Search Engine Optimization Guide

Table of contents

Updated: 20 April 2010

Introduction

This article will describe simple tips and techniques to improve the quality of your website and optimize ranking on search engine results.

Write quality information

Good, quality content is probably the most important thing you can do to achieve high position in search results. (Incoming links may be more important but they are not something you, as the owner of your site, can easily control.) By providing new and interesting information your site will gain public interest, generating more traffic, more repeat visitors and, most importantly, more incoming links.

Note: Products or services may also serve to gain public interest but it is the written information about these products/services that search crawlers will read and rank within their results. Search engines are blind to images, so you must properly describe the product/service you are offering if you want people to find it.

Quantity of content

Whenever possible, maintain a good content to markup ratio. This means that the amount of written information on the page should constitute a good percentage of the total page source. A simple website design (using divs and CSS) will help to reduce bloated HTML markup and improve clarity for all user agents.

Check spelling and grammar

When writing the content for your page, be sure to check your spelling and grammar. In the case of different cultural spellings (ex. UK english, US english) it's a good idea to focus on one language and stick with that. Avoid misspelling words on purpose just to account for user error as this may give an unprofessional image of your website.

Keyword synonyms

Think about synonyms for words and phrases and try to integrate these synonyms into your content and sub-headings. Repeating the phrase search engine optimization over and over again may help to weigh down these specific keywords but this technique will not accommodate searches for other phrases such as optimize search results or improve search ranking.

Up-to-date information

Most search engines will revisit your site in a period of time proportionate to how often your site is updated. If the content of your site rarely changes it may take months for search engines to come back around and read new information. In contrast, search crawlers may visit your site every few days if your content is updated daily (with quality information).

A website that is updated frequently may be referred to as a living site. All things being equal, Google, for one, will weight living sites with more importance than static, inactive websites. Maintaining a living site will not guarantee higher search rankings but it will allow new content to be indexed faster.

Use appropriate title and headers

The page title (<title>) and header tags (<h1>, <h2>, etc.) are the most important HTML tags within a webpage. The text within these tags is weighted more heavily by search engines and should be clear, concise, and focused on relevant keywords.

Ask yourself "What search words would someone use to find this information?" then integrate these search words into the page title and header tags. As an example, <title>Wines of France · A guide to French wines</title> would be a more effective page title than say, <title>Aaron Schmidt's website · my list of wines</title>. Notice how in the first example, the words "France" and "French" are both incorporated into the title to account for searches using either of these terms.

Another recommended strategy is to use the same phrase for both the <title> tag and the <h1> tag. The phrase should be a short description of the page itself. In other words, the title and h1 elements should adapt to every page of your website.

<title>Freeangle • Search Engine Optimization Guide</title>
...
<h1>Search Engine Optimization Guide</h1>

Maintain accessibility

To be properly indexed, webpages must remain accessible to user agents. The term user agent refers to web applications that retrieve and render HTML content such as web browsers and search engine crawlers ("spiders"). If a search crawler cannot access or has trouble reading your site, the content will not be indexed by the search engine and will not appear in search results.

Validate HTML

Use HTML validation to validate every page of your website. This will avoid simple syntax errors they may cause problems for search crawlers. Be aware that even if the page looks good in your web browser this does not imply that the HTML markup is valid.

Validate accessibility

Validation of your website's accessibility is not only a good idea but a helpful way to understand what search crawlers see when they read your site. Online tools such as WebXACT or Cynthia provide an easy way to perform accessibility validation.

Search engine friendly URLs

To avoid possible search engine limitations, implement clean, search engine friendly URLs for every pages in your site. This means that you should avoid query string URLs that contain non-word characters such as ? and &. Search crawlers may read the ? character in a link and limit the amount of dynamic pages it spiders or even refuse to go any further.

There are a number of methods available to design URLs to be search engine friendly. Freeangle has written a tutorial describing how to setup directory based URLs with Apache/PHP.

Note: Google, for one, will properly reference pages with query string URLs. However the same cannot be said for all search crawlers, especially older ones.

Direct access through hyperlinks

For every page (that you want search engines to reference) there should exist a direct link path. This means that the page can be found by starting on the home page and clicking only on hyperlinks (no dependence on forms, buttons, logins, cookies, Flash, or JavaScript). Search crawlers may experience problems when:

  • Finding the page depends solely on a search form (or any other form with a manual submit button).
  • Access to the page is dependent on Flash or JavaScript.
  • A login is required to access the page.

This does not imply that search forms or Flash or JavaScript should be avoided. However, be aware that if these techniques are used another method of navigation may be required to give search crawlers the ability to locate your content. A well, laid out sitemap is always a good idea to ensure a direct link path to every page.

Get incoming links

Incoming links are by far the most influential aspect of search engine ranking and yet the hardest element to control. The number of other websites that link to your website will have a very high impact on the overall ranking of your site and, subsequently, on the pages within.

Q. How can I get people to link to my website?
A. The best way to get incoming links is to gain public interest through writing good, quality content. The more specific and unique the content, the easier it will be for people to find your page.
A. Seek out reciprocal links with other websites (preferably highly ranked websites). In other words, you create a link to their page and they create a link to your page.

Note: Be wary of companies that offer "link purchasing" plans. For a cost, you can get your site quickly indexed and ranked in Google and for a while, this may bring in extra traffic. The danger is that once you stop paying, your website ranking will drop back down to its original state and you'll be back where you started.

The text contained within hyperlink tags is also very important. Say, for example, a large number of websites create a link to your webpage using the exact phrase Search engine optimization guide, the result will be a very high ranking of your page when a search is done for these words. The exact ranking position will depend on the number of sites linking to your page, the ranking of the sites linking to your page and the existing popularity of the words in question.

Q. How can I encourage people to use certain text/keywords when linking to one of my webpages?
A. Implement a clear and concise phrase for both the <title> tag and the <h1> tag leaving no doubt as to the title of your page.

Things to avoid

Keyword spamming

Do not overload the page title, header tags, or content with only keywords.

  • Visitors may quickly leave if your page is difficult to understand or lacks any meaningful content.
  • Too many keywords may have a negative impact with search crawlers who may penalize your page for keyword spamming.

"Guaranteed top results"

Beware of any Search Engine Optimization (SEO) companies promising "guaranteed top results". No one can guarantee top position and anyone that tells you otherwise is probably trying to scam you. The methods many of these SEO firms use are often dubious and even if their tricks work for a while, you run the risk of your site being penalized, or even banned, by search engines. Read more advice from Google.

Not all SEO companies are evil but it's always a good idea to do some research before investing. Other alternatives:

  • Employ an accessibility expert to improve the quality of your HTML markup.
  • Hire a professional writer to create or edit fresh content for your website.

Final suggestions

Submit your site

When you believe your website to be ready, you may submit it to search engines and search directories. Submitting your website to Google (or any other search engine) should only be done if your site has not already been indexed. In most cases, it won't even be necessary as search crawlers will eventually find your site with or without this extra step.

Have patience

There are no quick fixes or magic solutions to improve your search engine ranking. Even if you follow all the steps outlined in this guide (or any other guide), the results will not be instantaneous. Search engine optimization is a slow process built upon quality of content.

Resources

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