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Assuring SEO compliance to boost rankings, avoid penalties

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Jonathan Lawoyin is search engine optimization manager with online marketing company eWayDirect (www.ewaydirect.com). “Hands On: Search” recently asked Lawoyin about search engine compliance.

HOS: What is search engine optimization (SEO) compliance and why is it important?

Lawoyin: It's quite similar to the standards that e-mail marketers must comply with. For example, e-mail marketers know the value of having a sanitized e-mail list to increase deliverbility, and staying compliant with CAN-SPAM and e-mail best practices. The consequences of not doing so can be serious.

As with e-mail tactics, SEO professionals also are required to follow certain guidelines. In this case, the enforcers are the search engines. Their rules are put into place because, at the end of the day, their No. 1 goal is to provide the most relevant results possible to a searcher's query. Therefore, any effort by a webmaster or SEO professional to interfere with this goal by boosting the rankings of undeserving pages is frowned upon.

HOS: What might be considered interference?

Lawoyin: There are some practices, sometimes known as “black-hat SEO,” that search engines may penalize you for doing. For example, there's “keyword stuffing,” or excessively using keywords in Web page copy to boost your rankings based on that keyword. Such attempts are almost always obvious because they appear unnatural.

There's also “blog comment spam,” involving commenting on blogs and forums only for the purpose of generating links back to your site. If you want to comment on blogs, the best solution is to find those that are relevant to what your own site offers, so the match between the two is clear. There are more examples, but as far as SEO is concerned there is one golden rule that should guide your activities: Don't try to fool the search engines.

HOS: Inbound links are highly valued by search engines because they indicate that others consider your Web site worth visiting. Are there “black-hat” practices here?

Lawoyin: Yes. They include “link farming,” involving a group of Web sites that all link to every other site in the group. And then there's the actual buying of links. Search engines are getting better at identifying pages that sell links, and their algorithms are smart enough to devalue such links. It's not a great idea to go around buying links everywhere and expecting to see great long-term results.

HOS: What are the potential ramifications of using these techniques to boost search engine rank-ings?

Lawoyin: These black hat tactics may work for a while, but I've heard many horror stories about SEO professionals who got clients to the first results page of Google for a given keyword, then plummeted 70 spots a few months later. In some cases, their rankings fell just in time to miss holiday season traffic. Unethical tactics are not worth it in the long run.

HOS: What compliant steps can you take to improve search rankings?

Lawoyin: Much of it is just getting back to basics. First, make sure your page titles are descriptive. It's a no-brainer: Your page title plays a huge role in your rankings for a given keyword. Then, ensure that you use keyword-rich text content on your pages. This makes it easier for search engines to “get” what the page is about.

You'll also want to ensure that your URLs are search engine- and user-friendly; and, where possible, include your target key phrases for that page.

As far as linking is concerned, identify opportunities to acquire links. Determine who's linking to your competitors and why they aren't linking to you. Check on who is mentioning your company without a link back to your site. You would be surprised at all the opportunities out there. And remember that internal linking is vital. Don't spend all your time fishing for external links to your site when you are not even linking optimally within your own site.

HOS: Any final thoughts about SEO compliance best practices?

Lawoyin: Get a Google Webmaster Tools account, which is a great way to monitor how the search engine indexes your site content and assesses inbound links, among other features. I also strongly suggest looking at Google's webmaster guidelines link (at www.google.com/support/webmasters) and incorporating the ideas here into your Web site and SEO campaign.

The bottom line about SEO is that you have to view it in terms of being relevant. When you take this view, it is easier to gravitate toward ethical tactics, which yield dividends in the long run if implemented diligently. And that makes for SEO compliance, too.

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