So you’d like your website and even many pages within the website to rank at the top of search engine results? But everyone else wants his or her results at the top, too! And millions of people everyday are putting a lot of energy and effort into it.

So what do you have to do to get great search engine placement? Do you have to outwit everyone else who is competing for placement? Do you have to outwit the PhDs whom the search engine companies have on staff to create search algorithms?

No, for most small businesses, you can get decent search engine placement by creating a good website and just following a few of these simple tips that follow.

4 Basic Steps for Search Engine Optimization

  1. Choose URLs for your web pages that include a couple of descriptive words of what’s on each page.
  2. Have a bunch of headlines of various sizes that emphasize some of the key phrases that you hope to land results on, including some less competitive searches that you are more likely to perform well on.
  3. Have several hundred words of text on a web page you are trying to place in search engines.
  4. Use original content.

If You Have a Little More Time to Spend, There Are Plenty of Additional Steps You Can Take to Try to Crank Up Your Search Engine Results

But I first want to emphasize this: don’t let the tail wag the dog! Don’t get so carried away with trying to place well with search engine results that you neglect the fact that you are trying to run a business.

Specifically, I totally believe that the aesthetics, how attractive a website is, is extremely important, especially for a new small business. You need at least to look professional. People tend to spend more time on websites they like, are more likely to return to them, and are more likely to recommend them to friends.

Why do I emphasize this? Well, search engines don’t rank the attractiveness of images, for example, so by trying to optimize just search engine placement, you might create a website that ranks really high, but without images it may look unattractive, if not amateurish.

The same goes for the quality and type and presentation of content. I would think about my user experience first and search engine optimization second.

So How Else Can You Crank Up Search Engine Results?

Keep in mind that you are probably going to get much better results if you focus hard on less competitive, more specialized search terms than on the more general, more popular ones. Furthermore, the more specialized the terms you focus on, the higher the chances that, first, people will click through on your search result; second, they will really be interested in the information on your website; and third, they will more likely be a buyer rather than a browser.

In past website businesses, I have spent, along with some other very bright people, a lot of energy and effort trying to get first page rankings on incredibly popular and competitive search words such as “jobs” or “careers,” and I now believe this strategy is generally a loser’s game. Even if you do manage to land on the front page, chances are you are aren’t going to last long.

URLs

First, I would try to register or buy a website domain that seems really relevant to the business. Then I would use descriptive “friendly” and easy-to-understand words in the individual page URLs. What do I mean by friendly? If a professional software engineer is coding your pages, he or she just might be tempted to neatly organize your pages with some kind of numeric or alphanumeric coding system or use a lot of symbols. No way. Keep it simple and descriptive. And keep these descriptions short—very short. One word, maybe two or three if needed, but not a full sentence. Separate the words with hyphens.

Avoid lots of symbols and dashes. While making your URL descriptive, also try to keep it as short as possible. Use hyphens to separate words to make it more readable both for humans and for search engines.

Meta Tags

Meta tags matter a lot less, if at all, in search engines today. Meta tags for keywords in the early days of the Internet were totally critical, but today search engines tend to ignore them. But I would still tend to fill them all in carefully. Why not give it your best shot?

The page title meta tag and the page description meta tag will show up in search results, so they are very important for increasing your click-through rate and also for helping ensure that the people you most want to attract are the ones clicking through to your website.

Search engines display the first 65 to 75 characters of the title tag in search engine results. And they usually truncate the page description tag after about 160 characters. However, users tend to spend seconds, at most, looking at search results, so the first couple of words in your title tag will typically be of overwhelming importance (after page placement, that is) for generating click-throughs.

Headlines

Within each page, use headlines of various sizes that are descriptive and useful to search engines. Try to structure headlines logically, with larger ones offering a broad overview of the topic and smaller headlines of increasingly narrow focus. If you are really trying hard to maximize results for particular searches, then write headlines to reflect that.

Text

Search engines like text. It’s easy for them to read, count, and to analyze. Ideally, you want to have several hundred words on pages you are trying to optimize the placement of. You also want to have good, original content—and the more unique, the better. You might want to repeat the words in your headlines a little bit, but don’t push it. Don’t damage the quality of your text. And if you really overdo keyword repetition, then search engines may penalize you.

Search engines may put more weight on keywords that appear higher on the web page than lower on the page. By “text” I should say that search engines are first designed to read HTLM text. So-called rich media formats, including text in Flash files, video, photos, and audio, are hard for search engines to read.

Images

Use a descriptive file name for images and use the “alt” image designed to alternatively display text when images can’t be displayed. Search engines may use both. Also consider storing all of your images in one directory.

Navigation

Have an easy-to-navigate website. Keep navigation logical. For example, start your navigation broadly and narrow it down more specifically as someone proceeds through the website. Keep the website organization simple—for instance, do not link every single page to every other page. Use mostly text for navigational links, not drop-down menus or images.

Consider a site map for users and a separate one just to be submitted to search engines.

Have a useful “404” page that links back to your home page or maybe a choice of popular other pages as well. Have a page that comes up when users come to a page that doesn’t exist on your site, such as a broken link.

Links within Your Website

Search engine robots crawl websites using links. If the links aren’t accessible to search engines, they can’t crawl your site. For example, if you need a form to be submitted to go to another page, the robots won’t go. If you need to use the search engine on your site to get to a page, the robots won’t go. If you have way too many links on your page, such as hundreds, the robots probably won’t follow all of them. If the robots can’t see your links because they are in an image they can’t read, they won’t go.

Using non-text links, such as image links, is risky. Maybe you want to have them on your site anyway, and you don’t want to design your website just for search engine optimization. If you do use images for links, you may want to limit it to just a few.

Make the text for your links descriptive but very short, such as just a few words or a short phrase. Don’t use generic words, such as “click here.” Links are very important for search engines, and this is how search engine robots explore websites.

Links to Your Website

With so many spam and poor-quality websites out there, search engines are very concerned with delivering quality results to their users. One of the most important ways they judge this—and hence, an important criteria for search engine algorithms—is the quantity and quality of links that point to your website. Search engines particularly prize links from highly valued sites, particularly universities, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The freshness of those links may be another factor.

Social Media Links

Social media links to your website are noticed by search engines, but it is not clear how much of a factor they are in influencing search engine results. They are likely much less of a factor than links from other websites, for example.

Duplicative Copy

Duplicate web pages or web page copy can be a particularly vexing problem for a large website. Search engines penalize duplicative content because this was a trick that people used to game search engine results. Instead, you want to keep the content on a particular URL fresh and unique, and perhaps instead have multiple links or sections of your website linking to it.

Mobile Sites

Search engines can miss mobile sites. Google suggests that you create a mobile site map, if don’t already have one, and submit it to them.

Another potential issue for mobile sites is that they may be programmed only to allow access by mobile devices. So the code may have to be adjusted to allow for access by search engine robots.

Quality

Search engines give a lot of importance in sending their users to quality sites and particularly avoiding spam sites trying to game search engines. They might note, for example, whether searchers quickly click the “back” button after clicking on your website in a search result that would indicate low quality. They might also penalize you if you have outbound links from your website to spam websites. Some search engines, such as Google, have tried to use a number of algorithms to judge the quality of a website, trying to mimic with their robots the way a human would judge a website.

No Crawl Code

You can place code on a web page to tell search engines not to crawl that page. If you do and you later decide you want it to be crawled, such as with a test page, make sure you change the code. Note also that such code will likely, but not necessarily completely, keep search engine robots off the page.

Relevance, Importance, and Popularity

Initially, search engines simply searched just for words; now they may use more than 100 criteria to rank search results. Basically, search engines focus on relevance and importance, which may be measured in popularity. So you could have a perfectly designed website for search engine optimization, but if you have no traffic, you may not get even half-decent search engine placement. Hence, especially for a new website, it might take a while to gain traction to get search engine placement.

Search engine rankings can change daily, and search engine algorithms can change significantly from time to time. And their emphasis can change. For example, Bing was recently reported to put significant weight on whether a website had a privacy statement.

You Can Get Really Sophisticated with Search Engine Optimization

For example, if you want to test how powerful various keyword choices might be for your web pages, you could consider buying the different test words for paid search engine results and comparing the results. Or you can create, on a new URL, a one-page website just for testing, perhaps on a very obscure or even make-believe topic. Then you could experiment with optimizing it for various search engines, see what works best, and then try it on your regular website.

The Best Time to Perform Search Engine Optimization

Obviously, the best time to perform search engine optimization (SEO) is in the early stages of designing your website. But don’t feel bad if your website is up and running and you haven’t given it much thought. Most people, if they focus on SEO at all, do so largely after the site is already up and usually after it is already up for a while and they are frustrated with the lack of traffic.

More Information

A lot of information on the basics is available from the search engine companies. They also provide lots of information and suggestions about choosing keywords.

Should You Hire an SEO firm?

I have hired SEO experts in the past to improve rankings for keywords. Usually they made very strong promises. Sometimes they delivered. Using an SEO person might make a lot of sense for a short assignment as you are launching a moderately complex website.

However, you need to be keenly aware of the downsides. The biggest risk is that you hire someone who “games” the search engines, then your website gets hits with a penalty, and it takes a long, long time to have any chance at getting good search engine results. This is not uncommon.

Secondly, some SEO people may do a great job of optimizing your performance for the latest edition algorithm from the leading search engine, but once the algorithm changes, you lose your top search results. Also, an SEO person who does a great job with your search engine placement, if you break off his or her retainer, might be tempted to use the knowledge gained to try to line up your nearest competitors.

Bottom line: yes, it would be great to have your total website optimized for search engines, but you can’t make doing so your entire business!