First things first, there are two things you need to know about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO):

  1. It’s a vital part of getting traffic to your website;
  2. It can seem like a bit of a dark art. But getting the basics right is really not that hard.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, we can talk a little about what SEO is.

Website design vs SEO

A quick analogy may be helpful. Let’s say you run a small business and you had decided to publicise your services using a ‘traditional’ printed ad.

You’re going to have two distinct areas to think about:

  1. How do you make your advertisement eye-catching, and attractive to potential customers? What words do you use? How big should the ad be? And so on …
  2. How do you get your customers to see your ad in the first place? National newspaper? Local rag? Yellow pages?

If you think about it, both elements are crucial to getting the result you want.

If your ad is badly worded, or just generally looks like a dog’s dinner, you’re not going to convince anybody that you’re the right person for the job. On the other hand, you can have the most perfectly crafted ad in the world, but if nobody ever gets to see it because it’s tucked away at the back of some publication that nobody reads, you’re wasting your time.

Exactly the same principle applies when you’re creating a website.

Yes, the design and functionality of the website have to be attractive, easy to use and focused on what your potential customers need. But, just as importantly, you need to make sure that those customers find your website in the first place – otherwise all of your labours have been in vain.

And remember – fundamentally, you’ve got three ways of getting people to physically find your website – they either already know your website address and type it directly into their internet browser, they get referred via a link from someone else’s website, or you rely on them FINDING your site via a search engine.

Unless you’ve got a marketing budget that allows you to do good old fashioned promotion of your website address, then people are not going to magically know your website address – you’re going to need them to discover youand that’s where Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) comes in.

What search engines do

If you use the Internet at all, then you’ll be familiar with search engines. Google™ is the most commonly used – not only are around two-thirds of all internet searches conducted directly via or google search bars within web browsers, but Google™ also provides search results for other companies such as AOL. The other big, separate player in this area is MSN/Bing.

If you think about it, this makes Google™ very powerful – their search engine determines which websites are returned to your screen when you make a search. For commercial websites, the value of ‘ranking highly’ (i.e. being place at, or near, the top of the search results, above your competition) is immense.

Search Engine Optimisation, SEO, is the art (and it is an art) of creating your website in such a way as to help search engines understand what your site is about, and make it ‘attractive’ to search engines, thereby optimising your chances of ranking highly in search results.

What search engines want

Ultimately, all search engines want is to look after the people using their services – they want people to be able to find the information they need quickly and easily – because that’s good for their business.

This means that, in broad terms, they need to rank all websites in terms of their quality, relevance, how authoritative they are, and so on – and they have many different ways of determining these things.

Having said that, no-one (outside Google™) actually knows exactly what the SEO rules are; they are extremely closely guarded secrets. After all, if everybody knew how to rank #1 for a particular search term, then the whole system would break down.

There are some pretty well accepted guidelines though; and those listed below are just some, to give you a flavour:

  • Clean Code: Search engines like websites that are well written, with clean and well organised code, with logical structure and markup. This is an advantage that professional web designers will (or at least should) have over those with less experience;
  • Relevance: A website with well-written content, clearly focused on a particular subject matter, will be easier for a search engine to interpret. To a greater or lesser extent, all search engines are trying to match the key words or phrases used by the searcher to content in a website. For example, a search engine is likely to see an article on a web page that has six references to ‘rocket science’, interspersed with references to ‘aerospace engineering’ and a link to as a genuine, relevant article on this branch of physics. On the other hand, a page that once uses the expression “rocket science” is less likely to be of any geniune relevance to the subject, and will be ranked far, far lower in search results.
  • Credibility via inbound links: search engines want to rank highly credible, reliable and authoritative websites at the top of their search results. But how do the search engines determine if a website is reliable and authoritative? Not easy. One of the key factors that it will use to determine this is the number and quality of inbound links to that website. The principle here is that the more people who think the site is useful enough to create a link to it from their own website, the more authoritative and relevant it must be – especially if the sites creating those links are, themselves, considered to be authoritative. So, in general terms, the more links you can have pointing to your site, the better. It is, of course, a little more complicated than all that; and Google et al have seen all the tricks in the book when it comes to ‘artificially’ inflating the number of links to a website.

So, what does that mean to me?

It means that you have to think about SEO when you’re creating a website. Or get somebody else to think about it for you. But either way, do it.

… and don’t leave it as an afterthought to your design, because you will end up doing an awful lot of re-writing of content.

Here are some key tips that I use at Blackbox Web Design when planning out a new website. It’s just the tip of the SEO iceberg, but it’s a start:

  1. Think about SEO from the very start – the design and SEO need to run hand-in-hand
  2. Perform a well-thought-through keyword analysis – i.e. decide which keyword(s) and phrases you are targeting – this is easier said than done, but basically you need to be able to complete the following sentence: “I want my website to be ranked #1 on Google when somebody searches for [your search term]“. You should then create your website content around these keywords or key phrases.
  3. Optimise <TITLE> and <DESCRIPTION> tags on all pages – this is slightly technical, but nothing to be worried about. Search engines look at some data in the background of web pages that are not necessary visible to visitors. Making sure that you use your targeted keywords (from your keyword analysis) in these ‘technical’ descriptions of your site will help.
  4. Optimise all of your page content – make sure that all of your content (words, images etc) is well written, and uses your targeted keywords very prominently.
  5. Build quality links – have a plan for how you are going to develop inbound links to your site. This will vary from registering with business directories, to directly asking website owners to create a link to your site.
  6. Be prepared to wait – in areas where competition is high for your chosen targeted keywords, it can take some significant time and effort to improve the ranking of your pages/site. So don’t expect it to happen overnight.