9 Steps to Balanced Search Engine Optimization
SEO is important to help attract website traffic through Google and other search engines. However, there is a risk of going overboard with SEO.
As an example, look at this blog post on the importance of home inspections. Clearly the author is attempting to optimize the page for keyword phrases like “home inspection” and “home inspector”. The author has done some good things with the copy to attract a high Google ranking (though there are some basics I’ll describe below that could be improved.)
But there are two problems here.
- On-page SEO accounts for only 25% (very roughly) of the value given by Google. The quality of inbound links matters far more. Is this content that other relevant websites are likely to link to?
- Even if this page does receive a lot of traffic, will that traffic matter? Will that traffic take any desired action?
The copy is so clearly drafted to appeal to Google that it provides very little usable information. It’s just not all that readable or interesting to actual human beings. As such, it will only partially achieve goal #1 – increased traffic, and should do little to help achieve goal #2 – conversion.
So am I advocating to ignore SEO? Not at all. Rather, I suggest to my clients a balanced approach.
Here are some steps you can take to improve your on-page SEO without detracting from your content.
Step 1: Write Great Content
This is the most important step. Writing great content isn’t always easy, and we’ll write about how to do that extensively in upcoming posts. But for the sake of this post, just consider that if you write interesting, entertaining, engaging, educational, engrossing content (that’s a lot of “e” words), and you do nothing else whatsoever to help your search engine optimization, that’s better than writing mediocre content and optimizing the heck out of it.
That said, assuming you have done this, what basic steps should you take to better optimize your great content for search engines?
Step 2: Page Titles and Meta Descriptions
The page title is what you see at the very top of your browser window.
Google assumes that words in your title are very important, so it puts particular emphasis on this when ranking the keywords on the page.
Perhaps more importantly, the page title is what shows up on Google’s search results page. In a sense, your page title, combined with your “meta description”, become small text ads for your content.
A meta description is quite simply a couple of sentences that you put into the HTML of a page (the markup code that creates a web page’s structure). It’s not something that is visible on the web page itself, but it helps Google and other search engines learn a bit more about the page’s contents.
It used to be that keyword phrases in meta descriptions were pretty important for SEO. This is no longer the case. Google doesn’t use it in its rankings.
If Google no longer cares about the keyword phrases in meta description tags, why should you still care? Google usually uses some or all of your meta description text as a summary snippet after the page title on search results pages. It’s like a teaser after a headline that helps entice people to want to click on your link. So, stuffing keyword phrases into your meta descriptions is counterproductive. Real human beings read them and nobody wants to read a keyword-stuffed paragraph.
Here is an example of how a page title and meta description display on a Google search results page.
So what does a great page title and meta description look like?
- Accurate – Don’t try to spoof Google with keywords unrelated to the topic of the post. Google will probably ding you for it, and even if it does result in traffic it’s not the kind of traffic that will actually convert into business.
- Specific – Don’t use generic titles or meta descriptions like “Blog Post #1″.
- Unique – It’s a mistake to simply use your company name as the title for every page. It tells potential site visitors nothing about what they should expect to find, reducing the likelihood they’ll click through. Plus, you’re missing out on valuable keyword SEO real estate.
- Brief – Only the first 65 or so characters of a page title will be visible on Google’s search results page. Anything beyond that will be truncated and ignored and will only serve to dilute your keyword phrases. Likewise, to make sure you don’t end up with truncated meta descriptions, limit them to 156 characters or fewer.
- Descriptive - While you may only have 65 characters to play with, it’s important to be informative about what your content covers in order to gain higher clickthrough rates. You have a little bit more room to play with in your meta description, but not much, so get right to the point.
One last point on the meta description – Google doesn’t always use it. Sometimes it grabs a description from other sources. Sometimes it just shows part of the actual page content. Uber-SEO blog Search Engine Land makes this suggestion:
“It’s most likely that the meta description will be used by default when the page doesn’t contain the user’s search term and is ranking primarily because of inbound links and their anchor text. Here’s a (perhaps obvious) tip: look at your web analytics for the top search terms driving traffic to the page and make sure these terms are present in that page’s meta description.”
Step 3: Meta Keywords
How much weight does Google put on your meta keywords? None, nada, zilch, zero, move on, nothing to see here.
So is there any point in creating a list of keywords? Maybe. Yahoo still uses meta keywords. But according to them, they give this less weight than any other factor.
When you consider that as of August 2010, Yahoo had only 13.1% of total US search share, I’m not sure it’s worth the time.
So I’m not going to explain it to you any further. If you’re really curious, you can learn about it here.
One last thing. According to Search Engine Land:
“Optimizing your meta keywords is a complete waste of time. Period. They have been so abused by spammers that the engines haven’t put any stock in them for years and years.”
Step 4: URL Slugs
You ever notice how some web page URLs look like this?
Compare that to this URL:
The first tells you nothing about what the content may be about. The second makes it clear that it was posted on September 30, 2010 and is about a Mets vs. Brewers game.
All other things being equal, which do you think is better for search engines?
If you chose door number 2, you’re a winner!
As Google itself states:
“If your URL contains relevant words, this provides users and search engines with more information about the page than an ID or oddly named parameter would.”
There is some controversy here.
“In the bad old days dynamic pages that were accessed with urls such as www.mydomain.com/link.php?action=view&var=new&country=europe were bad news as the search spiders did not know how to follow these links with “?” in them. The result was that dynamic pages were not accessed and indexed. However, those days are gone. Google says “We can crawl dynamic URLs and interpret the different parameters. We might have problems crawling and ranking your dynamic URLs if you try to make your urls look static and in the process hide parameters which offer the Googlebot valuable information. One recommendation is to avoid reformatting a dynamic URL to make it look static.”
Regardless of how much Google’s spider cares about keywords in URLs, potential site visitors will. URLs are shown in the search results. In fact, the entered keywords appear in bold in the URL.
Note that chosen keywords are also bolded in the page titles and descriptions.
Some smart practices include:
- Use actual words – ideally keywords you want to rank for.
- Avoid URLs with lots of weird parameters and session IDs.
- Don’t be redundant. For example, this would be bad – http://blog.abstractedge.com/seo-seo-seo-keywords-keywords-keywords.
- Make sure that content pages have one, and only one, URL. Some content management systems do a poor job of making sure that a content page is not addressable by two separate URLs. This is important because otherwise Google has no idea which is the canonical page and basically splits the “link juice”, ranking each of them lower than necessary.
Step 5: Navigation
There are a lot of “best practices” for navigation, but some of the best ones for SEO are:
- Text only – Try really, really hard to use text links for your navigation. Don’t be seduced by the allure of sexy graphical buttons. Google will have a much easier time navigating your site and finding all of your great content if your navigation is made up of HTML text.
- Alt tags – If you absolutely must use graphics for your navigation (e.g. your CEO is insisting on using some crazy font that cannot be replicated in HTML text), at the very least make sure to use the “alt” attribute to give Google a hint about what the graphic is linking to.
In this example you can see a nice pulldown sub-navigation (“Doctors”, “Facilities”, “Online Education” underneath “Risk Management”). However, you can also navigate to any of the second-level items by clicking on “Risk Management” and then clicking on regular HTML links on that page. In other words, it degrades gracefully.
Step 6: XML Sitemaps
An XML Sitemap is a text file that sits on your web server and is easily findable by Google’s spider. The XML Sitemap contains information about every link on your site, and thus can help Google find all of your content.
Some people seem to believe that an XML Sitemap will actually improve your rankings, but this is not true. If Google finds your page on its own, having an XML Sitemap will not improve the page’s ranking. What it does do is make sure that all of your content is found.
The opening section of an XML Sitemap looks like this:
Many content management systems will automatically create this file for you, but if not, you can automatically create one here.
Step 7: Anchor Text
Anchor text is the clickable part of what you read on a web page. Here is an example of anchor text that links to CNN.com.
But see what I did here? By using the keyword phrase “anchor text” as the linkable text, I have signaled to Google that CNN.com is all about anchor text!
If CNN.com starts to get thousands and thousands of inbound links that use “anchor text” as the linkable text, you can be pretty sure that if somebody did a search on Google for the keyword phrase “anchor text”, CNN.com would be the first result!
So, it’s important to use more descriptive keyword phrases as linkable anchor text, especially when you link to internal pages on your site. For example, I might link to this blog post about 8 great questions to ask before starting a web design project.
Ah, much better!
Step 8: Images
To a search engine, an image is just a black hole. It has no ability to know for sure what an image represents. It can only interpret the meaning of an image if you give it some clues. There are a few ways to do this.
In HTML, images are placed with the <img> tag. It looks like this:
There are a couple of very easy changes and additions you can make to help Google figure out what the image is about.
- Give the image a descriptive name. If the image is of a boy playing baseball, call the image “boy-playing-baseball.jpg”.
- Add an “alt” attribute to the image tag. So, the above would be changed to <img src=”http://www.mysite.com/myimage.jpg” alt=”Boy playing baseball”>.
Not only is this a good practice to help Google figure out what your web page is about, it’s also very helpful for people who use screen readers and cannot see your images to begin with.
Step 9: Headers
Use HTML header tags to structure the key headers on each page of your site. Many believe that the words contained within header tags are given a bit more weight by search engines.
For example, the header right above here, “Step 9: Headers” uses an <h2> tag. It’s good to try to use some of your keyword phrases in the headers.
Most of these steps are pretty easy to do and have little downside. They may even help with your rankings. Just keep in mind that 75% of what really counts are the inbound links to your site, and you don’t directly control that. We’ll take on some link building ideas in later posts.
Just don’t overdo it. First things first – create great content.
Then, if you do want to dig more deeply into how to build the perfectly optimized page, go and read this blog post from SEO guru Rand Fishkin.
Or, if you just want to get started and need some help, give us a call.