Introduction to SEO

If you've ever worked for a business that has a website, you've probably heard the acronym, "SEO", floating around. You may have had a general idea what it means (and for those of us who don't, it means "Search engine optimization"), but you may have dismissed it as arcane magic beyond your capability as a computer layperson to comprehend.

I've got good news and bad news for you. The bad news first: it is essentially magical, in the sense that no one really fully understands how search engine rankings are computed. And the good news: through trial-and-error (and some educated guessing), humans have collected some best practices that we can use to encourage Google and other search engines to look favorably upon our websites. And the best news of all: we're using these to help people discover you online.

This is in no way intended to be a comprehensive explanation of SEO best practices, but rather a set of high-level guidelines that will help more people (and more of the right people) find your website. 

Rule 1: Write content about your area of expertise.

Here's a short (probably oversimplified) explanation of how search engines work: when you type something into a search engine, let's say, "cat videos", the search engine will look through its index of sites and find what it thinks are the best results for that phrase. And usually they do a fairly good job -- you're unlikely to see sites devoted to mustache grooming techniques show up highly in the results for "cat videos". So if you're an IT specialist in Atlanta, and you want people to find you when they search for IT specialists in Atlanta, make sure your site has content containing words specific to your profession and location. 

Rule 2: Place keywords in strategic places.

The content you put on your site is important, but so is where you put it. Search engines give more weight to page titles, URLs, and page and section headers when they check to see whether your site matches a given query, so make sure they contain the keywords for which you want to rank highly on search engines. In the personal website case, if you have a custom domain, make sure your domain is as close to your full name as it appears on your business card as possible.  

Rule 3: Get other sites to link to yours.

Text matching only goes so far in helping search engines determine your relevance for a given search phrase. So search engines came up with another way to determine relevance - they count the number of links, as well as the quality and relevance of that sites linking to yours and the text of the links to determine how many people point to you as an authoritative source for that query. This is a simplified explanation, but you can see why it's important for you to get other sites (in your general market, industry, or locale) to link to you with text that includes the keywords for which you want to rank highly. But it's better to simply produce good content that attracts a following of people who link to you on their own, which brings me to my next rule.

Rule 4: Create good content, and links will come.

A lot of the discussion around SEO is site owners essentially asking what they need to do to get search engines to rank them highly. The reality that we have to accept is that SEO isn't as easy as checking items off a list, no matter how much we might want it to be. We are at the mercy of very powerful, very intelligent (and sometimes very fickle) algorithms that give and take our traffic away without apology. Attempts to game the system through questionable SEO tactics yield temporary advantages that are only an algorithm update away from being erased. The only sure bet in the SEO game is to create good content. People naturally read, share, and link to good content, and search engines see that and reward the author with traffic. There's a little bit (OK, a lot) of self-promotion required to get the wheel turning initially, but once you have good content and a strong base of followers who come back regularly for more, search engines will reward you with higher placement for keywords and phrases relevant to your area of expertise.

Note about LinkedIn: If you imported your LinkedIn profile, it is important that you create as much other content on your website as you can through an expanded summary, FAQ questions, blog posts, and any other content not currently on your LinkedIn profile. Google and some other search engines will hide search results they consider to be duplicative (having the same or very similar content) so to minimize the risk of this happening, add as much content as you think makes sense. 

Rule 5: When in doubt, do what is intuitive.

There are many factors that affect SEO that I haven't listed here, and probably more that we don't even know about. I often hear people ask "What will this or that website edit do to my SEO?" Because the answer is very rarely certain, there is a lot that we're left to decide on our own. The rule I want to impart unto you is this: If you have two choices, pick the one that feels more intuitive. Search engines ultimately strive to provide us with the results that we would naturally choose on our own, so build a site that you would choose based on its relevance to the keywords you want to target.

We encourage you to read further on some of the SEO discussion boards to get deeper and more current information about SEO, but we hope this gives you a good starting point for understanding how to optimize your website.

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