To optimize a site for search engines, it is worth thinking about the problem from their point of view for a moment. They need advertising revenue, which means the need lots of visitors, who are happy with the pages they find when they click through from the Search Results. The search engines must look through as many sites as they can, indexing every word, determine the subject of the page, and then assess whether visitors think the visit was worthwhile.
How do they do this ? At regular intervals driven by your sites popularity, the search engines send a bot to “crawl” through the site and index all the important words and the links to your pages (internal and external). The bot also looks at what techies call metadata which is the code your browser uses to display /format the page. You can see this stuff by right clicking on a Web page and clicking on “View Page Source”. Only a handful of people know how the search engines really work, but the experts run lots of tests to see what factors are statistically likely to be influencing rankings. Here are the main ones:
Much the most important is your content; if visitors like it and share it and backlink to it, the search engines will rank it. Content is King ! they say and it is true. This is what search engines are looking for on behalf of their users. What can we do to make our content better:
Keywords – sometimes experts use jargon – we have to speak the language of the searcher – doctors might talk about “myocardial infarction”, but their patients will search for “heart attack”. Having selected keyword, we need to use it in the prose so the search engines know what the page is about. Search engines are now penalising too much of your keyword, so try to use related terms too; the search engines are getting better at synonyms !
Engagement – does thee visitor return directly to the search engine results ? (That’s a bounce) Do they bookmark or share the page ? Do they comment? Ask visitors for interaction and engage them if they do.
Recent material – Search engines like up to date material and if you publish regularly and consistently, you will rank higher. Updating posts is a good thing to do; comments also make the search engines have another look and if you feed your Twitter or Facebook page to the page, that will also look like an update to the search engines
After content, we need to think about HyperText Markup Language (HTML) – this is the computer language used to format web pages. The four most important are the Title, the Meta Description (there’s that meta word again), the Header Tags and Structured Data.
- The Title is clearly a good steer as to the subject of the page – make sure it includes the search term
- Header Tags – headings are scattered around the page and are used by readers and search engines to determine the subject of each section – know this and keep them relevant to your search term
- Meta Description – This is where you can describe your page and it will show up as the excerpt in the search engine results – again make it relevant to the search term and attractive to visitors
- Structured Data – if HTML describes the format, Structured Data is about describing meaning. Structured Data allows you to define the meaning of certain terms. For example the term iPhone might be labelled as a Product on Apple’s site. This gives the search engine lots of context and means that they can rank it with much less processing effort. Less than 1 % of sites use Structured Data, but our Silver and Gold users have the facility built in – see Advanced SEO below. SEO experts predict Structured Data will rise in influence as it is adopted more widely.
Whether on-page or on-site, you can help search engines to rank your site by making the site’s structure simple and clear using internal links and Sitemaps. Group your content into categories and put the pages / posts into “silos”. The search engines can see their mutual relevance and know which search term they correspond to. Avoid duplicate content whether republishing someone else’s content or through some technical peculiarity that produces pages and pages of similar search results. Users and search engines hate this ! Visitors also hate slow sites and this can reduce engagement and conversion, so search engines detune your ranking. Make your page URL relevant to the search term you’re targeting too.
Done in moderation, all these things are helpful to search engines and will improve your ranking. It is the off page factors where the “bad guys” try to manipulate the search engine rankings by breaking the terms of conditions. Naturally search engines de-index such sites and eventually all the sites of such people. So don’t become one of them – it isn’t cool explaining to customers why your business has no Facebook or no Google+ Page. (Yes, Facebook is getting aggressive too! And some especially bad guys are getting sued)
Links are treated as votes by search engines, except that some people’s votes are more important than others. Links from sites with Authority (see below) count more, sometimes a great deal more. As usual quality is not well defined, but the influence of the link also depends on the relevance of the two pages. Provided that your links are not obviously automatically generated, more links is better !
Search engines have recently worked out how to punish automated link building ; it seems that sites with lots of similar links (links from same kind of sites, same anchor text, all built at 9am, the same number every day) are likely to be built. This is one of the reasons why Google now favours sites with Social Sharing (Facebook, Twitter, etc) and bookmarks (Digg, Reddit, etc). Once again the number of Shares, ‘Likes’ and comments and the authority of the Sharer matter
Authority, Trust and Identity are related. Authority is about how search engines and users regard your site – in the same way that an expert is regarded as the authority, so a site may be the Authority in its field. Trust is similar, do people regard the site as reliable and honest – it is probable that customer reviews play a part on growing trust. Identity is about ‘Are you really who you say you are ?’ whether you’re claiming to be a celebrity, an expert, a qualified professional or a spokesman for someone else. Google’s Authorship programme is about verifying who is who and which Page is official or not. Social profiles can also be verified and Gravatar, Disqus and About.me are examples of sites which link together all your sites, pages, profiles and channels. For companies, business listings also serve to authenticate identity. Trust, Authority and Identity are linked. It is believed by some experts that your History is also examined by Google, both in terms of what/when you publish, where you publish it and how you promote it and if there are any significant changes in that.
Many people do not realise that no one sees the same results from a search. The results are influenced significantly by where you are (country and location) and your recent search history. Sites you have visited a lot or sites where you have shared posts or commented are also favoured in the search results.
There are some things which search engines will punish and ultimately can lead to sites or site owners being de-indexed. Remember it is their ball and they can take it away. Here are some of them:
- “Thin content” hits all the keywords and that good stuff without actually saying anything important or useful.
- Too many ads means that visitors can’t find the content; especially if your visitor can’t find the content without scrolling down you can expect a penalty
- Hidden text is visible to search engines, but not to visitors so don’t use it ! (Text can be hidden in a number of ways including white text on a white background or the display:none command
- Cloaking means showing search engines and visitors completely different pages. You may remember some fuss about Google banning itself a couple of years ago – it was for link cloaking
- Paid links are what they say on the tin; if you pay for links, search engines hate this
- Link spam – automatically posting in forums and on blogs with links to your product is all too common and is now penalised by search engines – your page ranking will be lower.
- Anchor text – if all your anchor text uses the same keyword, search engines will penalise this
- DMCA takedown notices – Copyright violations will damage your rankings. When Google places one of these notices into your Webmaster Central Tools account, then it needs to be dealt with.
Advanced SEO – Semantic Markup
Structured Data is about labelling terms or keywords with their meaning. Sometimes a word may have many meanings depending on context – stock can mean cows, an old fashioned tie, inventory, company equity, the butt of a rifle and about 25 more things depending on the dictionary you choose. The search engine can work this out by looking at all the other words on the page, but if the page is Semantically Marked Up, then the search engine can use that to determine the context and since this means that it uses much less processing a higher ranking is the reward. .Since search engines use about 2% of the world’s processing capacity, Iwe expect that these techniques will become practically mandatory.
If your business needs some help optimising your website for the search engines, then get in touch with us via the contact form of +44 (0)7855 406652