4 - Attracting readers

Search-engine optimization (SEO)


ABOVE: A descriptive page title in Internet Explorer's title bar (dark grey at top).

by Durant Imboden, Europe for Visitors

The most important rule about Search Engine optimization, or SEO, is this comment more than halfway down the page in Google's Webmaster Guidelines

"Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines."

That's another way of saying:

"Write great content that readers can easily find on your site, and SEO will take care of itself."

Search engines in general, and Google in particular, have come a long way since the late 1990s, when--as an About.com "Guide"--I listened to that company's search guru recommend "doorway pages" and other gimmicks as a way to achieve high rankings in search engines. Today, such tricks aren't likely to be effective, and they can easily lead to penalties or outright bans.

Most of you need to know about SEO is in Google's Webmaster Guidelines, but here's an even shorter summary:

  • Write articles or guides that are genuinely useful to readers. Divide your long, complex pages into shorter pages about subtopics, where appropriate (see "Article structure").
  • Use descriptive page titles (the text that you see at the top of your browser window when you're a page). Do the same for headlilnes and subheads, because a search engine's crawler won't understand that "Sizzling sticks of sweetness" is a synonym for "churros."
  • Try to get "inbound links" from related sites (this will be easier if they aren't direct competitors), and link to useful pages on other sites when you're writing articles.
  • Stay away from automated "link farm" schemes, and ignore e-mail requests from SEO or link-spamming firms that want you to exchange links with junk affiliate-marketing and e-commerce sites.
  • Don't post your URL on hundreds of blogs and forums in an attempt to get "link juice" from other sites.
  • If you sell text links as ads or sponsored links, use the "nofollow" attribute to avoid penalties from search engines.
  • Use public relations, where appropriate, to get coverage and links from other sites (including news media). One link from  NYTimes.com is or Guardian.co.uk is likely to be worth more than a hundred links from online forums, low-profile blogs, or affiliate and e-commerce sites.
  • Finally, don't publicize your site or troll for links before you're ready. If your site is the online equivalent of a book outline with sample pages, or if the most common phrase on your site is "Under construction," move publicity and link development to the bottom of your priority list--and focus your energies on writing.

Next article: "Revenue sources"