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Search Engine Optimisation

Like the article on web design, the topic of search engine optimisation (SEO) shouldn't necessarily be covered when the focus of this site are the more technical aspects of web hosting. However, the fact is that everyone talks about search engines as if they are some magical key to instant wealth through your website.

Let's get one thing straight right off the top: With certain exceptions, your website does not necessarily exist to make you money any more than your telephone exists to make you money. Did you get that? When you move your business into new premises, do you think twice about spending money on connection charges for your telephone system, buying the telephones, and paying the monthly fees to keep the telephones working? Do you figure out the return on investment in your telephone system based on how much money you make from each phone call made or received? No! You just get the damn phones because they are necessary to do business and communicate with your customers. Well, your website is no different; it is necessary to do business and communicate with your customers, even if your website doesn't actually "do business". Like the phones, it's part of your overhead that's required to be in business.

Now, let's evaluate the assertion above more closely before we address the topic of search engine optimisation. If your website is nothing more than an online brochure (and that's the fundamental and a perfectly legitimate purpose of a website), then you are not going to make any money directly from your website because your website does not exist to make money. Depending on your business, it may cause you to make money indirectly by contributing positively to your overall image, but at the end of the year you are not going to be able to sit down and say, "I spent $x on hosting this year and I brought in $y through my website, so I am in the black/red as a result."

However, if you're in the business of selling widgets, and you can just as easily sell widgets to someone in Timbuktu and ship them there as you can sell them to people over the counter in your shop, then you are most likely going to want to set up a website that allows people to order your widgets without coming into your shop. Creating such a website will cost more (in time and/or money) than the simple online brochure described above, and so you rightly get into a cost/benefit analysis. However, still, because this is a secondary revenue stream, your focus should be on your primary business and as long as your website brings in more opportunistic revenue than it costs to operate, then it's doing its job. If not, it's an easy decision to downgrade it to a simple brochure site, the expense of which simply becomes part of your overhead.

Where you really need to focus on search engine optimisation is if the business your company does online is the only business it does. If that's the case (and assuming you have an intelligent and workable business plan) then part of your job will be to ensure that the legions of online shoppers find your online store before they find those of your competitors, because you're not doing any business based on physical location and a sign on the street, and search engine optimisation is one part (not the only part) of that process. In a sense, good placement in the search engines is akin to good physical placement of a store that requires walk-in business, and so it is something you need to pay attention to.

Let's look at those three situations again from the point of view of search engine optimisation. First, if your site is just an online brochure for a business that trades only with a local customer base, then people are probably going to find and look at your website in one of two ways: 1) You're going to give them the address yourself, or 2) They're going to search for you using some key words that they assume will yield results that include only your site, or perhaps your website and other sites that refer specifically to your website or business. In the second case they are looking specifically for your site, not just for any site in your industry, and that's important to note. So, if you sell widgets, and your company name is Bob's Widgets and you're located in a place called Sometown, then the person looking for your site is going to enter something like "bobs widgets sometown" into the search field of a search engine. How many companies named Bob's Widgets are there in Sometown? Probably only one. How many results do you think there will be for that search? Well, there could be more than one, especially if people are writing about you on other websites (or you are participating on other websites under your company name), but the chances are that your website will be the first hit. There's no search engine optimisation needed there. In fact, you can compare that to someone looking up your phone number in the White Pages; they know your company name, but can't remember your phone number, so they just look you up. You don't need an expensive advertisement (akin to search engine optimisation in this example) to get their attention.

In the second and third scenarios, on the other hand, you probably do want an advertisement in the Yellow Pages. How big an advertisement depends on how much you rely on the Yellow Pages for your business and how much business the Yellow Pages bring in. Similarly, how much you rely on "walk-in" business on the Internet will depend on how much time and money you spend on search engine optimisation.

But before you respond to some spammer's email for SEO services, do a little research and educate yourself. Search engines do not operate on black magic, and so there are no "secrets". Well, the search engine companies do have some trade secrets of course but, essentially, search engines simply index the contents of your website. If you sell widgets and you mention the word "widget" on your website, the search engines will notice that, index the word, and present your website in the results of a search for the word "widget". Yes, there are ways to be number one in the results instead of number one million, but you don't get there (and stay there) by paying some shady off-shore character $1000. Even if he/she does get you to the number-one position somehow, you are not going to stay there. To maintain your position there you have to work at it; it's an ongoing process. And, to make things more interesting, there are legitimate ways to improve your position in the search engines, and ways that will result in your being penalised by the search engines. Here's a tip: The people spamming you to try and get you to pay them to improve your rank in the search engines are also using illegitimate means to improve your rank in the search engines. Therefore, you will be wasting your money and it may do you more harm than good.

Something that some people fail to consider -- which is ironic considering the Internet is, after all, a network -- is networking. You might think that your website is the most relevant in the world for a particular search term, but if nobody links to it then the search engines consider it irrelevant because no human beings who run websites seem to consider it relevant enough to link to. This is called "link popularity" -- "PageRank" is the trademarked term used by Google. Beyond stating the obvious (get more websites to link to your website), how to increase your link popularity is beyond the scope of this article; however, as with other aspects of SEO, there are right ways and wrong ways. For example, it is wrong to spam a web-based forum in a hit-and-run message post with a link to your site, but it is acceptable, on websites where you actually participate, to include a link to your site in your signature. But online networking is not the only form of networking; any successful business requires you to engage in face-to-face networking as well, and an offshoot of this may result in real-world business contacts linking to your site from theirs, thereby improving your standing in the search engines.

Some of the ways to improve your ranking in the search engines revolve around site design, so it's something that should be considered in the initial design by your web designer. And like creating your website in the first place, search engine optimisation will require an investment of time and/or money, but you should do your research first. Use a reputable company (not someone who has already broken the law by spamming you), educate yourself, realise that there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it, and be prepared to commit to the process. Also be wary of hosts that attempt to sell you their hosting services based on some automated SEO tool ("submit your site to three million search engines!") being a feature of their hosting plans. Because search engines are constantly fine-tuning their algorithms, any such automated tool is almost useless the day after it is created, and many such tools are actually less than useless and waste your time to boot.

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