Search Engine Optimization

There are plenty of articles out there about meta-tags and robots.txt files and the like.  It IS important to understand these, but for this article were going to go a little more high-level and talk about the fundamental concepts behind search engine optimization.
There are three key concepts to SEO:
1. Content.  You have to have good, relevant content.  You score extra points by having key words in headings (<h> tags) and titles.  It doesn’t hurt to have a good list of keywords in meta-tags, but search engines today rely on these much less than in the past.  Be careful not to have keywords thrown in there just for the sake of it – it has to be real content, i.e. it should read well to a human.  The search-bots are much more clever at discerning between real content and filler.  If you or your members can write articles that are posted for public consumption, that is a BIG plus.
2.  Links In.  You need links into your site.  The more the better.  Links from good, high-traffic sites score higher.  Getting the links is the trick.  Things like Stumble-Upon and Digg-It are helpful.  Obviously, list want to your URL on any directory you can find that is relevant to your target audience.  Posting on blogs and message boards help too, but be careful not look like you are spamming them.  Banner ad buys, or banner exchanges, can be good for this too.  What’s the single best way to get links?  Answer:  Content.  If you have good content, people will link to it.  The more content you have, the more links you get.  The best content for attracting links are original articles, specialized message boards, funny or sexy pictures, clever videos, and games.  You know, all the stuff you go surfing for when you want to kill some time.
3. Don’t try to cheat,  There used to be all sorts of ways to cheat by padding your page with tons of keywords.  These are much less effective today than they used to be.  Like I said, the search-bots are pretty darn smart (Google has some of the brightest minds on the planet working for them), and they can usually tell the difference.  If the search-bot thinks your padding your site, it will score you negatively for it.  Additionally, some of the newer up-and-coming search engines use actual humans to review content.


The Big Six:
Don’t bother with the SEO companies that promise to post your URL to hundreds of search engines.  This is one of the biggest wastes of money out there.  Truth is, there are only six search engines that count.  Everything else is fed by one or more of these six.  Get listed by these and forget about the rest, unless there is one that specifically targets the same niche as you.
Google:  The big dog.  The only search engine we use as a verb.  It still has the lion’s share of the market, plus it feeds and/or supplements a huge number of other engines, including AOL, Netscape, Excite, etc.  Getting indexed is easy, all you have to do is be linked to by someone else who is already indexed.  (You are already indexed.)  Generally speaking, you want to tailor your SEO to Google.  There are whole websites devoted to this.  (Google “Google Page Rank” for more info.)
Yahoo!:  The original search engine.  They are still important, and still have a solid share of the market, plus they feed a lot of other engines.  You can still get indexed for free, but it may take a few weeks, and they make the link for the free submission amazingly hard to find.  (Seriously, plus they move it around, it’s never in the same place as the last time.)  They paid submission, on the other hand, is very easy to find.  Usually though, if you get indexed by Google, Yahoo! will find you shortly thereafter.  (You are already indexed.)
(MSN) Live Search:  The proverbial 800-pound gorilla.  Microsoft is pouring supertanker-loads of money into their search engine, in their attempt to compete with Google.  They have a mountain of cash that says they are, and will continue to be, a serious player in the search market.  Getting indexed has traditionally been both free and easy.  (You are already indexed.)
DMOZ:  a.k.a. the Open Directory Project.  This is a freely redistributable, human powered directory.  It is the search engine equivalent of the Open Source movement.  Nobody searches DMOZ directly, but every search engine on the planet includes their results, including Google.  (The reason is simple – using their results is free to anyone who wants it.)  Getting listed is notoriously difficult, because it is powered by human volunteers.  It’s pretty much luck of the draw, and don’t even try to make sense of why some sites get listed and some don’t.  All you can really do is submit your URL, and hope and pray you get listed sometime in the next two years.  (I’ve heard that one way around this is to volunteer as an editor yourself, then you can list your own URL.  I haven’t tried this yet, so I don’t know.)
Teoma:  a.k.a.  Formerly Ask Jeeves.  The “Jeeves” thing never really caught on, neither did their attempt at a “natural language” search.  Still, they are a player, and they are still trying to innovate, and they feed almost as many other engines as Google.  They no longer allow you to submit a URL to them for free, but they are pretty good at finding you eventually.
InfoSpace:  Most people know them for their white pages / yellow pages, but they run some popular meta-search engines, notably Dogpile and Web Crawler.  They feed a few other engines as well.  Last time I looked, submitting a URL to them was free, and not terribly difficult.


Other Options:

There are also a few paid submission engines (e.g. Overture), and all the search engines have sponsored results or sponsored links – they work, but for most sites they are not cost-effective.  I wouldn’t recommend them unless you have a big advertising budget.
And there is Wikipedia.  I haven’t yet evaluated them as a search engine per se, but I suspect they are becoming more and more important in the grand scheme of things.  Certainly getting listed is easy, you can do it yourself.  Just be careful not to sound too much like a press release (if it reads like advertising, someone will call you out on it).