I received an email from an intern asking for SEO advice specific to backlinking. Obviously, I didn't give away the farm (I charge for this stuff, after all), but I did have one piece of advice anyone trying to figure out why a competitor is doing better than you are in search.
The best thing about SEO is that when you see a site doing it well, there aren't any secrets, ask any SEO specialist. Look at the pages, and look at the source code. See what they're doing, and see what you could be doing better.
That's it. You want to know what someone's doing? Look. In some cases, you may have to dig deeper (Yahoo! Site Explorer, Google Webmaster Tools), but nothing on the Web is a mystery. If you see someone doing something well, you don't have to ask how they're doing it, just use your eyes.
So you've got a business and you've got a website. You've heard about SEO. You've seen a zillion things called SEO 101 (OK, so more like 10.9 million – close enough to a zillion for me). But before actually undertaking the SEO 101 campaign of your choice, there are some things you need to know, and some things you want to ask.
SEO means Search Engine Optimization (or, alternately, a Search Engine Optimizer, as in someone who does the optimization). If someone goes to Google and searches for something related to your business. There are thousands or millions of results for their search. To get to be one of the first results returned, you'll probably have to do some sort of SEO campaign.
But someone I think is really smart and who has a website told me that SEO is snake oil.
One of a few things is happening. (a) SEO comes naturally to that person, possibly thanks to the way their website was built, and they don't realize it. (b) They're not trying to sell anything on their website. (c) They have different competition from you. (d) They're not as smart as you think they are.
OK, but what would make them say that?
There are some pretty slimy people out there who call themselves SEO experts (or gurus or ninjas; you get the picture). Some of them are very successful just long enough to collect some money and disappear before your site visitors disappear and Google realizes that your site is trying to trick it and punishes you for it. We'll get to this in a minute, but there are what we call "white hat" and "black hat" techniques – white hat being honest, hard work, and black hat being quick and dirty techniques.
I get the feeling you're one of those "SEO gurus" who's going to try to sell me something with this post.
I do SEO for a small publisher, and I do some freelance design with SEO services. I understand that SEO is an evolving process, and you're not an expert, or a guru, or a ninja, unless someone else considers you to be one. I have a lot to learn in the field, and there's a good chance I don't have time to do an SEO audit for you. I'm just trying to give you some tools for your own use here.
If it's an evolving field, are there any experts?
There are people and companies I would consider experts in SEO. I'll let you know who they are when you ask me about some reading you should be doing.
What was that white hat and black hat stuff you were talking about?
White hat SEO is a long process with delayed rewards. It can take months to implement, and then you might not see results for another few months after it's implemented. And you have to keep evolving with the search engines. Black hat SEO is a quicker process with a fast payoff that can get you kicked off search engines down the road (source: Caseo, a Burlington SEO company).
What kind of things go into each, and if I could get kicked off a search engine, why would I even consider a black hat campaign?
Some of the white hat processes involve research into how people are searching for your products, writing about your products frequently and well, making some code updates to your pages, and in general providing value. Black hat processes could involve buying links from other sites to your own site, scraping/stealing content from other sites, and making your site look different to search engines than it does to humans. You might undertake a black hat campaign if you had a lot of domains that you intend to make you some quick cash but then you'd just abandon after a few months. Also, you might be the sort of person who punches babies and kicks puppies.
Do I need to hire somebody?
Not necessarily. SEO should be built into the initial design, and if your designer did his or her job, you're already on your way. You should have a blog up and running, and if not, you'll need one. If your site is large and no one did anything from an SEO perspective, you'll need to hire someone to get you on track, and depending on how much time you have on your hands, you could do it yourself or pay someone to implement the campaign.
Who are these experts and what should I read?
If you want to be really smart about this, you should be familiar with what the following people are saying. You can learn enough from them to do your own campaign. In alphabetical order, they are: