Search engine optimization refers to a number of different techniques used for building websites and the content on these sites to improve their placident in the search engine results pages.
The idea of SEO is to make your website more visible to web users who search for content with search engines (which is essentially everyone who uses the World Wide Web at all).
If your website is a personal page meant primarily for yourself and perhaps a small number of family members and friends, it may not be all that important to you to have a site which is optimized.
However, if your website is business oriented, it matters a great deal.
Think of it this way: if your business decided to stop being listed in the phone book, took the signs and awnings down and stopped advertising, how successful would you be at attracting new business?
Search engines have for many largely replaced the function once performed by local phone directories.
In order to attract (and even retain) business, you need to have a high profile where your customers are likely to see you - and these days, this place is online.
It once was that if people couldn't find you in the phone book, your business was in serious trouble. Now, of course the question is how easy it is for people to find your website.
You may have a great looking website and even use the URL in your printed marketing materials and advertising campaigns; but not everyone is going to see your advertisident in the paper.
People tend to look at web sites when they're actually in need of something and even if a potential customer has seen your ads, it's not at all certain they'll remember to go to your site immediately when they're looking for what you offer.
Instead, your potential customers are using search engines - which is why your business may need some help from a professional SEO consultant to ensure that consumers will find you when they really are looking for you.
One of the things we should look at first here is what the search engines actually see when their crawlers come to your site.
The search engines don't know (or care) about your site's design in terms of graphics (though they will read the alternate text for these images - if you don't know about this important elident of web design, an SEO consultant can help you with this).
What the search engine crawlers are looking at on your site is the actual text contained on your website as well as the information contained in what is known as the headers of your site's HTML, most notably your title tags.
These tell the search engine crawlers what your site is about - if you don't include these (or use an entirely graphics or animation based site), the search engines really can't tell what your site is supposed to be about.
This can be fatal to your site, as it basically assures that no one will be able to find you with a search engine query.
As for how the search engines determine page ranking, this is a much more complex question. The short answer is relevance: but the relevance of any given website is calculated in a number of ways.
The exact nature of the algorithms used by each search engine is different and each is closely guarded proprietary information - to further complicate matters, these algorithms are constantly evolving.
However, there are certain things which the SEO experts have managed to figure out through analysis and reverse engineering of search results and websites which are universally applicable.
This is what enables an SEO consultant to look over a website and suggest changes to the site to increase its visibility in terms of the search engines.
The alterations which can improve a site's search engine rankings include fine tuning the copy on the site to make it tune with the site's content, its meta tags or especially popular search terms which are relevant to the content.
There are other changes which will improve a site's search engine ranking which are not visible to visitors to the site.
These are changes which affect what the search engine crawlers see when they visit the site and help this to more accurately determine what the site is about. There are yet other SEO techniques which your site should avoid using.
What should you avoid?
Let's take a look at a hypothetical scenario. Suppose your kitchen wares business has a website which is doing well in the results for tea kettles, frying pans and the like.
However, you'd like to further increase traffic - how about trying to rank high in the search engine results for some other non-kitchen related search terms?
This may help to increase traffic to your site, but there are reasons why everyone doesn't do this. If SEO really worked like that, every site on the web would optimize their content for whatever the most popular searches happened to be.
There are many websites which do this simply to get you to their site by any means. This is one of the several different SEO techniques which are considered "search engine spamming" and should be avoided.
* Keyword stuffing. * Misleading redirects and link/URL cloaking. * Duplicating content between pages of a website. * Misspelling words and names commonly used as search terms. * The use of unrelated links (also known as link farming). * Or for that matter, any other technique aimed at fooling the search engines.
These "black hat" SEO methods can work as a means of generating traffic, but they only work for so long before the search engines (and the public) catch on.
Once search engines figure out what you're up to, they often respond by un-indexing your site, making it impossible for anyone to find you with that search engine.
Don't think you won't get caught either; the major search engines encourage users to report these deceptive tactics. You can get better and more lasting results with ethical SEO methods; and without having to worry about having your site blacklisted.
Is Your Site Doing Well Enough In Search Results?
Unless you're already in the top couple of results in the major engines, chances are you'd like to do better regardless of where your site stands at present.
As any expert search engine optimization consultant will tell you, SEO is a process, not a single task. It's something that you'll likely have to continue working on as your site slowly but steadily makes its way up the rankings.
This organic SEO approach is the most effective and will get you to where you want to be sooner or later; the most important thing is to ensure that your business' website is optimized for search engines.
Failing to implident good SEO practices is one nearly certain way to set yourself up for a fall. It is much like the unadvertised, unlisted and unmarked business we discussed earlier.
People who are ready and willing to do business with you will pass you by, unaware that your site even exists. Whether or not to use SEO as an integral part of your marketing strategy isn't even a question anymore - the question is how you'll go about it.
About the Author: John S. Britsios is a Web Architect & Senior SEO Consultant, specializing in Web Content Accessibility, Usability Testing, Search Engine Optimization & Internet Marketing.