I have been asked to write about SEO. This is quite funny on the face of it, because two months ago I did not even know what the expression meant.

Here’s how I found out. It was early March and I had been detailed to try to get the store website active. The website, hosted by our catalog company, had been up for a year but we had made no effort with it and had only a couple of orders in that year. I quickly discovered that, with the best will in the world, people who did not memorize our lengthy and unmemorable URL could not find our store online. I typed in everything a reasonable person might use to look for us, and we just weren’t there, not even on page 5, let alone on the first few pages where a reasonable person might click. This seemed like a serious problem.

So Arkenboy was over at the house one evening, and my daughter remarked that he knew stuff about computers. I described my dilemma. So he went over to the computer and fooled around a little while I was sauteeing something and complaining to said daughter that I couldn’t even find a book on the subject, and Arkenboy called out, “SEO.”

To which I responded “huh?” with the quick wit for which I am known, and he said, “SEO is what you need to google to find out about this.” He then remarked that Google was only even aware of the front page of our website, something he had easily discovered while we were talking. He then told me to construct a site map and submit it to Google according to the instructions in the webmaster tools, and accepted another glass of wine.

Now I said that I was an odd person to ask on the face of it, but sometimes it is good to ask a person who knows only a little more than you do. Because the thing about asking people who really know stuff  is that their answers may be above your head.

Actually, the remark about SEO was extremely useful, because I was then able to learn all sorts of things about Search Engine Optimization, which is the general term for all the stuff you do to make the search engines notice that your website is there.

(You know how Google and MSN and all those guys show up in the footprints at your xanga? That means that they know you are here, and are crawling around looking for words that give hints as to what you are talking about, so that they can help someone find you or something like you.)

But the whole “follow the directions at Google” part was flawed, because I couldn’t understand them at all.

I printed out the directions and carried them around the store asking everyone if they could read them, and none of us could.

Here is the first sentence: “Before you begin… The Google Sitemap Generator is a Python script that creates a sitemap for your site using the Sitemap Protocol.”

I know all those words, except that I had to look up sitemap, which is a list of all the locations at your website. Knowing that, I attempted to read the sentence. The, google, sitemap…. generator is a thing that makes something so it is going to make a sitemap, okay…. a python… large snake… script… written form of a play…

You see my difficulty. Even now, I have only the vaguest idea of what a Python script could conceivably be, never mind what it is.

And that is the “before you begin.” It doesn’t get better from there.

Arkenboy came to the store to borrow a book and I told him my troubles. He gave me a couple more words to work with: “link” and “keywords.”

To put it in normal English, the search engines like your website better if a) there are words in it that people usually look for when searching for your stuff, and b) a lot of other places link to you.

Having a large vocabulary is not a plus here. Your website’s words, and especially the part that the computer is just telling to the search engine computers (you can see it by doing a command like “view code,” depending on your computer) should be the things people are actually looking for. So if you are selling aprons, you should have the word “apron” there, not things like “This saucy number is reminiscent of the Belle Epoque.”

So we fixed that up. It was just a matter of changing the words, or in our case, asking the website’s webmaster to change the words for us.

Then you have to get links. This is called a “link management campaign.” The object is to get other websites to link to you. There are two main ways to accomplish this (actually, you can pay for it, but we didn’t try that, so I can’t speak of it):

First, you can have good content so that people are moved to link to you. I didn’t have that option so much, because I have little control over my website. Sometimes I wander around the FAQs over there, thinking that I might find some hitherto-unnoticed option that will let me put in articles or something, but it hasn’t happened yet. I did, however, get the nice webmaster to link to a blog from the website, and have been spending a lot of hours for the past couple of months making it as good a blog as I possibly can.

Other things you can do, and which I plan to do when I have time, are to go around commenting and leaving your URL in online communities where your customers might go, and to write articles with your URL on them for the sites that give out free articles to folks who can’t necessarily write but do know how to add content to their websites.  I bet there are more, too. If you know of others, let me know.

The second way to get links is to ask for them. If you are a retailer, then you can go to all your vendors and ask for links. You can also register at all the online directories you can find, and you can go to folks who share your target audience and offer to swap links. This is easy, though time-consuming. I have read that you ought to spend a couple of hours every day doing this, and I do as much of it as I can fit in.

So this is what I have done. In January, our website had a grand total of 73 visits in the whole month, and we now get 20+ per day, so that has clearly improved. Precisely one of those January visits came through a search engine, compared with about a third of the visits now (the rest come from the blog and from people who actually type in the address on purpose). And of course we went from invisible-to-Google to the front page in two months. So I think that it works.

20+ visits per day is not so good, let’s admit it. The store blog gets about 1000 visits per week, and that isn’t all that good, even. I think you have to get 500 a day to expect to be lucrative as a business. I don’t want you to have a false idea of my success, here. But The Wall Street Journal said, “propelling a site from No.10 to No. 1 in the search rankings may be a lot easier than moving it from No. 10,000 to No.10,” so I am feeling fairly optimistic.

They also said that people who do SEO for a living charge $2,500 to $10,000 for an initial effort, and $750 to $5,000 a month for continuing efforts, so it sure is worth doing it yourself.

I spend an hour or two a day on the store blog and another couple of hours on the links management part. The rest of my work time is spent on non-internet marketing, including workshops, conferences, shows, visits to our school customers, plus of course a couple of days in the store. I also have e-mail, research, clerical tasks, and meetings. Presumably, if you spent 8 hours a day on links management, the process would go faster.

However, I have no idea whether I have been very successful or not very successful. I don’t know whether a ten-fold improvement in traffic in two months is good or not, and I don’t know how much longer it will be before we see lots of orders from that traffic. This is normally our slow time of the year, so I may just be planting the seeds right now, for an enormous crop of orders during Back -to-School. On the othe hand, it may be that a good SEO campaign generally doubles orders in a couple of weeks, and I am not succeeding at all. I feel as though I am doing this in a vacuum, frankly, so if those of you who asked would like to share your own e-commerce experiences, I would appreciate it.