SEO: Learn It, Love It

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Last month I wrote about the online advertising practice of paid search. I said it can be expensive, and measuring its ROI can be a headache. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way to get people to your site without having to spend all that money? The good news is that there is. It's known as search engine optimization (SEO).

To do SEO right, you need to design your site from the ground up with optimization in mind. In the next few columns I will go into the nuts and bolts of SEO, but it's important first to understand the whys and whats of SEO because they will drive the hows.

Just to get my bona fides out of the way, feel free to Google BMW Motorcycle parts or even something model-specific like BMW R1150RT parts. The top result for both searches is the dealership website I manage. For three years it's been in the top position for just about every keyword related to BMW motorcycling, and if it's not No. 1, it's in the top five. It's even been above the corporate site for the search term BMW Motorcycles (BMW now makes sure that doesn't happen).

This is good for us because most people looking for something online start with a search engine. Each engine has its own methods of "discovering" sites. An automated Web-surfing program called a robot goes from page to page, indexes what it finds and follows all the links that it finds to the next set of pages, over and over again in a process called spidering. Each engine also has its own method of creating search engine results pages (SERPs).

When website builders talk about their SEO, they use the phrase organic results, a term used to separate pure search results from any type of paid search campaign. All website owners want to have good organic results for the primary search terms that describe their business. Or more correctly, they want to rank at the top of the SERPs for the keywords entered by their customers. There's a huge difference between driving in traffic and driving in shoppers.

As you launch your site keep in mind that even if you do a perfect job with your SEO efforts, it's going to take a while for your site to show up at all, let alone near the top. New sites are hard to locate, and it's going to take a while for the search engines to find you. All engines offer a registration process during which you can request to have your site indexed. Even after you're indexed, you may end up spending several months in a type of limbo while you're being deemed legitimate.

Ideal vs. Reality

The Holy Grail for the Web would be something called the Semantic Web in which website builders could tag their sites, pages on their sites, or even terms on the pages to remove all ambiguity. Search engines then would not have to guess how to index your website, and theoretically there'd be much better search engine results.

Unfortunately there's a huge number of scammers out there who are more interested in pushing adult toys, Mexican Viagra and naked pictures of Paris Hilton. They would cram into their websites semantic information that has nothing to do with the crap they're selling but would yield high search results.

It's mostly because of scammers that search engines virtually ignore semantic information. Instead they rely on keyword pattern matching, relevance ranking and other more complicated algorithms that analyze intrasite as well as intersite link structures to determine, at best, worth and, at worst (and more often), popularity.

Yes, this stuff sounds complex, but if you want to get your site on top and make bags of money, you're going to need to understand it.

Now that I've provided a bit of context, let me say it all boils down to content. And it's not just what you say, but how you say it.

Next month: how to speak in a language the robots understand.