Book Review: “The Truth About Search Engine Optimization”

Start a conversation with a search engine marketer and things can get geeky fast. There’s talk about spiders, breadcrumb navigation, and duplicate content. If you want to see a search marketer’s eyes light up, mention universal search and algorithms. Then there’s the great divide: those search engine marketers who work on paid search campaigns and those who toil on SEO (define), also known as organic or natural search.

Like any specialized business, SEM (define) has spawned its own vocabulary.

Granted, not everyone needs to be an expert. But as organizations allocate a bigger share of their marketing budgets to SEM, more people must become acquainted with best practices and the language of search marketers. That includes traditional marketers, project managers, online editors, producers and designers, and even employment recruiters and business analysts — anyone with his hand in operating or overseeing his company’s Web site.

These professionals must get a clue about search marketing for self-preservation or career advancement. To learn more about SEO, they would be well served by picking up a copy of a new book, “The Truth About Search Engine Optimization,” written by Rebecca Lieb, former editor-in-chief of ClickZ and Search Engine Watch and now VP at Econsultancy. (Lieb also contributes to this column on alternate weeks.)

“The Truth About Search Engine Optimization” is a lot like its author: a no-nonsense guide that’s smart and sassy. “It’s not a book for geeks,” Lieb writes in the book’s intro. Instead, she says she’s writing for Webmasters at small sites or CMOs overseeing a search optimization initiative.

She starts with SEO basics. “[It] is about how to make your website ‘findable’ by the right person at the right time,” she writes, providing one of the best definitions of SEO that I’ve seen. “If you have a business with a web presence, not being findable on the major search engines is akin to not being listed in the phonebook — only worse, perhaps.”

“The Truth About Search Engine Optimization” is broken into 51 easy-to-digest chapters that examine truths about SEO. Chapters carry titles such as “Think like a publisher, even if you’re not” and “Site and page design count.” Most chapters are broken down further with tips and recommended action items highlighted by bullet points. Here are some examples from three different chapters.

Everyone Is Local Somewhere

Writes Lieb: “A down-and-dirty (as well as highly effective) technique to optimize for local search is not to rely on a single ‘Contact’ page for local information. A local business can add a footer to every single page of its website that contains its street address, city, state, zip code, and local phone number, including area code.”

Share and Share Alike: Reciprocal Linking

When should one Web site link to another? It’s a tactic that can build traffic and increase a site’s visibility in search results. “Make a list of likely candidates and link to them from your website. Only after doing so should you compose a short, personalized note (use the webmaster’s or publisher’s name whenever possible). Take care that the note includes a positive remark about their site,” she writes.

What’s in a Title? Everything…

A whole chapter is devoted to title tags (define), the text that appears in a Web browser’s top bar and in the clickable link on a search engine results page. Take the example of a Seattle law firm. Lieb recommends that marketers first research what keywords are being used in searches. “Are people searching for lawyer or lawyers, attorney or attorneys, law firm, or a combination of all these words?” she asks. This information can help inform the selection of words used in title tags. Instead of using nondescriptive words like “about” or “contact,” the author recommends getting a little bit more informational with phrases like, “How to contact a Seattle attorney” or “About this law firm.”

One caution about “The Truth About Search Engine Optimization” format: it may not be suited for visual learners. It lacks images. Some people, for instance, might find it useful to see and compare examples of page elements such as title tags versus headings, or description tags versus meta keyword tags.

Still, the book is a valuable resource for just about anyone who has some role in her company’s Web site. It can be read to refresh your SEO knowledge or to learn SEO basics.

Anna Maria is off this week. Today’s column originally ran on March 20, 2009.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.