SEO tips for findable websites
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is definitely one of the hottest topics nowadays and this is made pretty obvious by the flurry of articles that have been published in the last few years. It’s good to have such a number of articles on the best ways to code the pages and write the content in order to please search engines, but you have to be careful.
In fact, I’ve run up against quite a few articles, people and web companies that claim to help you get to the first position in the Google results page without having a clue of how spiders crawl and index content. Besides, most of them use the so-called black-hat techniques to reach their goals. These techniques will actually provide short-term gains, but if you are discovered utilizing them on your website, you run the risk of being penalized by search engines.
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to give you some sort of clarifications and tips on few SEO topics that seem to be controversial. For the most generic SEO tips instead, I’d suggest that you take a look at the 2010 Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide (PDF), recently published by Google.
Offer quality and up-to-date content
This is definitely the most important and useful advice you will ever get to increase your ranking. Content is still the King. And so it is for search engines. Search engines have been thought and built to search and filter the content in order to find relevant information. In other words, what Google wants from you is just some great, lean and clear content! That’s it. Feed it with fresh content every day and your pages will quickly climb the web ladder. Stop publishing new content for 3 or 4 months and you’ll see your ranking getting worse and worse.
Blogs are a great way to keep building fresh content on your site and attract visitors. Integrate your website with a blog, write some useful content and your ranking will grow right away. Be careful though not to duplicate content. In fact, spiders penalize content duplication. Also, loads of websites actually do have a blog, but it is hosted on a different domain such as blogger.com. In this case the blog won’t help you much because the traffic will be driven to the Blogger website. My advice is to integrate the blog into your website using any CMS or blog platform, so that they both stay under the same domain.
Write semantic mark-up
We all know how important is to base our websites on a solid information architecture and a easy-to-navigate structure. In fact, a well organized website helps users to quickly find the information they’re looking for before they get frustrated and leave the site. Besides, a good site structure helps search engines to get a sense of what role the different pages play in the bigger picture of the site and of what content the webmaster thinks is important. Organization is not only important at a file system level, but it is also extremely valuable at a page level. As we structure the files of our websites, we need to structure the content of our page.
If we write some content and simply style it with bigger fonts for titles, bullets for list elements, etc., most of the users will probably get the content hierarchy by the visual presentation of the page. But what about blind users that cannot see your styles? And what about search engines? They cannot see the styles either! We need to tell them what is what on the page and what is important not only at a presentational level, but at a code level too.
This is why it is necessary that we mark-up our content with proper, semantic, HTML tags such as headings (h1.. h6), paragraphs, lists, strong and em elements, and so on. If we use a h1 for the main title of the page and then a h2 for the second level headings and so on, we can drive both users and search engines through the page structure, telling them what is important, what is the main topic, what is the related content etc. What you’ll have to do is try to use relevant keywords in your headings or mark important words using the strong element, so that spiders can easily understand what the page is about and pop it up when people search for those specific topics.
HTML5 gives us a handfull of new semantic tags to help us improve the page structure and properly mark up the content. Elements such as article, header, footer, section, will tell search engines what your content is, resulting in an accurate indexing and ranking of your website.
SEO & Accessibility
Accessibility refers to the practice of making websites usable by people of all abilities and disabilities. This is obviously a really ambitious goal because there are so many disabilities and so many scenarios that it would be almost impossible to test each different context. Anyway, by following web standards and the accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.0) we can definitely improve the accessibility of our websites. Users deserve equal access to information and functionality. But how is this related to search engine optimization?
Aarron Walter uses the term “findability” in his book entitled “Building Findable Websites“. I just love this term and I believe it is really illuminating! It was popularized by Peter Morville and refers to: “The quality of being located or navigated, the degree to which an object or piece of data can be located, and the degree to which a system supports navigation and retrieval”. Therefore, findability is definitely related to SEO, but also to usability, accessibility, information architecture, design, development, marketing and all the other disciplines that work towards simple and delightful user experiences.
Findability serves people as much as it serves search engines. If you improve findability, you improve the user experience. Any accessibility issues that would prevent a blind user from navigating your website, will also prevent search engines from indexing the site. Accessible content is findable content.
Does validation matter?
I read loads of articles about SEO and validation where it is clearly said that valid HTML doesn’t result in a better ranking. This is partly true bacause at the moment search engines don’t seem to consider code validation as a raking factor. Although, well-formed HMTL results in cleaner and faster code which Google has said is a raking factor. This means that even if validation won’t get you anything directly, by simply making your pages cleaner and faster, it will better your raking indireclty.
Besides, we don’t know whether or not tomorrow search engines will start to consider code validation as a raking factor. For these reasons, my advice is to start developing clean and valid future-proof websites right now. You will not only improve the accessibility, and consequently the findability, of you pages but you will also help your raking.
Create descriptive page titles
The title tag tells people, screen readers and search engines what the topic of the page is. Therefore, it is a good practice to define a unique title for each page. A brief and descriptive title will help users recognize if the page is relevant to their search.
In fact, it is usually displayed by search engines in the first line of the results.
Make sure you don’t use more than 65 charachters (including spaces) because most of the search engines will simply cut your title off adding “…” at the end. For all the WordPress fans, there’s a pretty good plugin called All in One SEO that automatically sets the page title using the main page heading plus the website name. It is highly customizable, check it out!
Use the description meta tag
The description meta tag gives Google and the other search engines a summary of what the page is about. Here you are allowed to use up to 150 charachters. As per the title tag, search engines might use this description as snippet of you pages in the search results, giving the users a better overview of the topic of the page. All in One SEO plugin fro WordPress allow you to easily add a description for each post and page of your website.
While the description meta tag is still quite valuable, the keyword meta tag is no longer considered reliable by search engines to determine the content of the content. Most of them don’t even look at it. This is mostly due to the abuses of many web sites that used to stuff the keyword tag with popular but irrelevant terms to trick search engines. Instead of stuffing your page with useless keywords, opt for natural keyword integration by writing clear and concise content that addresses the user.
Use simple-to-understand URLs
Giving your website a well organized structure highly helps SEO. In fact, creating descriptive categories and filenames for documents will lead to a better crawling of your pages by search engines. This will also improve URLs readability, making them easier to remember for the users. Besides, if you use relevant keywords in your folder and file names, you will provide users and search engines with more information about the content of the page. This is why friendly URLs work better than parameters, question marks and IDs.
As per the title tag and the description meta, the URL is displayed in the results. Also, Google Images is another way to get traffic to your site. If you name your image files properly and make a good use of the alt text to make them visible to spiders (and blind people too), you will improve your chances to be listed in Google Images results.
Avoid broken links
Broken links result in a 404 error page. This means that a user who follows a broken link, won’t get the information he was looking for. The same happens to search engines. If Google finds a broken link, it won’t be able to index the page. This is obviously not good for your website! I know it can be really tough on huge sites to continously monitor all the links and see whether or not they’re still working fine. A good help for WordPress users comes from Broken Link Checker plugin that keeps scanning your pages looking for broken links and allowing you to quickly edit or remove them. It’s a must have!
Make sure you have a sitemap
A sitemap is a simple indented list of all the pages of your website. Second level pages will appear as sub lists and son on. Sitemaps could be very useful to users because they act as a navigation system, allowing users to get a grasp of the overall structure of the site and browse the different sections and sub sections. In the same way, sitemaps provide search engines with the full list of content that needs to be indexed. You can generate an XML sitemap of your website and notify Google through Google Webmaster Tools. If you keep it up-to-date, Google will always be notified of any new content update.
Another easy way of passing a sitemap to Google is using RSS feeds. Most of the blogs and websites nowadays are managed through CMSs or blog platforms that provide RSS feeds to syndicate content. If you have a RSS feed, you can pass this to Google so that it can get notified anytime you publish a new artcle or page (in this case you won’t have to manually update the file!).
To sum up, SEO is a pretty wide and complex discipline, full of people ready to sell you anything at any cost. Distrust easy and quick solutions. You wil never get to the first page of Google in one day. Not even in one month! Yeah, I know, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but becoming a trusted website is a long process and there are no easy shortcuts. Instead, invest your money in writing some good content and offering memorable services!