Intro to Search Engine Optimization
Search engine optimization, or "organic" search marketing, is a collection of techniques that when properly implemented allow your web site to achieve its highest rankings possible in search engine results pages (SERPs). Sometimes referred to as "natural" search marketing, search engine optimization (SEO) differs from paid (pay-per-click, or PPC) search marketing because when a searcher clicks on your web site's listing in the search results it doesn't cost you anything. Similarly, if you decide to stop paying for PPC ads your traffic doesn't go away.
Search engine optimization (SEO) consists of "on-page" or "on-site" techniques - those that are performed directly within the pages, design elements, navigation elements and structural hierarchy of your web site and "off-page" or "off-site" techniques that are incorporated in other web sites, blogs, social networks, online directories, etc. for the benefit of your site's rankings.
Black Hat and White Hat Search Engine Optimization
The techniques used in search engine optimization are often categorized into two primary camps:
1. White hat SEO techniques - those techniques that are performed for the benefit of both visitors and search engines that don't violate the various search engine's webmaster policies and that are designed for maximum search ranking benefits over time. Skilled white hat SEO practitioners stay abreast of the industry and attuned to what search engines consider to be disallowed practices as they develop. When you site is in danger of slipping into a search engine's prohibited or discouraged practices, white hat SEO practitioners take steps to keep you in the search engine's good graces.
2. Black hat SEO techniques - those search engine optimization techniques designed only to "trick" search engines into believing that your web site is the most relevant for its keywords and for maximum benefit in a minimum amount of time. Some black hat SEO practitioners are very clever - for a while. Once search engines realize they've been tricked, steps are often taken to penalize a site that uses black hat techniques or remove them from the search engine's index altogether. Once a web site is banned from a search engine's index it can be very difficult to near impossible to get the site re-included in the search results.
Gray hat SEO techniques fall somewhere in between, although most white hat SEO practitioners believe there is no gray area - the SEO specialist is either ethical - "white hat" - or unethical - "black hat". Using black hat SEO techniques to try to dupe the search engines into listing your site at the top of the SERPs is a short-lived approach that's similar to getting duped by a get rich quick scheme. For the most part, black hat SEO practitioners are in it for the fast buck, although some have turned to the black hat SEO community for the purpose of exacting revenge on one or more of the search engines for a prior practice that resulted in their site or a client's site getting banned or severely penalized.
Some also contend that all search engine optimization is "black hat" - the mere fact that you are doing things to intentionally improve your search rankings could be considered unethical. However, search engines have no problem with you or your SEO specialist helping them understand that your site should be considered important, provided that your focus is on your user community and not only on search results. Additionally, you can bet that your top competitors are using search engine optimization techniques, and while doing so isn't' a requirement, it can certainly help.
Why Search Rankings are Important
If you haven't realized it by now, for most web sites - big and small, new and old alike - the vast majority of traffic enters the site from a search query. Searchers are known to click the first search result that appears to be most closely related to what they were looking for when they typed in the keywords for their search. As you might imagine, the top 3 search results are looked at most closely, followed by the top 5, then the top 10. Search engines typically display results pages in groups of 10 results per page. If your web site gets a ranking in the top 10 results, your site will display on that first page. More advanced searchers have learned that they can set preferences for search results to display as many as 100 on one page, so even if the great majority of searchers won't look beyond the first page of results, it is not to say that your listing at number 42 won't attract a click.
If they don't find what they want on the first page, some searchers will go to page 2 or even page of search results. But the percentage doing so drops dramatically with each page. Therefore, the ideal result would be to get your web site within the top 3, 5 or 10 search results.
Which Search Engines are Important
In the US, the top 3 most widely used search engines are Google, Yahoo and Bing, in that order. Ask's popularity is growing, and the search engine industry is very competitive. Some have estimated that someday, Google may have as much as a 90 percent market share for search. Recently, Yahoo's search engine has become powered by Bing, so Yahoo and Bing search engine rankings are often identical now.
Although the various search engines use different factors in determining a site's ranking according to their own algorithms (formulas), there are sufficient similarities such that it doesn't make much sense to try to optimize your web site for each search engine individually. What you do to improve your site's rankings in one search engine may have a negative effect in another, but that effect should not be overly significant nor should it be permanent. Search engine's tweak and redefine algorithms constantly, which is why your SEO specialist must stay current with developments in the search industry.
Because of the overwhelming popularity and most significant market share of Google, most SEO specialists will recommend you focus your search engine optimization efforts on techniques that are the most highly valued by Google. And because of the popularity of the top 3 (or arguably 4) search engines and the fact that they will find you with some gentle encouragement, it is not necessary to "submit your web site to hundreds of search engines every month". Doing so is a waste of both time and money and if handled improperly may also get you penalized or banned from the search engines you were trying to impress in the first place.
Why Search Rankings are not Everything
While search engine rankings and the position of your web site's pages in the SERPs is very important, it's not everything. Here's why:
1. You need to consider your visitors - you should not be overly consumed with trying to please only the search engines. Your web site needs to be attractive, easy to use and contain what your target visitors want - otherwise, they'll leave quickly and won't return. Additionally, search engines (especially Google) stress that their mission is to return the most relevant and important search results for the terms used in a query.
2. You need to target keywords that will convert - while getting traffic to your web site is important, if you are operating a B2B or B2C web site, you want your visitors to convert. That is, take some desired action, such as purchasing a product, requesting more information or picking up the phone and calling you. Your site also needs to be conversion optimized so that when people do visit there will be an increased likelihood that the desired action will be taken.
3. A variety of other online marketing techniques are available - these include pay-per-click advertising or banner advertising on high traffic sites and getting traffic from social bookmarking sites like Digg and social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. If you use PPC or pay per action (you pay when someone actually converts) or even pay for inclusion (paying to be listed on a popular web directory, such as Yahoo's directory) you can probably accomplish your objectives, but your costs could be very high. And, while the social sites cost nothing more than someone's time and effort, even though your site content may go "viral" with thousands of visitors in a very short time, such visitors rarely result in a conversion and the bump in traffic is almost always very short-lived.
Using a Balanced Approach for Best Results
Using a balanced mix of white hat search engine optimization (SEO) techniques, paid search marketing and web site promotion campaigns, social media promotional opportunities and conversion optimization techniques, is the best way to drive targeted traffic to your web site, both now and in the future. Recent studies I've read and those I've conducted myself, have shown that consistent promotion through social media outlets can have a positive effect on your site's organic search engine rankings. Which techniques you use and to what extent you use each tool depends on your budget, your business, and your target audience. You'll need to determine the mix that works for you and set goals as part of your overall online marketing strategy.