For SEO Beginners: Twelve Definitions You Need To Know
By Mike Tekula (c) 2007
SEO is a trade that exists solely on the internet, and even then it is comprised almost entirely of the hot air of so-called "expert opinion." Plenty of it blowing around these days as search maintains position as one of the most important marketplaces in the modern business world. Many DIY webmasters will end up searching for blog entries, articles, informational web sites, etc to help get them up to speed. The problem is that in most cases certain key terms are flung around like household names while the people doing the flinging are way out of touch with the average web browser. What some of us don't realize is that not everyone knows even the basics of SEO.
This list of twelve SEO-related definitions in alphabetical order (with notes) serves as a great companion for your initial SEO reading. Read alone it will get you up to speed on some key terminology that you'll need to know to intelligently engage the ever-changing world of SEO.
• Algorithms. A search algorithm is, in short, the incredibly complex mathematical formula that a search engine uses to "rank" web sites for keywords. Based on a huge number of variables and calculations, algorithms are among the most closely-guarded secrets on the internet. Why? Imagine if they were leaked - suddenly the less-than-honest would have a very specific guideline to follow in climbing to the top of search results in a less-than-organic way, ruining the quality of Google's search results and their entire competitive advantage with it.
• Bot or Bots. See also "crawlers"
• Crawlers. Googlebot, for example, is a search engine crawler. Googlebot periodically traverses the web in record time, indexing content, links - everything contained in page source code - and storing it in Google's search index. Then, when a user visits Google and enters a search phrase, the index, filtered by the algorithm, is what the user gets. Please note: there is some delay in this process since the results you're getting are from the index and not the live web.
• Directories. When webmasters realized just how much power inbound links have in determining search rankings they quickly set out to do two things: 1) get inbound links and 2) set up web sites where other webmasters could achieve inbound links (meaning big traffíc revenues for the site). Hence the directory farms you'll find today. Link building has been a priority on the líst of any SEO-savvy webmaster for years, and as a result "quick fix" directories that allow streamlined listing submissions get a ton of traffíc. However, Google and the other major search engines are on to this tactic, and the word among SEO "experts" is that the benefits of listing your site at directories are diminished if not gone.
• Frames. Frames are a way of laying out a website with multiple documents in one browser window. Essentially, there is one main document which contains the frameset tag - this document specifies the dimensions/placement of the frames and also the documents that will "populate" those frames. From an SEO standpoint the use of frames for your layout is not recommended. Since frames do not use links in the same way, and since links may point to one frame from another, they may cause serious problems for crawlers. Additionally, there are almost no uses for frames that can't either be 1) duplicated with other methods or 2) thrown away without much fuss. If your site was built with frames and you're thinking you don't want to rebuild - it might be tough luck if you're interested in optimizing for search. Consider it a learning experience - build yourself a CSS-based layout.
• Gateway Pages. Also "doorway pages." Although there isn't a real consensus about what these pages are, their function is always cited as their definition. In other words, these pages are created to "rank well in search engines" by playing to the algorithms. Often viewed as "spammy," "gray hat" or even "black hat." However, any page written with search in mind, and geared towards search, can be construed to be a "gateway page." The difference between a page well-optimized for search and a "gateway page?" No clear lines there, but quality of content is probably the determining factor.
• HTML. Okay, most of you probably know this one, but there are probably some of you who don't. HTML stands for Hyper-Text Mark-up Language, and it is the core building block that has made the web the greatest modern tool for business, social, informational, political and any other causes. Search engines look exclusively at a web page's HTML code to determine its relevance. Therefore, it's a good idea to pay attention to HTML and familiarize yourself with proper tagging techniques if you're hoping to get a good handle on SEO.
• Link Popularity. Inbound links are probably the most important optimization point for web pages. Number, quality, trust - these are all factors that affect the value of an inbound link. Going back to the HTML root of search, link popularity (in terms of quantity) measures how many pages point to your site using anchor text ( link text ).
• Link Building. In short, the process of gaining links at other web sites pointing in to pages on your own.
• Link Baiting. The process of generating high-quality content on your pages that users will appreciate and link to voluntarily.
• Meta Tags. Meta tags are found at the top of a page's source code. They are used to specify certain things that might not be found in the page content. They also allow webmasters to put up certain "flags" that search engine crawlers can react to. There are many Meta tags available for use, and many of them can help with SEO to a great extent and for a variety of purposes. However, Meta tags are no longer used in the way they originally were - as a place to stuff keywords to drive your site up in rankings. Some webmasters out there are still doing this, but they are decidedly behind the times and unaware of the impending, or already cast-down, penalties.
• Robots. See also "crawlers."
• Search Engines. If you don't know what a search engine is congratulations on finally making it out from under that rock. Search engines are essentially programs that scan an existing index of the web based on a query of search terms, or keywords, that a user enters. However, the word more commonly refers to companies as a whole - Google, for example, controls a search engine, while Googlebot is the crawler that gathers content for its index, but most users and webmasters think of a search engine as the whole package.
• Search Engine Marketing. Most often this refers to Pay-Per-Click marketing in which an advertiser bids on chosen keywords and writes several ads to be displayed should their bid achieve placement. These ads are displayed in the "sponsored" section of search engine result pages (SERPS). However, in some circles this term is used to refer to any action taken to gain rankings both paid and organic.
• Search Engine Optimization. This one is open to interpretation. It is quite often used to encapsulate a huge amount of different tactics. On-site optimization, off-site optimization (link building, etc) and many other techniques all feasibly fall under the SEO blanket. However, there is an obvious difference between optimizing a page's code to be clean and search friendly and writing link bait that will be popular and get linked to.
• Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). The pages resulting from a search engine query run by a user. Webmasters review these pages to determine where their pages are ranking for certain search terms.
• Spamming. Basically, any unnatural effort to bring a page higher in search results. What constitutes sp@m is open to some interpretation, but the only interpretation you need to worry about is that of the major search engines. If Google, for example, considers a technique "spammy" you'd be wise to cease at once.
• Spiders. See also "crawlers."
• Submission. For SEO this has traditionally meant submitting a web site to search engines so they'll know about and crawl it. SEO firms offered submission services as a big selling point to bring in clients. However, for a long time now submitting your site to search engines hasn't done jack. They're all much smarter now - just focus on gaining quality inbound links and your site will be indexed in no time.
This is just a sample of the core vocabulary associated with SEO. Is this all you need to know? Absolutely not. But in my experience these are the words and phrases that newcomers have the most trouble with. If these definitions help one person have a better understanding of SEO, then I will be satisfied.
About The Author
Mike Tekula handles SEO, SEM, usability and standards-compliance for NewSunGraphics, a Long Island, New York firm offering Search Engine Optimization, Search Engine Marketing, W3C-Compliant web design using full CSS layouts and all things web design/development.