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Google engineers are constantly tweaking the company's search engine in an elusive quest to close the gap between often and always.
Google engineers are constantly tweaking the company's search engine in an elusive quest to close the gap between often and always.

Part Two: Search Engine Optimization

SEO less technical, more about reputation Add to ...

This is the second of a four-part series on how to make the most of, and what to be wary about, search engine optimization.

Want to get noticed by Google? The best approach is to get back to basics.

Search engine optimization (SEO) - the all-important task of convincing search engines to rank your pages higher in their indexes - is one part canny tactics, one part basic principles.

SEO is about meeting the computer halfway: Google wants to understand the web, and it's up to you to make sure your information is what Google needs, and that it's located where Google needs to find it.

As search engines get smarter and better able to understand written text, SEO is actually becoming less technical and arcane, and more concerned with producing better text. So forget the cheap tricks of the past - doing SEO right in 2011 means working for a good reputation, the honest way.

Build links - organically. Google keeps its exact search-engine formula a closely guarded secret, and changes it regularly. But it has been consistent about one thing since its origins as a dorm-room computer science project: It respects links. The more people link to your website, and the more reputable those people are, the more likely Google is to boost your search ranking.

There are actually two distinct sides to SEO: Modifications you can perform on your website, and things you can do without altering it. A prime example? Asking relevant businesses to link to your site.

"People call it SEO, but it's really public relations," says Ari Shomair, the principal at Offleash Media, a digital-media firm and a lecturer at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business.

Reaching out and convincing germane partners to link to your site can help establish your business as an authority in Google's eyes, he says.

Similarly, business owners can make sure their sites are submitted to local search engines such as Yelp. (For ideas, check to see which sites list nearby competitors.) This is another route to boosting credibility with search engines.

But be careful. Search engines are especially vigilant about worthless links. Rogue SEO operators frequently construct networks of bogus links, which can damage your site's reputation when they unravel.

Get the technical matters out of the way first. SEO doesn't have to be a high-tech endeavour, but your site needs to be built on a firm foundation if it wants to get noticed by search engines. A few things need to be in order: Your site should make good use of both page titles. It should contain a hidden description (called a "description tag") that search engines can use to brief readers on what your site contains. Your URLs - the website address at the top of the screen - should contain words that describe your page, rather than abstract letters and numbers. And making extensive use of Flash isn't the best idea.

These are all factors that depend on the system you've used to build your site. If you've set up your site correctly, these elements should look after themselves. Many modern website building tools - called content management systems - do a good job of setting pages up this way out of the box. ( WordPress, a free blogging tool, is a good example.) If you've hand-built your site - or contracted it to someone else - the odds aren't as good. Since this is foundational work, the best time to address it is when you're looking at building a new website for your business.

SEO is a writing task. Once the technical foundations are in place, much of the art of getting noticed by Google comes down to writing. Making sure you have top-quality text is one of the best ways to boost your organic results.

This means a website needs content that's amenable to both humans and computers. The trick, says Scott Wilson, president of RankHigher.ca, an Ontario-based SEO consultancy, is to maintain a "laser-beam focus" on the keywords you'd like Google to associate with your page - be it a product name, or a category of goods, or a kind of service - and make sure they appear naturally in your text. (Determining which keywords to focus on in the first place is an SEO specialty. Tools such as Google Keywords can help you determine which terms customers typically search for in any given industry.)

Writing good, descriptive copy for web pages is another task Mr. Wilson's firm focuses on, making sure it's concise and doesn't duplicate text on other pages on your site - something search engines will sniff out easily.

Optimize by the page, not by the site. Remember that search engines see your site as a collection of individual pages. That means instead of just trying to make your homepage come out on top of a search, each individual page on your site should attract customers who are searching for that specific topic. If, for instance, you sell 40 products, then each product should have its own page, with its name in the title (and, ideally, the URL), and a custom description written for it. That way customers don't have to find your site through the front door: Google can connect them directly with a product page should they search for it.

Write for your users, not for computers. Whatever you do, don't cater to search engines at the expense of humans. If an SEO tactic looks ridiculous to a human reader - terrible writing, useless repetition, or long lists of keywords - it will probably look ridiculous to a search engine, too.

Many tricks that people still associate with SEO have long since been discounted by search engines - and they may even damage your ranking nowadays. These include ideas such as invisible text at the bottom of the page stuffed with keywords so that humans wouldn't see it, but search engines would. Ditto stuffing your HTML source with keyword tags - or trying to stuff keywords anywhere.

Remember that companies such as Google have no interest in a web full of spammy pages and bogus links. It's in their interest to link to the highest-quality pages possible, so they will continually try to reward the pages that give users what they want. Help Google on that principle - and Google will help you.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series continues next Monday. Other Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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