This is the first of a four-part series on how to make the most of, and what to be wary about, search engine optimization.
No matter how good your business's website is, it's not much good if users can't find it.
This is the simple premise behind three of the most freighted letters in the online world: SEO.
They stand for search engine optimization - the art of coaxing automated search engines like Google to place a website prominently within the results of a web search.
It's a practice that is by turns essential and shady, full of both trustworthy consultants and outright scammers.
"It's the Wild West out there," says Scott Wilson, president of RankHigher.ca, a consultancy that specializes in SEO. "It's an unaccredited industry."
And SEO really is a whole industry - entirely devoted to making websites more prominent on Google and its competitors. Users have become so accustomed to finding what they're looking for quickly that if your website only comes up on the second or third page of a Google search, more often than not, it might as well not come up at all.
In the best of all possible worlds, your website would appear at the top of the list. This can be a stretch - but showing up near the top for the right query shouldn't be that hard, either.
But does SEO need to be an industry at all?
It isn't a terribly technical practice. Anyone can do it. There doesn't need to be much, if any, programming involved.
Instead, it's achieved by manipulating the content of pages - their titles, the links they contain, and their words and pictures. The basics of SEO are accessible to anyone.
Nor is SEO a precise science. The inscrutable and oftentimes fickle nature of search engines means that a degree of finger-crossing is involved. Results can never be guaranteed.
The fact that SEO is non-technical and imprecise - yet hugely important - has opened the door for all manner of inflated promises and fly-by-night operations, which use ineffective or unethical tactics to boost (or not) customers' websites.
Yet reputable and valuable SEO providers are out there. The trick is knowing when to use one, how to find one - and how to avoid the dodgy ones. When is it time to hire help?
As always, the first step is self-education - and this is doubly true if you're considering hiring an SEO consultant. Being up-to-speed on current best practices is the best way to tell a good practitioner from a bad one.
The good news is that up-to-date information can be had from the source. Since SEO is the art of manipulating search engines, the search-engine companies are the best starting point for information.
Google maintains a comprehensive SEO starter guide
The basics of SEO are easy to master (we'll step through them in detail later in this series), and this documentation is a good place to get your footing. Google not only points toward best practices, but highlights tactics to avoid - from unnecessary keywords to long titles.
These are especially worth paying attention to: Not only can they harm your site's rankings if you try them, but they can help single out good SEO consultants from rotten ones.
There is also an entire blogosphere's worth of SEO advice there for the Googling. Much of it is good - but take it with a grain of salt, and make sure that the page you're reading is recent, since SEO information goes stale fast.
Those tricks you learned in 2008 might not work any more
One of the peculiar challenges of SEO is that, as a discipline, it's constantly evolving. While Google has clear guidelines on how SEO should and shouldn't work, it keeps the precise workings of its search engine shrouded in secrecy.
With billions of people trying to use its search engine to their advantage, Google is constantly updating the algorithm that it uses to rank web pages, looking for new ways to search out useful Web pages while weeding out junky ones and thwarting spammers.
Every time the algorithm changes, the factors that make Web pages rise and fall change somewhat, and the SEO industry scrambles to adapt.
For small businesses, this means a couple of things.
First, received wisdom about SEO is next to useless. Ideas that were in vogue a few years ago (like stuffing your page with useless or invisible keywords, or writing swaths of duplicate text) don't work any more. Best to go back to the source to refresh on what's effective in 2011.
But the same caveat about do-it-yourselfers also applies to SEO contractors. The field is unaccredited, and it's a difficult subject to teach in schools, since the subject is in such flux.
"By the time a curriculum is written, it's irrelevant," Mr. Wilson says. "You can't get a degree in it - let's put it that way."
Therefore, SEO is best practised by those who practice it - a lot.
Hire with care
"SEO is one of those things where you should start to ask very tough questions," says Ian Capstick, a principal at MediaStyle, an Ottawa communications consultancy. "There are some very good people, and then there are a lot of people who are going to outsource it on your behalf without telling you."
There are plenty of unethical SEO practices out there. Since search engines determine the relevance of a Web page in part by the number of other pages that link to it, one time-worn tactic has been to create vast networks of phony websites that link to one another. It's called " link-farming." Fly-by-night operators can set these up in a hurry, operating overseas, but it's only a matter of time before Google tears them down.
"Slowly, but surely. Google's going to sort out that these are totally not valuable links," Mr. Capstick says.
In general terms, keep a wary eye on any SEO provider that promises results on a given keyword, offers quick fixes or hard-and-fast results, and doesn't come with references.
Most importantly, read up on SEO basics, and avoid anyone whose techniques seem to be at odds with what search engines like Google recommend themselves.
After all, it's Google's game; we're just playing it.
Good SEO providers will take the official approach and expand on it, showing website owners the tricks to making good on these principles. And that's just what we'll explore in this series, in the weeks to come.
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