I really wish people would stop referring to the organic search results as “free.” Of course, any site can show up in search accidentally for any number of terms and it doesn’t cost you anything. But if you set out to deliberately optimize your site, it will cost you something, either in money or in time (or both).
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is not “free.” Doing it yourself may not cost as much out of pocket as hiring a good SEO firm, but it will cost you a great deal of time — both your time in terms of learning how to do proper SEO and then implement what needs to be done and the time it will take for your efforts to generate an effect.
As I am fond of saying: there’s fast, there’s cheap, and there’s good. You get to choose (at most) two. If you want good SEO, you’ll have to choose between cheap and fast. You can’t have all three. (Sorry…)
The main problem with teaching yourself SEO is that you will find a great deal of outdated information and outright wrongheaded ideas online.
There are a lot of so-called “SEO experts” who speak with an air of authority but who have very little idea what they’re talking about. Very few of them actually test their ideas; most simply repeat something they read somewhere else. Of the few who actually try testing, most have no training in how to set up or evaluate a statistically valid experiment, so their tests don’t necessarily prove what the SEOs think they do.
If you wind up hiring or following the advice of these self-proclaimed “gurus” you’ll end up wasting a lot of time on tactics that will have little to no effect.
Boiling it down to the essentials, there are three things you need for good SEO:
A highly user-friendly website
Easy to navigate without excessive clicking, easy for visitors to find information, logical menu structure, informative link anchor text, etc. It is not necessary for your code to pass W3C validation, and passing that validation will not improve your rankings. In fact, it’s quite possible to produce a site that passes validation with flying colors but is still completely unusable. Usability trumps validation every time. For usability testing information and ideas, check sites like Marketing Experiments or Which Test Won.
Engaging, interesting, and useful. For more information on how to create high-converting content, check with sites like The Conversion Scientist, Copy Hackers or Psychotactics. Articles written by overseas writers who do not fluently speak and write your language and/or articles pulled from article directories and/or automated product feeds do not count as “excellent content.”
Solid editorial links
That is, links that other website owners create pointing to your pages because you have such interesting and useful content or because you did something noteworthy and they want to share it with their own site visitors. These are not links that you created yourself. They are NOT blog comments, or forum signatures, or directory submissions or any of the other easy link sources you’ll read about from many so-called “SEO gurus.” For expert information about link acquisition, try checking Debra Mastaler at Alliance-Link or Eric Ward (author of the Link Moses newsletter).
I don’t mean to scare you away. I think every business owner needs to plan for and implement site optimization if they want to maximize the positive ROI from their website. (I use the term site optimization deliberately. It’s more useful for you if you think about what you need to do in terms of site optimization — for all your visitors, human and search engine bot — and not just search engine optimization.)
I just don’t want anyone contemplating do-it-yourself SEO for their site thinking that it’s going to be something they can knock out quickly and with little effort.