5 Steps to Basic Search Engine Optimization
Websites should be built with search engines in mind, although not as top priority. Happily, a basic level of optimization is relatively easy, and will help your users as much as it does your site ranking.
First, build the site using standards-compliant, semantically correct HTML.
Semantically correct HTML places headers within header tags, normal text within paragraph tags and uses other tags appropriately to make the HTML reflect the content. It avoids the use of formatting elements in the HTML.
Websites programmed this way can look beautiful through the use of CSS, and are naturally easy for search engine spiders to understand and index. This HTML is typically more efficient and less bloated, making your pages load quickly, be more accessible, and increasing your keyword ratio (which may increase your ranking).
Second, avoid using complicated, unreadable URLs.
Google and other search engines may or may not follow complicated links with lots of parameters. URLs like:
http://louddog.com/articles.php?articleID=21423&blah=as888 may not be followed or indexed. It’s better to create readable URLs such as:
We recommend using dashes instead of underscores in URLs. Google recently acknowledged that it treats words_separated_by_underscores as a single word, and words-separated-by-dashes as different words.
The general rule of thumb, however, is that what’s good for humans is good for Google.
Third, create a site map.
When the web was young, site maps were important for users. Web-oriented information architecture hadn’t matured, and designers weren’t focused on making sites navigable. Today, site maps are only useful to users if the information architecture is broken: they are the last refuge of a frustrated user. Let’s hope that your visitors don’t use your site map.
On the other hand, site maps are very useful to search engine spiders, and should include direct links to most pages on your site (a rule of thumb is that no page should be more than two “hops” away for a spider). Many of our corporate designs use dropdown navigation, which, because of the way we program it (see step one), effectively includes a site map on every page.
Beyond the standard site map, Google site maps offer an easy way to make sure your site is properly indexed by the most important search engine. The site map itself is an XML document that contains a list of all your pages. There are a number of online tools you can use to make one. Once you’ve created it, double check it and submit to Google.
Fourth, put useful, unique titles on each page.
Include the name of your website and a specific description of the page. When a user sees this in a search engine, it’ll make sense and be useful. When a search engine sees this, they’ll like it too and individual pages will be more likely to show up in search engines under the relevant terms.
Fifth, create a description “meta” tag for the site.
The description meta tag is displayed in search engine results and provides information on the listing. In this example, I searched for “search engine optimization”, and outlined the description in red:
The meta description does not enhance your actual ranking, but it is important to have so people using a search engine know what your site is all about. If you want to take search results to the next level, create a custom description for each page.
What about the keywords meta tag? Back in the day, focusing on the keywords meta tag was what SEO was all about, but its importance has diminished to the point of near-irrelevance in search engine rankings. Modern search engines focus on actual content, not the keywords tag.
Obviously something’s better than nothing, particularly if you have very little content on a page, so there’s no reason not to put something there, but you shouldn’t spend time on this tag. I typically recommend that clients just use a standard keyword mix in this area and focus their energy on identifying keywords as discussed in the next steps.
Next Steps: Identify and use keywords
The five steps we’ve listed comprise a basic SEO effort that can easily be completed during a site redesign. Your site is now optimized for search engines to find, read and rank. But unless it contains good content, the site won’t get a good ranking, and this is where keywords come in.
Keywords are the foundation of any serious SEO or SEM effort. If you’re going to invest anything in SEO, first invest in identifying your keywords — not only will it be good for your ranking, but it can help keep your company and your content strategically focused.
We have a number of techniques to help you identify the best keywords (and we’ll explore those in a future article), but the basic goal is to generate a couple hundred keywords (and keyphrases) for use on your site and in your SEM activities.
Once you’ve identified keywords, use them!
Although your keywords should be sprinkled liberally throughout your site, it’s best if you focus them on specific pages or sections, selecting a single topic for different pages, and routing search engine traffic for that topic (and related keywords) to those targeted pages.
Make sure the page contains the key phrase in its
<title> tag, in an
<h1> tag, at least three times in the body copy, once in bold (in a
<strong> tag), and once in an image alt text (if you have images).
Most importantly, however, remember that search engines focus on your actual content. Although there are many technical explanations out there, they all amount to the same thing: focused, well-written content wins.
A final note
When it comes to SEO, the technical steps I’ve listed here are just the beginning. However, there are frequently better investments than advanced SEO for the typical site: better written, more compelling content, better navigation (making that better content easier to find), more useful applications and an easier-to-use interface.
- Compelling content draws users, links and high rankings. Be honest about whether the writing on your organization’s site is compelling. Is it concise and to the point, or does it meander and over-explain? Does it use plain language or jargon? Does it leave the reader wanting more or wanting less?
- A website that looks ugly, isn’t optimized and has truly compelling content will be ranked higher and be more successful than a beautiful, highly-optimized site with bland, poorly written content.
- Until a site has truly great easy-to-find content, it’s better to invest in improving the content or navigation than to invest in advanced optimization.
Hey! This wasn't written by a bevy of otters! It was written by Josh Orum, who does awesome work at Loud Dog, a digital branding firm in San Francisco that helps businesses express themselves authentically via identities, websites, and marketing collateral.
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