The search engines supply massive amounts of traffic to millions of websites. If you can get your site listed on the front page of the Google results for a popular search term, you can get more traffic than you know what to do with. The process of optimizing a website for the search engines is called search engine optimization (SEO.)
SEO has two components; on-page and off-page optimization.
On-page optimization means ensuring that your website is set up in such a way that the search engines are able to work out what it’s about. This means making sure that your chosen keywords appear in the right places on your web pages.
Off-page optimization can be summed up as getting backlinks. Every link to your website is seen as a vote for your site; generally, the more backlinks you have, the better.
SEO is made to sound more complicated than it really is. You can learn most of what you need to know about on-page SEO by submitting your website to one of the online SEO tools like WebsiteGrader, and implementing the changes they suggest.
Another useful tool is a plugin for Firefox called SEODoctor. This shows up on the status bar at the bottom of your screen, and tells you how well the web page you’re on is optimized.
There are around 150 factors which influence the ranking a web page will attain in the Google search results. Google changes the priority of these factors from time to time, and SEO experts disagree about the relative importance of most of these factors. Fortunately there is broad agreement about some of the most important ones.
The domain name
The page title
The page heading tags (H1,H2 and H3 tags)
The page description
Each of these should ideally contain your main keyword at least once. On the other hand, you should avoid keyword stuffing – that is, repeating the keyword unnecessarily for the supposed SEO benefit. The search engine algorithms have been tweaked and refined over the years, and they can easily detect this and penalize your site.
As I mentioned, this is mostly about getting backlinks. Generally, the more backlinks, the better.
However, backlinks are not all equal; some are more equal than others. For example, a backlink hidden away on general purpose directory site has nowhere near the weight of a prominent link on a high traffic website like the front page of the CNN website.
You can arbitrarily divide backlinks into three (arbitrarily-named) categories:
Level 1: A backlink from a highly-relevant page on a high-authority site
Level 2: A backlink from a non-relevant page on a high-authority site or a backlink from a highly relevant page on a low-authority site
Level 3: A backlink from a non-relevant page on a low-authority site.
An authority site is a content-rich website, usually based on a single theme. These are usually large sites with many web pages, and are seen by the search engines and the site users as being accurate, reliable and trustworthy. Examples are:
There are also authority sites which cover a multitude of topics. Wikipedia, About.com and eHow.com are highly trusted by the search engines, and consequently have thousands of pages which rank in the top 10 search engine results.
The search engines have developed their own ways to measure the authority of a website – or more accurately, the authority of a web page. Google uses a proprietary formula called Page Rank – named after Larry Page, one of the founders of Google. Yahoo uses its own formula, called Trust Rank.
Page Rank (PR) is a number between 0 and 10 which is calculated for each web page in Google’s index. It works on a logarithmic scale, so the higher the Page Rank, the more authority a page has. Page Rank has an influence on search engine ranking, but it is not the only factor involved. You will often see web pages outranked by pages with lower Page Rank.
Page Rank flows between links, from one page to another. If you have four outgoing links from your home page, each link would pass 25% of the Page Rank.
For a more comprehensive discussion on Page Rank, you should read this blog post by Matt Cutts: http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/pagerank-sculpting/
Matt Cutts works for the Search Quality group at Google, specializing in search engine optimization issues.
Backlinks for Visitors or Backlinks For SEO?
If you can get a backlink from a page which gets a lot of traffic, it’s inevitable that a percentage of the people who see the page will click on the link. At the same time, a backlink from a high traffic/high authority page is seen by the search engines as a strong vote for your website.
A number of strong backlinks results in a higher ranking in the search engine results, which in turn means more traffic. More traffic means more people seeing your site as an authority, which means more people linking to your site, which drives your search engine results higher.
The search engines provide so much traffic that it’s inevitable that some people will try to ‘game’ them. One way of doing this is to use automated software to create thousands of backlinks quickly. The problem with this approach is that the search engines may decide that you are trying to manipulate the results, and drop your site in the rankings (or ban it entirely.)
The solution is to build backlinks ‘naturally.’ This simply means that you should build backlinks slowly and steadily over a period of time, rather than en masse. It also means that you should have a sensible mixture of Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 backlinks. Most sites will naturally end up with a pyramid-shaped backlink structure – a small number of Type 1 backlinks, a couple of dozen Type 2 backlinks and a large number of Type 3 backlinks.