SEO 101: A Beginner's Guide to Search Engine Rankings

Tags: blogdesignseowebwebsites

SEO. Search engine optimization. It’s one of those abstract concepts that doesn’t make a ton of sense until you’re looking at your Google Analytics one day and wonder why people are (or aren’t) coming to your site. What search terms did they use to get here? What keywords are available in my content? How can I get them to spend more than one minute on my site?

Search engines, like Google and Yahoo!, are programmed to index everything on the Internet and add it to a giant database, then display results to a user based on how “relevant” any of these entries could be to the user’s search terms. They crawl thousands upon thousands of sites each day indexing content and determining whether a site has “good” user experience and design based on how long people spend on sites.

So what is SEO?

Search engine optimization is exactly that: optimizing your website so that search engines can display your site as high as possible on search results. This is less complicated than it might sound, as it’s actually based more on your site’s content and design in addition to how the site is coded. Search engines are smarter than people give them credit for; based on peoples’ behavior on websites they can determine how “relevant” a site is to certain keywords, what the most relevant pages are, how well the page is designed and what key information is available if the site is for a business (contact info, about us, products, etc.).

Ideally you’ll wan’t to be as optimized as you can be in terms of SEO. In 2012, 1.9 trillion search results were conducted on Google[1]. 2013 yielded more than 2.1 trillion[2], so optimizing your site to show up on top of results as often as possible for your relevant search terms works to your advantage. It’ll bring potential leads to your site, which could bring in more business. Yay!

Westminster Promotions in the top two slots of the (non-paid) search result positions for the terms “promo merchandise sunnyvale
Westminster Promotions in the top two slots of the (non-paid) search result positions for the terms “promo merchandise sunnyvale”

The big challenge in SEO is figuring out how exactly the search engines are trying to rank you. Early methods of ranking looked at HTML tags called “meta tags”, which would include the site’s description and keywords that people might use to search for something relevant to the site. Unfortunately, spammers took advantage of these and simply filled their meta tags with as many keywords as possible, and since then search engines are always refining and updating their code to make sites as “relevant” as they can.

If you write (and design) it, they will come

Good content is one of the best ways to bring people to your site, and by good content I don’t mean stuffing your content with “shoes” every third word if you run a website that sells shoes. Writing good, compelling and relevant content on your site keeps people there longer, and the longer people stay on your site, click through it and look at more content, the “better” your site will look to search engines. Bad content or content that’s obviously stuffed with keywords can keep people from staying on your site longer than a mere scan of your content, and that can push your ranking farther down on a search engine results page.

The same rules apply for good design and good coding practices. Ever visit a site whose design was so bad you couldn’t stand to be on it for more than a few seconds and hit the “back” button on your browser almost immediately? Search engines keep track of those “bounce rates” as well as the time people stay on your site, and the shorter that time interval is the more likely the search engine will mark your site as “less relevant” than a more well-designed competitor, leaving you lower on search results.

Equally as important are your coding practices and “URL design”. The hierarchy of your site’s content in terms of coding helps search engines what the most “important” content or headings are. Surrounding something with an h1 tag will indicate to the search engine it’s the title and very important, while an h2 could mean a subtitle, and paragraph tags are body copy. For URLs, if they’re easy to read, there’s a higher chance they’ll get shared by people who want others to see your page, and in return you’ll have more potential leads visiting your site, leading to more business.

One other thing to consider is the “title tag” of your page, or the text in the title portion of your HTML. Search engines will often look at the first 65-70 characters of the title tag, and everything else will be truncated and replaced with an ellipses […]. You’ll want your most important words at the front of the title so that people who are scanning search results can easily see what your page is about.

Westminster Promotions: A Case Study

Let’s take a closer look at how Westminster Promotions is represented in search results.

Close-up of Westminster Promotions in search results for “promo merchandise sunnyvale”

From a user’s perspective, note the bolded text in the titles and copy of the search results, indicating to the user that these results contain their relevant search terms. Proper coding practices allowed Google to index and display notable pages that might be relevant to the user’s needs (About, Contact, Blog, Design).

You’ll notice that Google has also pulled in text from the site that may be relevant to what the user is searching for. As mentioned before, search engines are constantly changing their algorithm to be “smarter”, and in this case they’re starting to ignore a meta tag called “description” in favor of using website copy they deem relevant to the search results. In this case, since we’re searching for promo merchandise, they’ve pulled the text from our site that says “What do flying monkeys, disc drives, and pens have in common?”

What is the search engine spider seeing exactly, though, as it’s crawling our site and what is it indexing, exactly? I used a search engine simulator to find out what it could potentially be indexing:

An excerpt of results from the search engine spider simulator

The first several characters in the spidered text are the contents in our title tag, outlining who we are and exactly what we do. Reading further in, we can see it has found our banner descriptions, navigation, and contact info.

One interesting result, though, is the list of spidered URLs. They’re neat and easy to read and not a garbled mess of letters and numbers that sometimes happens in URLs. The site was designed with SEO in mind, and as such each URL was worded with accessibility in mind.

What about what the user sees when they visit our site?

Westminster Promotions Homepage

Westminster Promotions Design page

We’ve designed our site to be straight to the point while still maintaining good, interesting design and compelling content. We didn’t stuff our copy with “design” or “promo merchandise” every third word; the practice is called “keyword stuffing”, and it’ll negatively affect your rankings.

What’s in store for SEO in the future?

Search engines constantly update their algorithms to further refine how sites are ranked by relevance. What may be considered best practice now may end up outdated in 10, 5, maybe even one year from now. If your business is dependent on generating leads from your website, it’s definitely in your best interest to keep up with these practices to remain as high on search results pages as you possibly can.

[1], [2]“Google Annual Search Statistics”, Statistics Brain.

Patti Lee-Hoffmann

"Prepared to be BLOWN AWAY with their creativity, enthusiasm, problem solving and delivery -- on the promise date! I received much, much more service than I expected and, in return, they earned my evangelical loyalty."