When you type words into a search engine such as Google, it returns a list of thousands of websites that have those words.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the art of ensuring that your site is listed for any words your potential client might think to enter, and that it is ranked high on the list.
I refer mostly to Google here, because more people use Google than all other search engines combined.
In the early days, Google ranked your site higher if many other sites linked to it. This was abused and long lists of unrelated sites are now penalized. Search engines now use secret formulas to rank pages. Secret, but sensible, and search engines are constantly improving.
Search engines’ business models rely on providing accurate results. They want your site to be easy to evaluate, and to provide high quality content. Google even writes SEO guides to help you (published 2010). In January 2016 they added a one-page SEO guide.
In general, they look for:
- websites made for people, not search engines.
- useful, well-organized information, usually with key words near the top of the content.
- websites that people visit often. (Yes, search engines look at browser history and internet records.)
- frequent additions of quality material, such as blog posts. (You can improve this asking your friends to visit your site every you add or change material.)
- websites that other sites consider useful, especially if the referring site is highly ranked.
- other sites that naturally link deep into your site and use natural language. They should link to the article rather than your landing page. Natural language is linking meaningful words that are part of the text, rather than rather than “Click here.”
- information that stays in the same place, so the engine can find it.
- pages that web crawlers can read. (They cannot read images. Add captions and alternative text.)
- informative page titles, web addresses and link titles. (A link called “Sandy Schoen” going to a page called “Sandy Schoen”, with an address including the words “Sandy Schoen” is more informative than a link called “About Me”, going to a page called “About”, with the URL “www.onebit.ca/p=37”.)
- honesty. Search engines penalize sites that try to fool them.
You do not need to pay an SEO expert to do that for you. Many SEO experts rely on out-dated methods that try to trick the search engines. Search engines frown on that, and even penalize those methods. There are, however SEO experts who do it right. It can be expensive, and it’s more about marketing and communication than technology.
As far as the technology goes, WordPress helps search engines by programming with them in mind and by giving its users (you) good advice on SEO. (This is a very good article to read after you write your first draft.)
Since 2009, WordPress takes care of 80-90% of [the mechanics of] Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It maintains a site map so search engines can explore your site efficiently. It tells Google every time you add a post or page. It makes adding descriptive text to a picture easy. It allows you to enter a post slug (words that are added to the web address).
Google can find and index information even if no other page links to it. Google collects information from your Internet Service Provider (ISP, the company that runs the wire to your home) and from your browser. The only way to keep something private is to keep it off the internet or to protect it with a password.
If your potential visitor is using a mobile device, and your site is mobile-friendly, Google will increase your rank for that search. This is new in 2015. It does not affect you if most of your potential visitors are using large screens, or if your competitors’ sites don’t get the mobile-friendly boost.
Hiding unrelated text on a page to increase rankings is frowned on and might be penalized. This is different from using captions and alternate text to describe a picture. The first tries to show Google one thing, and humans something else. The second helps Google see what the humans see, and also helps humans who cannot see.
One argument for hiding text is so you can include mis-spellings of search terms. That way, people who cannot type will still find your site. Now that search engines correct spelling, this is much less important. Also, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, says that while Google does not look at spelling and grammar directly, reputable sites usually have better spelling. Would you recommend someone who can’t be bothered to proof-read their website?
Search for a term customers might use. Does useful information show up, or a generic “Welcome to our website”? (Unfortunately, sites hosted by wordpress.com cannot change that description, called the meta. Nothing is perfect.)
In general, remember that search engines make money by helping visitors find sites that solve their problems.