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January 20, 2009

The WHY of Search Engine Optimization

There are many articles written on the HOW of SEO, covering the many and varied aspects of the art of improving your site’s position in search engine ranking pages (SERPs). Whilst most people have heard the term “search engine optimization” and have a vague appreciation (or apprehension) of the hoped-for outcome, surprisingly few people seem to really understand WHY it is absolutely essential.

That includes a depressing number of website designers, some of whom actually tell their clients that SEO is a waste of time and money, and that it’s quite unnecessary these days because Google is smarter than ever before… Au contraire – it becomes more and more critical every day, as website numbers expand exponentially! Lack of knowledge is not confined to website designers, it also includes a number of wanna-be SEO firms who make outrageous claims about their special relationship and affinity with Google etc, but have little idea of what it takes to consistently succeed in attaining Top 30 rankings.

Be very aware that in most cases website design is taught as an Art, not as a Business discipline. Website designers are rarely taught anything about search engine optimisation, and few are interested in mastering the skills required to produce optimal results. That’s all very fine and dandy – but it leaves a lot of website owners desperately disappointed in mediocre results! You’ve probably heard the analogy about building a shop in the middle of a forest too, I bet? Seriously, it really does not matter how beautiful the site is – if no one finds it, then it’s just a gorgeous waste of virtual space.

Content is Still King

Regardless of the various conflicting opinions, Google conspiracy theories and misinformation, it comes down to a very simple concept – content quality, and accurate content classification.

Content is where many sites fail dismally! The sites that thrive are those with well written, well organised original, interesting and useful content. Don’t copy other peoples stuff. Aside from being illegal, at best it immediately downgrades you to second best… As a general rule, from an SEO perspective, bear in mind the most fundamental issue – Google loathes duplicate content!


There are literally millions of websites, each competing for viewers in a particular niche. Reasons for their existence vary across the A to Z spectrum – advertising, entertainment, comedy, educational, humour, informational, music, news, promotional, sports, wine, video, zoos… you get the picture, right?

In the world of books we have the Dewey decimal classification system. Every published work is assigned an ISBN number, and libraries classify all books under a rigid hierarchical subject classification system. It’s not perfect, but it works pretty well because every one uses and understands it! Erudite people write insightful book reviews, which are sometimes included in advertising and promotions. Hold this thought, its relevant to a following section. You want to find a book on a particular topic, or by a specific author, you do a search and Eureka! You’ve found it, there’s a list, even! The best books are reviewed multiple times, and take pride of place in the “best sellers” rack.

Relevancy Ranking

Using different terminology, search engines are trying hard to do the same thing – to give their searchers the most accurate list possible, containing exactly what they want, so they can pick and choose from it! Unfortunately, there is no Dewey classification system on the web. The closest thing to a hierarchical subject listing is the Open Directory, Yahoo, or one of the thousands of other web directories – all of which are inconsistently organised into completely different illogical structures!

So, here we have Google and other search engines trying valiantly to index and categorize the billions of pages on millions of websites, in hundreds of countries in a multiplicity of languages. Then, they have to calculate each page’s relevance to specific search queries…

Are You Helping or Hindering?

That’s where YOU come into the picture… It’s a big, big task – have you made any effort at all to help Google to help you? Or is your website fuzzy and unfocused, with no clear statement of content or purpose? In most cases, sites are constructed with vague intentions to do SEO as an optional extra sometime in the future… What, you want Google to do everything for you?

Done Any Homework?

Do you have any idea how your primary audience searches for the information, products or services you offer? Do the pages on your site describe your content using terms your clients use? Because that’s the only way Google can match searchers with relevant content! What? You actually forgot to do any market research before launching the site? You have no accurate, researched, hard data on the keywords your potential clients would use? You asked your friends at work for ideas? Absolutely incredible!

Let us pretend you’re looking for clients for your small bed & breakfast business in Christchurch, New Zealand. You are optimistic that potential customers in New Zealand, Australia and the UK will be able to find your website amongst the millions of competing B&B pages on the web, be convinced by your persuasive advertising copy and elegant pictures… you’d also like them to come and book directly with you, to avoid hefty commission payments on the dozens of B&B Advertising Directory sites who also want you to pay to advertise! Dream on!

So You Want Google To Work For You?

You’d really like Google et al to help connect your potential clients to your business via Search Engine Results Pages by making your site No.1… And you certainly want “qualified” traffic from Google, visitors who are specifically looking for exactly what you offer!

Anyone who thinks they can survive online without Google, Yahoo and MSN is either a thoroughly well-rounded idiot, or is a household name who does not need to advertise to generate qualified traffic. There is no middle ground.

But here’s where it gets hard! How will Google do that?  What solid information have you provided Google in your on-site content, and in the off-site links to your site? Have you got a Domain Name which encapsulates your business type and location; Or a cryptic name, like; Of the two, which is most likely to give the SE its first clue as to what you site is about?

What is On-Site SEO

Think about it this way… Does your home page have an explicit and accurate Title that provides a direct and unequivocal statement of the site’s business purpose in 70 characters? Does the Title say “Bed & Breakfast Accommodation, Christchurch New Zealand” or does it say “Welcome to Dusty Lodge” or something equally asinine?

Does your home page have an explicit and accurate Description that provides a brief outline of your business purpose, unique selling proposition, and call to action, encapsulated in 150 – 200 characters?  Or does it contain some vague warm and fuzzy drivel about beaches and sunsets?

Keep the book analogy in your mind, and take a look at your Home page, particularly the first heading and first paragraph… “Welcome to my website” is not a productive approach! What does it tell your visitors about you? It tells me that you are at best naïve and both you and your website designer need SEO counselling! And think about that first paragraph… is it an accurate summary of the site’s reason for existence? Eliminate that fruity, cheesy, fluffy verbiage immediately!

If your website is required to deliver a return on investment, particularly by selling products or services, or delivering customer service, informing or entertaining, your really need to accurately describe your website’s content, and allow it to become visible online. What’s that I hear? Oh, you want it to make you rich as well? But you don’t really want to make a serious commitment or effort to do the job properly? Right… good luck with that! And remember that old GIGO acronym – “Garbage In, Garbage Out!”

What is Off-Site SEO?

This may surprise you, but some people are dishonest about their site content. Frankly, some people handle the truth in a very awkward fashion indeed… Telling Google that your site is about Pamela Anderson, when its actually selling Bart Simpson comics, is deuced annoying to the people who visit it! Therefore, Google and other SE’s decided long ago that some external verification of every website’s content would assist their efforts to deliver the most relevant SERPs to their clients. Makes perfect sense to me…

How is this achieved, I hear you ask. Well, you’ve heard of links, right? Back to the book analogy – think of good links as being like a series of book reviews! What if lots of people are writing positive things about your site? What if multiple, external, widely distributed sites are all saying that your site is about “Bed & Breakfast Accommodation Christchurch NZ” huh? The balance of probability that your site is relevant to such a search is positively impacted by this external confirmation! A coincidence of keywords in on-site content and off-site links reassures Google immensely! Those keywords in the off-site links are referred to as anchor text, and should form the link title.

No, Its Not Rocket Science

Frankly, search engine optimisation, in the pure sense of the term, is not particularly difficult to understand, or to do. The aim of the search engines is to provide their customers with the content most relevant to the search they are making. Therefore, your salvation lies in making your content relevant to the known searches! Do some thorough keyword research, learn and understand your target audience’s searching behaviour. Plan pages that target specific, high-volume, low competition search phrases.

Don’t be vague, don’t waffle, and help Google to help you. When the economic gravy pot is bubbling merrily, and there’s ample business gravy slopping over, even the mediocre get a share.

But when the economic ice age casts midnight shadows at noon, and credit wolf packs softly pad the empty streets, howling balefully at the waning moon… When you’re sucking the last congealed streaks of business gravy off your tarnished spoon… Ask yourself – can you afford your website to be 2nd rate, disorganised and inarticulate, with the Why of SEO ringing in your ears?

Author’s Bio:

The SEO Guy, aka Ben Kemp, is a veteran search engine optimisation consultant with a decade of SEO experience and website design accumulated in 20+ years of work in the IT industry. The SEO Guy’s Blog provides advice on SEO and website design issues.

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8 Responses to “The WHY of Search Engine Optimization

    This is a very informative one. I found it interesting and a great source of ideas regarding on SEO in relation to web design industry. You are really doing a great job. Thanks and keep posting.

    avatar The Wizard says:

    Well said there is tremendous amount of public education to be done.

    It is high time we in the industry try to educate the web site owner to talk to the SEO first. what is the point of good design without traffic.
    How often do we have to be the bearer of bad news to the client with the new web site your going to have to do some redesign for your seo

    avatar Pavigreen says:

    Good Article, but I would also would like to hear about the future of SEO.

    Recently I have heard of some tremendous changes in Google results and user’s behaviour.

    A few people may appreciate Google’s new “preferred sites” experiment, and if so, the feature could become standard. How do you feel about it as a Google user – and as a site owner or member of the SEO community?

    It seems that Google believes its concept of preferred sites can be applied to movie reviews, sports scores, and blogs, as well. A help page implies that these wires won’t get crossed, saying, “Results from your preferred sites will show up more often when they’re relevant to your search query”.

    Please, Keep writting on SEO and its future.

    Incredibly good article offering the basic clarity we all need in this cyber world of vagueness. The article makes clear the importance of strait forward clarity in the representation of a particular site. For reasons unbeknownst to me, we have created an adversarial relationship between site owners and search engines, and that’s very incorrect. Both the owners and the engines have the same goal … qualified traffic to a site. Bottom line is if your site needs unqualified hype and vague suggestions to generate traffic, it probably needs a lot more than that. It may need improvement or maybe rebuilding, but ya know…. sometimes your site just needs…. well… a new site. Thanks for the good article. -Tom

    avatar Why Worry About Search Engine Optimization says:

    […] I’ve found a great article by Ben Kemp over at SiteProNews, that does an amazing job of explaining why to bother with search engine optimization. The WHY of Search Engine Optimization […]

    […] Not another article on SEO!?! SiteProNews: The WHY of Search Engine Optimization […]

    avatar Smitherine says:

    Is it just me, or does anyone else find that in the majority of these articles that the general idea is that web designers are uneducated and oblivious to anything other than Photoshop? I’m a webdesigner and a webmaster and I agree that SEO is very important. Who can refute that? Why do I sense prejudice in your articles, and that you may not understand why web design isn’t about making a website “pretty”. The design of a website is just as important as the content and it’s accessiblity. A site that ranks 1 on google may be easy for a spider or crawler to navigate but you can’t forget about who websites are designed for – PEOPLE – since google isn’t going to pay you for your products. The people who visit your site are the ones who are going to pay for it. I’m by no means defending the tons of web designers out there who are just starting out, who have no knowledge of designing for users and search engines but there are also webmasters out there who don’t know anything about design, and will program the heck out of a site that works great but looks so bad, that no one but spiders will go to it. It’s just annoying to read this stuff as if all web designers are incapable, ignorant, and not to be trusted.

    avatar Ben Kemp says:

    Regarding the previous comment – sorry if the article hit a raw nerve – but perhaps a slight over-reaction? From my point of view, I’ve spent more than a decade remedying the ‘oversights’ of website designers in multiple countries. It is truly unfortunate that so few have an appreciation of a requirement that is fundamental to a successful business outcome. Personally, I think that the blame lies with the educational institutions who, in the main, place more emphasis on “form” than they do on “function.” There are literally 10’s of thousands of website designers churning out nice sites that are basically doomed to oblivion because no attention has been paid to core functionality. For example, building a website in a competitive niche (such as accommodation or tourism activities) requires significant attention to the most minute of details, if the site is ever to be found on Google… yet there are still a lot of website designers building beautiful sites in Frames, or 100% Flash / JavaScript! The majority of sites that are built have generic Titles and global Descriptions, or none at all. That’s the reality… I have no idea how to fix it! Its not a case of “incapable / not to be trusted” at all. Its a case of lack of awareness of the importance that thoughtful SEO has to a successful outcome for clients… Its an education issue… and perhaps challenging it is one way of increasing website designers awareness? 🙂

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