Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is not pixie dust or snake oil. It’s a group of fundamental things that when done to a website it makes your site more accessible and usable. The thing that I tell people all the time is “A search bot is your dumbest blindest user. If you aren’t creating your site with that in mind then you aren’t accounting for this then you aren’t accounting for everyone.” What is great is that SEO really is just following web best practices. For a college that is trying to be Section 508 compliant this is a huge step in the right direction. The problem is that to so many people SEO has been given a bad name from people that “game” the system. It’s not that complicated or difficult to do 80% of the stuff properly. It’s that people simply do not know any better.
In its basic form there are two types of SEO, On-Page SEO and Off-Page SEO. This week we’ll look at On-Page SEO, and next week we’ll take a look at Off-Page SEO.
Introduction to Search Engine Optimization
Before we really dig in, if SEO is brand new to you then I highly suggest reading this post I wrote a while back, How to SEO a College Homepage 101. SEO revolves around keywords and placement of those keywords in specific locations on a page. This enables search engines to recognize that that page should show up in Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) for that keyword. We’ll talk about doing keyword research another time though.
What Matters On-Page
There are five elements that really matter to the On-Page optimization process. Are these the only five things? Of course not. But if you can handle these five basic things and do them properly then you will see a solid return and are probably 80-90% optimized. Of these five, there are three that are most important so let’s discuss them first.
Page Titles are the single most important SEO element on a page. Most people don’t pay attention to them because they aren’t an element that we spend a lot of time looking at. But page titles are EXTREMELY important for search results. The page title is the title of the search result and if it’s not relevant or says something as basic as “HOME” then how is this going to convince people to click on it at all?
Page titles should have relevant keywords (relevant means describing what this page is about) while also being no longer than 70 characters (because this is the limit that will show up in search results). Try and get the important keywords to the front of the title, and if there is room it’s perfectly ok to stick the name of the site at the end. The page title should tell me what THIS page is about and should be convincing in order to stand out in a long list of search results.
From a usability standpoint describing what the page is about in the URL can help someone figure out what they are clicking on when you send the link to someone through an email. It also is the only way that a search engine will know what the page is about from the URL. You definitely want to keep it short and friendly, but having a few relevant keywords can go a long way towards ranking for those keywords. This is one of those things that most Content Management Systems (CMS) just suck at doing right. Having a long URL of a bunch of random characters that a database can read in order to pull unique content might work, but it doesn’t tell anyone what the article is about.
Take a look at the following two articles both about a recent Braves game and try to tell me what you think the articles are about.
*Note: If you have a content management system that creates URL’s filled with ID numbers and want to make it more friendly you probably want to ask about “URL aliasing” or “URL mod rewrite” for your system.
If you haven’t heard of semantic markup then it’s definitely worth spending some time reading about it. Anyway what we are talking about here is specifically H1, H2, H3, and H4 HTML elements on a page. This means that your page title shouldn’t simply be bold but actually wrapped in Header tags and the same for subsections. Think of a word document that asks you to use Header elements. It is the same idea here. In fact all the sections of this document are in various levels of header elements. For those designers out there it’s as simple as setting up CSS to style the various header elements as you see fit.
Meta Keywords and Meta Description
The final two elements are the meta elements on the page, meta keywords and meta description. Although Google currently does not even look at meta keywords because of their nature to be abused, it is still a best practice and if they were to decide to start looking at meta keywords again you will be ahead of the game with minimal work to do. I recommend 3-5 meta keywords per page of content, but never waste your time optimizing for more than 10.
Meta descriptions on the other hand are still used and can help people decide to click on your listing in the search results. They don’t always show up, but if it is appropriate it can be what convinces people to click on your result and not the one above or below it. Be sure to get your keywords in the description and do not go overboard. One or two sentences are plenty and no more than 150 or so characters.
[Update: as Brad notes in the comments it's better to have no Meta description than to have the same meta description on every page on your site and he is absolutely correct. This can do more harm than good if each page's meta description, and keywords for that matter, aren't relevant and unique to that page of content.]
So just to recap the five elements on a page that matter the most towards on-page optimization:
- Page Titles
- Header Elements (Semantic Markup)
- Meta Description
- Meta Keywords
I flopped Meta Description and Meta Keywords because a description is more important than keywords in the meta elements. If you can do these things correctly you are well on your way to making your site easily found in search engines.
What do you think? Anything else that you do to a page and think REALLY matters that I should have listed? I would love to hear your thoughts.