Search Engine Optimisation is a funny little world, there are people out there who will claim to get your website ranked #1 for absolutely any keyword provided you pay a hefty fee. Whilst this is probably true, the methods they use are not at all ethical nor recommended by anybody.
How do they do it?
Well it's simple, most search engine ranking algorithms rate a page by both how many visits it gets, how many links it has incoming, and of course keywords that it finds on the page (and that are on those incoming links).
These so-called "black hat" SEO firms have a whole host of websites that generally contain up to hundreds of hidden links at the bottom, with specific keywords pointing to specific pages across all different websites. These possible spam websites are what builds your ranking, if the firm has around 500 websites that they can instantly spam your link on, that's 500 inbound links, which will give you a lot of traction for the keywords that the links provide.
In addition to this, when you click a link in a search engine, you never go straight to that page, you go via a click tracking URL first (this is normally transparent to the user). Some SEO firms use automated bots (or even pay to outsource around the world) to "click" these links, thus pretending that your website has more traffic than it actually does. Not only does this "help" the search engines, but it also provides you with more visitors when you look at your statistics.
Finally, meta tags would generally be added to a page, particularly the keywords tag, stuffed with the keywords that you have provided to the company. This can also get worse, and result in hidden <h*> tags found in your web page, just to stuff it with more keywords.
So what's the problem?
The problem is that these methods are risky and unethical. You are essentially cheating the system by doing what is described above.
The reason that they are specifically risky is that most search engines, particularly Google, will severely punish, and perhaps even blacklist your website, if it ever got reported or found out to be "cheating".
The question is not whether it's a problem specifically, but whether you're willing to risk your whole website by saving a few bucks and taking a quick ride to the top, that may not even pay off in the first place?
What is the right way?
As mentioned above, algorithms are based on many different variables, all of which can be factored into your website in the correct way. What I didn't mention above is that most search engines (specifically Google and Bing) also rank quite lovingly based on content quality, general correctness of your page, and page loading times.
Note that by general correctness, I'm talking about the markup of your page. If it's a total mess, made in tables and badly-formed HTML4, don't expect your site to be taken too seriously. On the flip side, if your side is written in semantic HTML/XHTML, and the markup would actually make sense to a non-human (ie. your header tags are used correctly, paragraph elements, strong instead of b for 'strong' text, etc. etc.) then it's going to have much more traction when it comes to getting ranking.
Below are just a few small, quick and obvious tips to get your site ranked highly.
- Ensure that your markup is correct. As mentioned above, good markup is the key to getting your content found and indexed in the correct way. This means that your website should be as semantic as possible, using the correct elements for the correct meaning, and much more. There is more to the semantic web than just using the correct tags, however, this is down to your content too. Any good web developer should know the meaning of semantics and put them into practice in every single production.
- Update your content regularly. Quality content is always good. Quality content that changes periodically is even better. When your site changes more often, search engines crawl your site more often, this gives you more chances to get your ranking increased. If your website doesn't have a News or Blog page, get one, and make sure that you update it at least once a week. If you don't think that your business/personal website needs a News/Blog, think again... Can you really say that nothing at all changes on a weekly basis?
- Use meta tags to your advantage. I've always told people that the meta keywords tag means nothing these days, and I stand by it , however some people go crazy for putting meta tags everywhere, so why shouldn't you too? Hey, if it is still used then what harm will it do? The meta description tag is a different beast entirely, this is commonly used in place of content in search engine results. Normally, when you search for a string within a website, the results will show the page's title, and then a snippet of the content located around your search term. When you provide the meta description tag, this is shown instead of that snippet. Use this tag wisely, or not at all.
- Do some link-building. Face it, there will be more than one person/business out there that does the same thing as you, network with them. Find business directories that are specific to your sector and get listed in there. The key here is that you get inbound links, and keep the outbound links to a minimum.
- Write quality content. In addition to keeping your content updated as often as possible, you should make sure that you're writing quality content. Content with keyword spam is not at all considered to be quality, however, something that is unique and in-depth is. This is what you should be aiming for, something unique yet still relevant to your whole field of business.
- Be patient. Gaining ranking in search engines for specific search terms takes time and a lot of experimentation, don't be disheartened if your site isn't #1 result on every search engine in the world within a week. Sometimes the whole optimisation process can take months, and a lot of effort on your part to change your content around and find the best solution.
I am going to say it again, quality content and semantic markup are the 2 most important points here, as well as keeping your site up to date. You may have the best site in the world in 2006, which could be ranked #1 for every search term imaginable, however if you don't keep that site current with 2011's information / changes, it's soon going to go out of date. Sure, this is an extreme example but you see what I mean.