First up, no-one truly knows how Google and other search engines ranks websites. Google state they’re algorithms take over 200 clues from your website in order to deliver the right results for the user. Things like freshness of content, location, keywords on the site are some of the criteria but we can’t be sure on details. To make it worse for website owners, things change; new algorithms are released regularly that keep us guessing as to what the most important SEO factors are to focus on.
But never fear… in my 12+ years experience in the industry I’ve come to realise that it all boils down to this:
People want to make websites search engine friendly, search engines want sites to be people friendly.
If you’re in the business of making a site that is of interest to your customers/fans/users, is accessible, and is regularly updated with good content – over time you will start to rank. Lets assume you have the former and latter covered, we’ll delve further into being accessible. But first, some background…
Relevance and importance
In the broadest possible terms Search Engine Optimisation is about importance and relevance. Importance is how many links you have coming in from quality sites – quality is more important than quantity. More on importance another day, this post is focusing on relevance.
Basically, relevance is how closely the content of your site matches the search query. The best way to achieve this is by writing naturally about a subject, not stuffing with keywords. If you write naturally about Handball in Cornwall, for example, and a user is searching for Cornish Handball teams, your page will contain words the user searched for and – depending on the competition – your site is likely to rank.
This makes sense. Google et al want to give users results they are interested in. If Google’s results stopped being relevant people would use another search engine.
If you’re torn on an important piece of text, like a page title or a top level heading, use Google’s Keyword Tool to gauge popularity of the terms you’re contemplating – go with the most popular.
A word of warning, stuffing a site with keywords may seem like you’re making it highly relevant, but it’s not likely to read particularly well for humans. Therefor Google doesn’t like it. Keyword stuffing is a ‘blackhat’ technique and the site could be punished, more on that later in the article.
So for relevance write naturally about your subject, but have one eye on top level keywords.
Making a people friendly, and therefor accessible website
This means all people. Make sites that can be accessed and used comfortably by the elderly, partially sighted, deaf, people controlling a computer by means other than a mouse and keyboard, and even people viewing the website on devices other than a traditional computer.
If a site is useable to people, content is accessible to search engines. This means building in a structured, semantic way using web standards. This sounds hard. It’s not.
Elements to include on every page of your site:
I am making the assumption here that your HTML is structured with a doctype (use html5 doctype), head and body, and your scripts and CSS are external in script files or stylesheets.
1. title tag
<title>This is your page title, plus your site name</title>
This is what Google displays as the link to your site in it’s listings.
2. Meta description
<meta name=”description” content=”Describe the page in one short sentence, roughly about 12-15 or so words”>
These are the words that display under the link to your site in Google listings.
3. Main heading
<h1>Your main heading</h1> This should be about the content on the page (naturally!). Usually you’d only have one of these per page.
4. Sub headings and paragraphs
<h2>Secondary heading</h2> You can have a few of these, they are the second most important level of headings on your page.
<p>A paragraph of lovelly readable accessible text</p>
<h3>The third most important heading</h3>. You can have lots of these. Don’t worry about jumbling up h2’s and 3’s, it doesn’t have to be in order, they just symbolise the importance of the content you are referring to.
<p>Another paragraph of lovelly readable accessible text</p>
5. Well named images with alt attributes
Name your images with hyphens (not underscores) in between the words, for example “newquay-handball-club-team-photo.jpg”, and give them descriptive alt attributes, for example “the 2013 Newquay Handball Club team lineup”. Alt stands for ‘alternative’ which means screen readers will read it and if the image doesn’t display for whatever reason, the alt text will. This and the image name are how search spiders view and index images, which is important for relevance and also image searches. Go for something like this: <img src=”newquay-handball-club-team-photo.jpg” alt=”the 2013 Newquay Handball Club team lineup” />
6. Rich media
Optimised images, videos, audio – things like that. It makes sense that a website is likely to be more immersive experience for the user if the text is supported by relevant media. But don’t force it in, if there’s no need for a video don’t just have one for the sake of it. Also be careful not to make your page too heavy. More on that to come.
7. A Sitemap
OK, this isn’t a page specific thing, it covers the whole site and makes sure Google indexes all the pages. If you have a static site you could use a site map generator, or if you’re using a CMS like WordPress there will be a plugin, if it isn’t included in the core as standard.
Things not to include on your site:
Generally speaking, Flash is almost dead, unless you’re making a game or virtual world perhaps. For most sites it’s a no-no. Content trapped in Flash objects is largely inaccessible to search engines, they can’t read it well, or follow links, or index images etc. It’s also generally heavy, so increases download time.
2. In-page or in-line CSS
Yes, sometimes Content Management Systems inject style or scripts. It’s ok, just don’t add any that you don’t need. Keep them all in external stylesheets. The higher the content to code ratio the better.
3. Huge images
A fairly recent algorithm from Google penalises, to some degree, unnecessarily heavy pages. So it is important to use images appropriately. Of course you need to optimise images for use on the web and save in an appropriate format, I’m assuming you know how to do that.
Try to keep images to actual size, or if you’re making a responsive site (which should be ) use something like adaptive images to serve up different file sizes based on the users window. For retina screens you can serve up bigger background images with the x2 media query. I’ll go into depth on the subject of images in another post.
Optional things to include on your site
1. Meta keywords
This might be a bit controversial, but in my experience and research, search engines have downgraded the importance of these as they are generally just stuffed with keywords. It is much better to identify keywords through naturally written content.
2. More heading tags
h4, h5, h6’s. Don’t force these extra headings into your pages. If the page warrants these headings then great, if not, don’t stress it.
3. Title attributes
These are helper attributes, for example <a href=”team” title=”Meet the players”>Team</a>. The title will show on-hover of the element, be it an image or link or whatever. It’s not indexed by search engines, so it’s up to you whether you want them.
Structure your site logically
Our handball example site would be structured in such a way that the individual player pages would be in their own folder, for example newquayhandballclub/team/amanda-hugnkiss. A clean site structure encourages Google to display internal category type links for your site in your Google listing.
Like with images, page URLs should be fairly descriptive and be separated by hyphens, for example if I would a post about the best technique for shooting powerfully in handball it could be newqyayhandballclub.co.uk/how-to-have-a-powerful-shot.
For domain names you are not penalised for having hyphens. It’s probably slightly better not to if you can, just because it’s easier to say a domain name without hyphens. But it’s hard to get a decent URL these days and it’s not going to get any easier, so more and more sites URLs will need to use hyphens. Search engines won’t penalise you.
If you’re changing your URL you should set up 301 redirects from the old to the new. This preserves the inbound links to your site. Additionally if someone links to www.yoursite.com, and your main URL doesn’t have www, you may not gain the SEO benefit from that link as Google could think it’s not the canonical (main) URL. So basically 301 www.yoursite.com to non yoursite.com, if that’s your preferred URL [hat tip to the clever folk at 3 White Hats for that one].
Brand new sites
If you are launching a new site it takes time to start ranking well. Lots of time. It may even take weeks just to get listed by Google at all. You can request a site crawl (sign up for webmaster tools and go to this page), but don’t hold your breath because Google receives so many requests every day. The best way to get listed is to get a link from a quality site, spiders should follow it and find your site, crawl it and index it.
If you are following the on-site SEO best practises above, producing regular good content and getting links from other sites you will start to climb rankings. In the mean time you could run a Pay Per Click campaign for your brand name while the site is bedding in.
These are supposedly SEO techniques, but they should be avoided at all costs. They’re unethical and useless to the online community because they’re not people friendly -therefor Google doesn’t want these sites to rank and can remove them from listings altogether. There’s no safe, ethical, quick fix to shoot your site to the top of organic rankings. Here’s some SEO don’t do’s:
1. Keyword stuffing
Enough said on that earlier in the article.
2. Hidden content
For example, the same coloured text and background, text stuffed into <noscript> or <noframes> tags. Don’t do it, Google is watching!
3. Link farms
You want links coming into your site to increase the importance of your site. Link farms are a group of sites that all link to eachother just for the sake of increase inbound links. It’s a rubbish idea thats useless to users and therefor Google doesn’t want these sites to rank, so don’t get associated with these sorts of things. Content farms come under that banner, producing loads of low quality content just to catch search traffic. Don’t do that either.
4. Mirrors and redirects
Creating a highly ‘relevant’ page and automatically redirecting it to another, and creating mirrors of your site are also both bad ideas.
There are more blackhat techniques, but these are the main and probably most common.
It makes sense that Google would tie their own social network in with their search systems to give benefit for those using it’s platform. This has already begun with things like the Google+ profile picture appearing next to your listing in SERPs (Search Engine Results Page), and the +1 button which should be taken seriously.
Chill. If your site is structured well and you’re a genuine person who is keen to publish good content regularly, you have nothing to worry about – just keep going, it takes time. If you are not prepared to put in the time to get fresh content out, frankly, you’ll struggle to rank. If that is the case, don’t be tempted by blackhat techniques because ranking on the 5th or 6th page could be the least of your worries!
We could certainly go into more depth for micro level optimisation, but the post will go on forever! If you follow the techniques set out in this article you’ll be just fine, and remember you don’t have to do everything at once. In fact regular iteration and tweaking is important.
Fundamentally if you are producing content that is site naturally relevant to users query you are more likely to attract visitors that are actually interested you, and therefor ready to convert to a sale/signup/follow. Also good relevant content is destined to be linked to more often, which brings me to part deux of this guide, off-site SEO… stay tuned!