Search Engine Optimization
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the volume and quality of traffic to a web site from search engines via "natural" ("organic" or "algorithmic") search results for targeted keywords. Usually, the earlier a site is presented in the search results, or the higher it "ranks", the more searchers will visit that site. SEO can also target different kinds of search, including image search, local search, and industry-specific vertical search engines.
As a marketing strategy for increasing a site's relevance, SEO considers how search algorithms work and what people search for. SEO efforts may involve a site's coding, presentation, and structure, as well as fixing problems that could prevent search engine indexing programs from fully spidering a site. Other, more noticeable efforts may include adding unique content to a site, ensuring that content is easily indexed by search engine robots, and making the site more appealing to users. Another class of techniques, known as black hat SEO or spamdexing, use methods such as link farms and keyword stuffing that tend to harm search engine user experience. Search engines look for sites that employ these techniques and may remove them from their indexes.
The initialism "SEO" can also refer to "search engine optimizers", a term adopted by an industry of consultants who carry out optimization projects on behalf of clients, and by employees who perform SEO services in-house. Search engine optimizers may offer SEO as a stand-alone service or as a part of a broader marketing campaign. Because effective SEO may require changes to the HTML source code of a site, SEO tactics may be incorporated into web site development and design. The term "search engine friendly" may be used to describe web site designs, menus, content management systems and shopping carts that are easy to optimize.
Webmasters and content providers began optimizing sites for search engines in the mid-1990s, as the first search engines were cataloging the early Web. Initially, all a webmaster needed to do was submit a page, or URL, to the various engines which would send a spider to "crawl" that page, extract links to other pages from it, and return information found on the page to be indexed. The process involves a search engine spider downloading a page and storing it on the search engine's own server, where a second program, known as an indexer, extracts various information about the page, such as the words it contains and where these are located, as well as any weight for specific words and all links the page contains, which are then placed into a scheduler for crawling at a later date.
Site owners started to recognize the value of having their sites highly ranked and visible in search engine results. According to industry analyst Danny Sullivan, the earliest known use of the phrase "search engine optimization" was a spam message posted on Usenet on July 26, 1997.
Early versions of search algorithms relied on webmaster-provided information such as the keyword meta tag, or index files in engines like ALIWEB. Meta-tags provided a guide to each page's content. But using meta data to index pages was found to be less than reliable because the webmaster's account of keywords in the meta tag were not truly relevant to the site's actual keywords. Inaccurate, incomplete, and inconsistent data in meta tags caused pages to rank for irrelevant searches. Web content providers also manipulated a number of attributes within the HTML source of a page in an attempt to rank well in search engines.
By relying so much on factors exclusively within a webmaster's control, early search engines suffered from abuse and ranking manipulation. To provide better results to their users, search engines had to adapt to ensure their results pages showed the most relevant search results, rather than unrelated pages stuffed with numerous keywords by unscrupulous webmasters. Search engines responded by developing more complex ranking algorithms, taking into account additional factors that were more difficult for webmasters to manipulate.
Graduate students at Stanford University, Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed "backrub", a search engine that relied on a mathematical algorithm to rate the prominence of web pages. The number calculated by the algorithm, PageRank, is a function of the quantity and strength of inbound links. PageRank estimates the likelihood that a given page will be reached by a web user who randomly surfs the web, and follows links from one page to another. In effect, this means that some links are stronger than others, as a higher PageRank page is more likely to be reached by the random surfer.
Page and Brin founded Google in 1998. Google attracted a loyal following among the growing number of Internet users, who liked its simple design. Off-page factors such as PageRank and hyperlink analysis were considered, as well as on-page factors, to enable Google to avoid the kind of manipulation seen in search engines that only considered on-page factors for their rankings. Although PageRank was more difficult to game, webmasters had already developed link building tools and schemes to influence the Inktomi search engine, and these methods proved similarly applicable to gaining PageRank. Many sites focused on exchanging, buying, and selling links, often on a massive scale. Some of these schemes, or link farms, involved the creation of thousands of sites for the sole purpose of link spamming.
To reduce the impact of link schemes, as of 2007, search engines consider a wide range of undisclosed factors for their ranking algorithms. Google says it ranks sites using more than 200 different signals. The three leading search engines, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Live Search, do not disclose the algorithms they use to rank pages. Notable SEOs, such as Rand Fishkin, Barry Schwartz, Aaron Wall and Jill Whalen, have studied different approaches to search engine optimization, and have published their opinions in online forums and blogs. SEO practitioners may also study patents held by various search engines to gain insight into the algorithms.