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  |  June 9, 2010   |  Comments

A look at the difference between a search engine "friendly" website and a search engine "optimized" website.

In my years in the search engine optimization industry, I have heard so many tales of Web design firms that claim to do SEO (define). Or, there are stories about programmers/IT folks who tell their superiors, "I've got search engine optimization handled." All too often, these folks really don't have a clue.

This is not 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.

What's the difference?

OK, so here's the deal...

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:


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


Yes, the above example of "bad" 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.

How do we make sure that the website is actually search engine optimized, as well as friendly?

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. Some content management systems churn 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. Some items that come to mind are the ability to handle canonicalization issues, URL rewriting, adding breadcrumbs, changing headers, optimizing images, and so on. So, do some research on the platform. See if other websites are able to do 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 websites which are ranking are running on?). Make sure that the websites running on the solution aren't using one of the cloaking systems, which are somewhat popular with large e-commerce websites.

Note on that: If the URL showing up in the SERP (define) is different than that if you were to navigate - directly - through the website, there's a good chance that the website is utilizing "good" cloaking. Another good way to check is to check the website's robots.txt file. You would check this by typing in the website domain, followed by robots.txt (www.sitename.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, yes, checked the overall structure of the website. My bet is that the Web designer/IT guy has not done any of this.

Content Is King

When you do keyword research, especially for a website that you are 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.

The first question to ask yourself is, do I have a page on my website that's actually focused on the keywords that I think are important to my 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.

I typically like to see keyword research and competitive analysis done in tandem. You find keywords that have popularity/search volume, and then you determine if you have any chance at all 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 very much an important part of this process. Don't just build a bunch of pages, link to these (I would call them) "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 towards 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 ("what to do about a broken air conditioner"). Case in point: Service Experts, our client that provides helpful information through its website. It has received quite a few visits recently from people searching for HVAC Maintenance Checklist.

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.

There's a lot that goes into the process of search engine optimization. It's not 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.

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Mark Jackson

Mark Jackson is the president and CEO of Vizion Interactive, Inc., a leading SEO company headquartered in Dallas, TX, with offices in Overland Park, KS and Clearwater Beach, FL. Mark joined the interactive marketing fray in early 2000 in business development with Lycos/Wired Digital and then AOL Time Warner. After having witnessed the bubble burst and its lingering effects on stability on the job front, Mark established an interactive marketing agency and has cultivated it into one of the most respected search engine optimization firms in the United States.

Vizion Interactive was founded on the premise that honesty, integrity, and transparency forge the pillars that strong partnerships should be based upon. Vizion Interactive is a full-service interactive marketing agency, specializing in search engine optimization, search engine marketing/PPC management, social media marketing, SEO friendly Web design/development, analytics installations/analysis, and other leading edge interactive marketing services, including being one of the first 50 beta testers of Google TV.

Mark is a member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association (DFWSEM), the Dallas/Fort Worth Interactive Marketing Association (DFWIMA) and is a regular speaker at the Search Engine Strategies and Pubcon conferences.

Mark received a B.A. in journalism/advertising from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1993 and spent several years in traditional marketing (radio, television, and print) prior to venturing into all things "Web."

Follow Mark on Vizion Interactive at @vizionweb. For more information, visit Vizion's SEO Blog.

His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.

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