The Epic SEO Guide for The Absolute Beginners

3Leaps Content Writing & Article Writing Blog

You could have been a doctor. A dentist. Mom told you to be a lawyer. Hell, you wouldn't have racked up those student loans in order to be a garbage man (woops -sanitation engineer). But no, you decided that you wanted to be a designer or to be a content marketer to be precise. A capital C Content Writer right? And now, you've decided to make the first baby steps towards creating a veritable marketing empire powered by content or a vast design empire powered by visual assets. Problem is, you've got little cash, no line of credit, and only a blip on the information superhighway - your humble web site (or plans to get one). Now what? Well, you can twiddle the old thumbs, waiting for that mutli-gazzilion dollar account to drop in your lap (here's a white courtesy phone clue - it ain't gonna happen). Or, you can begin, in earnest, promoting the hell out of your new business through methods that are appropriate to your budget. I.e.: Free, or its cousin, Might-As-Well-Be-Free.

Your budget dictates that we have to start with the basics. Your website. That's the one promotional tool that most designers can afford. After all, you're willing to work long hours, for coffee, on your own web site. You already have most of the software, and hopefully, most of the visual content. It's the one promotional tool with which most designers have a HUGE advantage over most other businesses. After all, you know what looks good. You know how to design it. And you know how to make it all flashy and stuff. Many "civilian" clients often tell me "I'm not sure what I want in a web site - I like yours. How much would it cost to build a web site like yours"? I answer - "oh, about a million dollars". My web site took over 7 months, anywhere from 2-16 hours per day and those days usually numbered 7 a week. Clients should not be able to afford a designer because you should be willing to put more effort into your web site than any client gig (don't let them know this). But that's how good they ought to be (truth to tell - this is not always the case).

epic seo guide

Bottom line - Your Website should shine.

Problem is, it doesn't matter how good your site shines if nobody can find it. It's never been the case that people just "find" web sites and it's become more difficult over the years. I have another website which is among the top 5% on the web in terms of traffic. That doesn't happen by accident. I work at it every single day. Every. Single. Day. Promoting a web site is as important as your accounting, your tax preparation, dealing with clients, etc and as such, requires a time-budget. A large time-budget. Many designers tell me that they don't have time to promote their web sites. Well, if your web site is the only affordable medium of advertising, you sure as hell better find time. Or you're going to be twiddling your thumbs as the bill collectors come a' calling - the water gets shut off, the plug gets pulled on the phone, and finally, your internet access grows dark.

Promoting your web site effectively is not something that will happen overnight. It requires patience, perseverance and a thick skin. It also requires you to make (eek) some design sacrifices for maximum results. I'm going to give you some pretty dry "how-tos". But I'm not going to give you ANY guarantees (the advice is worth at least what you paid for it). Working the Search Engines has been described as "herding cats". To further complicate matters, the corporate masters of Search Engines don't want you to know how to optimize your site. This is all educated guess material - it has worked for my studio - and will give you a leg-up on the competition. It is by no means the ONLY web site marketing advice you'll need (or should rely on). It will, however, give you a decent start and hopefully help you sidestep the mistakes that get made (and by looking at designers’ web sites - get made over and over again).

Trouble it, it's not going to be easy. You can thank spammers for that. We hate spammers for filling our e-mail accounts with Mortgage deals, pharmaceutical discounts (!), porn, and various unseemly pitches that we neither asked for, or want. Well, here's another reason to hate these bottom feeders. They've made your job of getting search engine relevance harder. And harder every day. Over the years, they've uber-abused every search optimization trick in the book. If one key word in an ALT tag worked, spammers would use 1,000. If one line of hidden text at the bottom of a web page helped boost a page, spammers hid a book's worth. Blog comments were a great way to get search relevance (Search Engines love blogs). But the spammers jumped in and started to post links to their porn sites in completely inappropriate areas. Even wrote scripts and spiders so that comments were posted automatically.

And so, it goes. Once a neat little trick is found, spammers will jump on it, abuse the hell out of it, and the Search Engines will respond by factoring it into their algorithms and penalizing the sites that are using the technique. Accordingly, I'm not going to tell you how to "SPAM" the search engines - this defeats the purpose of directories and thus is heavily policed (with appropriate penalties handed out). Unfortunately, a lot of the top ranked content writing sites are breaking the rules, but one day if the search engines do start to enforce their own rules, you'll see a dramatic shift and you'll be there to benefit. Keep in mind that Search Engines see anything that is done to manipulate results as cheating.

Most Search Engines also have spam reporting forms, so if your competitor sees that you're doing something unseemly, it's highly likely that they'll turn you in. I'm always of the opinion that we err on the side of caution (others will suggest a more aggressive approach) so I'm going to tell you how to maximize your exposure on the web using legitimate and recognized techniques. None of these are terribly secret, though most people who know all of them, are not terribly enthusiastic about giving away the shop. Me, I believe in sharing the information - as I'm of the opinion that a rising tide lifts all boats. Ultimately, by helping you with your SEO, you'll eventually help me.

keywords research

Keywords - The Essence of Search Engines

You know exactly what keywords are. Whenever you've typed a query into a Search Engine text field, you've submitted a set of keywords and asked for the most relevant web pages from all the sites that the Search Engine has indexed. Pretty simple stuff. And the focus of any SEO activities. You wish to select, and optimize your site for, certain keywords that are relevant to your web site (and one would assume, your business). These are not simply keywords that we'll place in the META tags of our pages. These are the words that best describe what our web site is about. One critical point to keep in mind - you need to select keywords that your potential clients will use to find you, not the keywords you'd like to be found under. The entire mission of any SEO campaign is to help potential clients (or employers) find your site, not so that you can announce to the world what you think you do (it's a slender distinction to be sure, but an important one). For example - you may wish to identity yourself as a "brand technician" or "illustrative visionary". Nice. Sounds important and all, but ask yourself this - are people going to be looking for a "brand technician" or an "illustrative visionary"? Nope. They will, however, be looking for a "logo designer" or an "content creator".

Best to present yourself as a "brand technician" or "content visionary" but optimize the hell out of your site for "content creator" and "illustrator". Accordingly, it's critical before you begin to optimize your site for SE performance that you decide which design related keywords you're going to concentrate on. Perform searches on Google (and other engines) to see what's what. How others are performing. Here's some rules of thumb - the less competitive the category (based on the total number of results served) the better, and faster, results you can expect.

Also, the fewer keywords that you select, the better (I've seen META tags that feature every graphic design keyword imaginable. Search Engines are downplaying META tags, and even then, are only indexing a certain number of characters in the HEAD portion of HTML documents). It's always better to specialize, rather than casting the widest net possible. A large choice of keywords (especially of your site does not have lots of pages to "play with") only leads to you competing with the top players of every single category that you've selected. Not the best idea, especially when you're going to have to compete with people whose sites have been established longer, are probably using "iffy" (if not downright spammy) optimization techniques and probably have more time, and more resources than you. Better to pick your keyword targets carefully for maximum results.

From the Get-Go.

We're going to deal briefly with the naming of your domain so if you've already registered your web domain, feel free to skip this part. Like everything involved with SEO, it is but a piece of the puzzle, and I don't want folks to get disheartened if this section doesn't apply to them. There's one simple point about a domain name - it helps if what you do is in your web address. It used to matter more until pinheads starting using ridiculous repetitive names i.e.: (yes, it's live - feel free to check. The links not active so that we don't give them lovely page rank). Search Engines took appropriate measures, so this is not as crucial as it once was.

Google still seems to favor hyphenated names, but if you're also going to market your web site through traditional methods, keep in mind that the more hyphens added, the more difficult it is for clients to remember your address when typing it in by hand. As usual, relevancy is the key, as it is to all matters SEO. If Bob were an illustrator, a perfect domain (for SEO purposes only) would be Of course, that doesn't work from any other angle, so will have to work too. It's not as powerful as a hyphenated domain, but still contains "illustration" and is marketable out in the "real" world. You may not even have a choice about what to call your web site. My domain 3Leaps does not contain the term design, but it does contain the key word content (the studio name is a registered trademark so I'm more-or-less stuck with what I call the corresponding web site). would probably be more effective in terms of SEO, but not in the real world (plus I run the risk of weakening my brand). At the end of the day, common sense has to be your guide.

Oh, yeah - one thing I should point out. Forget any form of free hosting service if you want to promote your web site through SEO. Most free web host services are spam havens (get rich schemes, MLM, porn, etc) and have probably been tagged by search engines as a "bad neighborhood". As such, any sites in these bad neighborhoods are looked upon skeptically, if they're indexed at all. Go with a reputable web host from day one. It'll make your overall web site management a better experience (you won't have to worry about bandwidth restrictions - important to a designer with a web site featuring a lot of bandwidth sucking images) and you won't get penalized by search engines for sharing an IP# with a lot of spammy sites.

Page Titles

Designers are a visual bunch. When they put together a web site, they invariably title their web pages with something that LOOKS good and is suitably artistic. You might come across some nice looking and artistic website.

Ooooooh - very arty. And completely useless in terms of SEO and promotion. This is exactly how the clickable text is going to appear in Google and other search engines. It's one thing getting your site listed in Google. It's another thing convincing people to click on the highlighted text. It's also ignoring the most important aspects of the page - illustration. Any page title should be highly relevant to what you want to be found under.

Be recognized. Make your mark with a great brand identity

Fantastic and all, if someone is looking for the keywords "Be. Recognized. Make." Search engine spiders are linear beasts - left to right, top to bottom. Especially in heavily competitive searches and related key words. Always start with the most important stuff. Put the waffle at the end (or in terms of text on your page - at the bottom).


HTML Document Names and Links

The actual names of your HTML documents can have some bearing on how your site performs on search engines. It's much easier to begin planning your site with file-naming conventions in mind, than it is to retrofit SEO solutions to a pre-built site. (That's not to say it's impossible. WYSIWYG editors like Dreamweaver can update your site hierarchy on the fly, if you've set up a proper site cache first). For example, you may have named your page featuring illustrations illo1.html or sample1.html, sample2.html, etc. Not good (unless someone is specifically looking for the term "illo1" or "sample2"). It's much more effective to name the document "illustration-1.html" and your page on photography as "photography.html".

This gives Search Engine spiders something to chew on when they troll your site. Once you've named your HTML documents appropriately, it's very beneficial to hyperlink the pages with the key word in the link. For example - many designers will set up links as follows - "see examples of my photography here ". It's much more helpful to set up your links as "see examples of my photography ". This will then link to a document called "photography.html" that features a title of "Photography by Bob". Now we're getting somewhere. Search engine spiders will see this page as being highly relevant to "photography" and will thusly be more likely to serve up your page when queried for the term "photography".

Image File Names and ALT tags

As a designer, you're going to have a lot of images on your site. You'll probably name the jpgs and gifs with names that make sense to you. The client's name perhaps. Or the project. This may make it easier for you to stay organized but certainly doesn't help Search Engine spiders to index your site. It's better to name your image files as whatever keyword you're trying to be found under.

A file called illustration_clientname.jpg is much more effective that a file simply called clientname.jpg. Many of the search engines are now starting to serve up keyword relevant image results at the top of text search results and this technique can also help you get listed there. One think to keep in mind here - while search engines love relevancy, they hate repetition. Mix it up a little. You can also use ALT tags (the text descriptions of images that appears as an image is loading into a browser and when you "mouse over" the image itself).

Use your keywords to describe the image but use keywords judicially and as "naturally" as possible. "Illustration for Client Name. This illustration was created in pastels then scanned into Adobe Illustrator where I added the type" is good. "Illustrator, illustrator, illustrator" is not (remember the hint about repetition). Here's another little trick (be careful not to overdo it). When setting up the directories (folders) for your documents and images, name the folders using your keywords. Rather than placing your illustration examples in a folder called "Images", place them in a folder called "illustration". Place your photography examples in a folder called "photography" or "photographs" (or both by using two folders).

The referring URL to the image now contains your keywords in the file name, as well as the directory in which the image sits. That's bonus bucks in Search Engine terms. Another hint - keep common misspellings in mind. A classic example is stationery (letterhead, envelope, business card) and stationary (standing still). Many clients will confuse these words when performing a search so go ahead and optimize a few pages for likely spelling mistakes. It certainly won't hurt, the category will be less competitive, and you may just snag that Fortune 500 company that's looking for a new letterhead but doesn't know if stationery is spelt with an "e" or an "a".

Search Engines - Blind to Images

If there's one area in which most designers hamper their search engine performance, it is in the use of images to control the "look and feel" of their site. I've seen designer's sites that do not have a scrap of "real" text. Not one word (and they wonder why, despite all their online promotional efforts, their site remains off the charts in Search Engine relevance).

As I mentioned before, SEO will require that you make some design changes to your site. Well, here we are. Designers tend to use images for everything on a web site, including large blocks of text (and even design example captions) At the current level of browser development, web design is fairly restrictive, in terms of what fonts we can use and more importantly, how we can lay text out.

That I understand. And as designers, we generally pick the same solution. Lay the text out in Illustrator or a similar program, using our favorite font, create a graphic out of that and slap in on our web page. Oh, it looks nice. However, it's important to keep in mind one thing - Search Engine spiders are completely blind when it comes to the content of any image. Other than the name of the directory in which it sits, the file name, and the ALT tag (which we've already covered) your nicely designed text, laid out in perfectly kerned Fruitiger 57 doesn't mean one iota to the Search Engines when it's part of a .jpg or a .gif.

No doubt the text in these images contains all sorts of lovely keywords that would help your SEO performance, but unless Search Engine Spiders can read them, they are uselessly irrelevant. The solution is quite simple - lose the image and replace it with real-honest-to-goodness text. "Aiiiieeeee", I hear the shrieks already - "But that will screw up my design!" Not necessarily. You can always duplicate the text and bury it at the bottom of your page. It's not the prettiest solution, but it does work.

Now, as a designer you're already thinking - "if I make the text at the bottom of the page the same color as the background, it will be invisible and not interfere with my design". Perhaps. It's also the fastest way to get your site heavily penalized, if not banned altogether. This was a favorite spammer's trick from a few years ago, so Search Engine spiders are very sensitive to text that is sitting on the same colored background. To a certain extent you can overcome this with .css style sheets, or colored background gifs, but you do so at your own peril (remember the spam snitch forms). Also, if you're going to use a graphical navigation system, then replicate those links, in text link form, at the bottom of the page as well. While Search Engines like Google will index links, it finds embedded in graphics, it seems to prefer text links and besides, unlike a graphic interface, text links allow you to utilize keywords that are relevant to your site. Now that you're sort of open to design changes, let's take a look at your "home" page. You'll need to sit down. An oxygen tank nearby wouldn't hurt...

Lose the Splash Page

A cousin of the preceding section, the "splash page" on most designer's web site effectively kills any chance of real SEO performance (you can grab the oxygen mask now if you like). It is also the page that designers are the “squishiest” about changing. We've all seem them (chances are, if you're reading this you might have one) - a brilliantly rendered logo (or drawn out Flash animation) that sits on the home page of your site.

Perhaps an "enter site" button underneath. ("Enter Site" is the most redundant call out I can imagine - your visitor has already entered your site by going to your address). Maybe some links (embedded in graphic rollovers) to internal pages. This isn't so good in the SEO department. While it's true that some Search Engine spiders (Google for one) can extract text from Flash (ruining a nice way to hide e-mail addresses from Spambots) the results are twitchy to say the least. The text has to be real text (not bitmap graphic text) and has to be in some form of logical form. Don't expect spiders to correctly interpret text blocks that have been split up (for a series of fade-ins for example). And that represents a problem. Your top directory page (the page that is served when someone types in your domain name only - it's actual directory name is probably index.html, default.html or some such variant) is the most important page on your web site.

It is the page that Google and other search engines see as the most relevant to the contents of your site. And it is the page that designers most often ignore when it comes to SEO. It is the page that designers are more likely to give an "arty" title to. It is the page that designers are going to build using graphics and/or Flash. It is also the page that is most likely to be devoid of text and text links. We've just learned that all of these factors can hamper SEO. Ironically, it turns out that most designers in a quest to look good on the first pass, shoot themselves completely in the foot when it comes to SEO (thus creating the old "nice site, no visitors" phenomenon). "But wait!" you exclaim "I have keywords in my META tags".

Of course, you do. But here's a heads-up - spammers with their 1000-word keyword tags have pretty well blown it for everybody else. (Search Engines are almost completely ignoring keywords in the HEAD portion of HTML pages, except for the TITLE and DESCRIPTION tags, which they use to build the site descriptions that are featured in their search results. Even then, there's evidence that the DESCRIPTION tag does not "bump" pages in the results. I've had #1 pages on Google with NO META tags at all. That's not to say avoid using keywords and META tags - just understand their lessened importance to overall SEO). The only answer to this problem is to put keyword dense text on the page. Along with keyword dense text links. I realize that many of you will refuse to put text on your sacred "home" page lest it screw up the design you've so carefully assembled from Flash animations and .gif rollovers. That is your right (your site, your rules). However, you might as well stop reading this article now - you already know how to make your site look good. I'm trying to help you make sure it gets found.

Text - Content is King

Google loves text. As do most other Search Engine spiders. So, you have to give it to them. Images are fine, but as we've pointed out earlier, search engine spiders are blind to pictures and artwork (other than file names and ALT tags), so nicely written text is a must if you want to place well with indexes and directories. Your text should be written to include your keywords (which match your page title, description, ALT tags and file names) without it reading like you're trying to spam the engines. Overused and overwrought keywords can make it appear that your site is written by a third-grader, so it's critically important to keep a basic principle in mind. Once your visitors are at your site, you want to "sell" yourself through effective copy.

Overused keywords will turn your visitors off, and they may just hit the back button after they've read a paragraph that uses the term "illustration" 15 times. Well-written copy (how-tos and tutorials for example) also helps you obtain "organic" linking (linking from other sites that is not part of a reciprocal arrangement). If a visitor to your site finds an interesting article or tutorial, it's likely that they will link to it (usually on forums) as a way of sharing relevant resources. That's a big bonus in terms of SEO (more below).

Part of your text layout should include the use of the "H" (header) TAG. Text on your page that is classified an "H" tag is displayed as a bold, level one heading (for example - the "Text - Content is King" title to this paragraph would be an appropriate place for an "H" tag). The first heading on your page would be set up as H1, the second H2, and so on. Google and other spiders seem to place heavy relevance on H tags (as they should be a synopsis of whatever follows) so it's important to place keyword dense H tags into your text layout. Setting up an H tag can cause your text to appear inappropriately sized and uber-bold, but you can control this via a .css (cascading style sheet).

You may also wish to bold several instances of your keywords, as there is some evidence that this helps Spiders differentiate keywords from a block of body copy. It also has the added effect of enabling your visitor to see that a page's body copy is relevant to what they're looking for. Another note regarding text - Search Engines also like new text. Fresh content. Frequently updated pages and/or copy will help assure that Search Engine Spiders visit your site on a regular basis as opposed to once every few months. This has the bonus effect of making sure any new additions to your web site are indexed quickly.

Don't be shy about linking text instances of your keywords to other relevant pages that are on your site. This helps in overall navigation for your visitors, as well as helping in overall relevancy for pages inside your site. As we'll see in the next section, linking is a critical aspect to any effective SEO campaign...

link building and seo


In order to discuss linking (the essence of the web) one has to understand a few types of links;

  • Inbound links - links that are pointing TO the page/site in question.
  • Outbound links - links that point somewhere else FROM the page in question.
  • Text links - the underlined links that are featured on most web sites.
  • Graphic links - when the links is tagged to a graphic (.gif, .jpg and/or Flash) and does not feature editable text.
  • Reciprocal links - sites that your web links to, and they link back to your site.
  • Non-reciprocal links - sites that link to you WITHOUT an outbound link to their site, or sites that you link to WITHOUT an inbound link to your site.

Search Engine spiders find pages by following links and adding those new pages to their indexes for deeper investigation at a later time. The text in the link helps set up the expectation of what the linked page is all about and when combined with the page title, description and keywords, helps a page be found when someone is performing a particular search (see Bob's Photography example from above). But that's only a small part of linking, and how it relates to your overall SEO campaign. Link relevance also counts heavily in the Search Engine's algorithms in which sites are more relevant for what. The number of "quality" (very important) links that point towards your site is an indication of how much your site is "respected" (a link to your site is almost considered a vote).

The formula is relatively simple - The more quality links to your site, the more "votes" for your site, ergo your site must be an important source of material for your keywords. Where linking TO your site becomes a little more complicated is the matter of WHO is linking to your site, and HOW they are linking. You want relevant sites to link to your site (in this case, websites that are relevant to graphic design) and you want these sites to link with a text link that contains one or two of your main keywords. The best kind of link is an inbound link (without a reciprocal link from your site) that is from a relevant site. Many designers already harvest PR from this basic premise (whether they realize it or not). I see many designers who frequent Internet forums and link to their sites in their signatures. Very good idea. Forums are excellent generators of Page Rank and relevant links.

The About graphic design forum is #1 ranked for Graphic Design, so having a link (say in a signature line) on your posts on the About forums will only help your overall relevancy when it comes to anything to do with Graphic Design. Trouble is, many posters also use their web address "" as the anchor text. Some also use an image of their logo to embed their URL. Not so good. Of course, this does give a link, but you're trying to establish link relevancy and unless someone types in "" as a search query, it's highly unlikely that the links from the forums will help bump your site much under "illustration" or "design". Much better to set up your signature links as follows - "design by Bob" or "illustration by Bob" and link that text to your web site. This gives you both an inbound link as well as a key word in the text.

Another aspect of linking and page names that many people underestimate comes from within your own web site. You may have 5, 10, 50, 100 or more pages in your web site, all with varying degrees of page relevancy and SEO penetration. Each page represents a linking opportunity to your "home page" and the ability to "bump" keyword relevance. If you have 50 pages on your web site, you probably have 50 pages that all link back to "home". That's cool. However, it's much more helpful it we have links that refer to the home page as illustration by Bob. You'll have 50 inbound links to your home page with the appropriate keywords in place. Granted, this is not as powerful as inbound links from outside your domain, but in terms of SEO, every little bit helps.

A site map is also very helpful as it allows the Search Engine spiders to quickly add ALL your links and pages in one fell swoop (rather than trolling around your site and running the risk of missing one link or another). Important - place a link to your site map on your home page (your home page "votes" for the site map, which subsequently "votes" for all the pages in your site). Having a site map also allows you to quickly index new additions to your site, from both human and search engine points of view.

While there's no guarantee, articles and information on your site can help create organic inbound links. If your material is interesting and varied enough, people will link to it on their own accord, as they share their Internet "finds" with friends and associates. I have dozens of inbound links towards technical and opinion pieces on my site - mostly from people I have never heard from, but who have found my articles interesting enough to share as a "resource".

While inbound links are the most effective, until you are the CEO of a design empire, you'll probably have to encourage people to link to their site by agreeing to link to theirs. And that's fair enough. Known as "reciprocal linking" this too can have staggering SEO implications IF you manage your campaign with certain caveats in mind. The philosophy is straightforward - I'm willing to link to your site (even if you're a competitor of mine) as long as there is an advantage in doing so for me. It's up to you to make sure that your outbound links are effective, so that it's advantageous for me (or any other design site) to swap links. For that, you're going to have to donate some time, some web space and some HTML documents.

First, you need to set up your outbound link pages. There are a few tricks to this. Do not name your link pages "links.html, links1.html". There's some evidence that Google is starting to frown upon this as it smacks of a FFA link farm. Better to name your links pages using keywords that are relevant (i.e.: design-software-resources.html). Organize your links into categories, and set up your title, and META tags (perhaps a swath of keyword dense copy) in a way that is relevant to the category. As a designer you may have categories like books, animation, logo design, illustration, photography, software, etc.

No more than 45-50 links per page. In order to make sure that others will be interested in linking, make sure that your resource pages have a direct text link from your home page (it can be buried at the bottom - this link is more for search engine spiders than human driven cursors) and from your site map. Many people agree to link out to other sites, but in order to "hog" all the PR to themselves, make their links pages impossible for spiders to find (or worse, render them invisible through ROBOTS.txt files that tell Search Engine Spiders to ignore certain areas of their site). One of the top-ranking sites for "logo design" has inbound links pointing to site A, while all the reciprocal outbound links point from another site entirely. While it certainly works, it's not in the spirit of reciprocal linking (and more in the mindset of the "anything to get ahead" spammers).

The other key to reciprocal linking is relevancy. If you're linking to (and being linked back by) a whole mess of design sites, that is excellent. If your links pages look like a hodge-podge of casinos, get-rich schemes, travel agencies and pharmaceutical links, the overall effect is not so good. Spammy sites (casinos, get rich quick, porn) are not a good idea to share links with. Nothing to do with personal morals, it's just that these categories are infamous for doing all sorts of rule-breaking SEO, and you don't want to link to a "bad neighborhood".

You could catch some of the bad PR karma, and as they are not related to design their benefit is negligible anyway. When link relevancy became prominent a few years back, the spammers (yes, them again) began every link-building scheme imaginable. FFA (Free for All) link farms, Address Book and Blog comment spamming all suffered the spammer's abuse. There's even software driven link solutions that once worked quite nicely but are now being tagged by Google. The sum result of all this was predictable - relevant linking is not as easy as it once was. But it's still as critical as it once was. Nowadays, Search Engines are looking for an "organic" mix of links, rather than a forced FFA of links. So, how do you get links? Simple. Just ask. Prep up an introductory letter, stating who you are, what your site is all about, and mention that you'd like to trade links.

But don't promise to put a link on your site - have one already placed there before you send the request. And be patient. Most people who are in charge of reciprocal linking are always behind schedule and will generally get around to placing your link, but ONLY if you've already placed a link to them. Even if you don't get a link back, others will see your links pages growing and will be more likely to accept your link request in the future. (It never ceases to amaze me the number of people that link to my site and then very shortly thereafter send threatening e-mails - "if you don't link back to me in 24 hours, I'll remove your link". Petty and impatient. Link building is more of a "slow and steady" process. And one link will neither make, nor break my, or your, SEO efforts).

I also wish to drive this point home - it doesn't matter if the site you're swapping links with is a direct competitor or not. You're after page rank, NOT stealing traffic. Likewise, you're not interested in giving traffic, just sharing your page rank. I will link my site to any relevant graphic design site, whether they're competitors or not IF they pass the "sniff tests" as mentioned previously. Granted, I don't make it easy for human visitors to find my links pages, but I make sure that search engine spiders can find them without too much trouble. I want my site to be seen as an "information cluster" with lots of relevant inbound and outbound links. Here's the deal in a nutshell. You link to my site and I'll link back to you. You get the PR of a fairly well performing design-based site, and I get the inbound link of a design-oriented site. If you've done some of the above in optimizing your site, it should work out nicely for both of us.

That Symbiosis thing again.

Pot Luck Navigation

Potluck navigation seems to be a favorite technique for designers when setting up their web sites. Many feature online portfolios with micro buttons that open larger sized versions of their artwork. Often, there is no indication of what the micro-button links to (they often take the form of small colored squares, sometimes differentiated only by numbers. i.e.: Square 1 clicks open a page with an image of a brochure. Square 2 clicks open a page with a client's logo. Etc).

Firstly, this is terrible in terms of basic navigation. While it may look all arty and stuff, it does very little to enhance your visitors experience. Should they find a piece of artwork that they find appealing (and thus more likely to hire you) they will have a difficult time finding the piece again (your would-be client is relegated to clicking through the little colored boxes one-by-one. Not so good for a web site that should emphasize effective communication).

Also, these Pot Luck navigation buttons do nothing to advance your SEO efforts. Better to link actual thumbnails (indicative of the full-scale piece) with a text link (featuring one of your selected keywords). A thumbnail featuring a mini-version of a client logo, complete with the text link "Bob's Auto Logo Design" is far more helpful, both from SEO and navigation points of view, than a gray colored box with the number 1 that similarly opens a page featuring Bob's Auto logo. Remember some of our basic points - use keyword text links when possible and once a visitor has arrived, make it easy for them to rip around your site.

But what about META Tags?

META tags have been left near the end of this feature because in terms of SEO importance, that's where the discussion belongs. META tags (title, description and keywords) have become less and less important in terms of Search Engine relevance (while many designer's still give them far more weight than they deserve). Oh, sure they help. The Title META tag dictates how you page will be presented in a search (as outlined earlier) and will help in relevancy.

The description META tag is how your site will be described in search results. These two META tags are critical in convincing someone who is presented your site in a search result (along with nine others), to click on YOUR link. These two META tags need to be very descriptive, relevant and hopefully feature some form of "call to action". Your keywords should be featured in both the description and title tags but use them as judicially and as "naturally" as possible. Repeating keywords over and over again in either of these tags will not help your placement (there's some evidence that it will hinder search performance) and if your site does get placed, a spammy description or title will do nothing to convince anyone to select your link over the others presented on the search result page. We touched on page titles earlier, but let's take a look how they relate to the other METAG tags.

My description repeats my title and adds a little more clarity to what we do ("specialists"). I've also slipped in the plurals of both my keywords and managed to insert a call to action complete with another keyword (Visit our content sample pages for examples). Pretty judicious use of words, if I do say so myself. As with most things SEO, less if often more, lest we get tagged by the spiders as overdoing keywords (i.e.: spam).

Which leaves us with the keywords META tag, arguably the least important of all (and often the tag that is most heavily overworked). I've seen many a designer's site where they pepper each and every page with hundreds of keywords. This method of attack is extremely ineffectual as Search Engines like Google are starting to downplay the important of META keywords (thank the spammers again) and even if they are factored in, many SE spiders only index the first few hundred characters of the tag.

Most designers add a set of META keywords containing every imaginable term that relates to graphic design. Not good. Every additional keyword dilutes the overall impact of the other keywords so if you're going to focus on META keywords, here's the key - narrow the categories to one or two and use keywords sparingly. Less is most definitely more \when it comes to the META keywords tag. Keyword replication in this TAG is pointless and may hurt your overall placement, due to Google's aversion to over-duplication. Place the most important keywords at the beginning of your set. Use plurals and misspellings when appropriate. If you have a variety of disciplines (logos, illustration, graphics, photography) you wish to optimize for, then create pages (complete with Titles, Descriptions and META tags) for each discipline. Do not try to fit 20 pounds of sugar into a 5-pound bag.

Some SEO Pragmatism

This article features some of the SEO basics, but they are just starting points. The Internet is awash in SEO information (though probably not targeted specifically for designers as I've attempted to do here). None of this is "magic bullet" territory, as your SEO performance depends on an entire gamut of factors that are beyond my, and your, control. There are, after all, only ten spots on the first page of any search engine result. That's heavy-duty competition (regardless of your efforts).

SEO takes a massive amount of time (my site hovers on Google between #6 and #9 for "logo design" and that result comes from thousands of hours of research, linking, updating my site, etc) and you have to decide if your time is best spent marketing your services to new clients, or performing those services for clients that you do have. Accordingly, you should never view SEO as the be-all, end-all to marketing your site. There are other ways to help your website's profile. Here's but a few.

Other Ways to Market your Web Site:

Web Address on Everything

That's right. Everything. Every scrap of paper, every client CD, every invoice, contract, envelope, brochure and ad that leaves your studio needs your web address on it. The more eyes that view your web address, the more likely you can harvest visitors through passive advertising. Sticker your car. Print up a t-shirt. Anything that gets your web site address (as my daughter likes to say) "up in everyone's grill". If you're designing web sites for clients, offer them a token discount for a credit link on their site.


Forums are an excellent source of information, opinions and assistance when it comes to graphic design information. They're also a great place to advertise your site. While most forums forbid blatant self-promotion (which keeps the forums interesting) most are not opposed to active URLS in your signature line. This gets your web address out there, and also helps develop search engine relevancy.


Google and other search engines love Blogs. The content is fresh, very relevant (a Blog on Graphic Design is highly likely to contain content that would be of interest to designers) and various linking mechanisms (RSS for example) are great for SEO. One warning - a Blog is very time consuming and is only effective if constantly updated. Also, news Blogs tend to get much more traffic than niche Blogs - so be realistic in your efforts.

Pay Per Clicks

Sometimes effective. But almost always very expensive. Pay-per-click links are supplemental links that are added to main search results and can usually be identified as "sponsored results" or "sponsored link". The premise is quite simple - you bid on keywords, and the higher bids are served at the top of the most relevant search engine results. Currently, "content writing" is bidding out at $10.50 per click on Google and that can get very expensive in a hurry.

Pay per click is also heavily polluted by click-fraud (your competitor, using different IP numbers, can sit and click on your link every few hours or so, to avoid repetitive click "fraud filters" and jack up your bill). That can get very expensive - with almost zero net return. Also, only the first few pay-per-click results (the highest bids) are effective as lower bids are only served on the third, fourth and fifth (etc) pages of the main search results. Many Internet users are also "Sponsored Link" blind - they have trained themselves to ignore "money" links (as well as animated banners which we're not even going to bother addressing - so dismal is their ROI).

Submit Your Site to Important Directories

Google views a listing of your site in the Yahoo directory as an important "vote of confidence". Therefore, it's imperative that you submit your site to these directories as soon as possible. Keep in mind that your site needs to be completed. *NEVER* use the words "under construction" on ANY page - this will notify Search Engines (or human editors) that your site is incomplete, hampering your efforts to get listed, and in true terms, every web site is always "under construction" anyway. Other factors to be aware of - the waiting list is in the months, and Yahoo charges commercial sites an "inclusion fee" of several hundred dollars. Unfortunately, if you're serious about SEO, you're going to have to pony up.

Added Traffic Considerations

If your SEO efforts are successful (and hopefully, they will be) you will be gaining all sorts of new traffic to your site. While that is certainly the goal, there are some caveats that you should keep in mind. You may have to adjust certain aspects of your web-marketing setup.


Many of you may have budget hosting packages. However, if you read the fine print you'll see that your total bandwidth (the amount of information requested from your web site) is limited. You will be allowed to serve X number of Gigs per month. After that, you'll either pay through the nose for "overages" (and at a per MB charge, this gets costly very quickly) or your site will be taken offline (until your site has more monthly bandwidth available).

Overages will kill your pocket book, while having your site taken offline, even temporarily, can have disastrous consequences (if Google should visit your site while it is offline, that is what will be indexed). Unfortunately, as a designer, your site is going to be image heavy - and by default you'll require more bandwidth that the average text version. Check out your hosting package and make sure that you have enough bandwidth to deal with the additional traffic you might get. (Chances are, you'll have to suffer through a few months of "overage" charges before deciding to upgrade to a more flexible, though costlier, hosting package).

Prices on Your Web Site

Ah - the big pricing bugaboo. And you may ask yourself what this issue has to do with a Search Engine marketing article. Not much - unless your SEO efforts are successful. Many designers view listing prices on a web site as taboo (some have even called it unethical). While I don't proscribe to that particular theory, it's a fine one to uphold until you get serious traffic to your site. With increased traffic comes increased e-mail inquiries about your services, and most inquiries will be of the same nature - "how much do you charge?"

Now, if you're getting one or two inquiries a week, that's one thing. Easily handled through customized quotes and personalized correspondence with every would-be client. Now, if you're getting 5 to 10 inquiries a day, this will quickly become a drain on your most vital resource - your time. As you've taken the first few steps to marketing yourself on the internet (as opposed to using the web as a glorified Yellow Pages) you'll also attract the attention of tire-kickers (semi-interested clients who are price-shopping) as well as your competitors who want to know how you price out your services (the fact that they can waste your time is an added bonus to them).

I've seen marketers request complex quotes from other marketers in order to save the time in working up an RFQ response for one of their own clients. Bottom line, you're going to have to automate at least some of your pricing information (if nothing else but to weed out tire-kickers who believe that $50 per hour is completely unreasonable, and to avoid pricing your competitor's projects). I used to feature pricing as part of an auto-responder system but had to change that (partially due to spammer hacking attempts on my e-mail system and partially due to unnecessary server load). Now, I utilize a pricing menu that outlines basic pricing (which allows the client to know if I'm in their budget ball-park) while custom quotes can be created for pre-qualified serious buyers. If you believe that pricing is taboo for a web site, that's fine, but as some point (if low-interest inquiries take up too much of your time) you may have to reassess.

Up Tick in Spam

You may have gathered that I have a hatred for spammers. And I do. They make legitimate SEO harder, clog up our e-mail boxes with wildly inappropriate advertisements (I'm still embarrassed when my 23-year-old assistant gets Viagra, Penis Enlargement and porn spams in her e-mail account). Trouble is, when your site becomes more high profile, your spam problem is going to get worse. A lot worse. Spambots (the spammers version of Search Engine spiders) traverse the Internet in pretty much the same way as legitimate spiders. By following links.

However, they don't troll the net looking for pages to index, but e-mail addresses to add to their spam lists. The higher profile your web site, the more likely you're going to be found by spammers. You may wish to avoid placing live MAILTO tags on your site (MAILTO tags are clickable e-mail links that open mail software when clicked). Much better to have a contact form (paying attention to the associated security risks) and a heavy-duty spam filter. Oh, spammers will still get through your defenses (do they actually believe that after avoiding all our traps, we'll actually shell out our Credit Card number?), but by using a form you'll help minimize your overall exposure.

At the End of the Day - Patience is the Key

SEO is light years away from an exact science (despite those promising a "top ten" placement). There will be SEO experts that will take exceptions with some of the advice I've given out in this article. And I see what I consider damaging advice given out every day. The one thing everybody tends to agree on - SEO takes time and patience.

The fruits of your labors will not come overnight (my current site, for example, has been around for eight years and I'm still hammering away at my own SEO). There's evidence that illustrates Google gives new sites a "bump" in indexing (followed up fairly quickly by a settling down to a "natural" position). There's evidence that older sites get a premium "bump" simply on the merits of being around for a longer period of time. Google uses a multitude of data centers (results may vary in a Google search depending on which data center you connect to) and their index is constantly in a state of flux (check the total search results on any given Google search - they vary from time to time, sometimes wildly).

Accordingly, half of your SEO activities will be a waiting game. If you don't immediately get the desired results, changing your site in a fire-fighting fashion could actually hamper you, especially as you're not always going to be sure what fire you are fighting. Having said all this, however, I can also say that as PART of an overall marketing campaign, SEO will lead to more visitors, more targeted inquires and more than likely, some new clients. And that's what it's all about.