Everyone and their dog has an opinion on how to perform "search-engine optimisation" (SEO) and make your online business more visible in major search engines; how do you distinguish the potentially useful tactics from the snake oil salesmen? The simple answer: put your energy into building a quality site rather than worrying about the search impact of what you have done.
Searching is the way that many of us interact with the internet. Indeed, there's evidence that for many people, using a search engine is the main way they access even well-known sites with familar URLs; the most common search terms on Google are online giants such as Facebook, YouTube and even Google itself. So it's understandable that when small businesses decide they need an online presence, they're highly susceptible to being persuaded that performing SEO is an important task.
Since SEO often appears like a complex, arbitrary and technical task filled with its own peculiar terminology concerning normalisation, page ranks and link manipulation, it's also understandable that it can seem like a good idea to pay someone to perform it. That might perhaps be a sensible idea if you're starting up an entirely new, online-only business. But for most business operators, the energy and money spent in hiring an SEO consultant would be better spent maintaining an existing site, promoting it via other means such as Facebook and Twitter, and generally concentrating on day-to-day business maintenance.
Why SEO is often a waste of money
There's really one fundamental reason why SEO is a waste of effort for a small business, especially if it already has a physical storefront presence and isn't solely reliant on online traffic: The goalposts are constantly shifting. In order to ensure that the results they return are useful, search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo! constantly change the way in which they generate and sort results. While elements of those plans are often made public (Google recently made no secret of dumping content from low-quality "content farms", for instance) the details of exactly how those results are generated are a closely-guarded business secret.
That constant change and secrecy is undoubtedly part of the reason why SEO consultants continue to remain in business. If the means of appearing near the "top result" keep changing, they'll need to keep tweaking -- and you'll need to keep paying.
It also means that much well-meaning "free" SEO advice is out-of-date; for instance, not a day goes by when I don't receive multiple emails inviting me to "exchange links" with another site to boost our respective rankings on Google. While the number of links to a site undoubtedly plays a role in how it is ranked in search results, that's only one of hundreds of factors that are considered, and certainly not one that makes it sensible to link to some spam-generating idiot I've never heard of on the off-chance my site might become more visible, diluting the appearance of my own site in the process.
And that leads to the other reason why SEO can be a bad idea: You lose control of your presence. While some SEO changes happen to your page code "behind the scenes", they often involve altering and manipulating the content. I can't imagine any store owner agreeing to let someone splash a new coat of paint over their premises without careful planning and consultation, but the equivalent happens all too often during the optimisation process.
What you should do instead
The standard advice offered by Google to make your site more visible is simple: make it interesting, keep it relevant and update it frequently. That strategy has an obvious bonus: it also ensures that you have a site that the audience will found more compelling. Setting that as your main goal should be the key part of your SEO strategy.
Beyond that, equally simple tactics can also deliver helpful improvements. Use a consistent site structure so that your content is easy to navigate. Make sure that you check content for spelling errors before putting it on the site, and make sure that individual sections of the site have individual titles. (Far too many sites still display nothing but the company name in the text which appears in the title bar or tab name within a browser.)
Some older advice does pay dividends. Choose a reliable hosting provider; if your site is frequently down, the end result will be that a hosting error page may be your main Google entry. Don't put large amounts of text in graphics without also including the same information in text form somewhere on your page. When your site launches, submit it to Google's index crawler to make sure it gets noticed. And promote your site through Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. All those tactics are free, and they'll serve you better in the long run than an SEO-centric strategy.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?