Imagine you've just launched your brand new website, and now you want to attract visitors to your site. You submit your website to all the major search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc.), and a few weeks later check your traffic stats to see if the search engines are forwarding any new visitors to your site. To your astonishment, you discover that hardly anyone has found your site via the search engines. You decide to fire up Google and try doing a search on the name of your organization, but your site does not appear until you've clicked the "next" button several times in the search results. Then you try entering keywords relevant to your organization and experience the same results. What's going on here?
A common misconception that new website owners often have is that search engines are designed to promote their website and should therefore always display it first in the list of search results. In fact, search engines are designed to return the most relevant results for a given set of keywords. The reason a particular site doesn't rank well is that the search engine doesn't consider it to be as relevant as other sites.
How do search engines determine which sites are "relevant"? Since it would be impossible for a human to look at all the billions of web pages in the world and determine which ones were relevant for which keywords, search engines use their own custom-made software to determine relevancy. This software "crawls" the web and indexes all of the pages it finds. The software relies on certain "rules" or formulas to determine relevancy, and it is not always accurate.
Fortunately, there are several techniques you can use to make your site appear more relevant to this software. This is known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). An added bonus of using these techniques is that your site will be easier to use. Let's take a look at some of them.
Provide quality content
This tip is embarrassingly simple, but it bears mentioning, since it's often overlooked by many new website owners. Simply stated, your site should provide quality content that's relevant to the products and/or services that you provide. For example, if you're in the business of selling shoes, you should provide plenty of valuable information about shoes. Writing about your dog or some other unrelated topic will probably not help your SEO efforts.
Use meaningful page titles
Each page on your site should have a meaningful page title, such as "About Us", "Our Products", "Contact Us", etc. The page title should be marked up using the "h1" HTML element, which is the element used to indicate first-level headings. You should also always make sure you that you enter the page title using the HTML "title" element. The text within this element won't be displayed on the page, but will appear in the top "bar" in your web browser. This text will also appear on search results pages, and it is therefore crucial that it be descriptive of the page it belongs to. On several occasions, I've come across sites that have missed this basic SEO technique, either omitting the page title completely or using something non-descriptive such as "Untitled".
Include alt text for images
Every image on your website can have something called "alternative text", or "alt text" associated with it. This text can be read by people who, for various reasons, have images turned off in their browser (they may be visually impaired, for example). The alt text can also be read by search engines, which helps them determine what the content of the image is. When you use the "image search" feature that most search engines now provide, the alt text is used to determine relevancy. Therefore, it is always a good idea to include accurate alt text for all of your images.
Use links appropriately
Search engines pay close attention to the links on your site. The text within a link should always contain keywords relevant to the page the link points to. For example, if you are linking to a page about leather boots, name the link "leather boots" or something similar. Try to avoid using generic keywords unrelated to the topic of the page you're linking to. One of my pet peeves are links that say "click here", or even just "here". By using these types of generic keywords, you not only make it harder for your website visitors to figure out where the link points to, but you're also wasting a valuable opportunity to use more appropriate keywords, which can help your search engine rankings.
It is always a good idea to link to other websites that are related to yours in some way. Of course, you also want to get other related sites to link back to yours. If you provide quality content on your site, you should see more and more sites linking to it. If possible, ask the owners of these other sites to use relevant keywords when linking to your site. As mentioned above, your rankings will improve if the links to your site include relevant keywords, as opposed to generic ones.
Search engine optimization is a vast topic, and the techniques used to improve rankings are constantly evolving. However, if you follow the advice above, you'll be well on your way to achieving better search engine rankings. One basic principle to keep in mind is to follow best practices and build your site according to industry standards. Also, remember to be patient. Sometimes it can take a few weeks before the search engines pick up on changes to your website.