Posted October 30, 2006 10:30 am by with 13 comments

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By James Bowden

Everything you need to know about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) you learned in kindergarten. Really. You may already know much more than you think.

The armies of programmers that create search engines work very hard to get computers to do a bad job of what you do in the blink of an eye: make a judgment about a web page that makes sense – common sense.

This article introduces the basic ideas behind Search Engine Optimization (SEO), using concrete examples to reinforce these principles. It also aims to teach you the information needed to make informed SEO decisions on your own.

In the beginning…

First, a little history. Millions of years ago dinosaurs roamed the earth. A hop, skip, and a jump later, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) was invented. Believe it or not, HTML, was not meant to be another confusing programming language (if you do understand them, bravo). Rather it was meant to be simple to understand – a layman’s language, so simple that it’s not even programming, it’s just “markup.�

Now, if you view the source code of some very popular sites (e.g. Ebay or Amazon) things will look pretty confusing.

How can a computer language meant to be simple become so horrendously complex and confusing? What happened? How did we stray from the path of simplicity, elegance, and beauty?

Well, we web developers happened. And we happened in the worst of ways. We decided that we wouldn’t just use HTML to mark up our new-fangled hypertext. No, we used HTML as a Swiss Army Knife and tried to create pixel-perfect layouts with a simple markup language. Well, it did slice and it did dice, but it made a horrible mess. We tried to control the look of a website by throwing embedded tables, along with other atrocities into the mix. The jumble of unmatched parts would pile up until we got what we wanted or the computer started to smoke. My current score: smoke, 2; what I wanted, 13.

Yes, in the end we got a site that worked. But we ended up sacrificing our soul – the original ideal of clean and simple HTML – to do it.

HTML+CSS+SEO = The way things ought to be

Fast forward to present times and we find a culture that can, sometimes, learn from our mistakes.

My most important golden rule of SEO, is:

“Make each webpage with your user in mind, and the search engines will follow.�

Search engines try to give results that make sense. So make your web pages make sense!

While the basic rule really is that easy, there are some ground rules to keep in mind which may not be obvious.

First, remember that computers are dumb. Even the best search engines are stupid, compared to a human. You need to make it easy for them, speak their language. This means you should use meta tags with keywords and descriptions; make your title relevant, add alternate text to links and images – basically take every chance to say to the robot spider, “Here, this is what that means.� Each of these elements add extra information which may be obvious to a human but is very important to a dumb computer program. This text may not be visible to the user, but you should pretend that it is. Design your HTML source code as if that is what the user saw.

Second, this advice applies to Whitehat and not Blackhat SEO. Blackhat SEO uses tricks to fool the stupid computers. This article is meant to help them instead.

What this all means in practice

When the world inherited CSS, some designers used it to make sites pretty again. But just as important, the separation of content and presentation returned HTML to the path of simplicity and beauty.

SEO is the final element of the new equation of elegant web design. SEO helps users and robots to navigate the maze of a website’s information architecture. SEO provides signposts to guide a user forward and leaves a trail of breadcrumbs to show them the way back.

What the heck does that mean, exactly? Some examples will help this make sense.

The URL itself

Consider these two URLs:

If you were at a library, and these URLs were, oddly enough, the titles of two books, which would you be more likely to pick up? The second choice is much more natural, sensible, and informative. The URL is a label, and it should make sense. The second choice is also easier for the user to remember, write down, and tell a friend about. Can you remember the Dewey decimal number of the last library book you borrowed?

Title Tag

The title tag is one of the most heavily weighted on page SEO elements you can design for. And some people don’t even fill it in.

As an example, the title tag on this page is well-optimized:
<title>The Golden Rule of SEO | Marketing Pilgrim</title>

Make your title simple and explain in one line what the page is about. This is best for both the search engines and your users.

I’m starting to follow you, but why does all this matter?

It is important to follow the golden rule because if users find your pages clean, on topic, and helpful, they might return. Better yet, they may link to your site from another web page. This is called a backlink.

Building backlinks is an undervalued SEO concept that is overlooked by many organizations, and it’s also a main factor for determining search engine results today.

By designing your website with the user in mind you are killing two birds with one stone. You make it easier for search engines to read through and understand your site. Also you begin to build a site presence through backlinks.

These relationships are essential for any modern site. Just as in any other business, happy customers are the best kind. So work for your customer, not for a stupid computer.

[The above article is a submission for Marketing Pilgrim’s Search Engine Marketing Scholarship Contest. Each Monday in October, entries will be published and the most popular article of the week will qualify for the $5,000 grand prize. If you’d like to submit an entry, please view the contest entry-requirements and guidelines.]

  • S Burdi

    Great Article!
    Helpful and informative. Helps keep us on track. Keep up the good work.

  • “Make each webpage with your user in mind, and the search engines will follow.â€?

    Here, here. Too many people try and find short cuts, but there just simply aren’t any safe ones. Offer a great site and everything else will fall into place.

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  • A second here, here from me. I constantly read all these articles and blogs about SEO, etc. I certainly won’t try to discount the SEO whizzes abilities to get higher SE Rankings and such. BUT, it always puzzles me a bit when I see some of these sites that are at the top of the results and make absolutely no sense. What good is a top ranking site if you completely lose sight of what should be your number one goal…communicating with customers and potential customers!

  • Great Article Buddy! Keep it up!

  • Nice article. Can we go back to the simple html days?

  • Good article. I tried to share it with the masses on Digg, but I got this message: “url is on the banned submit list.” Yikes!

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  • Andy
    You are off to a good start (good intro). You have some great ideas but they can be said in less than half the space. Think about who you write to; how they can best understand it; use good logic (you can do better); use word pictures if you have space – and say things simply with few words. For each paragraph ask yourself how does this add – does it build – can it be deleted. Have a good life.

  • Hi Karl, actually James wrote the article, I just forgot to add his byline. 🙂

  • Your article is fine for someone building a brand but most people are selling services not creating brands, therefore it only helps a few people not the larger masses.

  • bulldog

    nice article dude

  • michael hall

    wicked article man