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Think of that old question, "if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?""

Now apply it to your web site. If you build a site and no one sees it, is it really there?

You can spend a lot of money the old-fashioned way, advertising your site trying to draw people to it. Or you can attract those users the new-fashioned way, by showing up on the first few pages of search engine requests for information that relates to your topic.

Since vast numbers of other sites are also competing to be at the top of search engine results, don't expect to win that competition just by having the best content and the most graphically appealing layout. It doesn't work that way.

Welcome to the world of Search Engine Optimization, or SEO as nearly everyone who plays in this arena knows it.

SEO isn't particularly technical. Hardly any actual programming is involved. Instead, it's achieved by manipulating the content of pages---their titles, the links they contain, and their words and pictures. The basics of SEO are accessible to anyone.

But SEO can be inscrutable and fickle. Search engines don't advertise the algorithms they use to rank pages. And whatever algorithms they use are subject to change without notice.

The 800-pound gorilla in this room is Google, of course. About two-thirds of all searches are on Google. Google publishes clear guidelines on how SEO should and shouldn't work, but in practice, Google keeps moving the bar to stay ahead of those trying to game the system.

You can just throw up your hands and hire one of the multitude of firms specializing in SEO placement for clients. But whether you do that or manage your own SEO it's best to become familiar with what Google calls its SEO "Starter Guide Basics." Here's the table of contents for the guide that can be found on Google's site:

  • Create unique, accurate page titles
  • Make use of the "description" meta tag
  • Improving Site Structure
  • Improve the structure of your URLs
  • Make your site easier to navigate
  • Optimizing Content
  • Offer quality content and services
  • Write better anchor text
  • Optimize your use of images
  • Use heading tags appropriately
  • Dealing with Crawlers
  • Make effective use of robots.txt
  • Be aware of rel="nofollow" for links
  • SEO for Mobile Phones
  • Notify Google of mobile sites
  • Guide mobile users accurately
  • Promotions and Analysis
  • Promote your website in the right ways
  • Make use of free webmaster tools

In practice, what you will find is that some of Google's pointers count more than others. It generally matters a lot if your content is fresh and original, if visitors are spending more time on your site, if the subject matter reinforces the meta tag descriptions, if other sites find enough value to link to your site, and if you are not trying to trick Google into thinking you are something you're not just to improve your ranking.

If you do go into the marketplace to find professional SEO help, be an informed consumer. Take the time to know what Google and other search engines look for and expect, and then lay down markers and goals for those you hire to help you climb the rankings ladder.

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