It's time for “March Madness,” so like many people I've been watching a lot of basketball lately. Recently while watching a game I was struck by the similarity between search optimization and basketball.

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In basketball, it's important to focus on the fundamentals. It does little good to spend hours perfecting some fancy Harlem Globetrotters style behind-the-back dribble if you can't pass to your teammates without sending the ball a mile wide of the mark, or if you can't sink a basket even when you're the only player on the court and the coach has placed a six-foot stepladder for your use directly under the goal.

It's the fundamentals of offense and defense — passing, shooting, rebounding, guarding — that consistently win games. This is why the best players and teams spend so much time reviewing their core skills at every practice.

This isn't to say that they don't ever work on trick plays and complicated maneuvers, just that those who want to win don't focus exclusively on those show-off moves while ignoring the basic skills necessary to play the game.

So how is this similar to website optimization?

Well, I wish I could be surprised by how many site owners I encounter who are focused totally on fancy moves and trick plays while neglecting the fundamentals of site optimization. But after a few years of moderating on search optimization forums, I'm no longer surprised by much of anything.

Unfortunately, just as a basketball team who neglect to develop their core skills won't win many games, website owners who skip over the core principles of optimization are setting themselves up for disappointment.

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We've probably all come across websites so ugly, so user unfriendly, so horrible that upon landing on the site our first impulse is to immediately leave. If this describes your site, creating a blog or setting up a Twitter account to drive more traffic to the site isn't going to do you much good.

Sending more visitors to an awful website simply makes it possible for you to alienate people on a more massive scale. Not exactly what I might call a winning strategy.

Nearly every day, we field at least one question from a site owner fretting over some esoteric concept — like whether multiple links pointing from one page to another will all give credit for their anchor text, or whether it's worth it to try “Page Rank sculpting,” or whether it would be better to start a blog or set up a company page on Facebook.

The thing is, in many cases, these site owners are wasting time worrying about these things when their websites are missing many of the basic fundamentals.

In the words of the old saying, they're putting the cart before the horse. Trying to shingle the roof before the house is even framed in. They're focusing on minutia while the big issues — the fundamentals — haven't yet been resolved.

So what are the fundamentals?

by Robert

First and foremost, your site needs to be credible. No matter how much (or how little) traffic you get, unless people believe and trust your site, you have little chance to convert that traffic to sales or leads. The Stanford University Persuasive Tech Lab's Web Credibility Project has compiled a list of ten major website credibility guidelines, including such ideas as making sure your site looks professional, making sure it's easy to use, and making it easy to contact you. Before you do anything else, read and implement these guidelines.

Second, your site needs to be persuasive. Make sure you know what you want your site to do, then make sure every page of your site works to move your visitors toward that most desired result. Review the suggestions at places like GrokDotCom and Psychotactics to learn more about how to make your site better at convincing people to do what you want them to do.

For instance, the words on your pages are a crucial component of this persuasion. If you aren't a skilled and experienced copywriter, consider hiring a professional. Likewise, your site navigation will also help guide visitors. Ensure your site's internal linking structure helps direct visitors toward your most desired goal for the site.

Third, your site needs to be optimized for traffic. Learning how to improve a site to attract more visitors can take considerable time, so it may not be something you want to tackle yourself. But if you're eager to devote the effort or if your budget is really, really tight, it's certainly something you can do.

You don't need to worry about “advanced SEO techniques.” If your site hasn't been optimized professionally before, there are likely all sorts of really basic things you can do that will generate surprisingly impressive results for you.

If, on the other hand, you prefer to devote your time to running your business instead of learning search engine optimization, if you want to get moving more quickly and surely, if you can afford a (relatively) little bit of money to save a lot of your time and energy, consider hiring a search optimization expert or SEO to jump-start the process for you.

Once you have these core concepts well in hand, then you can start working on your fancy behind-your-head spinning jump shot — social media marketing, advanced SEO techniques, etc. — confident in the knowledge that your site is ready for success with solid, game-winning fundamentals.

For the past five years, Diane has been a website manager for a wholesale distribution company in Raleigh, North Carolina. She also writes semi-regularly for Search Engine Guide and SEO-Scoop, as well as serving as a volunteer moderator at the High Rankings forum and the Small Business Ideas forum. She has been designing, developing and promoting websites since the mid-1990s, and loves using her experience to help business owners improve the effectiveness and profitability of their sites.