Winning the game of search engine optimization

Best Practices: Winning the Game of Search Engine Optimization

Search for "SEO" on Google® and you’ll find a list of professional resources and
providers that runs dozens of pages deep.

Today, companies that can navigate the algorithm and place their clients in the
promised land—the top page of Google results—are in high demand. After all, in
such a complex field, what’s better than handing off the work and taking it easy
while an expert gets your site placed?

While working with professionals is the most effective way to climb search engine
rankings, there are several beginning steps you can take. Just follow a few general
rules of thumb.

The Tao of SEO

SEO is the practice of guiding the development or redevelopment of a website
to achieve maximum visibility on the major search engines for selected words
and phrases.

The overriding rule in SEO is to keep the focus on the end user more than on the
search engine. What search engines use to rank pages today may very well differ
a month from now. For example, keywords used to play a major role in search
engine ranking while today they are merely a minor consideration among a slew
of other factors.

What will never change in the world of search engines is their goal to provide the
most relevant results for their users. Therefore, by keeping your focus on the end
user, you will, simply by association, gain ground on search pages.

Content is King

Content is ultimately the most important factor in the search engine game. While there are no set content rules or tricks that will guarantee high placement, there are a few guidelines to follow.

Understand your audience. Think about what terms and words they would use to search for a business like yours, and what gets them to click your listing. These terms should be consistently included in your website content.

Be focused. Just like your end users, search engines tend to shy away from web pages that are a jumbled mess of ideas and structure. Ideally, each page on your website should be focused on one idea and have one clear message.

Be clear. Try not to use terminology or industry jargon that your target audience is unlikely to use or understand. If you introduce an acronym or industry term, tell the reader what it means.

Be consistent. This includes structure, layout, text style and word usage. The more consistent you are, the greater the reinforcement of your message to both the user and the search engine.

Don’t just visualize it, say it. Whenever you have an image that says something important about your business, also say it in words. Search engines rely on words to understand what your webpage is about.

Be redundant (but not irritating). Repeat keywords and phrases wherever it is appropriate. Repetition within a webpage and throughout a website helps the user and the search engine remember your message. However, don’t get overzealous in your attempt. Repetition for the sake of repetition will likely irritate both your users and the search engines.

Stay up-to-date. While search engines are very secretive about the formulas they use to rank websites, vitality can be considered a key point. Websites that go without any type of update for a long period are more likely to be lowered in the rankings.

The Science of Meta Tags

The look and feel of your website is created through code called HTML (HyperText Markup Language). Within this code is an array of specific fields and meta tags that, if used correctly, can help search engines better match your website with the people you want to reach.

Each page on your website contains title, description, keyword and image meta tag fields. Make sure you fill these out for each and every page. The information you place here should be relevant and specific to the webpage it’s associated with. Avoid using “shop talk” or jargon that your target audience is unlikely to know or use. Also, stay away from special characters or diacritics that may not be recognized by the search engine.

The Title Meta Tag

The title meta tag is the text that appears in the top bar of a browser. If you used “Increase Your Search Rankings” here, users would see that text appear in the top bar of their browser window:

Title Meta Tag

Title meta tags are one of the most important factors in how a search engine may decide to rank your webpage. It’s also the text that shows as the title in search results, so it should intrigue people to click your link.

The Description Meta Tag

The description of your webpage in a search result is generated from your description meta tag. This is what people will read and click. The tag is meant more as a sales proposition to the end user than it is an influence in search engine results. In other words, you want to make the description tag alluring and relevant to what your page talks about. Using keywords in the description tag is important since that is what your end user is trying to find information about, but keep in mind that this tag will not sway your search engine rankings much, if at all.

Here is how the text of the description meta tag would appear in a search result:

Increase Rankings

The key to maximizing the effectiveness is to again think “user friendly.” What keywords or phrases would your users think of to search for the type of product or service you offer? For example, your target customers might search more by types of products than specific product names.

Think not only about how your target customers will search but who they are exactly. Add industry-specific keywords to capture this audience. For example, if a printing company targeted real estate agents, they might add keywords such as “real estate direct mail” or “photo business cards.”

Meta Keywords Tag

Keywords meta tags are not a major factor in search engine rankings but they do contribute.

When you come up with keywords you feel are pertinent, be sure to add common misspellings of the words as well as capitalizations and plural forms. Avoid meaningless words like “and” or “the” and stay away from overly common words such as “industry.”

The way in which keywords are combined in your meta tags makes a difference, as well. For example, if you are targeting web surfers on the hunt for “maternity and baby photographers,” be sure to include all relevant combinations of these terms (e.g., maternity photographer, baby photographer, photographer, baby, maternity).

As with any good marketing tactic, don’t forget to check out what your competitors are doing. If they are ranking high on the search engine ladder, research the terms that got them there.

Meta keywords tags do very little to influence search engine results, so if your time is short, it may be better invested to write good content on the page, and to create solid title and description tags for each page first. Then, if time allows, write out your meta keywords tags.

Image Alt Tags

Just as images are important to draw your audience’s attention to a webpage, the alt tags associated with them are very significant to your SEO. In fact, they are required for most HTML coding. Every image on a webpage must have an image alt tag. This is what appears when a mouse hovers over an image.

Even if a webpage is void of user-friendly text, it can still receive search engine placement with the proper use of image text. Proper image meta tags should again focus heavily on the user and consist of words that clearly describe the image. For example, instead of using a generic term such as “soup” a restaurant should use a more descriptive term such as “Mexican green chile.”

If there are words within the graphic, repeat them in your image alt tags. Reinforce important keywords found in other content on your webpage by repeating them here as well.

Links, Links and More Links!

Pay attention, because this part is important. “Well linked” sites climb the search engine rankings quickly—very quickly. There are two approaches to do this, and each requires a little legwork, but it’s well worth the effort.

Start by building internal links, connecting pages to other pages within your site.
When doing this, focus on the anchor text, or the underlined words that people
click to link to the other page. Your anchor words should always include keywords
and phrases. EXAMPLE: Instead of "click here" as a link, describe it, like "photo
business cards."

To achieve even higher placement through links, be sure to get your website listed on local community sites, such as your Chamber of Commerce, business associations
you are involved with and any other relevant sites you can think of. The more inbound links driving traffic to your site, the higher you will climb.

Sign Me Up!

In support of your SEO efforts, another healthy practice is to apply for inclusion in search directories. Inclusion means that your website is specifically marked for scanning and indexing by a search engine’s “spider” or “crawler,” the program responsible for cataloging the World Wide Web. Directory inclusion can also mean a significant reduction in the time it takes for your SEO efforts to pay off.

Here we will outline briefly how to add your website to what are arguably the three
largest internet directories today: Yahoo!™, Open Directory™ and Google™.


Start by visiting the Yahoo! Directory ( and click through the various website categories until you find one that best fits your website. When you
have found the best category, locate and click on the underlined blue link which reads “Suggest a Site,” and then follow the instructions on the proceeding page.

NOTE: To be listed in a commercial category, whether your business is commercial or nonprofit, you must pay for the Yahoo! Express submission.

Open Directory

A significant list of major search engines use data from Open Directory to populate
their sites—the most major of those players being Google™. Others include the AOL™ Directory, the Netscape™ Directory, AltaVista™,™ and™. (For a complete list, go to

Below are four quick steps to list your website. (If you would like some extra tips, go to

1. Go to

2. Use (a) the search engine or (b) the directory links to find the perfect
category for your site.

3. Look in the upper right-hand corner of the directory page for a text link that
says “suggest URL” and click on it.

4. After carefully reading the page, decide if this is the category that best fits your site topic. If so, fill out the available form and click submit.


As stated in the previous section, to get your site listed in the Google Directory, you simply need to be listed in the Open Directory. In addition, you may also submit your five site URL directly to Google’s index at Simply add the top-level (main) page of your website and include keywords that describe the content of your page. And since Google updates its index on a regular basis, updated link submissions are not necessary.

Are We There Yet?

How long will it take you to see the benefits of your SEO efforts? That depends on the longevity of your site as well as the techniques you employ.

On average, if your site has already been on the internet for some time and is listed in all of the major directories, you will probably begin to see improvements in your rankings within four to six weeks. If you pay for an expedited review of your website at Yahoo! or other search engines, then you will likely see results in as little as a few days.

You should continue to see improvements for six to nine months as the changes to your site are indexed throughout the databases that drive the major search engines.

Other Search Engine Marketing Tactics

SEO is really only one aspect the search engine savvy can use to draw customers to
their website. It is part of what is known as search engine marketing (SEM) and there are many other tools that fall within this realm. Below are a few of the more common.

Paid Inclusion
If you want to pay to play, search engine companies, except for Google, offer paid inclusion services. The fee structure is both a filter against unnecessary submissions and a revenue generator for the search engine company. Typically, the fee covers an annual subscription for one webpage. The page will then automatically be catalogued on a regular basis.

You can use paid inclusion as a guide for improved SEO. By using inclusion on one of your webpages, you can judge this page’s rankings against others that you haven’t paid for—a good measure of the effectiveness of your SEO efforts.

Pay Per Click
Pay Per Click (PPC) is known by different names; most common among them are
“sponsored search” and “search engine advertising.” While there are a number of
different ways to use PPC, the main concept is to pay a search engine company to
provide you with a visible presence in relevant search results.

In a keyword-based PPC such as Google’s Adword™ program, you can pay a small fee to have a link to your website featured whenever a user searches for a specific keyword. If the user clicks on your ad, you might then pay what is known as a “click-through” fee.

Many search engines (e.g., Google, and Yahoo!) also partner with other subject-specific websites. These websites agree to let the search engines place content-related advertising on their site. The search engine then charges interested parties a fee to advertise here. For example, an online dog food retailer might have their advertisement placed on a site pertaining to dogs.

Both of these advertising methods allow you as the advertiser to target specific users with certain interests and drive them to your website.

Pay Per Call

Similar to Pay Per Click, Pay Per Call is a method of search engine ad placement where the advertiser is charged on a per-call basis for each lead (call) that is generated. Advertisers with a national presence are permitted by Pay Per Call search engines to create advertisements that include local telephone numbers.

The Final Say in SEO

It’s no secret; the number of websites competing for a high-level position on search engines is fairly astounding. And you have most likely ascertained from this white paper that even the simplest SEO explanation gets more than a little detailed. But invest a little time in the basics, stay laser focused on your end user and you, too, can make the competitive climb.

About Firespring

Firespring emerged from a vision that websites should focus on the experience of the end user. Since our inception in 1992, we’ve helped small business owners save money and increase revenue through the use of website tools, search engine services and marketing programs that are researched and developed specifically for their industry.

With more than 3,000 clients on five continents, Firespring is one of the leading providers of marketing and website solutions today. To learn more, call 888.388.5778 or visit

Rule of Thumb

The title meta tag should
consist of no more than
60 characters.

Rule of Thumb

The description text
should range from 5 to 24
words, and never exceed
150 characters.

Rules of Thumb

Helpful Links

Rules of Thumb

Helpful Link

Helpful Link

Yahoo! Directory (search web by term)


Nonprofit organization websites are listed on all of the major search engines for free.

Terms You Should Know

SEO—An acronym for Search Engine Optimization, it generally refers to the practice of making website and marketing adjustments to achieve a greater presence in search engines.

Tags—Codes that are “behind the scenes” or built into the programming of your website that search engines review and factor into results.

Keywords—Specific terms searchers use to find a business or website.