Sunday, May 9, 2010

Optimizing Your Website - Search Engines and PageRank

To the previous post about Cleaning Up My Online Profile, a friend of mine asked if I could talk a bit about search engine optimization and page rank.  I've actually wanted to write a post on this for a while, but I've been reluctant because I am not an expert.  However, I have found some excellent websites to get you going.

This article focuses on the theory of website design.  In a future post, I'll provide more links to specific online resources to help you start your website.

Decide What Kind of Website to Build
In building a new website, I believe the first most important aspect is perspective.  Before you begin, you want to have a general idea of what your website will be about and what you want to accomplish.  Will this be something for fun, or are you planning on turning this into a source of revenue?

Just today I discovered what is perhaps the most informative one-minute video on how to start a blog: One Minute with Lorelle.  One of her key points is to choose your focus early on.  For example, this is a writing website - my articles are focused on the art of creative writing.  Here and there I add in articles like this because they will benefit my intended audience of creative writers.  But if I veered off too far, it wouldn't be a writing website anymore.  But then, I don't know enough about the internet to make it a tech site, either - if I tried, I would run the risk of creating a site that catered to the needs of no one in particular.

For writers, this focus on the audience has always been of critical importance.  Long before the internet, authors sought their markets based on genre - romance writers didn't try selling to science fiction readers, and poets didn't specifically target mass audiences.  As you build your website, you'll need to decide just how specific a group of people you wish to attract.  I myself love to write science fiction, but I strongly believe in attracting visitors from all areas of writing.  You may find that you're only interested in mysteries, or (even more specific) that you only want to write Harry Potter fan fiction.  Just remember - it doesn't matter so much which audience you target so long as you know who it is you'll cater to.  That will decide the search terms you emphasize and it will affect which websites you choose for link exchanges.  And it will, naturally, determine the content you post.

Take a Look at the Big-Picture Internet
Currently, we are witnessing a revolution in the way the internet works.  A few years ago, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) emerged as the long-term route to attract customers to a site.  This model emerged with the sudden prominence of search engines such as Google and Yahoo.  Essentially, the search engines try to sort and rank each site automatically by considering the content on the site (i.e. the number of keywords mentioned in the text), the number of other websites which direct users to it, and by tracking how long each user spends visiting a site.  Essentially, every website is ranked against every other website in regards to the keywords you type into the search engines.

Because of this, not all websites are created equal.  For a better idea of how Google uses PageRank to assign relevance to each website, see the PageRank Article on Wikipedia.

After reading that, bear in mind that Social Networking is now changing the internet in the same way that the internet has changed modern life.  Previously, we searched the web for information - now we seek connection.  We no longer simply check the show times for local concerts - we post our thoughts about their songs on our favorite fan pages.  And this, I believe, will play havoc with the very idea of search engine optimization.  Wikipedia and Facebook are both prime examples of the power of the masses to not only produce vast quantities of information, but to also self-regulate that information, bringing together relevant information at remarkable speeds.

In a real sense, providing information on a website won't be enough to compete - we'll need to draw in visitors by reaching out to them, by attracting their friends, and by responding to their needs.  Currently, websites which are carefully constructed by small groups of experts may find themselves competing with smaller, less-planned websites which draw on the knowledge of hundreds or possibly thousands of visitors.  For this reason, I believe that websites targeting the younger social networking audience will have a real edge during the next decade.  And the best websites will manage a combination of both - expert information which is continually updated via questions, comments, and open forum discussions.

Always Be Prepared to Change
I know this might sound self-evident, but it's amazing how little we know about our own plans.  When I began 1-2-Writing, I had plans of teaching free online workshops which would attract enough satisfied customers that I could turn them into well-paying online workshops.  It would have been a good plan if not for the necessities of rent and food.  Back then, I didn't realize just how time consuming it is to teach a writing workshop - especially the kind of workshop that students will want to take again.  I simply didn't have enough teaching experience to understand how many hours will go into planning a lesson, and then leading a discussion, and then reading the assignments and providing good feedback.  My shortcomings here weren't due to a lack of computer savvy - I was simply too inexperienced within my field.

This is where education comes in.  As a writer, I can say that my two years working on an MFA have taught me a great deal about both writing and teaching.  My writing hasn't improved as much as I was hoping it would, but my understanding of how to improve my writing has matured a great deal.

Be Ready to Persevere
The same holds for developing a website.  In general, I've found that many hours of brain-mashed-against-keyboard could have been averted with just a little more research.  Conversely, many of the aspects of web design I understand best directly resulted from those hours of frustration.  Always remember that the internet is complicated - everyone struggles to get the most bang-for-the-buck when it comes to websites.  Don't allow setbacks to halt progress.  Take some time off, work on something else for a bit, but don't give up your overall dream.  If something doesn't work, Google it.  Find out how others have taken on the same problem.  Sometimes, you'll find a fix - other times, you'll find that there is no fix, or that a fix has not yet been invented.  Either way, remember that this is all education, that we're all facing a changing internet.  Trust me - the "rules" of web design you learn today will give way to new rules within a few years.

In this article, I've only provided links to get you started.  I haven't had a chance to thoroughly explore all of these links myself yet, either.  I encourage you to keep looking, to see what you can do.  After all, you're passionate enough to start a website - that alone is reason enough to keep going, even it's just a little bit every day.

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