The Art of SEO

Mastering Search Engine Optimization

The Art of SEO seeks to explain an arcane issue. Search Engine Optimization is the art of getting more visitors to a web site. You can do this in a number of ways: by making it look more attractive, advertising its existence, or persuading more people to make links to it from their own sites. But the number one method which beats all of these put together is to make it come higher in Google search results. If somebody types washing machines into a Google search box and your site Wash-o-Matic comes up first, the chances are you will get more visitors. All you need to do is construct pages that Google will rank more highly than all your competitors – and this five hundred page compendium explains the equally large number of things you need to know to achieve it.

The book starts with a complete explanation of how search engines work, how they spider sites, and what they do with the information they gather. The same principles apply to all search engines, but the authors can be forgiven for concentrating almost all of their attention on Google, so predominant has it become. Quite apart from all the very technical matters of keywords and search algorithms, there’s a splendid chapter on creating a search engine friendly web site. This covers sitemaps, information architecture, site structure and navigation – all aimed at maximizing the effectiveness of every single page on a site. And you probably do need to start thinking of your site in this way – because that’s how your visitors will arrive, via a single page.

There are lots of free tools available – the best being at – but be prepared to go into a lot of technical detail if you wish to optimize your pages. I sat down and went through a number of the recommended steps, and after a while felt like scrapping my site and starting again from scratch. But in fact it’s very unlikely that any site starts out from a state of complete efficiency: they need to be tweaked and evolved to reach this condition. Fortunately on the issue of information architecture, many sites are now run from a content management system that will do the spadework for you. But it still pays to be aware of the underlying principles.

There are lots of subtle and complex issues – ‘keyword cannibalization’, ‘longtail of search’, and ‘thin affiliates’ – and something that had not occurred to me before – ‘self plagiarism‘. Two versions of the same page, even if they are on different parts of a site performing different functions, are dangerous as far as your rankings are concerned for two reasons. The first is that they are regarded by Google as duplicate material and are therefore given lower rating. The second is that the two pages are competing against each other for visitors, and Google will not know of any way to give priority to one of them.

The issue of creating, exchanging, and marketing links is complex almost beyond belief – but the principles on which the page ranking algorithms work is well explained. However, be warned that they are always ‘evolving’ – that is, changing. There’s also a warning on dubious promotional practices and an explanation of why many ‘guaranteed ranking improvement’ schemes aren’t worth a bean. The advice is to ignore all gimmicks, shortcuts, and sharp practice. Concentrate instead on producing lots of good quality content:

Content is at the heart of achieving link building nirvana

There’s an interesting discussion of how ‘link juice’ is generated, and some rather hair-raising warnings about link marketing. To stay on the safe side of Google acceptability policies, you are advised to run an extremely tight and clean ship indeed. Even some of the most innocent-seeming strategies for boosting the popularity or ranking of your pages can result in search engines doing the exact opposite, downgrading your page rankings behind the scenes – unbeknown to you.

In terms of promotion every course imaginable is examined – Google vertical search, local search, image, product and news search, plus all the well known social media services – Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube, and so on. To do this as thoroughly as suggested would become a full time job for most site owners, but it’s possible to pick and mix, choosing those opportunities that will best suit your own business.

This leads to the art of SEO ‘campaigns’ in which goals and objectives are closely specified, then the results tracked, measured, and analysed. At this point you are dealing with the sharp end of analytics, and you need a combination of IT skills and commercial single-mindedness to stay the course.

The scariest part of all comes last. What do you do if somebody steals your site’s content? Or even worse, if a competitor reports you to Google and asks for your site to be de-listed? Both of these things can easily happen. Fortunately there’s guidance on how to deal with such situations – plus enormously long lists of things to avoid in order to stay out of trouble. These are all the seemingly innocuous tricks people use to increase their site rankings, such as ‘repurposing’ material from other people’s sites, embedding keywords in hidden text, buying popular keywords that are not related to the publisher’s site, using ‘entry pages’, and so forth. The advice – as ever – is to avoid these easily detectable tricks and stick to producing rich original content.

This is one of O’Reilly’s masterful publications that covers a single but enormously complex subject in a thorough and authoritative manner. It’s written by experts in the field of site promotion, and even though several authors are involved it has a consistent tone and approach that makes it both clear and surprisingly readable.

© Roy Johnson 2010

Eric Enge et al, The Art of SEO: Mastering Search Engine Optimization, Sebastopol (CA): O’Reilly, 2010, pp.574, ISBN: 0596518862

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