What is Search Engine Optimization?

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This year we thought we’d start fresh with a series of articles covering some very basic topics.  These are designed for webmasters and website owners who have heard terms but did not know what they were or did not know who to ask what they mean.

In this first article we explain the term “Search Engine Optimization”.

Search engine optimization or SEO is a process whereby someone “optimizes” a website to help it perform better in search engines such as Google, Bing and many others.

There are many tactics one can employ to optimize their website but essentially they come down to tweaking text and adjusting the code that displays the site to help it perform better online.  If you are not technically savvy but want to optimize your site, we suggest skipping the code optimization and move straight into optimizing your page text.

Code Optimization

In a nutshell code optimization refers to making changes to a site’s HTML code to help it load more quickly, doesn’t have anything it shouldn’t have, and is properly formatted for search engines.

For the most part, search engines can deal with unoptimized code, but there are examples of sites whose performance online has suffered because their site is either slow to load, or has coding mistakes.

At the very least, code optimization is done to ensure that your website has at least 2 basic components:  A title tag and what’s called a meta description tag.  These 2 tags are not visible to the person visiting your website but are very important for search engines to be able to see and read.

They are also important because these are what site visitors see when they do a search on a search engine.  On the search results page the blue link that a site visitor will click on is usually your title tag, while the meta description is sometimes used as the snippet you see in the search results below the blue hyperlink.

I say sometimes be the search engines don’t always use the meta description.  In fact often they will use a block of text from your site which more closely matches the search query.

More advanced code optimization includes externalizing or minimizing CSS and scripts, moving code blocks around to help make text appear more important on the page, and adding emphasis to text through the use of bolding, headers and other styles.

For example, we’ve come across websites whose primary page code is hundreds of lines long.  This includes large complex javascripts as well as the complete stylesheet for the site.  By externalizing these scripts and style entries into other files, and then referencing them remotely, we were able to cut down their page size to a couple hundred lines – an 80% drop in file size.  This allowed the pages to load more quickly as well as improve the relevance of the page content.

Text Optimization

Text optimization refers to adjusting your site’s visible page text so that pages on the site have a better chance of ranking for your chosen search phrases.

Sometimes optimization can be completed by merely increasing the occurrences of the phrases, while other times entire pages need to be rewritten to make them more search engine friendly

In the end you want the site title, meta description and visible text to be related to each other and have a similar message.

A note about optimization – search engines such have Google have evolved to the point that they understand similar words to be the same.

For example, they will see “car” “truck” and “automobile” as related terms, therefore you don’t have to put as much emphasis on ensuring that the exact phrase you want to position your website for is on every single page.

Other SEO Elements

Since Search Engine Optimization refers to adjusting a website to help it perform better in search engines, there are other tactics one can review and employ as needed.

For example, running an automated site crawler on your own site is a recommended step as it will help you identify broken links, images, scripts, email addresses and so on.  If your software can find broken links such as these then you can be sure that a search engine spider will also find these issues.  Having broken links of any kind on your website, whether they are scripts, images or links to other pages can have a negative impact on your site’s ability to rank well.

This software can also help you create a file called a Site Map.  You can then submit this sitemap to the search engines in a properly encoded format to tell them what your pages are.  This file can also be placed as a page on your site for other search engine crawlers to find and see.

Sitemaps are an efficient way to tell search engines of all your pages.  This will save them resources as they don’t have to crawl through your site on their own.  This can be looked upon favorably for your site, helping to improve its rankings.

Another way to help improve your sites organic rankings is through a process called “link building”.  This refers to getting other sites to link to your own.  Link building is important because search engines count the number of links to your site.  Combined with other factors, in general sites with higher numbers of links tend to rank higher than sites with a lower number of links.

This is an extreme generalization of what link building is, and one has to be extremely careful when it comes to link building because if you don’t follow the search engines very strict guidelines you could be causing more harm than good.

When you combine all these factors – Code optimization, Text optimization and link building you come to an explanation of what SEO or search engine optimization is.

What Search Engine Optimization Isn’t

When I think of SEO I tend to focus on the organic side of things – making changes to websites to help them perform better in the search engines organic rankings.

Some people like to group in things like social media and even sponsored advertising (also known as pay per click) under the SEO banner but to me, adding those additional items falls under the broader definition of Search Engine Marketing, or SEM.

There you have it.  Now when someone says to you they’ve optimized their website, or SEO’d their website you have an idea of some of the tasks they may have undertaken.

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