Every time I see the term "SEO," I cringe a little. It stands for "searchengine optimization," a supposed service offered by many "SEO companies." Such companies claim to be able to boost your Web site up the pages of major search engines so customers can find you. To a limited extent, they can help. Most Web sites are so poorly designed that they almost defy search engines to look through them, a process known in the trade as "crawling."
The SEO will give you sage advice about changing your site so "crawlers" can do their work properly. Those initial big changes give you an immediate and perhaps even sensational lift up the results pages, and you're impressed. But that surge soon levels out, even if you're still paying the SEO. SEOs work like diet centers; the first big results keep you coming back even after the scales no longer move.
SEOs thrived for years by trying to outguess search-engine technology. In the early Web days, search engines were primitive and rated Web pages by simple standards. For example, they might "uprank" a page that had many keywords close together on the page, on the assumption that such a page had to contain really great information. SEOs quickly capitalized on this by installing hundreds of keywords in hidden places on the Web pages, places that wouldn't be visible to users, but would be picked up by the search engine crawler. The search engines figured that out and adjusted for it.
Through many such cycles, the arms race intensified. Today's major search engines, such as Google, Yahoo! and Ask are highly sophisticated and might rate pages by a hundred different characteristics, the importance of which may change from month to month. In short, no SEO has a magic formula for raising page rankings. But they'll work hard to convince you they do.
Search engines aren't entirely black boxes. It's possible to help your rankings by doing simple things. For example, you can expand your keywords. Instead of using the generic "shirt", you might use "tie-dyed T-shirt." It also helps to sprinkle your keywords in the body copy of your pages, so that "tie-dyed," "T" and "shirt" as well as "tie-dyed T-shirt" appear in more than one place. It also helps to make sure all your pages are connected together with simple links. There are other tips, available from thousands of sites on the Web. Submit-it is just one (www.submitit.com).
In particular, there are two things you must do to help yourself. The first is easy and quick: Create a comprehensive title for every page. I still see supposedly commercial sites with page titles like "Page Four." Not good. A title for an accounting firm page might be "Accounting for small and medium-size businesses." Search engines pay attention to titles.
The second, and perhaps most powerful, thing you can do is also the most time-consuming and demanding of imagination. You must get other people to link to your pages. Ever since Google came up with this measure of a page's worthiness, it's become a major factor in searchengine optimization. Getting friends to link to your page isn't enough. You need to mount a networking campaign to get bloggers and others interested in your company and your site.
To do that, you need to generate continual streams of new content that other people want to read. It's hard work, but your page rankings will jump correspondingly. Most companies treat their Web sites as static brochures, and their page rankings suffer for it. Treat your site as an exciting destination, and rankings will rise. Search engines, after all, are in the business of directing people to interesting sites.
Skeptical? Try a Google search for "Web design." Web design is a massive industry, but one site will always emerge in the top five, and usually at the very top: Web Pages That Suck, a site by Vincent Flanders (www.webpagesthatsuck.com).
Flanders has done nothing out of the ordinary to warrant that placement, and he certainly doesn't pay an SEO to get it for him. But he's done the small things well. He has good content, a provocative title on each page, and he has hordes of Web sites linking to him. Over the years, his site has bubbled its way to the top of major search engines, a place many desperate site owners would kill to possess. See if your SEO can explain why you're not on top, if Vincent Flanders is.
If a pesky SEO still persists in following you around, do a Google search for "SEO" and see where that company sits in the rankings. If it isn't at least on the first page, why listen to their pitch? A marketing company that can't market itself isn't my idea of a worthy vendor.
Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.