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SEO That Works

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C Clarke

The exact mechanisms Google, Yahoo! and others use to weigh up each site are famously secret. Like the recipe for Coca Cola, they’re keeping it under their hats. This has led people to think Google’s ranking formula is magic; and where people see magic you’ll find a lot of superstitious advice on how to win Google’s favour.

Although Google’s formula is indeed secret, it doesn’t really matter. A little understanding of how the web works and a dash of common sense go a long way.

Embrace The Web

The web is built on links. If you want a high profile, you need to link to others and have others link to you.

It’s about helping Google help you. If they’re looking at two sites — one linked to from all over the web and linking to lots of other sites, the other neither mentioned nor linking anywhere — which are they going to think brings more value to the web?

So links in and out are important. The more links, the better — that’s why fraudsters who build fake banking sites put up thousands of links, often pointing to their other phony sites. If you’re unsure whether or not to include a link, put it in.

You also want quality. The higher the profile of the site at the other end, the more you bask in their reflected glory. If you link to a source of information, link to the best authority you know (think Reuters, not Celebrity Hack). And Google’s going to show you a little more respect if Reuters links to you.

See Your Site As Search Engines See It

Google doesn’t see your beautiful layout with the gorgeous background images and careful choice of fonts. Google sees the raw XHTML — try turning off images and styling in your browser to get a better idea. It can only understand your site in so far as it conforms to the formal specification.

What does this mean? Three things: your site’s markup should be valid, semantic and sensible.

Markup is valid when it conforms to the specification. The best way to tell whether your site does is to use the W3C’s online validator. Having invalid markup is like jogging with broken shoelaces: you can just about do it but your life would be so much and so easily improved with new shoelaces that you’d be crazy not to fix them.

Markup is semantic when you meaningfully tag each piece of information. Eh? Each element has a specific meaning, e.g. h1 describes a top-level heading, and should be used accordingly. So make sure that every piece of information on your site is tagged appropriately.

Markup is sensible when your page is structured with the most important information first. Many sites have a sidebar on the left and the main content on the right. Despite the page’s appearance, the sensible way to code it is with the main content first and the sidebar’s content second. Then search engines reading your page get the good stuff first. Remember that the way your site looks in a browser and the way it looks to Google are two different things.

Be Up To Date

Let’s say you want to go out for dinner. Are you going to choose the restaurant whose chef regularly updates the menu with interesting, innovative dishes — or the one that’s served the same old food since 1991?

Similarly Google’s going to rank sites that regularly add new content much higher than sites that sit there going stale. So you need to add new content frequently.

As with anything else, the easier it is the more likely you are to do it. Don’t edit your XHTML by hand; set up a blog. That’s what they’re for.

In A Nutshell

SEO isn’t voodoo. Simply put, search engines rank valuable sites higher.

What’s a valuable site on the web? One that improves it. One that contributes.

And how does a site do this? It plays its part by linking up; it describes its content meaningfully so search engines can understand it; and it regularly contributes to the web with fresh content.


Great article! Looking forward to the rest of the series :-)

Olly • 25 May 2007

Andrew Stewart • 25 May 2007 • SEO
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