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April 16, 2012
An SEO Primer
It's been well over a decade since SEO became a common marketing method and yet for many, the idea of what it actually is has changed very little in that time. The fictional world of “Field of Dreams” seems to permeate the mentality more often than not and the mantra “build it and they will come,” while warm and fuzzy in the movie, leads to heartaches from site owners and headaches from ethical SEOs. Pondering this got me thinking of other misconceptions of not just the tactics of SEO but the principles behind it. It then struck me…as my inaugural SEO article for Talent Zoo, why not discuss the way to think about SEO rather than diving right in to the technical side of things? Principle before practice, so to speak. And that's exactly what we're going to do. Below, we will discuss the way to look at the three core elements of your website (from an SEO standpoint) in preparation for future articles that will cover things from a more “how-to” perspective unencumbered by the necessity to cover as thoroughly the why of it.
I note above the three core elements of a website. The exact number people divide a site into may be up for debate and personal preference (see comments below, I'm sure) but as I review a site I consider the following areas:
  1. Onsite optimization
  2. Backlinks
  3. User experience (if this one doesn't seem like a “real” SEO factor, keep reading)
Let's go through how to think about them one by one.
Onsite Optimization
When I'm thinking about onsite optimization, I'm thinking about search engine spiders. What they see.  How they see it. What they should be looking for. 
When you're looking at your website from a pure onsite SEO perspective, you need to think, “What does Google want and how can I give I to them?” The answer to this will vary from site to site, keyword phrase to keyword phrase. For example, if I search “presidential election,” I'm looking for a very different type of site than if I search “American civil war.” Google can infer that people searching the former are looking for up-to-date information on the election and its candidates and people searching the latter are likely more interested in authoritative documents that don't require the same timeliness. What this means is that on top of thinking of how to optimize the content itself, you need to think of how those phrases you want to rank for are going to be interpreted by Google.
From an onsite perspective, you need to also be considering your coding and answer the question, “How much code clutters Google's path between line one and your content?” If you view your source code and have to scroll down hundreds of lines before you get to your content, you're making Google reach. It's important to understand that bots don't have eyes and have to set the priority of your content by its position in your code. While Google's very good at understanding formatting and other code and separating that from your content, eliminating possible issues and errors and insuring that Google prioritized the right content in the right way is key.
And of course there's the optimization of your site content. Insuring that you're sending the right signals to Google that your content is a relevant source of information for your targeted keywords is a delicate dance. You need to show relevancy, but you also need to maintain quality content built for users. I've had to rewrite entire pages multiple times to generate that effect, but it's time well spent. 
You also need to understand how much content you'll need to generate. Do you need a daily blog or active resources area to keep fresh content coming or will a smaller site with a few great pages do? What would Google expect to see on a site that should rank for this phrase? Answer this question early as it'll help define your internal linking structure (how the pages of your site link together), which is also an area that needs to be considered.
Essentially, when I think about onsite SEO I think of how a search engine crawler will navigate a website, how it will assign relevancy to a page, and how it will pass relevancy and strength between the pages of the website. Consider all these points and you'll have set your site up well.
Books could be written on backlink tactics (and have been). I'm going to keep this section of the article very brief and will write more on the topic in the future; however, today I want to reinforce how one needs to look at backlinks and the principles involved.
The key to successful link building is to understand how Google looks at links. Google views a link as a vote and we need to understand that they're more like Animal Farm than a democracy in that some links are just more equal than others. If you're looking at a potential link source and think to yourself, “I trust them as an authority in my area,” then it's a great source. If not, the link may still be worth acquiring (not every link to Google.com is outstanding) but it won't be a trusted link and you'll need some of those.
When you're engaging in link building you also need to look at your strategy and ask yourself, What Would People Do? Would your site in the wild garnish 500 links that look like:
Blue Widgets
Bill's awesome blue widgets shop is your source for blue widgets, red widgets, and accessories. Be sure to read our blue widget blog to stay up to date on our new blue widget announcement.
Really ask yourself: does the web look like a list of directory and/or reciprocal links? The answer, of course, is no. I'm not saying don't submit your site to some of the better directories out there, just don't expect it to be the catalyst to the top of the rankings.
Think about the types of sites linking to you. Think of the formatting of the links (Does it look like a directory or like an editorial link or like a list?) No website will have all of a single kind of link and neither should you. In the wild, people will link the way people link and so links from a variety of different types of sites with a variety of different formats and anchor text variations is how to make it look natural. And on the plus side…you're probably having to use natural link strategies to get them, such as providing quality content, which then ties nicely into onsite optimization and…
User Experience
Oh, the pesky user. You've done all that hard work to optimize your site for search engines and now you have to consider what people do as well. The nerve.
You may be asking yourself, “If this is an article about SEO, then why is this guy writing about user experience when that's a conversion issue?” The fact is that Google can tell when your site appears for a search query; they know if you got clicked on, and while they may not know what the user did on your site if you don't have Google Analytics installed, they do know the next time that user is at Google and whether they select from the same set of results (i.e. another site for the same query) or perform a different search. If they select a different result for the same query after spending only a short period of time on your site, that tells Google they're visited and didn't find what they wanted. Now imagine if most of your visitors send that signal to Google.
What this means to you is that it's not good enough to simply rank your website; if you want to maintain those rankings, you need to attract the click and then, further, you have to make sure you keep the visitor on your site long enough to convince Google that you are relevant for that query.
While conversion optimization is always a factor for ROI, we need to look deeper and think of the people who won't convert. The high school students writing a paper on widgets, people who can't afford our high-quality widgets but visited the site, etc. We need to generate a path for these users to find something useful. In this example, I would provide a “history of blue widgets” section for the student and a “how to select the best blue widget for your needs” document or tool for the people who can't afford yours but could use some advice on what they do need. You may not be making a real-world conversion, but you're giving the user useful information and that’s exactly what Google wants them to have…and you'll be rewarded for your efforts.
Next Time…
I wanted to cover the general philosophies I approach SEO with before getting into detailed strategy articles, as it's important to understand the why before the how. Next month, we'll be discussing site structure and how to optimize it to the best advantage of your overall site health

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Dave Davies is the CEO of Beanstalk Internet Marketing. Dave has been working as an SEO since 1999 and started Beanstalk in 2004. He writes and speaks regularly on the subject of Internet Marketing and hosts a weekly radio show on WebmasterRadio.fm. for more up-to-date tips and information on SEO and Internet Marketing.
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