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The worst SEO mistake you can make

The worst SEO mistake you can make Brandt Dainow

Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the process of tuning the content and coding of a website in order to maximize its listings in search engines. SEO should be part of every well-rounded online marketing program. Pay-per-click advertising is all very well, but it means you have to pay for every visitor. SEO is about getting free traffic from the search engines. Over the course of two years or more, nothing has a better return on investment than SEO. Thus, if you plan on having a website that runs for more than two years, search engine optimization should be a key part of your online marketing strategy.

I started doing search engine optimization in 1996 when Web Position (the world’s first SEO tool) was in beta. I remember receiving an e-mail from the company that pointed out that its tool would make it possible to sell SEO services to clients. At the time, nobody was doing search engine optimization, but it was instantly obvious to me that such a service would be essential if people wanted to be found on the web. I have now been doing search engine optimization for 12 years -- and in some areas I "own" Google.

The most common mistake that organizations make with regard to SEO is bringing their SEO consultants into the process too late. Many companies fail to give SEO its due consideration during a website's design phase. In fact, many companies don't give it any thought at all until after a site's design has been finalized. However, it is during the planning and design processes that SEO considerations are most important and will provide the greatest advantage.

Coding for success
The coding of a site affects search engine optimization in many ways. In fact, coding has a greater impact on a site's listings in the search engines than the site's content. Many sites -- including those of some top brands -- simply cannot be read by search engines at all. If you want to see for yourself, install the Google taskbar in your browser and start looking at the page ranks that appear when you visit various sites. Page rank is Google's assessment of the global importance of a site. It will not take you long to find major sites that have no page rank. Unless the site is very new, a lack of page rank means Google cannot read it.

The technology used to build a site has a direct bearing on search engine optimization. For example, most search engines will not read pages if a URL contains a question mark. A question mark indicates that the content is the result of some dynamic process, such as a content management system or PHP. In other words, it tells a search engine that the content is being generated automatically.

When a search engine perceives that content is automatically generated, it has no way of knowing if the content is generated every hour or only once a year. There is typically a delay of six to eight weeks between the time that a site is read by a search engine and the time at which it appears in the listings. Thus, the search engine has no way of knowing whether what it has just read will still be there when it sends a user to the page in a month or two. In short, any page with a question mark in its URL is potentially untrustworthy. It was precisely for this reason that the mod_rewrite module was produced for Apache. (Microsoft has a similar module for IIS.) Mod_rewrite enables you to lay static URLs over dynamic ones. Adding mod_rewrite to a system before you start coding it is a small job. Adding it to a large dynamic shopping site after it is running is a major headache, and may simply be impossible.

If you read Larry Page's and Sergey Brin's Stanford University dissertation, describing the algorithms they wanted to use in a search engine, you will find that a great deal of space is devoted to the analysis of the importance of pages according to their position inside the navigation structure of a website. Therefore, how you arrange the pages and how they link to each other has a direct bearing on the search engine optimization of those pages. I have used this information to look at potential site designs and, in some cases, have found that the core content would actually rank as less important than the site's privacy policy, simply because of the way links were built to the respective sections.

There are many ways of coding the same page, and not all ways are equal to a search engine. Dynamic menus are a case in point. At present, search engines cannot run JavaScript or Flash. The only hyperlinks that they can follow are standard HTML tags. You want search engines to follow your links because that is how they find the pages inside your site. It is therefore important that you create navigation structures that they can follow. Some dynamic menus can be followed by search engines and some cannot. It depends on how they are coded. Generally speaking, menus that are dynamic because of changes to CSS properties are fine. However, those in which the target page is called via programming are not. Once again, it is best to lay considerations like this down during the design brief because changing every link in the site later is expensive.

This becomes more important if you plan on having a content management system (CMS). If software is going to be writing your copy, or code, you need to ensure that what it produces is as search engine-friendly as possible. Many content management systems generate horrific code from a search engine point of view. Once again, changing a CMS after it has been deployed is a major nightmare -- and often impossible.

Early communication for optimal results
You often won't hear complaints from SEO consultants unless search engine activity is absolutely impossible (and sometimes not even then). SEOs are used to dealing with (from their perspective) sub-standard sites, sites that are barely readable by search engines, and sites that contain many problematic elements. SEOs have learned to accept such sites, and they often have no choice but to do the best they can with the garbage they are given by customers. Many SEOs have learned that pointing out problems may result in a client's deciding to go to a yes-man who will not make waves and is happy to take the client's money for a year or two while achieving nothing.

If you want to get the most out of search engine optimization, your SEO consultant should be the first person you talk to when developing a site -- before you even write a brief and start searching for potential designers. The sites that have had the most success when I've worked with them are the ones that asked me to modify their briefs to cover the requirements of SEO. The last time I did this, three of the five design agencies that had been asked to bid withdrew because they could not meet the standards required to make a search engine-friendly site. Throughout the design and construction process, I worked closely with the coders. Most new sites don't get listed by Google at all for months. Our site was No. 1 in Google within two weeks of launch.

Bring SEO experts into the discussions of what will be built at the earliest possible moment. Don't let the design agency or your own designers get their feet under the table until you have spoken to the SEO expert.

There are many elements that need to be considered during the SEO process, and these discussions often result in the SEO expert becoming the most unpopular person at the table. Such conversations often degrade into a litany of "no, you can't do that because the search engines don't like it," followed by "no, you can't do that because the search engines don't like it." Companies have to watch their favorite design features drop like flies. Sometimes designers have even gone so far as to accuse me of trying to cripple their designs. But ultimately, it is not the fault of the SEOs; they are just the messengers. They are simply telling you the way things are. When it comes down to it, if you want your site to get listed in the search engines, you have to give the search engines what they want.

Remember: Search engines do not have to list every site on the Web. In fact, despite what they may claim, they don't even try. All a search engine has to do is provide people with a list of 10 reasonably valid results from which to choose. The lesson: You need the search engines. They don't need you. Therefore, it is incumbent upon you to understand what they require and give it to them.

Bringing an SEO in after a site is finished is like deciding to do the electrical wiring on a house after you have moved in. By bringing an SEO into the site design process, you can save time and money later. In addition, your site is likely to achieve listings that it could never achieve if SEO were undertaken after the site was already finished.

Design a site for the search engines, and the viewers will follow. Design a site the search engines can't read, and nobody will ever know it exists.

Brandt Dainow is an independent web analytics consultant and the CEO of ThinkMetrics.

Brandt is an independent web analyst, researcher and academic.  As a web analyst, he specialises in building bespoke (or customised) web analytic reporting systems.  This can range from building a customised report format to creating an...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Rick Satriano

2008, August 03

I own a website called www.CRESTinvestingsolutions.com . (Computer Regulated, Engineered Stock Trading). The site uses a proven formula to indicate how many shares a user should buy or sell, if any, at any new price their shares will ever reach.
After reading your SEO article I'm wondering whether I should start all over as far as optimization is concerned. All I was primarily concerned with when the site was built was getting proper functioning of the algorithm. Thought SEO could come later.
I need to edit the content but everything will still basically revolve around the existing layout due to the calculation functions being where they are, so wholesale changes are probably not possible.
I've thought of going to local colleges and universities to get some help. I've lost my coder to his own project and I had a stroke last year, so "working on a tight budget" is an understatement.
Could you ballpark what I should be expecting to pay for well executed SEO?
I know you do this, but I doubt I'd even be able to think about your services costwise, if you even were interested in that kind of small job.
Any resources come to mind that you think could help me out? I know you're in the UK and I'm in San Diego, but I thought it might be worth asking.
Trading nearly always dramatically outperforms buy and holding. I think the automatic, one click site is important and could change the way a generation invests in stock. But unless it's seen...
It will sell for $19.95 per year and trade as many stocks as one enters into the program.
Thanks for any advice you could give me.


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Commenter: David H Deans

2008, August 02

Brandt, very insightful regarding site design impact on SEO. Thanks for sharing. I loved the after-the-fact wiring analogy. Right on!

David H. Deans
GeoActive Group USA

Commenter: Bruce McDermott

2008, July 29

Kudos Brandt, you really nailed it.

The only other thing I could possibly add is that an SEO really needs to understand the semantics and psychology of the client's buyers. Optimizing for generic search terms that occur way at the top of the search funnel can have less than sterling results. I always have to chuckle when I see very expensive PPC terms that have no conversion value whatsoever. The buyer isn't ready to buy until he's added every possible adjective he can think of onto his search phrase. That's the real power of SEO over PPC. Three paragraphs of text on a page can control literally thousands of long tail keyword combinations. Try doing that with PPC.

Commenter: Russell Rockefeller

2008, July 29

Brandt, you took the words right out of my mouth.
This is an extremely well written piece.