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Optimizing your website for search engines should be an integral part of your website project, from the very beginning to the very end. Search engine optimization (SEO) should be considered, and if possible, implemented, throughout the planning, design, development, and maintenance stages of your website.
You will see the results of your work first-hand if you consider SEO right from the start. For example, at the time of publishing this article, my own site is the number one listing on Google for its keywords and has consistently remained within the top three (unsponsored) listings on the first page of Google and other search engines. Yes, SEO is important, but more than that, it’s rewarding! Let’s get started.
SUCCESSFUL SEO IN A NUTSHELL
Plan your website’s SEO before you create the site.
It’s important to create your website with SEO in mind. Changing a website, or potentially even redesigning your website, to optimize it for search engines can end up being an expensive proposition. Plan to create a search engine-friendly website from the start.
Ensure that every page includes text, links, and popularity components that will help boost your search engine rankings. (Shari Thurow, “Before You Build” in Search Engine Visibility (Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2002), 20.)
In addition to SEO, consider paid submission programs, PPC (pay-per-click) advertising, reciprocal links campaigns, and advertising your site on others. Depending on your budget, you might consider advertising through traditional media, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.
Working with keywords and keyphrases
Research keywords and key phrases (multi-word phrases) before you create your website. It’s important to create your web site with keywords and key phrases in mind and to put them in place as you develop the pages and content. Target key phrases rather than single keywords.
Single keywords are much more commonly entered by web users, which makes them more difficult to target effectively than multi-word key phrases. Unless the single keywords are highly unique, your best results will be achieved using key phrases.
Use longer words and plurals.
If you target plural versions of your keywords or phrases, you’ll get hits from people searching for the singular and plural versions of those words.
Use that Thesaurus!
As part of your brainstorming for appropriate keywords and keyphrases, try using a thesaurus to find similar words. There are helpful thesauri online (you might start at Thesaurus.com), but see also the Search Term Suggestion Tool, and Wordtracker.
Focus on a few specific keyphrases for each web page.
Pages that rank well in search engines tend to focus on specific keyphrases that usually appear in the HTML element, <heading> elements, breadcrumb navigation links, product names and descriptions, and cross-links. (Shari Thurow, Top Five SEO Design Mistakes, ClickZ (September 27, 2004).)
Create keyphrase-rich text content, especially for your homepage.
Identify the top two or three keyword phrases that potential visitors would use to find your web site, then write 200–250 words of homepage text that utilizes those keyword phrases—not the other way around. Follow this approach as you create content for other web pages, too. As noted above, keep in mind that titles and headings are considered more important than other content by some search engines, so consider this as you optimize your content. We’ll discuss the topic of optimizing your markup for search engines in just a moment.
Using Keywords and Keyphrases in your Markup
Search engines use a page’s structural markup as a guide to rank the relative importance of its content. It’s important to include keywords and keyphrases within your web pages—especially your homepage—and to place them within certain markup elements. Providing content that is relevant to your target audience will, naturally, help your search engine rankings, especially if you intentionally make strategic use of appropriate keywords and keyphrases. Use the checklist below to help.
Include keywords and keyphrases in your site’s information architecture.
Keyword and keyphrase research results can play an important role in the words and phrases you use within your web site’s information architecture. For instance, you might use keywords and keyphrases in your global and local navigation, your category labels, page <title> element text, <heading> element text, and internal links.
Use focused keyphrases within each web page’s <title> element.
Currently, creating keyphrase-rich text for your web page <title> element is critically important, because nearly all search engines give the <title> element’s text a lot of weight. Create each page’s <title> element text to reflect the specific content of that page, using keyphrases that people might type into search engines to find your web site.
Use your keyphrases within each web page’s <meta description> element.
Note that many search engines, including Google, Yahoo!, Inktomi, and others, index and use the text within the <meta description> element; for instance, some use it as description text for display in search results. However, they don’t use the text for search engine rankings at this point. Also, they largely ignore other <meta> elements, including the <meta keyword> element. While there’s no guarantee that it will help improve your rankings, it’s still worthwhile to include the <meta description> element in your web pages as shown below. (Jill Whalen, The Meta Description Tag, High Rankings (updated October, 2004).)
Use your focused keyphrases within the page’s <heading> elements, beginning with the <h1> element.
The closer that you can locate your keyphrase-loaded <h1> element content to the opening <body> element tag, the better. Some search engines will give a close proximity between the two a higher rating—it appears to the search bot that the content is important enough to earn itself a high-level heading, and that content appears early in the document. In addition, content that’s placed closer to the top of the page is also considered more important by many search engines, so make sure your top 200–250 words are packed with keyphrase-rich content.
Although some Search Engine Marketers believe that placing keywords in domain names can provide a significant boost to sites, others feel it doesn’t really do much. According to SEO expert Jill Whalen, keywords in domain names might be afforded a small amount of weight by the search engines, but only when other site owners link to the web site using its domain name, rather than the web site title. The result is similar to having keyword- or keyphrase-rich links, which is indeed helpful. Another SEO expert, Shari Thurow, also feels that other factors have much more impact than the inclusion of keywords in a domain name, such as keyphrase-rich content, links, and the site’s popularity. (Jill Whalen, Search Engine Marketing Q&A, High Rankings Advisor, Issue 091 (March 24, 2004); Shari Thurow, Search Engine Visibility (Indianapolis: New Riders Publishers, 2002), 20.)
Being search engine friendly
Great keywords, keyphrases, terrific content, and having other web sites linking to yours does nothing for your search ranking if the search engines can’t access your web pages to index them. Use this checklist to help ensure that your web site is based on search crawler-friendly design and markup.
Balance HTML text and graphics
Professional, high-quality graphics can help support your credibility, as we discussed in Chapter 3, Preparing Web Site Content. It’s also critically important to provide plenty of keyword- and keyphrase-rich text content for search engine crawlers. There’s no need to avoid using graphics; in fact, avoiding graphics could be detrimental to your web site’s search engine success. Instead, plan your web site design to use graphics that have a purpose, insert meaningful text within each <img> element’s <alt> attribute, and provide plenty of keyphrase-rich content that will help your search engine rankings, and benefit site visitors who read them.
Create search engine friendly navigation and cross links
Search engine crawlers follow HTML text links. If you provide good, search engine-friendly internal HTML text links within your site, crawlers will likely follow those links. If any of your web pages’ URLs change, use server-side redirects to send search bots using the old link to the new URL.
Instead of allowing search engine crawlers (or web site visitors!) to find dead links, create server-side redirects, perhaps using .htacess and mod_rewrite techniques, that will automatically take search engines to the new URLs. On the server side, use a 301 code for permanently moved files and a 302 code for temporarily moved files (assuming that your host allows you access to such settings; many do not).
- Keyword Stuffers will be Penalized!
Don’t try to fool search crawlers by stuffing content into heading elements or elsewhere, as they know about such trickery, and you could be banned from the search engine listings for trying to artificially improve your rankings. Honesty is always the best policy. Creating keyphrase-rich content that visitors will love to read is the best way to go. Other web sites will also link to it, which only helps boost your search engine rankings further.
2. Provide a website sitemap, and link to it from your homepage as well as all your other web pages.
Providing a sitemap that links to your main pages will help search engines find your content, as well as being helpful to web site visitors. If your sitemap contains more than about one hundred links, though, break it logically into pages of no more than one hundred links each.
4. Avoid dynamic URLs that contain ?, &, $, =, +, and % characters, cgi-bin, session IDs, or cookies.
These URLs are usually the result of query strings on dynamic pages. Some search engine crawlers are wary of such URLs because they could potentially be infinite links that would overload the crawler. As a result, they may not index pages that use these URLs, especially when three or more of these characters are included in the address. As Eytan Seidman, MSN Search Program Manager, states, “The algorithm starts to wonder whether it is going to get stuck in a loop endlessly crawling every single permutation of the query parameters. Thus, URLs with many (definitely more than 5) query parameters have a very low chance of ever being crawled.” (Eytan Seidman, Crawling the Internet…, msnsearch’s WebLog (November 18, 2004).) Here’s an example of the kind of URL Mr Seidman’s talking about:
5. URL Rewriting won’t Eradicate the Endless Loop
Although you can use URL rewriting to eliminate the problem characters and create more human-friendly URLs, you won’t be eliminating much bigger potential problems—it’s critically important to ensure that search engine crawlers won’t get stuck in an endless loop that would overload them.
6. Use text alternatives to Flash content.
If your site uses Flash to present content that you really want or need search engine crawlers to index, provide text alternatives that they can index. If you use Flash for your entire web site without providing text alternatives, don’t expect search engine crawlers to index your site.
7. Provide metadata and text alternatives for audio and other rich media files.
Typical metadata information includes the title, author, copyright, and a description of the content. Specialty search tools, such as Singingfish, use this metadata to help users find rich media, including MP3 files. Be sure to include helpful text information about your rich media content within your web pages, too.