Search engine optimization, also known as SEO, may seem like some sort of black magic to those who don't understand it. But really, it's something that anyone who spends some time reading and testing, can do pretty easily.
Unfortunately, there's a ton of old information and downright wrong information all over the net on this subject. It's very difficult to figure out the best strategy when you can't even figure out which articles or websites you can trust.
For the most part, if any given strategy has to do with trying to trick the search engines, it's probably a bad technique. Some of these tricks involve keyword stuffing, hidden text, doorway pages and numerous other dubious techniques. Let's go over some of these in more detail so that you can better understand why you shouldn't use them on your site, and what you can do instead.
Most Webmasters have figured out that to optimize their site, they need to use keywords, but they haven't quite figured out the proper usage for them. In trying to decipher what a search engine might want to see, they assume that if it likes a few instances of a keyword phrase, then using it 50 times would be that much better! Not only that, they think that by putting them in every available spot in the HTML code, their rankings will really soar. So they repeat them tons of times in their Meta keyword tag, in image alt attributes (alt tags), in header text, comment tags and in their first paragraph of copy.
To top it all off, they decide to repeat these keywords even more times at the bottom of the page. They may do this in a font that's the same color as their background, or even place them so low on the page that a person would need to scroll down a mile before ever seeing them.
These aren't "bad" people or anything. They often have no idea that what they're doing is wrong. Most of the time, they assumed this was what they needed to do because they saw the same thing on a competitor's page. They never knew that there was an alternative. What they also didn't know was that their competitors probably ranked well despite their keyword stuffing, not because of it. Removing the junk might even make them rank higher!
Why It's a Bad Strategy
Search engines rank pages by varying formulas that are supposed to figure out which pages are the most relevant for the search at hand. Most of today's engines have what we in the SEO world call "filters." Use any particular keyword or phrase too many times or in too many places, and you'll very likely trip one of the filters designed to catch this. Unfortunately, there's no way to really determine the optimal number of times to mention any given keyword, because it will vary depending on the message you want to get across on your page. One thing is for sure -- if you make your page read poorly, you won't be doing your site any favors. The temporary gain in the engines that you may get until the filter catches up with you, probably won't make up for how silly your page looks to your real visitors.
One of the reasons people stuff keywords all over a page is that they think they have to put every single keyword that might relate to their site, right there on the home page. This is one of the most common misconceptions that people have. Your home page is not the be-all-end-all of your site. It doesn't have to list every product or service imaginable that might relate to it. In fact, if it does it could send up a red flag to the engines that something fishy is going on.
You'd be much smarter to figure out perhaps 3 related phrases that describe what your site is all about, and use these on your home page in a judicious manner. Be sure to put them in your Title tag, as well as visibly in the copy on the page that your site visitors will read. By that I mean to write or rewrite your page copy based on the phrases you choose. Once you do this, it can be extremely powerful for your search engine rankings.
But don't stop there! Make sure to use all those other phrases that you couldn't put on your home page, on different pages of your site. Many people decide to create new pages specifically for this purpose, but I'm a big believer in using the pages you already have. Most likely you will find that this is easier to do than it sounds. Simply go through each page one-by-one and figure out it's general theme and which phrases relate to that theme. Look for instances where you may have used some industry jargon, when a keyword phrase would work just as well. (Be sure to research your keyword phrases with a tool such as Wordtracker so that you are not wasting time on keywords nobody actually searches for.)
Those who know better than to stuff their site full of keywords often turn doorway pages to try to achieve high rankings. These are pages added to their site that are designed solely for the search engines, but are not fit for human consumption. Sometimes they put these on their own site, or sometimes, they'll create an entirely new site for their doorway pages. They justify the use of this technique because they believe that the page MUST be crammed with keywords in order to rank well, but they hate the thought of ruining the original look of their pages. These guys and gals may think they're smarter than those who stuff their actual pages, but they're in for the same rude awakening somewhere down the line.
Since doorway pages are one of the oldest tricks in the book, the search engines have long since learned how to spot them and eliminate or penalize them. Often these pages have no links pointing to them anyway, (other than a few well-placed invisible ones), which doesn't give them much chance of ranking highly either. But the biggest reason for not using doorway pages on your site is because when you use them instead of optimizing the real pages of your site, you're not really fixing what is obviously broken. You may not think your site is broken, but if it is not ranking highly for keyword phrases that are relevant to it, then it is indeed broken. By not addressing the real issues, it's like putting a band-aid on a broken bone. It might be easier for you at the moment, but it really doesn't solve your problem.
SEO is Not About Tricks
SEO isn't rocket science; nor is it magic or deception. Like most things, it takes time and/or money for it to be successful. If you hear about some sort of quick-fix method for getting your site found in the engines, you can pretty much bet that it's something the search engines are actively seeking to penalize. Even if you find something that works for awhile, one day when you least expect it, all your rankings may simply vanish into thin air. If you're lucky, you'll find another technique that will work until the next big shakeup; however, you may find that the search engines have had enough of your shenanigans, and your site may get knocked out for good.
Don't let this happen to you!
Learn the techniques that have withstood the test of time. Do your keyword research, write great copy that includes your important phrases naturally within it, write compelling Title tags that use the same phrases, and provide some linking code for other sites who might want to link to yours. Those links will be the one thing that pushes your site up in the listings after you get on-the-page stuff in tip-top shape.
For more details on creating Title tags and Meta tags, as well as additional SEO strategies that provide a long-term solution, please read my articles here.
Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas Forum.
February 22, 2005
CEO and founder of High Rankings®, Jill Whalen has been performing search engine optimization since 1995 and is the host of the free High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter, author of "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" and founder/administrator of the popular High Rankings Search Engine Optimization Forum. In 2006, Jill co-founded SEMNE, a local search engine marketing networking organization for people and companies in New England.
High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization firm located in Framingham, MA specializing in search engine optimization, SEO consultations, in-house training, site audit reports, search marketing seminars and workshops. High Rankings has a 100% success rate for substantially improving client rankings and targeted traffic.
Jill speaks at national and international conferences and has been writing about SEO and search marketing since 2000. She's been quoted in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report and The Washington Post. Her articles have appeared in numerous print magazines and online websites including CIO Magazine, CMS Focus, The Internet Marketing Report, ClickZ, WorkZ, Inc.com, Entrepreneur, Lycos Small Business, WebProNews, SiteProNews and others. Jill has also appeared on many online and offline radio programs such as Entrepreneur Magazine's E-Biz Radio Show, SearchEngineRadio and the eMarketing Talkshow.
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