New as I am to search and SEO, I’m only just discovering the basics. I thought it might be helpful to write up some of what I learn, in the spirit of a “Complete Beginner’s Guide.” Here goes.

Do diagnostic searches in your browser’s “private” mode

If you ever get the narcissistic itch to google yourself, your blog, or your startup’s website; if you want to see how your friends or competitors rank; or if you’re just curious to know whether IMDB beats out Wikipedia on searches for obscure television shows, you should always fire up a “private browsing” tab. In Firefox it’s under the “Tools” menu; in Chrome it’s under the “File” menu; in Safari it’s under the “Safari” menu; and in IE it’s apparently under the “Safety” menu.

The reason is that search engines like Google track your search patterns; some people even think they track your browsing patterns. Point is, they seem to know quite a bit about your activity on the Web, and they use that knowledge to tailor their search results. So odds are the websites you care most about—like your personal blog—are going to rank unusually well, precisely because you go there so often.

Firing up a “private” tab is an easy way to wipe out those corrupting influences.

Think niche

I am learning more and more that the best SEO practice is to tailor pages to a small handful of keywords, maybe two or three at most. This goes against the natural tendency to pack a page with tons of keywords in the hopes of lassoing a broad range of traffic.

A better strategy is to create lots of small pods of highly targeted content. A great case study of this is Patrick Mackenzie’s Bingo Card Creator website; one key way that Patrick drove traffic was to hire a freelance writer to write content for pages targeted at a very small niche, like bingo cards for chemical compounds or historical pirates. Each page has a small keyword-rich blurb describe the cards, an image of card, and a plain text—i.e., search-engine friendly—version of the same.

Party like it’s 1999

Which brings me to the last tip: whenever possible, try to make your website’s code as plain as possible. Search engines hate Flash; they love plain text. They hate dynamic rollover menus; they love giant lists. They hate AJAX; they love straight HTML.

It’s almost as though Google wants to rewind the Web by about a decade. It makes you think that their favorite sites, at least in terms of readability and accessibility, are the crazy link-packed content-rich ugly-as-sin home pages of college professors.

It’s tempting to use the latest and greatest technologies, but sometimes it’s best to keep it simple—because really, everyone—including search engines—knows exactly what to do with a simple page of text.