Going organic

The fast-paced world of search engine optimization changes in the blink of an eye: What was once thought a viable tactic becomes obsolete faster than a boy band losing its record deal.

How do you keep up? Search success requires a broad understanding of the art and science of SEO. You must also know how to use the analytical tools that will help you decipher your results.

Whether you’re a kingpin, marketing maven, or a propeller-head geek like me, observing best practices will start you on your way to ranking high and steer you clear of bad practices.

A review of SEO underpinnings

As you know, search engines scour the Internet looking for the Web pages that best answer questions posed by users.

Search for the keyword “Jeep” and Google returns — in 0.06 seconds, I might add — 143 million Web pages that are relevant to that keyword. Relevancy is determined by the search engine’s algorithm.

Precisely how these algorithms work is a closely guarded secrets, but we can understand the methodology enough to gain advantage in pursuit of high organic rankings. Search engines run robots — also known as bots, crawlers or spiders — that crawl the Internet following the hyperlinks they find. The process is called spidering.

The crawler will likely begin with your home page and follow each hyperlink until it indexes every bit and byte of the information your site has to offer. The spider will also discover — and follow — new sites by hyperlinks established from one site to another.

It would be impossible for a search engine to return the results in real time, so instead they cache what they find, collecting and indexing the information from each Web page in huge computers for fast delivery when called upon by your browser.

To keep current with their indexing, search engines revisit Websites regularly to update their data sets with the new information they find. It’s been my experience that Google crawls our many e-commerce sites about every 10 days. Other search engines might take a month or more before they return, but they’ll be back.

A search engine spider is like a mad sculptor who keeps chipping away at a block of marble in the hopes of finding a statue. The spider assiduously works, nonstop, looking for whatever information it finds to be collected and indexed.

Some search engines will generate more traffic to your site than others. Google remains in front of the pack, followed by Yahoo!, MSN and Ask.com. There are some 200 general-purpose search engines on the market but, clearly your optimization efforts should be aimed at Google.

Search engine optimization

SEO efforts involve a Website’s coding, presentation, and structure — all designed to encourage search engines to spider a site and index its pages based on their specific keywords. Ensuring that content is easily indexed by search engine robots, and at the same time making the site appealing and relevant to users, are the twin pillars for e-commerce success with search traffic.

The process of SEO includes both on- and off-page strategies and tactics. On-page SEO represents all the techniques and methods used on the targeted Web page to obtain high organic rankings within search engines.

Search engines do not rank Websites, but rather individual Web pages found within sites. So each page targeted for SEO must be attended to ensure search engines find them, index them, and ultimately rank them high. Off-page SEO uses the Web’s vast hyperlink structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value.

On-page SEO is about adding finely tuned keywords and phrases to your Web pages so that they’re indexed and ranked within search engines. This in turn brings as many relevant visitors to your Website as possible.

The idea is to place keywords strategically within pages that match the intent of that page and the Website. Keywords and keyword phrases are those terms searchers are most likely to type in a search engine when looking for a Website like yours.

Although it’s common to perform SEO after a site is created, it’s best to research keywords and keyword phrases beforehand, and then build your site around them. Consider the significance of keywords when choosing your domain name. Your URL should contain your primary keyword or keyword phase.

Targeting individual keywords is a losing proposition. Searchers know that they’ll get better, more refined results with multiword phrases. What’s more, the more expressive the keyword phrase, the more targeted are the visitors to your Website.

If your Website features Jeep Soft Tops, for example, establishing a keyword ranking for soft tops is going to get you a lot of Ford Mustang convertible owners. If you diligently work with the more expressive multiword phrase (Jeep Soft Tops), you’ll earn a ranking that attracts a more targeted audience. You don’t want visitors for the sake of traffic, but rather you prefer traffic relevant to what your Website has to offer.

Off-page SEO work relies on the democratic nature of the Web by using hyperlinks from one page to the next as an indicator to search engines of an individual page’s value or relevancy. Search engines essentially interpret a hyperlink from page A to page B as a vote by A for B.

What’s more, search engines look at more than the vote itself — they also analyze the keyword relevancy of the page that casts the vote.

PageRank, Google’s algorithm and its methodology, is a numeric value that represents how relevant a page is on the Web. Google figures that when one page hyperlinks to another page, it is effectively casting a vote for the other page. The more votes that are cast for a page, the more relevant the page must be.

Also, the relevancy of the Website page that is casting the vote determines how relevant the vote itself is. Google calculates a page’s relevancy from the votes cast for it. And how relevant each vote is gets taken into account when a page’s PageRank is calculated.

Securing hyperlinks from other sites with pages that are keyword relevant weighs more heavily when trying to establish your Web pages for the same relevant keyword. So a vote from a Website page about gourmet coffee for another site’s page relevant to gourmet coffee goes far in establishing the overall rank of the second site’s organic search listing for that keyword phrase.

Same-site hyperlinking also helps index ranking, but inbound hyperlinks from other high-value sites are essential to effective organic rankings. This is the principle of Google’s algorithm, and a key driver to any SEO strategy.

Analyze this

Search engine optimization is not a program, but rather a process. A program suggests a beginning and an end, where as process never ends — and so it goes with SEO. To get the best results with your optimization efforts, you must objectively monitor your keyword performance using measurable indicators and statistics.

Google Analytics (www.Google.com/Analytics) is an excellent — and free — tool for doing just that. Google Analytics tracks all sorts of data, including traffic from all search engines. It also unearths meaningful trends and data points that speak to users’ activity as they interact with your Website. And it generates detailed statistical reports about visitors to your Website.

Solid understanding of SEO fundamental methods and best practices can help you on your rise up a search engine’s index. Hopefully, you’ll be finding your Web page listed on the first index page, ranked high and above the fold.

I remember the first time I achieved a highly coveted number-one listing on Google for a must-have keyword phrase for an e-commerce site. The thrill of accomplishment is everlasting — and the $28,000 in sales revenue it continues to generate each month ain’t bad either.

Kevin Rourke is director of e-commerce and Internet operations for Transamerican Auto Parts.