The Art Of SEO

When people first encounter search engine optimization I think the tendency is to see it completely as a science or mathematical discipline. They look for the successful formula that will take their pages to the top. Maybe something like use keyword ‘x’ times in your page content, ‘y’ times in your page title, and ‘z’ time inside of ‘i’ ‘j’ and ‘k’ page elements and the next time you search for your keyword at your favorite search engine your page will be #1. Those who hold onto this original view of seo generally won’t succeed while those that can move past this early thinking and see search engine optimization more as art based on scientific or mathematical principles have a much greater chance of achieving success.

I wasn’t any different when I first heard about optimizing web pages for maximum search engine visibility. I was looking for things like the perfect keyword density and the exact locations where I should be placing keywords on a page. It’s easy though to see why there is no such things as an exact formula to rank well.

If seo was an exact science and if there was a single formula to use to take a page to #1, then what happens when two web pages use the formula? Which one should a search engine rank first when both pages have gotten the formula just right. I don’t know if there’s a perfect keyword density to a page, but let’s pretend that the ideal density is 7.295%. Wouldn’t all web pages start to be written so that 7.295% of the words on a page were keywords? And once all pages are at exactly 7.295% density which one gets ranked above the others? Ok maybe you can argue that the formula is so complex that no two pages could get it exactly right, but in a sense that’s my point. With something so complex and unknown it takes art not science to get it right.

Recently Google claimed they use over 200 different factors to rank a web page. I’m sure keyword density is one of those ranking factors though I can’t tell you exactly how much weight that factor is given in the overall ranking algorithm, not could I tell you what the best percentage of keywords on a page would be. And in truth I really don’t care to find out. I can with confidence tell you that keyword density counts less than keywords in your page title. And I also feel confident in saying it counts more than the keywords you use in the meta keywords tag. What I’m most confident in saying is that no matter what all those weights are today they may be different tomorrow, which is why it’s not all that important to me to find out exactly what the ideal density might be.

With so many different ranking factors the overall algorithm is pretty complex. It’s unlikely anyone is going to reverse engineer it to the degree that they can figure out an exact formula to better ranking, but they can learn from their own experience and the experience of others that some factors seem to be more important than others and that some factors don’t appear important at all. We can test theories and get a feel for what probably does and doesn’t work, but with so many facotrs it’s nearly impossible to keep everything the static other than the one factor you’re testing.

What’s also true is that the perfect page for a search engine algorithm probably doesn’t read all that great for a human being. Stuffing the exact amount of keywords (if their truly is an exact ideal amount) on a page most likely won’t read well enough to keep someone on that page. I’d even argue that perfecting one ranking factor will often come at the cost of another raking factor. Perhaps by using the ‘right’ keyword in the anchor text to a certain page you may have to lose a little keyword density on the linking page.

The truth is there’s often a balance involved on any web page. A balance between different ranking factors and a balance between creating a page that reads well for both human beings and spiders. Beyond that balance it’s really impossible to figure out how to perfectly optimize a page. Maybe it is possible, but the time it would take would keep you from ever building a website and by the time you found the formula the search engine in question could easily change things and you’d just spend your time ever after cursing them for changing and ruining your life’s work.

That’s why seo is more of an art than a science. A good SEO will understand what’s generally given more weight in a search engine and focus efforts in those areas. They will also understand that while many ranking factors probably have a minor effect in the algorithm they still affect the algorithm. They look to take advantage of those minor things without overdoing things since the consequences of over optimization may be worse than no optimization at all.

The art also comes into play in the details. Everyone can tell you that links are important when it comes to search engines and that while more backlinks are better it’s really quality backlinks that are most important. But how do you identify the sites that will give you a quality link, particularly when a quality link to my site might not be a quality link to your site and vice versa.

The art comes into play in understanding what kind of content will work best in your industry to attract the right kind of links or to choose the right keyphrases that not only lead to traffic, but to the kind of traffic that is predisposed to purchasing something you sell. The art comes in having optimized so many pages in the past you can write the next one without really thinking about keywords and still get a good amount on the page while still having them sound natural.

There is certainly a science when it comes to seo, but it’s far from an exact science. So much about optimization is unknown and so many factors are included in the algorithm that it’s really impossible for anyone to know exactly what will work 100% of the time. The science comes from understanding the generalities and observing what seems to have worked in the past. It comes from seeing patterns in the pages and sites that rank well and testing theories to gain further insight.

But in the end it’s art that optimizes your pages and overall site. It’s art based on the scientific observation and understanding, but art nonetheless.

SEO Ranking Factors

The following are lists of seo ranking factors along with opinions on which factors might carry more weight in search algorithms. Neither list should be taken as representing exactly what it takes to rank well, but both offer insight into what will generally be considered important when optimizing your website

Search Engine Ranking Factors | SEOmoz
Google Ranking Factors – SEO Checklist

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2 comments

  1. Nice article steve. A lot of new webmasters are under the impression that there is a formular they can follow that will ensure #1 place in google, I know that’s what i thought. But SEO has become more of an attitude you have to take towards writing content and promotion…

    Google ironicaly seem to rank pages higher the less obvious the SEO is. If a page is written for a human google will like it, if it’s written for abot they will hate it.

  2. I think most of us started out looking for the magic formula. I know I did and I also know I got frustrated when I couldn’t find it. It seems to be part of what we go through in learning seo. Some eventually understand and are then able to effectively optimize their sites and others seem to stay locked into looking for that elusive secret formula.

    You’re right about Google. I guess the new trick is optimizing a page in a way that completely disguises your optimization from Google, while making it obvious to MSN. And hoping Yahoo sees just some of the optimization, but not too much.

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