It doesn’t matter how good your site looks if people can’t find it. Once you’re website is designed and online, you can then begin promoting it through methods that are appropriate to your budget.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is a set of methods aimed at improving the ranking of a website in search engine listings.

It is light years away from an exact science and results do not happen overnight (despite those promising a “top ten” placement). There are, after all, only ten spots on the first page of any search engine result. That’s heavy-duty competition. One thing that everybody tends to agree on is that it requires patience, perseverance and a thick skin.

There’s evidence that illustrates Google gives new sites a “bump” in indexing (followed up fairly quickly by a settling down to a “natural” position). There’s evidence that older sites get a premium “bump” simply on the merits of being around for a longer period of time. Google uses a multitude of data centres (results may vary in a Google search depending on which data centre you connect to) and their index is constantly in a state of flux (check the total search results on any given Google search – they vary from time to time, sometimes wildly). Accordingly, half of your SEO activities will be a waiting game. If you don’t immediately get the desired results, changing your site in a fire-fighting fashion could actually hamper you, especially as you’re not always going to be sure what fire you are fighting. However, as part of an overall marketing campaign, SEO will lead to more visitors, more targeted inquires and more than likely, some new clients. And that’s what it’s all about.

It’s never been the case that people just “find” web sites and it’s become more difficult over the years. To complicate matters, most search engines don’t want you to know how to optimise your site. This is attributable to the rise in spam. Spam has made the job of getting search engine relevance harder. Over the years, spammers have abused every search optimisation trick available. When a new technique is found, spammers will jump on it, abuse it, and the search engines will respond by factoring it into their algorithms and penalising the sites that are using the technique. Search engines see anything that is done to manipulate results as cheating. Most search engines also have spam reporting forms, so if your competitor sees that you’re doing something unseemly, it’s highly likely that they’ll turn you in.

The Internet is awash in SEO information, however the best long-term option is to use legitimate and recognised techniques to optimise your site. Accordingly, you should never view SEO as the be-all and end-all to marketing your site. There are other ways to help your website’s profile.

Here are but a few search engine optimisation techniques:

1. Domain Name

If you’ve already registered your web domain, feel free to skip this section. Like everything involved with search engine optimisation, it is but a piece of the puzzle. There’s one simple point about a domain name – it helps if what you do is in your web address. It used to matter more until people starting using repetitive names. Search Engines took appropriate measures, so this is not as crucial as it once was. Google still seems to favour hyphenated names, but if you’re also going to market your web site through traditional methods, keep in mind that the more hyphens added, the more difficult it is for clients to remember your address when typing it in by hand. As usual, relevancy is the key.

You may not even have a choice about what to call your web site. Certain domains may probably be more effective in terms of search engine optimisation, but not in the real world (plus you run the risk of weakening your brand). At the end of the day, common sense has to be your guide.

Note: Any form of free hosting service should be avoided if you want to promote your web site online. Most free web host services are spam havens (get rich schemes, porn, etc) and have probably been tagged by search engines as a “no-go areas”. As such, these sites are looked upon skeptically, if they’re indexed at all. Go with a reputable web host from day one. It’ll make your overall web site management a better experience. You won’t have to worry about bandwidth restrictions and you won’t get penalized by search engines for sharing an IP address with a lot of spammy sites.

2. Keywords

Keywords are the focus of Search Engine Optimisation. When you type a query into a search engine text field, you’ve submitted a set of keywords and asked for the most relevant web pages from all the sites that the search engine has indexed.

It is important to select, and optimise your site for, certain keywords that are relevant to your web site (and therefore presumably your business). These are not simply keywords that we place in the META tags of our pages. These are the words that best describe what your web site is about. One critical point to keep in mind – you need to select keywords that your potential clients will use to find you, not the keywords you’d like to be found under. The entire mission of any SEO campaign is to help potential clients find your site, not so that you can announce to the world what you think you do. Accordingly, it’s critical before you begin to optimise your site for search engine performance that you decide which design related keywords you’re going to concentrate on. Perform searches on Google (and other engines) to see what’s what. How others are performing. Here’s some rules of thumb – the less competitive the category (based on the total number of results served) the better, and faster, results you can expect. Also, the fewer keywords that you select, the better. Search engines are downplaying META tags, and even then, are only indexing a certain number of characters in the HEAD portion of HTML documents. It’s always better to specialise, rather than casting the widest net possible. A large choice of keywords (especially if your site does not have lots of pages to “play with”) only leads to you competing with the top players of every single category that you’ve selected. Not the best idea, especially when you’re going to have to compete with people whose sites have been established longer, are probably using suspect optimisation techniques and probably have more time, and more resources than you. Better to pick your keyword targets carefully for maximum results.

3. Page Titles

When designers put together a web site, they invariably title their web pages with something that LOOKS good and is suitably artistic. This is useless in terms of SEO and promotion. This is exactly how the clickable text is going to appear in Google and other search engines. It’s one thing getting your site listed in Google. It’s another thing convincing people to click on the highlighted text. Any page title should be highly relevant to what you want to be found under.

Also, minimise the use of the words “and”, the, it, etc. Google ignores these words in a search but the use in a title can dilute keyword relevance (Google only indexes so many characters). Be selective in the categories you want to go after. Many businesses fall under extremely competitive key word searches (over 58 million results on Google). Highly competitive keyword categories also tend to be the most heavily “spammed” and attacking this category (especially if you’re just starting out) will be an exercise in futility. Better to narrow your efforts. If you have a specialty or niche – Medical Graphic Design or Medical Illustration for example – this will certainly cut down on the competition for the keyword.

It is important to make sure that whatever keyword you want to be found under is at the beginning of your title. Search engines look for key words left to right, top to bottom. Especially in heavily competitive searches and related key words. Always start with the most important stuff. Put the waffle at the end (or in terms of text on your page – at the bottom).

4. HTML Document Names and Links

The actual names of your HTML documents can have some bearing on how your site performs on search engines. It’s much easier to begin planning your site with file-naming conventions in mind, than it is to retrofit SEO solutions to a pre-built site. For example, you may have named your page featuring illustrations illo1.html or sample1.html, sample2.html, etc. Not good (unless someone is specifically looking for the term “illo1” or “sample2”). It’s much more effective to name the document “illustration-1.html” and your page on photography as “photography.html”. This gives search engine spiders something to go on when they search your site. Once you’ve named your HTML documents appropriately, it’s very beneficial to hyperlink the pages with the key word in the link. For example – many designers will set up links as follows – “see examples of my photography here “. It’s much more helpful to set up your links as “see examples of my photography”. This will then link to a document called “photography.html” that features a title of “Photography by Bob”. Search engine spiders will see this page as being highly relevant to “photography” and will therefore be more likely to serve up your page when queried for the term “photography”.

5. Image File Names and ALT Tags

Most sites contain lots of images and they will probably be named so that they make sense. This may make it easier for you to stay organised but certainly doesn’t help Search Engine spiders to index your site. It’s better to name your image files as whatever keyword you’re trying to be found under. A file called illustration_clientname.jpg is much more effective that a file simply called clientname.jpg. Many of the search engines are now starting to serve up keyword relevant image results at the top of text search results and this technique can also help you get listed there. One think to keep in mind here – while search engines love relevancy, they hate repetition. Mix it up a little. You can also use ALT tags (the text descriptions of images that appears as an image is loading into a browser and when you “mouse over” the image itself). Use your keywords to describe the image, but use keywords judicially and as “naturally” as possible.

6. Images and Search Engines

If there’s one area in which most sites hamper their search engine performance, it is in the use of images to control the “look and feel” of the site. Some designer’s sites do not have a scrap of “real” text. Not one word (and they wonder why, despite all their online promotional efforts, their site remains off the charts in search engine relevance). Some designers tend to use images for everything on a web site, including large blocks of text (and even design example captions). At the current level of browser development, web design is fairly restrictive, in terms of what fonts we can use and more importantly, how we can lay text out. Designers generally pick the same solution – creating a graphic and inserting it into the web page. It looks nice, however, it’s important to keep in mind one thing – search engine spiders are completely blind when it comes to the content of any image. Other than the name of the directory in which it sits, the file name, and the ALT tag (which we’ve already covered). The graphically depicted text does not mean anything to the search engines when it’s part of a .jpg or a .gif. Unless search engine Spiders can read them, they are uselessly irrelevant.

While search engines like Google will index links it finds embedded in graphics, it seems to prefer text links and besides, unlike a graphic interface, text links allow you to utilize keywords that are relevant to your site.

7. Splash Pages

The “splash page” on most web sites effectively kills any chance of real SEO performance. Splash pages are usually laid out the same – a logo that sits on the home page of the site and perhaps an “enter site” button underneath (despite the fact that your visitor has already entered your site by going to your address).

Your top directory page (the page that is served when someone types in your domain name only – it’s actual directory name is probably index.html) is the most important page on your web site. It is the page that Google and other search engines see as the most relevant to the contents of your site. It is vital to put keyword dense text on the page. Along with keyword dense text links.

8. Text and Content

Google loves text. As do most other search engine spiders. So you have to give it to them. Images are fine, but as we’ve pointed out earlier, search engine spiders are blind to pictures and artwork (other than file names and ALT tags), so nicely written text is a must if you want to place well with indexes and directories. Your text should be written to include your keywords (which match your page title, description, ALT tags and file names) without it reading like you’re trying to spam the engines. Overused and overwrought keywords can make it appear that your site is poorly written, so it’s critically important to keep a basic principle in mind. Once your visitors are at your site, you want to “sell” yourself through effective copy. Overused keywords will turn your visitors off, and they may just hit the back button after they’ve read a paragraph that uses the term “illustration” 15 times. Well-written copy (how-tos and tutorials for example) also helps you obtain “organic” linking (linking from other sites that is not part of a reciprocal arrangement). If a visitor to your site finds an interesting article or tutorial, it’s likely that they will link to it as a way of sharing relevant resources. That’s a big bonus in terms of SEO.

9. Linking

In order to discuss linking (the essence of the web) it is necessary to understand a few types of links:

  • Inbound links – links that are pointing TO the page/site in question.
  • Outbound links – links that point somewhere else FROM the page in question.
  • Text links – the underlined links that are featured on most web sites.
  • Graphic links – when the links is tagged to a graphic (.gif, .jpg and/or Flash) and does not feature editable text.
  • Reciprocal links – sites that your web links to, and they link back to your site.
  • Non-reciprocal links – sites that link to you WITHOUT an outbound link to their site, or sites that you link to WITHOUT an inbound link to your site.

Search engine spiders find pages by following links and adding those new pages to their indexes for deeper investigation at a later time. The text in the link helps set up the expectation of what the linked page is all about and when combined with the page title, description and keywords, helps a page be found when someone is performing a particular search. But that’s only a small part of linking, and how it relates to your overall SEO campaign. Link relevance also counts heavily in the search engine’s algorithms in which sites are more relevant for what. The number of “quality” (very important) links that point towards your site is an indication of how much your site is “respected” (a link to your site is almost considered a vote). The formula is relatively simple – The more quality links to your site, the more “votes” for your site, ergo your site must be an important source of material for your keywords.

Where linking TO your site becomes a little more complicated is the matter of WHO is linking to your site, and HOW they are linking. You want relevant sites to link to your site (in this case, websites that are relevant to graphic design) and you want these sites to link with a text link that contains one or two of your main keywords. The best kind of link is an inbound link (without a reciprocal link from your site) that is from a relevant site. Many designers already harvest PR from this basic premise (whether they realise it or not).

Another aspect of linking and page names that many people underestimate comes from within your own web site. You may have 5, 10, 50, 100 or more pages in your web site, all with varying degrees of page relevancy and SEO penetration. Each page represents a linking opportunity to your “home page” and the ability to “bump” keyword relevance.

A site map is also very helpful as it allows the Search Engine spiders to quickly add ALL your links and pages in one fell swoop (rather then trolling around your site and running the risk of missing one link or another). Important – place a link to your site map on your home page (your home page “votes” for the site map, which subsequently “votes” for all the pages in your site). Having a site map also allows you to quickly index new additions to your site, from both human and search engine points of view. While there’s no guarantee, articles and information on your site can help create organic inbound links. If your material is interesting and varied enough, people will link to it on their own accord, as they share their Internet “finds” with friends and associates.

While inbound links are the most effective, you’ll probably have to encourage people to link to their site by agreeing to link to theirs. And that’s fair enough. Known as “reciprocal linking” this too can have staggering SEO implications. The key to reciprocal linking is relevancy.

10. META Tags

META tags have been left near the end of this article because in terms of SEO importance, that’s where the discussion belongs. META tags (title, description and keywords) have become less and less important in terms of search engine relevance.

The Title META tag dictates how you page will be presented in a search and will help in relevancy.

The description META tag is how your site will be described in search results.

These two META tags are critical in convincing someone who is presented your site in a search result (along with nine others), to click on YOUR link. These two META tags need to be very descriptive, relevant and hopefully feature some form of “call to action”. Your keywords should be featured in both the description and title tags, but use them as judicially and as “naturally” as possible. Repeating keywords over and over again in either of these tags will not help your placement (there’s some evidence that it will hinder search performance) and if your site does get placed, a spammy description or title will do nothing to convince anyone to select your link over the others presented on the search result page.

That’s not to say that keywords and META tags should be avoided – just understand their lessened importance to overall SEO.

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About Europa Studio

Europa Studio is an independent design and marketing consultancy based in Bournemouth, Dorset. Since 2004, we have helped a wide variety of businesses grow and be more innovative. We provide services primarily in the areas of web and graphic design, email marketing, search engine optimisation, photography and video production.