Having a website is a necessity these days, but it is nearly useless if nobody can find it when looking for your products or services. Since Search Engines are not humans, and do not see websites the same way that your human users do there are some considerations you need to take into account when designing your webpage. Use this guide when developing a site so that you know you are considering search engines in your design. The following sections outline some of the most important factors to consider if you want a site that’s both usable for your visitors and optimized for search engine visibility and traffic.
- Indexable Content
- Keywords – Usage and Targeting
- Title Tags
- Meta Tags
- URL Structures
The most important content on your website should be in HTML text format. Search Engines read HTML. The look for content in HTML. The can interpret text that is within the HTML code. Images, Flash files, Java applets, and other non-text content are often ignored or devalued by search engine crawlers. Search engines have been moving forward in crawling technology but it is still not a good idea to put important content within non-HTML segments. The best way to ensure that the words and phrases you display to your visitors are visible to search engines is to place them in the HTML text on the page.
This is not to say you cannot use more advanced methods are available for greater formatting or visual display styles, but if you do you need to adhere to the following:
- Provide alt text for ALL images. Assign images in gif, jpg, or png format “alt attributes” in HTML to give search engines a text description of the visual content.
- Supplement search boxes with navigation and crawlable links.
- Supplement Flash or Java plug-ins with text on the page.
- Provide a transcript for video and audio content if the words and phrases used are meant to be indexed by the engines.
Keyword Usage and Targeting
Keywords are fundamental to the search process. They are the building blocks of language and of search. In fact, the entire science of information retrieval (including web-based search engines like Google) is based on keywords. As the engines crawl and index the contents of pages around the web, they keep track of those pages in keyword-based indexes rather than storing 25 billion web pages all in one database. Millions and millions of smaller databases, each centered on a particular keyword term or phrase, allow the engines to retrieve the data they need in a mere fraction of a second.
Search engines measure how keywords are used on pages to help determine the relevance of a particular document to a query. One of the best ways to optimize a page’s rankings is to ensure that the keywords you want to rank for are prominently used in titles, text, and metadata. Generally speaking, as you make your keywords more specific, you narrow the competition for search results, and improve your chances of achieving a higher ranking.
Since the dawn of online search, folks have abused keywords in a misguided effort to manipulate the engines. This involves “stuffing” keywords into text, URLs, meta tags, and links. Unfortunately, this tactic almost always does more harm than good for your site. The best practice is to use your keywords naturally and strategically. The point of using keywords is not to rank highly for all keywords, but to rank highly for the keywords that people are searching for when they want what your site provides.
When developing your site, we recommend the following process:
Use your keywords
- In the title tag at least once. Try to keep the keyword phrase as close to the beginning of the title tag as possible. More detail on title tags follows later in this section.
- Once prominently near the top of the page.
- At least two or three times, including variations, in the body copy on the page. Perhaps a few more times if there’s a lot of text content. You may find additional value in using the keyword or variations more than this, but in our experience adding more instances of a term or phrase tends to have little or no impact on rankings.
- At least once in the alt attribute of an image on the page. This not only helps with web search, but also image search, which can occasionally bring valuable traffic.
- Once in the URL. Additional rules for URLs and keywords are discussed later on in this section.
- At least once in the meta description tag. Note that the meta description tag does not get used by the engines for rankings, but rather helps to attract clicks by searchers reading the results page, as the meta description becomes the snippet of text used by the search engines.
And you should generally not use keywords in link anchor text pointing to other pages on your site; this is known as Keyword Cannibalization.
The title element of a page is meant to be an accurate, concise description of a page’s content. It is critical to both user experience and search engine optimization.
As title tags are such an important part of search engine optimization, the following best practices for title tag creation makes for terrific low-hanging SEO fruit. The recommendations below cover the critical steps to optimize title tags for search engines and for usability.
Be mindful of length
Search engines display only the first 65-75 characters of a title tag in the search results (after that, the engines show an ellipsis – “…” – to indicate when a title tag has been cut off). This is also the general limit allowed by most social media sites, so sticking to this limit is generally wise. However, if you’re targeting multiple keywords (or an especially long keyword phrase), and having them in the title tag is essential to ranking, it may be advisable to go longer.
Place important keywords close to the front
The closer to the start of the title tag your keywords are, the more helpful they’ll be for ranking, and the more likely a user will be to click them in the search results.
End every title tag with a brand name mention, as these help to increase brand awareness, and create a higher click-through rate for people who like and are familiar with a brand. Sometimes it makes sense to place your brand at the beginning of the title tag, such as your homepage. Since words at the beginning of the title tag carry more weight, be mindful of what you are trying to rank for.
Consider readability and emotional impact
Title tags should be descriptive and readable. The title tag is a new visitor’s first interaction with your brand and should convey the most positive impression possible. Creating a compelling title tag will help grab attention on the search results page, and attract more visitors to your site. This underscores that SEO is about not only optimization and strategic keyword usage, but the entire user experience.
Meta tags were originally intended as a proxy for information about a website’s content. Several of the basic meta tags are listed below, along with a description of their use.
The Meta Robots tag can be used to control search engine crawler activity (for all of the major engines) on a per-page level. There are several ways to use Meta Robots to control how search engines treat a page:
- index/noindex tells the engines whether the page should be crawled and kept in the engines’ index for retrieval.
- follow/nofollow tells the engines whether links on the page should be crawled.
- noarchive is used to restrict search engines from saving a cached copy of the page
- nosnippet informs the engines that they should refrain from displaying a descriptive block of text next to the page’s title and URL in the search results.
- noodp/noydir are specialized tags telling the engines not to grab a descriptive snippet about a page from the Open Directory Project (DMOZ) or the Yahoo! Directory for display in the search results.
- The X-Robots-Tag HTTP header directive also accomplishes these same objectives. This technique works especially well for content within non-HTML files, like images.
The meta description tag exists as a short description of a page’s content. Search engines do not use the keywords or phrases in this tag for rankings, but meta descriptions are the primary source for the snippet of text displayed beneath a listing in the results.
The meta description tag serves the function of advertising copy, drawing readers to your site from the results. It is an extremely important part of search marketing. Crafting a readable, compelling description using important keywords can draw a much higher click-through rate of searchers to your page. Meta descriptions can be any length, but search engines generally will cut snippets longer than 160 characters, so it’s generally wise to stay within in these limits
Not as important meta tags
Meta Keywords: The meta keywords tag had value at one time, but is no longer valuable or important to search engine optimization.
Meta Refresh, Meta Revisit-after, Meta Content-type, and others: Although these tags can have uses for search engine optimization, they are less critical to the process.
URLs—the addresses for documents on the web—are of great value from a search perspective. They appear in multiple important locations.
Since search engines display URLs in the results, they can impact click-through and visibility. URLs are also used in ranking documents, and those pages whose names include the queried search terms receive some benefit from proper, descriptive use of keywords.
URL Construction Guidelines
Place yourself in the mind of a user and look at your URL. If you can easily and accurately predict the content you’d expect to find on the page, your URL is appropriately descriptive. You don’t need to spell out every last detail in the URL, but a rough idea is a good starting point.
Shorter is better
While a descriptive URL is important, minimizing length and trailing slashes will make your URLs easier to copy and paste (into emails, blog posts, text messages, etc.) and will be fully visible in the search results.
Keyword use is important (but overuse is dangerous)
If your page is targeting a specific term or phrase, make sure to include it in the URL. However, don’t go overboard by trying to stuff in multiple keywords for SEO purposes; overuse will result in less usable URLs and can trip spam filters.
The best URLs are human-readable and without lots of parameters, numbers, and symbols. Using technologies like mod_rewrite for Apache and ISAPI_rewrite for Microsoft, you can easily transform dynamic URLs like this https://moz.com/blog?id=123 into a more readable static version like this: https://moz.com/blog/google-fresh-factor. Even single dynamic parameters in a URL can result in lower overall ranking and indexing.
Use hyphens to separate words
Not all web applications accurately interpret separators like underscores (_), plus signs (+), or spaces (%20), so instead use the hyphen character (-) to separate words in a URL, as in the “google-fresh-factor” URL example above.
Canonical and Duplicate Versions of Content
Duplicate content is one of the most vexing and troublesome problems any website can face. Over the past few years, search engines have cracked down on pages with thin or duplicate content by assigning them lower rankings. Canonicalization happens when two or more duplicate versions of a webpage appear on different URLs. This is very common with modern Content Management Systems.