[ This is the first in a series of SEO articles.]

I led a workshop for the Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce a few months back and realized how many myths and questions there were about SEO. I want to dispel some myths and answer a few questions in the space of the next few editions of Fish Wrap.

The common wisdom is that you should put lots of keywords into your website’s metatags so the search engines can read them and send people to your site when they search for those terms. Well, this is not entirely true. The reason is that as you may know, you can put any darn word in there you want without a care for what the reader sees. Think of this from the search engine’s perspective. How many times will you use a search engine if you keep getting results that have nothing to do with what you’re searching for?

The bottom line in good search results is having accurate, specific keywords in places where people can read them, not just search engines. That means, primarily, in the body and title. Those contain bits of text that people read in their quest to fulfill their search for products, services and information. The search engine programmers know that those are two parts of the page that a site owner must be accurate with, lest they lose the customer that just landed on their site.

With that out of the way, first I’m going to cover how to search, because you need to know a few things about that to get the rest. Bonus: you’ll be able to use this in your daily life when you look up things online.

You can search for a word, a phrase, or an exact phrase. If you search for a word, you’ll get endless results with that word. If you search for a phrase, for example, apartment rental, you’ll get search results with those words in it. You may also find something with the phrase, “apartment rentals”. Or, “we specialize in apartment management for rental units. Or, “If you don’t have enough room in your apartment, come check out our rental storage units.”

These last two are not what you’re looking for since your really wanted to rent an apartment. The exact phrase search is the one you want to really narrow down your search. You get an exact phrase match by putting quotes around your phrase. This tells the search engines that you want those words together in that order. With quotes around your phrase, you will only get search results with that exact phrase you put into the search box.

Now to behave like a web surfer: Say you’re going to be looking for a place to live in Portland, Oregon. You want to start with apartment rentals. If you search for “apartment rentals” you’ll find millions of results, all over the world, so naturally you want to narrow your search by adding in the city. So you search for “apartment rentals, portland, oregon”. You’re guaranteed to find some relevant listings. But is that specific enough for your purposes? Maybe you want to start your search near where you work. So, you add your neighborhood to the search string. Your search may now look like this: “portland oregon arbor lodge apartment rentals”.

• portland oregon arbor lodge apartment rentals
yields about 7000 results

• portland oregon neighborhood arbor lodge apartment rentals
yields about 3760 results

• portland oregon neighborhood arbor lodge apartment rentals dsl
yields about 1,790 results

• portland oregon neighborhood arbor lodge apartment rentals dsl swimming pool
yields about 1,620 results

“portland oregon neighborhood arbor lodge apartment rentals dsl swimming pool” in quotes yields 0 results because no one has that exact phrase. If there were one, it would be the only one to show up. No competition!

As you can see, the more search terms you use, the more refined your search results will be. This is the challenging part – getting a really good match without mangling your copy so badly that it is meaningless to a human. Google and the others rely heavily on that fact that you need people to read the text on your site. Google’s primary advice on SEO is to make your site human-friendly. If you do that well, you can place higher in the search engines.

Note that even the order of the words matter. If you rearrange the order of the first query to “apartment rentals, portland, oregon, arbor lodge” you get about 6200 results. You can address this on your site by including variations on your main phrase.

Now, how does this affect your website? Simple: you need to put those words and phrases that people will be searching for in your site. Be as specific as you can be. I’ll talk about this more in the next article (or call Birch Studio for a consultation if you need help sooner).