Search Engine Optimization

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, it’s been on my mind all summer. Ever since I switched from a then 5-year old Flash site to a content management system, I’ve been more and more concerned with how my image is presented online. Not just in terms of Google rank, but also Google image.

Note: In this post I will use “Google” to represent all search engines. It’s the only one that really matters, right?

With a fairly uncommon last name, you’d think that getting to the top result wouldn’t be much of a challenge. However, just a couple weeks ago I was on the second page of results for “Oldak.” It was at that point that I decided to take matters into my own hands and see just how high I could go. For many web designers, SEO is a snake oil business which profits off the egos of others. However, there is some truth to the industry, and in this post I aim to highlight a couple of the ideas I tried that have definitely paid off. In a very short time period, I was able to get to the #4 spot, and will continue to try for the top result.

Low-hanging fruit:

The easiest steps to getting noticed by Google should be common sense.  Google employs “robots” to scour the web for content, so if the robot can’t read your site, it will ignore it.  Plain text, clear content areas, and proper headings all contribute to this.  Presenting content in a standardized way may seem boring, but Google loves it.  In my previous site, all my content was in my Flash .swf file.  At the time (I think this has now been fixed),  Google could not read Flash text, and thus my entire site was represented in Google by one result with the words “This site requires Flash.”  Not the best first impression.  With a mostly text layout, Google can quickly grab all your content and index it for potential visitors.

With a WordPress site, several other tricks were available.  A simple plugin enabled me to generate dynamic sitemaps, which told Google exactly where everything is on the site.  Additionally, the plugin notifies Google whenever I make an update.  This allowed me to quickly get my results into Google in an organized fashion.

Slightly more difficult:

After I had the initial site set up, I was still disappointed by my progress. For one thing, old results from my previous site were still coming up.  Plus, I had no actual knowledge of how people were seeing my site in search results.  Enter Google Webmaster Tools.  This free product allows you to do many tasks relating to the relationship between your site and Google.  I used it primarily to check my robots.txt file and remove old results from their index.  Webmaster Tools actually allows you to submit requests for the removal of specific search results.  In my case, my robots file was excluding them, but Google simply hadn’t checked it in a while.  I was able to get them off the results in less than a week.

Notes:

SEO is not a magic pill or golden gun.  It will not allow you to get your lemonade stand to the top result for “drinks.”  However, it will usually help you get to at least the front page for relevant searches.  Also, through the process of optimizing my site, I feel that I made it better for my visitors as well, which is the whole idea anyway.  Clear navigation helps visitors navigate your site more easily, and clear headings tell them what to read.  Most importantly, the old tricks of SEO do not work anymore.  Putting links to your site on every forum or adding 200 invisible keywords on your homepage might have worked in the past, but search engines have learned to ignore those in most cases.  The best way to get more visitors to stay longer and return is to have good content, updated frequently.  If someone’s already seen your site, what will make them come back?  And will they want to if they can’t figure out the navigation or find the content useful?

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