Search Engine Optimization is one of many tasks involved in creating a website. My opinion is that a few essential steps need your undivided attention, but that keyword obsession and Google page rank sculpting are time-wasting distractions. SEO starts with a good domain name.

Domain names

A stellar domain name should be short and directly related to the focus of your site. One word is great, but you may need two or three words to construct an available domain name. If you have to use a common word in the domain, try to pair it with one or two more distinctive words. There’s nothing wrong with using your name in the domain, especially if you’re providing a professional service or writing a personal blog.

Some self-styled marketing gurus recommend long domain names stuffed with hyphen-separated keywords. I disagree. The URLs for swollen domain names look like refugees from Spamer Boot Camp. While some transient benefit may be gained by monstrous domain names, they are not memorable, user-friendly, or likely to remain standing in future Panda-Penguin smack-downs.

Do be careful when searching for available domain names and be prepared to purchase your chosen name on the spot if it’s available. There are unscrupulous “front runners” who monitor domain searches and snap up names that sound potentially successful for the purpose of selling it back to you at a high price. I like to use Instant Domain Search, which doesn’t store searches, or even my web host if I have a good idea of what I want to buy. I wouldn’t recommend using GoDaddy or Dotster to look up domain names. If I’m less certain about a desired domain name, I use the Windows or Linux command line WHOIS search. Nothing is 100% secure, but I know I’m not going to steal my own searches.

What to avoid

You’ve read that SEO is important, and it is. Basic, useful SEO practices are not complicated. Leave the elaborate schemes to those who have gone off the rails. SEO is not a substitute for your own original and engaging content.

The reality is that there are, indeed, people who get ahead for a while with unethical SEO schemes, but high traffic does not equal high sales or customer loyalty. Page rank is not the same thing as SERP (Search Engine Results Page) placement.

What to do

Give every page a title and a meta title tag

Make sure the meta title tag on your pages is never blank! The title tag is the most important meta tag for SEO. It should accurately describe what the page is about. Use the contents of your page’s h1 title heading unless it is very long. Some people like to use the page title and site title together, separated by a pipe symbol (|). That’s a good practice that gives visitors information about the page and the site. Others like to use the page title, pipe symbol, then a bunch of keywords strung together. As a web user, I find this popular SEO trick extremely annoying and tend to distrust sites that do it.

Use the meta description tag

The meta description tag is important. Some search engines will use it in search results, under your site link. Keep the description at 255 characters or less and make it meaningful, as though you were telling your mom or next door neighbor what your site is about. Don’t cram it full of keywords. That just looks spammy.

Descriptions are good but none may be preferable if you are tempted to repeat the home page description on every page. Google does not like duplicated content, including page descriptions. If what your page is about is not evident from the title and first paragraph, some visitors will view source to get a summary description.

Keywords are less important

Don’t be overly concerned about keywords. They’ve been so badly abused by spammers, their original role as possible search engine indexing terms has all but been lost. It doesn’t hurt to include keywords, but it won’t help much, either. There is so much hype about keywords, many of us continue to use them out of habit and hope more than anything else.

Use HTML headings to structure content

In page and post content, remember to use HTML header tags (h2, h3, h4) to organize content for better scanning by visitors. The page title should be an h1 tag. People are too busy to slog through huge, tiresome blocks of text. Break text unto logical chunks so that it’s easier to understand content organization at a glance. Headings create a visual outline of your post or page that makes it easier to find specific information.

Good habits

Get into the habit of doing these very basic things for SEO. If you want to go beyond the basics, visit one or two quality SEO sites regularly and put ideas that make sense for your site into practice. I have two favorite SEO sites: Pro Blogger and Haden Interactive. Both provide stellar advice. Ignore sites that shout at you with big type and want to sell you the moon while supplies last. Keep plugging away at content and keep learning how to improve your site. You’ll get there.