavista led the pack; whether it was ever so many tiny elves performing the magic, or simply some clever code, they turned those gobbledegook queries into useful links better than anyone else.
Then came Google. They'd been around for a while, waiting in the wings and refining their search technology. Suddenly, though, they were providing the most relevant results. The rest is history: in a remarkably short space of time almost everyone was using their service, leaving AltaVista and the others floundering. And that's the way it has stayed.
Don't think Google are resting on their laurels, though. They know it was great search results that got them where they are and they know that their crown could be stolen; it's pretty easy for web users to switch, as Altavista found.
The upshot is that Google invests a huge amount of effort in staying ahead, and all the others - most notably Yahoo! and Microsoft - expend a huge amount of energy in catching up. All of them want to provide links to sites that users will find useful. And there's the rub: the sites that practice search engine optimisation most aggressively are not necessarily the most useful (quite the opposite, usually). This means the search engines must actively fight some of the most common optimisation methods if they're to continue providing the best results.
Search engine optimisation is a broad church, covering everything from designing a site so that search engines can scan it easily, to outright trickery. The former - known as 'white hat SEO' - is desirable and good, while the latter - 'black hat' - is nasty and wrong. This article is about white hat, but let's take a brief detour and look at a famous example of black hat; the practice of 'Google-bombing', briefly popular until Google took steps to prevent it.
Google-bombing took advantage of Google's 'PageRank' software, which - according to the company - reflects "the uniquely democratic nature of the web". PageRank scores web pages according to how many other pages link to them, the assumption being that if a page is linked to, there must be something on it worth reading. And a good assumption it was; it got Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google's founders, a masters degree from Stanford (they're on leave from their doctorates) and several billion dollars each. Not to mention the Google Jet.
Early versions of PageRank were simple and, because no-one had done anything like it on a large scale before, worked pretty well. But PageRank made SEO popular; people discovered that by creating networks of sites and links, they could not only convince Google to rank a particular site highly, but also specify the search terms that would trigger this result.
A famous example of Google-bombing is the search for French Military Victories. If you conduct this search on Google, the first page returned is a mock-up of the Google results page saying 'No results found - did you mean french military defeats?'. The gag was set up to demonstrate Google-bombing and, as it is the first result, clicking Google's 'I'm feeling lucky' button goes straight to it, giving the impression that it's a genuine response.
This was no good for Google, because sites would appear high in their results not because they were good matches for a user's search, but because PageRank had been tricked. They knew that if this happened too much, people wouldn't be able to find what they were looking for and might go elsewhere for their searches. So, although PageRank still exists, it is now enhanced and complemented by many other techniques that prevent gaming of the system as best Google knows how. (Incidentally, 'French Military Victories' remains in the number one spot because so many people have linked to it as an example.)
It's clear that staying ahead of SEO techniques that attempt to fool the system is of paramount importance to all search engines. The optimisers are determined to get their sites artificially high in the rankings while the search engines are determined to preserve the quality of their results. It's a race between the two groups to either exploit or engineer out loopholes.
The reason that black hat techniques are often short term solutions is because the search engines do not simply close the loopholes, they punish those who've been trying to squeeze through them. They do this by pushing such sites down the listing, or simply delisting them altogether. It can happen to the biggest - in 2006, BMW was banned by Google for nefarious search engine optimisation.
We hear many reports of our clients being approached by companies that offer to boost their search engine ranking and always advise them to decline the offer. These companies are scoundrels and charlatans; they'll use black hat techniques and although the site will rocket up the rankings for a couple of days, it's likely to be banned soon after.
It's quite simple really: you should optimise for people, not search engines and you should do so as standard, not in retrospect. Because Google and the like want to provide their users with the best search results, they increasingly read web pages like actual human beings do. This means that all those old tricks, like dense blocks of keywords that are hidden from view (by being the same colour as the background, for example) are out. These old-school techniques are less effective than ever and can get you blacklisted.
So what's in?
WEB STANDARDS. We're putting them first for a reason. Modern web pages are coded using XHTML and CSS and using other technologies is counterproductive. Building to standards separates content (the XHTML) from formatting (the CSS), making it extremely easy for search engines to read the useful stuff that's on your site. Old techniques such as frames will confuse the search engine 'spiders' that catalogue sites.
Once you're building your website using web standards, the next fundamental aspect is the navigation. Users rely on clear, efficient navigation to get around a site, as do search engines. The most common mistake made with navigation is inconsistency: make sure you have top level categories that cover all of the content in your site, and make sure you display them on EVERY page. The navigation sections of the screen should not significantly change as a user moves through the site.
To make the most of consistent navigation, it should be built from text links rather than images. Text links can be read by any browser and any search engine, whereas image links cannot, making them less effective. Although image links can be attractive if implemented well, bear in mind that good navigation forms the backbone of your site and has quite an effect on search engine results. If you really need to use images as navigation, investigate CSS and 'image replacement' tricks that use hidden text to ensure the site remains easily catalogued and accessible.
Accessibility is worthwhile (and a legal requirement) in its own right, but less well known is that the techniques which make a site accessible also help it achieve prominence in search results. Web accessibility is largely geared towards ensuring that users with visual impairment can access sites and those that meet high standards of accessibility can even be used by people who are completely blind thanks to 'screen readers'. These are web browsers that read the text of web pages aloud and accessibility standards require a set of techniques that ensure they can do so without difficulty. These techniques apply to the way in which navigation works, each page is laid out and also to individual elements, such as images. Of course, following accessibility guidelines that make it easier for screen readers to format the page as text will translate well to search engine spiders, which essentially do the same thing.
Be hesitant in using any technology that requires third party software or 'plug-ins', such as PDF files and Flash. In the former case, CSS can be used to format pages for printing, avoiding PDFs that are harder to index and less attractive to people when they appear in the search results. Flash is almost always a real hindrance to search engines; use it only for decorative purposes and even then very sparingly.
Earlier in this article, we mentioned PageRank - Google's search technique that uses the number of links to a site as an indicator of its relevance. Although this technique is complemented by many others, it remains important. If you get links to your homepage on other sites it can be a significant boost to traffic. When placing the links, do not use phrases like 'for ABC Ltd's wonderful products, click here' as this associates the words 'click here' with the link. Instead, use something like 'click here for ABC Ltd's wonderful products', which will associate 'ABC Ltd' and 'wonderful products' with your site.
These kind of associations are very important. Gone are the days when you could simply rely on big, hidden lists of keywords. The search engines now search for keywords in context, which means using them in titles and headings (use the <title> and <h1>, <h2>, etc. tags in XHTML). Make sure that the title of each page - which appears at the top title bar of the browser window - reflects the content of that page, rather than just being a site-wide piece of information such as your company name.
Last, but most definitely not least, is the content itself. As mentioned in our guide to successful online sales, great content is hugely beneficial to your search engine ranking. Whatever you can write about, do so. If you can give a useful overview of the area you specialise in, or perhaps a product guide, it will give the search engine spider something to crawl over and provides much more text, increasing your chance of matching what a Google user is looking for.
When writing content, think about how people search for things on the internet. What phrases do they put in to Google? For example, when searching for a new camera, do they type 'Canon Digital IXUS 800', or 'Digital Cameras'? It's overwhelmingly the latter; in fact an amazing number of people will use natural language searches, such as 'where can I buy a digital camera?' So, even if you sell the IXUS 800, ensure your page for it contains the keywords 'digital' and 'cameras' and somewhere on you site you write something like 'If you're asking yourself "where can I buy a digital camera?”, you've come to the right place!' You get the idea: good content is becoming ever more important to search engines. It is, after all, what people actually want.
Being highly placed in search engine results is critical if you want people to find your website. If you're running a business online, it can help you attract more visitors and - ultimately - customers. Optimise for people, make your site accessible and write great content. Resist the temptation to trick search engines; it won't last and might get you banned.
Although there isn't room to include all the detail here, we've covered design fundamentals that will make your site search engine friendly. Implementing them will be a great start; before long you'll find your site rising up the rankings. Just remember: 'Search Engine Optimisation' isn't an option or an add-on; it should come as standard!