SEO – What is it and Why do I Need to be Aware of it?

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is huge area of web design and development that people are often completely unaware of or have an extremely basic understanding of. It is such a broad and deep subject that even many designers and developers struggle to grasp certain aspects.

So, with that in mind, I’ve put together a question and answer post based on some of the questions I’m regularly asked about SEO. Hopefully it will help to explain some of the more basic ideas behind this tricky subject.

Right, you mentioned SEO – what’s that?

Well, let me give you a quick definition by someone who is an expert:

SEO is the active practice of optimizing a web site by improving internal and external aspects in order to increase the traffic the site receives from search engines

(Source: SEOmoz)

Essentially, it’s making your website popular/useful enough to people to warrant it appearing higher up the search engine rankings.

That’s a strange way to start a conversation. Anyway, I get that, but what does ‘active practice’ mean and what does it actually entail?

Well, this is where I need to exercise a degree of self-control and refrain from attempting to explain every single aspect of SEO. There are hundreds of ways I as a web designer and you as the client can contribute to improving your website’s SEO.

I can:

  • ensure content is correctly and efficiently structured, ie – the main content’s title uses heading level 1, the second uses heading level 2 etc
  • use alt and title tags for all images and give them meaningful descriptions
  • write clean, accessible code that adheres to web standards
  • provide a sitemap of all pages on the site
  • submit the website to multiple search engines

You can:

  • promote your website through various social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter
  • attempt to get other related or mutually beneficial websites to link to you
  • write keyword-rich and relevant content for your pages (content is king)
  • include a regularly updated blog documenting useful news and information about your business/website
  • get involved in other blogs in your field to drive traffic to your site

These are just some of the basic ways to go about it, but none of them will guarantee you a top spot in search engines.

Our sitemap showing our site's structure

Our sitemap showing our site's structure

Why can’t you guarantee me a top spot in search engines?

Well, let’s think about it. If you have a website that sells pink teddy bears (for example) and you want to be number 1 in Google for when somebody searches on the term ‘Pink teddy bear’, you have to take into account everybody else who wants to be number 1 for the same term. If I search that right now I’m told there are over 3 million results. All of them want to be number one. So why should yours be rated higher than anybody elses?

A search for something spceific shows 86.5m results

What affects my position in search engine rankings?

The short answer is more things than I care to look into. A slightly longer answer is that nobody knows exactly how results are calculated. And certainly nobody, other than the search engines themselves, can guarantee ranking positions. Not only do they change all the time but they are also different depending on which search engine you are using. so if you search for ‘pink teddy bear’ in Google, you’ll get different results than if you’d searched for it in Bing. And none of it is controlled by us.

Search engine differencesAmong the many factors affecting a website’s search engine performance are:

  • keyword use in titles
  • keyword density of main content
  • quality of inbound links
  • relevance of outbound links
  • site structure and hierarchy
  • click-through rate from search engine pages

For a (much) more detailed look at what can affect your search engine rankings, take a look at this excellent article on ranking factors by SEOmoz.

Holy crap, there’s a lot more to it than I thought. What else should I keep my eye on?

So we’ve touched on search engine optimisation. But with the continual rise and increasing involvement in social media, what people say and do online is becoming easier and quicker to spread across the web. Whether you mean it to or not. This has given rise to a new wave of thinking and, unfortunately, yet another abbreviation. This time known as SMO – social media optimisation. Without getting too deep into social media (another cavernous subject) it basically revolves around being active on websites such as Digg, Facebook, Twitter and the like. But more than that, it’s about being active with the purpose of driving traffic to your site by being influential, controversial, insightful, helpful or just about any other way you can think of that will peak people’s interest and tempt them to check out your site.

SMO is going to grow and grow, especially as leaders in the web world such as Google adapt their methods and algorithms for throwing up new and popular content. Let’s look at an example. If you were to search the term “world cup results” in Google right now (at time of writing), you’ll be shown a list of live scores right on the results page. A little further down there is a section called ‘Latest results for world cup results’ which gives you a real-time feed of articles about the World Cup from respectable websites around the globe. Try this with the term “#worldcup” and you’ll get a bunch of live Twitter comments.

Real-time results

Real-time results for '#worldcup'


If your business functions primarily online and that’s where you get most of your exposure, SEO and SMO are areas you have to address. You may not want to or you may not see them as sustainable or viable options, but this is the way the web world is going. As with everything in life, it’s about striking the perfect balance. A balance between a good, solid, search engine friendly website and active online promotion. Cloud computing, real-time search, person to person interaction, personal views and opinions. It cannot be ignored. And with all the benefits and excitement it can bring, why would you want to?

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