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July 13, 2007
An Introduction to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Part 1
This is the first in a series of posts that will discuss SEO and other Web marketing strategies. Before we dig into our first discussion of SEO, it is worth remembering that search engines are not the only way visitors get to your site. Google analytics for this blog (during the past month) showed that 49.32% of visitors came via searches, 41.24% came from referring sites, and 9.44% already knew the link and came here directly of their own accord. Optimizing your site for search engines is important, but it is only one part of your overall marketing strategy.
What is SEO?
According to Wikipedia:
"Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the volume and quality of traffic to a web site from search engines via "natural" ("organic" or "algorithmic") search results. Usually, the earlier a site is presented in the search results, or the higher it "ranks", the more searchers will visit that site. SEO can also target different kinds of search, including image search, local search, and industry-specific vertical search engines."
Thus, to optimize our sites we need to know both how people use search engines, and how we can affect our site's search results. This is important because we don't seek high rankings for just any search. We seek high rankings on searches relevant to the content on our site.
Search engine usage habits
We all know, from our own experience, that we are more likely to visit the sites we find on the first page of a search result than we are on the 15th page. Sometimes we visit the first site on the list, sometimes the second, third or 10th, depending on what phrases show up with the results. Other times none of the results seems correct, so we use those results to modify the words or phrases used in our search and begin again.
While user habits may vary, all users are searching for something in particular. Some may search on one word, others a combination of words, others combinations of words and phrases, etc. More experienced users will apply boolean logic, while others may just look for simple word combinations. After typing in the terms, the searcher will review the listed sites, skim the phrases shown below the links, then visit the sites that seem most likely to provide the information they seek. If none of the sites deliver, the searcher will have to keep scrolling through the results pages or refine the search.
As my high school calculus teacher used to say, this is obviously true. I don't want to bore you with the obvious, but for today I want us all to be thinking about the basics. In theory, searchability is simple. If we want searchers to find us, all we need to do is to match our content to their search terms. Of course there is more to it than that, but if we start with a solid foundation we can implement additional strategies later.
Maximizing searchability through content and format
First and foremost, match your content to your goals and the goals of your anticipated readership. If your site is about Pygmy Hippos, then tell us about those hippos. Show us pictures, describe their habits, habitat and physiology. If you think your readers will want more information than you can provide, create a page with links to other sites that you find to be reliable. If your content is good, visitors will read your content, and possibly link to your site in the future. I'll discuss how links factor into searchability in a later post. For now, let's look at the structure of your pages. We'll work our way down from the top, by reviewing some of the coding you should include in your page
- Doctype Declaration
- The Doctype let's browsers know how to properly render your page. Below the doctype, in the <html> tag you should also include information such as the language the text is written in. This is important for users who are searching for sites written in a specific language. This information is followed by <head> Examples of this code can be found on the W3C's Recommended DTDs to use in your Web document page.
- Document Title
- The document title is what users see at the top of their browser (to show them where they are). It is also the title shown in search results. As such it should be descriptive of your site and reflect its content. Here on the Web Development Blog I use: <title>Web Development Blog: Creative Services: Marketing and Communications: Case Western Reserve University</title> for the title. It's simple and also shows this blog's connection to its parent department and the university. I use the same title on my blog pages because the pages are generated by my templates. On a regular Web site you can make the title specific to each page.
- Keywords Meta Tag
- The keywords tag is not a magic bullet—most search engines don't even use it. Clients will often request this, so it doesn't hurt to include it as long as you use it wisely (overuse of keywords in either a metatag or elsewhere, can penalize you). For the search engines that do index this tag, you will have better luck if you keep the list short (less than a dozen keywords/phrases) and only use keywords that are actually found in the text of your page or site. There are those who recommend using currently popular keywords to get more traffic, but this is not a good idea. Even if this worked, why would you want to? Traffic for the sake of traffic doesn't serve your end goal. If you are recruiting students to your Ph.D. program, including "Harry Potter" as a keyword isn't going to bring you students preparing for graduate school, it will only bring Harry Potter fans—only a small number of which plan on studying polymers. The few search engines that support this tag give it very little weight, so don't spend much time on this. Just pick a few words that are directly related to your content, then move on.
- Meta Description Tag
- This tag is important. The search engines not only index the words used in your description, they also display this text on the search results page. Users rely on this when deciding whether to visit your site or someone else's. Your description should reflect the nature of your site, and include relevant keywords or company name as appropriate. For this blog I've used: <meta name="description" content="Case's Web Development Blog offers tips, tricks and a place to exchange ideas with web maintainers on campus." /> It's short and to the point. And while I'm getting pretty good search results (see below), perhaps I could refine it. The words "tips" and "tricks" aren't used very often, except in the category listing. Now that I've had this blog for a few years it might be a good time to review my content and adjust this description accordingly.
- Using Keywords in Headlines & Text
- It's well known that search engines and browsers know that words in headlines such as <h1>'s are more important or descriptive than words in the main text, but there seems to be some debate regarding the effectiveness of using keywords in these areas. I would focus more on making these headings meaningful to readers. If the headlines reflect the topic of discussion many of them will naturally be keywords anyway. As with the Case Web templates, put the name of your site in the <h1> tag, a descriptive topical headline in the <h2> or <h3> and descriptive sub headings in your <h4>'s, <h5>'s and <h6>'s. Be specific rather than vague. If you are making a page about your research in elastomers, make your heading "Elastomer Research" rather than just "Research." Using specific headlines helps readers navigate your content more easily. Choosing key words for your main text should also happen naturally. Users are searching on terms they expect would be relevant to the topic. As such you'll probably be using these words as a matter of course. If you think visitors will search on term X, but you've not used it in your site, don't try to force it somewhere it doesn't fit. Instead find a logical context for it. This may entail writing another page or paragraph, but if you think this word is relevant then you should use it in a meaningful way.
In addition to the above, there are other meta-tags you can consider, but overall if you focus on your content you should be in pretty good shape. I'll continue this discussion of search engine optimization strategies in future posts.
Additional Resources on Search Engine Optimization
- Google's Blog for Webmasters
- Google Webmaster Help Center
- Search Engine Ranking Factors V2
- Search Engine Roundtable
- Search Engine Watch
Web Development Blog Search Results (Google)
This little blog does pretty well in keyword searches. Part of this is due to following the steps outlined above, but mostly it is a matter of continuing to provide topical content. As with everything we discuss here, content is key.
Results by keyword searches done July 17, 2007 (these will vary over time):
- Web development blog: 1 of about 329,000,000
- Case marketing blog: 5 of about 94,000,000
- marketing web blog: 8 of about 239,000,000
- web blog: 149 of about 1,040,000,000. That puts us on the 15th page of the results, so I have some work to do, but to come out that high on such a broad topical search is still pretty good!
Comments to this post are now closed.
I've closed comments here as of January 14, 2008 because we've been getting so many similar responses from people who wish to promote links to their own sites. While I have no problem with allowing links in comments that add value to the discussion, most of the comments received in the past few weeks have been repetitive.
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