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Search engine optimisation? Four questions answered.

As part of our sister design business Create Services we often get asked about search engine optimisation. Here are some answers to the most frequently asked questions.

What is it?

In simple terms it means setting up your website in such a way that the internet search engines are more likely to display it early in their results when relevant search terms are used – and by search engines we largely mean Google since they handle around 70% of all searches (Yahoo does around 15%, Microsoft Bing about 10% and others 5%). Search engine optimisation is not the same thing as Adwords, which is Google’s brand name for paid advertisements on their search results pages.

Do I need it?

It really depends how you expect the majority of your visitors to find your website. It may be that the most of your clients will be directed to it via other media, such as having your website address on letterheads, business cards, etcetera. Of course if someone searches specifically for your company name you would expect any search results to include your site in the first few entries, but that should happen with any well designed site provided your name is not very common. It’s the people who search for words associated with the type of business you do, or your general location or a product you sell, people who might never have heard of your business before, that optimisation is aimed at. So, does your website need to capture the attention of those type of people?

How do I do it?

Ah… if only there was a simple answer to this one! Google is notoriously secretive about the methods they use to order search results. One thing that is known is that the number of references (links) to a website on other websites not associated to it, is used as a measure of how popular a site is. So well known sites, which are referenced all over the internet, will tend to feature higher in the results. But it’s also something that is largely out of your control. You can encourage or pay other sites (especially any professional bodies you might be a member of) to publish a link to your site which might help a little, but really it’s only by being around and established for a while that you’ll accumulate enough links to have any impact.

Providing original content which does not simply advertise your business but is a useful resource for people can help in getting links. For example a care home website might provide a page ‘five things to think about when choosing a care home’ which would be a guide for people making the difficult decision to have an elderly relative looked after. Use social media and link to your site regularly from your accounts there.

Besides having the site well-designed and standards-conformant (which is a given for any site we build), the most important thing you can do is make sure that the text on your pages reflects accurately your business. In addition to the text that any visitor sees, you can also add some hidden information (meta-tags) to the pages which search engines will pick up.

I’ve heard there are tricks you can use to get Google to rank my site higher?

People are continually trying to find new ways to ‘beat’ Google’s system. There are two problems with this approach. Firstly it’s difficult to assess how well any of these ideas actually work. You need several months of data and even then you can’t be sure that some other factor hasn’t changed in the meantime. But more importantly, if Google decide you are artificially trying to boost your place in the search results they may blacklist your site completely, meaning you end up achieving exactly the opposite of what you set out to do.