SEO is an abbreviation for Search Engine Optimization. It is a way of trying to ensure your website and its content are more easily found than other non-optimized sites.
On-page and off-page SEO
There are two main forms of SEO – on-page and off-page. Search engines rank websites for particular search terms based on complicated algorithms, but experience has shown that over the years, certain actions will increase the probability of a page being ranked more highly.
On-page SEO factors begin with the choice of keywords and phrases to concentrate on. The main keyword for the page should be used liberally (although not excessively) throughout the written content on the page. The page title (both the visible title and the less obvious HTML page title) should include the keyword, as should the URL for reaching the page. Subheadings should be used, either containing the keyword or variations on the theme.
Pictures and videos should be included, and any descriptive or alternative text for the media should be based around the keyword.
In this way, the human-readable text on the page gives a strong indication as to what the page is about, as does the less obvious search-engine-readable text.
Links should be added to external reference sites as necessary, as this is an indication of a researched page, and may lead to greater authority being given to the site as a reputable resource of reliable information.
A separate summary should be written for the benefit of search engines, as the alternative is a potentially random block of text being used to describe your page to anyone who searches for it.
Lastly, the page should be tagged with the appropriate author information, along with informational tags and categories as deemed necessary.
While most of this is within your control, off-page SEO is a little harder to control. Although less relevant than they used to be, links to your site from external sites play an important factor in high search engine rankings. Further, the more important and relevant the external sites are, the greater effect this will have on your site. Simply, a random mention on Twitter will have little effect on your rankings — an article using you as a reference on a college website is likely to have a large effect.
However, this is not to discount Twitter and other social media altogether — any sign of interest in your site can be taken as a positive signal, and there is a tipping point when you get many positive signals that leads your site to be taken more seriously.
Another off-page factor again relates to links to your site, but more around how your site is linked. The key is in what is known as “anchor text”, or rather what the user sees to click on. If your website is about cars, and the anchor text from a linking site is set to “best cars on the internet”, it is informative (if not necessarily accurate) and indicates what your site is about. As this may match up with your actual content, it can be a good thing. Alternatively, if the anchor text is “cold sausages”, you are unlikely to gain any benefit by selling cars.
A negative off-site factor can be links from less-reputable sites. If you have an inbound link, even with good anchor text, from a site the search engines considered untrustworthy or even dangerous, it can have a negative effect on your ranking.
If you discover a link like this, there are tools available from the search engine companies to allow you to notify them that it is a rogue link, but these links can be very hard for a human to find in the first place and you may be negatively affected for a while without being able to find the root cause.
Wearing different hats
It’s common to refer to SEO matters (and hacking matters too) as being different colored hats. Black hat SEO tends to involve nefarious practices, links being purchased in bulk, and keyword stuffing — using a keyword so many times in an article that it becomes almost unreadable by a human. The search engines have slowly brought systems in place to weed out these practices, and most sites attempting to use these methods nowadays don’t see any noticeable positive effects — indeed, the effects are often negative and long lasting.
White Hat SEO follows the best practices as detailed above, writing naturally and including only appropriate keywords in a sensible amount. Any links to the site are built naturally, and because of this, will contain appropriate anchor text.
Gray Hat SEO is somewhere in-between. Perhaps a member of a forum is paid to drop your website name into a conversation with a link to it where it wasn’t really needed, but it isn’t out of place, so it positively affects your ranking — the gray area is because they were paid to do it, and it wasn’t completely natural.
Black Hat SEO can get very quick results, but the downside is they don’t last long, and the penalties can be devastating. White SEO is more of a long game, but the results remain steady for a much longer period of time and the likelihood of being penalized is slim.
Gray Hat SEO is a gamble and can’t truly be recommended.
Other Factors to Consider
Search engines will also look at the structure of your page code, and the speed with which it loads. If your code syntax is out of whack, and it takes forever for your page to fully appear in the browser, you’re going to need to make some changes. A fast hosting server is important, as is correctly written well-optimized code.
The bottom line is, if it’s a bad experience for the user, the ranking is going to decrease. If you put the user first and create a page that loads quickly and has reliable authoritative information, your rankings will improve, and your site will be a success.