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What You Don't Know About SEO

It's essential to understand SEO before you spend thousands hiring consultants you may not even need.
Quick-Start SEO

Think of Google, Yahoo, Bing and other search engines as customers, and each page of your site as a box. Your customers want to know what's in the box, what shelf it's on and the address of your store. Simple, right?

Google lays out the nitty-gritty on best way to do that in a downloadable Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide as well as on its Webmaster Central pages. But here are some quick-start tips.

  • Find it. Every page of your website has an address, or URL. When possible, keep the address short and clean--without equal signs, punctuation characters or underscores--and use detailed keywords that are relevant to the page. So example.com/buy-blue-hats-on-sale is better than example.com/cgi-bin/gen.pl?id=4&view=blue_hats_are_on_sale
  • Flatten it. All pages need to link to one another--but you want to keep things as "flat" as possible, meaning that each page can be accessed with only one or two mouse clicks.
  • Name it. You might overlook the title bar atop each browser window, but search engines don't. Give each page a concise, unique, keyword-driven title. If you sell knit beanies, don't title your page "Keep your head warm."
  • Explain it. In the description field, enter a few sentences about the content of that page. Think of it as the text in a catalog. What makes your blue beanies special? Are they alpaca wool?
  • Map it. Your customers would really love to have a map to all the boxes in your store, called an XML site map. Don't know XML from an X-Box? No worries. There are plenty of software programs that can do the job.
  • Tag it. You'd be confused if this article didn't have a headline, right? Without an h1 heading tag on each page of your website, search engine crawlers have trouble understanding content, too.

The Optimal Optimizer

So you've decided you really, really, really don't want to do your own SEO. Fine. Hire a consultant. But here are five questions to ask before you sign a contract--or a check.

  1. "Do you have any references?" Get names, numbers and examples of past work. And actually check them.
  2. "What results can I reasonably expect and how long will they take?" Demand a detailed game plan and don't accept vague answers. Shut the door on anyone who promises the No. 1 spot for a certain keyword or claims to "know a guy at Google." They're lying.
  3. "What is your experience in my industry?" You wouldn't expect a barber to know how to fill a cavity. So why would you expect an SEO team that has worked only with nonprofit science foundations to understand your fashion boutique?
  4. "What techniques will you use to achieve my goals?" Listen for warning signs of "black hat" tactics. As a trick question, find out if your potential "expert" spends a lot of time working with keyword meta tags. If so, you know this isn't the right person for the job.
  5. "How often will we communicate and by what means?" If you expect instant responses to 3 a.m. e-mails, make sure your consultant isn't a monthly conference-call kind of guy.

DIY Web Diagnosis

These free online tools measure your SEO efforts without the $300-an-hour consulting fee.

  • Google Analytics - Install a snippet of code and receive a wealth of information about people clicking into your site, including visitor data by location, search engine phrases they used and which pages they visit most often.
  • Yahoo! Site Explorer - Racking up links from other websites is critical to SEO success. This service from Yahoo monitors the number of links to your site and where they originate. You can also view who's linking to your competitors.
  • Xinu - This simple tool runs a battery of diagnostic tests on your site in a matter of minutes. Just enter your URL and it will grade your title tags, keywords and show you how many pages and pictures you have indexed on Google images.


Erin Weinger is publisher of Style Section L.A. and a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times image section.


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