UPDATE: See the results after only two days!
A lot of people believe in the 'If you build it, they will come,' mantra, expecting a crowd of internet people to show up to their websites soon after launching them. Occasionally clients will ask me why their sites aren't at the top of Google's search results.
"Have you done any marketing or PR for your website?" I'll ask.
"People will find us through Google," they reply. "But I can't find my site in Google."
"What are you searching for?" I ask them.
"T-shirts," they reply. "Should I contact one of those shady SEO marketing firms that keep sending me spam?" At which point I facepalm and realize that I haven't done my job properly, and I launch into the following speech.
Do not, under any circumstance, use a shady SEO (Search Engine Optimization) marketing firm. They can just as easily cause more problems in the long run. Find a reputable SEO firm, if you're really interested. But unless you are threadless, snorg, or busted tees, you are not going to show up on the first page of Google results for 't-shirt' no matter what. Nor will you show up in the next 10. This is not always because your website was poorly designed; it is because Google hates you.
Kidding! I kid!
It's because search results for specific terms are determined by the relevance of the site to that keyword. So how does Google determine the relevance of your site to your preferred keyword?
Nobody knows. Well, Google knows. Everyone else just guesses, makes changes, figures out differences between this site and that, which one does better, and makes educated guesses. Google changes their algorithms regularly, too, just to make things interesting. It's more of an art than a science.
That said, there are many things you can do to improve your rankings. When I first start talking to a client about a design, I'll have them come up with a list of keywords. These are not just for the design process, but they're going to be their road map for future search results so we put some care into choosing them. The most common mistake companies make is assuming that generic words will generate lots of traffic. But who searches for 't-shirts', and when they do, what are they really looking for? Most people will narrow their search, quickly realizing that generic keywords rarely return useful results. So they'll search for 't-shirts Minneapolis' or 'tomato t-shirts' and start finding what they really want.
Rule one of keywords: be as specific as possible.
In reality, this rule applies to your business: if you can't explain why you're better than your competition in specific terms, how are you going to succeed?
The single most important factor in search results ranking is your URL. Get your keyword into your domain name.
"But t-shirts.com is already taken," they say. And look, t-shirts.com does indeed show up on the first page of search results in Google. But you're not just selling t-shirts, you're selling t-shirts with tomatoes on them. Your keyword isn't 't-shirt' but 'tomato t-shirt' which narrows the field considerably.
The next most important factor in search results ranking is inbound links. The currency of the web is linking: every site you link to from your site gains credibility in search engines; conversely, every site that links to you using your preferred keywords gives you credibility for those keywords. This is why, for about two years, searching for 'failure' would return links to George W. Bush. The principle still applies, though, even though Google fixed their algorithm to prevent Google bombs like that one.
Another big help is longevity: if a URL has been around, it has more credibility than one that was registered yesterday. You can submit your new URL to Google, but it won't change the fact that you'll have to wait months for your rankings to go up. Fresh content that's relevant, unique and updated as often as possible will also help immensely. Google, like your customers, doesn't like stale pages as much.
The way your page is structured will also affect results. The page title of each page (that bar at the top of your browser) should have unique and specific keywords that describe that page's content. The first words on the page should use those keywords, and the first paragraph should use those keywords. The higher up a word is on the page, the more weight it will carry.
"Tomato t-shirt Minneapolis t-shirt t-shirt, t-shirt t-shirt t-shirt. T-shirt, t-shirt tomato t-shirt, tomato t-shirt Minneapolis."
Yes, you can make that your page content. It may even increase your rankings. But once someone gets to your page, what good will it do you? Your copy should dictate your keywords, not the other way around. You can't force it, or you'll end up with an unreadable mess, and and at the end of the day it's customers you want, not search results. Write each page with your keywords in mind, make sure your content flows naturally from your selling points, and your keywords will be as unique and specific as possible. Maybe someday you'll be the authoritative t-shirt source, but for today concentrate on selling tomato t-shirts in Minneapolis.
Here's a tip: search Google using the keywords you've chosen. Ignoring the paid links at the top, visit the first few links that appear and look at what they're doing with their content. Find directories specific to your industry and list your business with them. Find established bloggers who write about your industry, and send them a press release or chocolates so they'll link to your site. You should be doing marketing and PR anyway, because depending on Google search results is not a solid marketing strategy.
The point to all this is: if you have a good business plan and a compelling marketing plan, your search engine optimization is nearly done. If your product or service isn't easily differentiated from your competition, your business won't succeed anyway regardless of how many hits your website gets. Because at the end of the day, you still need to make the sale.
Now I'm going to put my money where my mouth is. Here's a real-world experiment in how much specific keywords and content matters: if I'm right, in a few weeks a Google search for 'Minneapolis tomato t-shirt' should bring you right back here.
Minneapolis tomato t-shirt.
UPDATE I: My site comes up in the second page of Google results for 'minneapolis tomato t-shirt' already. After one day. It's a link to a different blog post (which contains a link to this page), so I'm guessing it's because this page hasn't been spidered yet. Once this page is spidered I'm confident it will shoot to the top, because this page is the one optimized for that search term.
UPDATE II: On only the second day after writing this entry, this page is now at the top of the charts. Here, let me Google that for you. I'll see you right back here in a few.