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Search Engine Optimized vs. Search Engine Friendly Websites

Mark Jackson
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In my years in the search engine optimization (SEO) industry, I've heard so many tales of web design firms that claim to do SEO. Or, there are stories about programmers/IT folks who tell their superiors, "I've got SEO handled."

All too often, these folks really don't have a clue.

This isn't the case 100 percent of the time, but many times people will build what amounts to a "search engine friendly" website without truly understanding how to build a search engine "optimized" website.

SEO vs. SEF: What's the Difference?

Not every website that has a good URL structure is search engine "optimized." A good URL structure might be defined as something that resembles this:

www.example.com/category/product-name/

A poor URL structure (for search engine "friendliness") would be something like:

www.example.com/IWCatProductPage.process?
Merchant_Id=1&Section_Id=691&Product_Id=1439522&
Parent_Id=302&default_color=BLACK&sort_by=§ioncolor=&
sectionsize=

The above bad example comes from an actual top Internet retailer's website.

Creating a better URL structure certainly does help. But does that make the site "optimized" or does it merely mean that the site is one step closer to being search engine "friendly"?

There are many technicalities to developing a search engine "friendly" website. For the purposes of this column, I'll speak pretty high level on the search engine "friendly" factor, then get down a little deeper into how it can become search engine optimized.

SEO + SEF

When you commit yourself to building a website that can do well in the search engines, you must first ensure that the website's foundation is sound -- that it's search engine "friendly."

Many enterprise-level content management systems are a horror when it comes to SEO, churning out URLs like the one mentioned previously. Some are so locked down that you can't gain access to the structure to modify to make it more search engine friendly, leaving you unable to:

  • Handle canonicalization issues
  • Rewrite URLs
  • Add breadcrumbs
  • Change headers
  • Optimize images

Do some research on the platform. See if other websites are able to rank well in the search engines running on a similar solution.

Make sure that you understand the details of the platform. Do you have to pay extra to get the exact same solution that the ranking websites are running on?

Also, make sure that the websites running on the solution aren't using a cloaking system, which are somewhat popular with large e-commerce websites. If the URL showing up in the SERP is different than when you navigate directly through the website, there's a good chance the website is using "good" cloaking.

Another place to check is the website's robots.txt file. Type in the website domain, followed by robots.txt (e.g., www.example.com/robots.txt). If you see that they are disallowing (from the search engines) basically "everything" on the domain, there's a good chance that they are doing "good" cloaking, and using one of these systems.

Once you get past that, in order for you to ensure that you are actually building a search engine optimized website, you must make sure that you've done some keyword research, competitive analysis, link analysis, and checked the overall structure of the website. My bet is that the Web designer/IT guy hasn't done any of this.

Content is King

When you do keyword research, especially for a website that you're in the midst of building, you want to determine the keywords that are relevant to your business, searched often, and -- here's the kicker -- that you have some degree of authority on, or a reason why the search engines might think that you're a quality result to show in the rankings.

Do you have a page on your website that's actually focused on the keywords that you think are important to your business? Amazingly enough, a lot of websites fall short here. You simply don't have the content (sometimes not even so much as a mention of the keyword) on a page.

Keyword research and competitive analysis are best done in tandem. Find keywords that have popularity/search volume, and then determine if you have any chance for ranking for that keyword. If the answer to both questions is "yes," then you need to determine a strategy for that keyword.

Information Architecture/Keyword Mapping

Once you've developed a list of keywords to target, find a place for the content/pages to exist.

Remember, usability is an important part of this process. Don't just build a bunch of pages, link to these "doorway" pages in the footer of the website, and think this adds value to the user experience.

You want to add value to the user experience, as much as you want to add value to the search engines. Both usability and SEO can work toward common goals.

Blog Posts/Tips and Advice

A lot of times, the best way to create the content (especially for those websites in which your target audience is doing a lot of research) is to create a blog. You can take advantage of industry news by writing quick blog posts against "new" news, you can ask questions, and then provide answers (e.g., "what to do about a broken air conditioner").

This type of helpful content doesn't really make a lot of sense for a corporate website, so you have to find areas of your website in which you can be a little bit more human in your use of the English language. Find out how people are searching, and develop content for those searches.

A lot goes into the SEO process. It isn't possible to get into everything that you should be doing for your particular website in one single column. The purpose here is to illustrate some things that you might be lacking by solely believing that a search engine "friendly" website structure is going to equate to a search engine "optimized" presence.

This column originally ran on ClickZ. Search Engine Watch is glad to welcome back Mark Jackson as a regular contributor beginning in February.


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