Article: Web Primer – Search Engine Optimisation

The question I am most commonly asked, by about a mile and a half, is “How can I make my website do better on search engines?”  A short question, but the answers are many and varied.  A simpler question to start with is “What do search engines look for in a site?”  As you will see, the answers to question one all stem from the answer to question two.

The key word to keep in your mind when discussing search engines is relevance. The only thing the humble search engine wants to do is return relevant results.  With the web being as large as it is (tens of billions of pages at least) this is a job that can only be done by a computer, which is a shame, because computers are about as good at analysing intangible concepts such as relevance as they are at windsurfing.  What computers really like to do – pretty much all they can do, in fact – is count stuff.  This means that they have to use fairly crude methods, such as counting the number of times a search phrase appears in your text, in order to make an educated guess as to how relevant it is.

So, the more often the search phrase appears, the better?  Well, only up to a point.  Search engines are smart enough to realise that bigger is not always better, so an unrealistic phrase count will lead to your site being penalised.  They also care where in the page the key words appear, so constructing your web page properly is essential.  This is where a web designer who really understands HTML is going to prove their worth.

What else can computers count?  Well, Google pioneered the concept of counting the number of inbound links a page has, and storing this as a value called ‘PageRank’ (PR).  Each link into you counts as a vote in favour of your site, and the more links in, the greater your PR, and therefore search engine position, will be.  Even better, a link from a site with high PR carries more weight than a link from a low PR site.  Large sites like the BBC and Yahoo tend to have a high PR, so a link from any of these will send your search engine position soaring.

Anything else that computers can count?  The number of days since your content was updated, for one.  Search engine ‘bots’ will visit your site regularly, and what they really want to see is fresh content.  It stands to reason that content which was written last week is more likely to be relevant than content which was written months,  or even years ago (you know who you are!).

Next time, I’ll talk you through some simple techniques to improve your score on each of these metrics.

Monday, November 17th, 2008 Published Elsewhere, Web Development

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