A while back I wrote about the need to have a search engine friendly website before worrying so much about having a search engine optimized site. I want to expand on that point here and to look at what exactly constitutes a search engine friendly Web page.
Strong Domain Name
Many argue about the value of using keywords in the domain name and whether that will make any difference at all in the ranking algorithms. Whether it’s a lot or a little, I believe the full process of optimization is largely about doing a whole lot of “not much.” SEO is often a series of baby steps that collectively get you closer to the goal.
Outside of using keywords in your domain name, there’s really not a lot you can do to “optimize” it. The best thing to do is, if possible, make sure your keywords are in your business name and secure that URL. Doing so will ensure that anyone linking to you with your business name will use your keywords in the link.
Effective Title and Meta Tags
To have search engine friendly title tags and meta description tags, they must meet two criteria:
- They are present
- They are unique
Optimizing them is important. However, if your site is live on the Internet, even if it’s not optimized, you need to make sure to have unique title tags and meta descriptions on every page. Do that first, optimize them later.
Making sure you have unique title tags on every page sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised at how often sites are missing these two key elements. Several years ago, we had a client that used a programmer who not only failed to create a way to add a unique title for each page, but also didn’t make a way to add any text to those tags whatsoever! The site code looked like this:
We were told it would take several months to add the functionality we needed to craft unique titles for their pages, yet we were expected to get their site to perform anyway. They chose not to fire their programmers, so we fired them.
There is no excuse for any Web developer to know so little about building websites that he or she fails to provide a place for unique title tags and meta descriptions on your site. If your site doesn’t have that functionality, or it’s not a function your developers can add immediately, find a developer who can!
Reduce Code Bloat
Code bloat is one of my minor amusements when I’m evaluating websites. I enjoy looking at the source code of a Web page and then scrolling down to see how long the code for the page is and mentally compare it to how long it should be. But what I really enjoy is when I see a well-designed page with very little code. That’s the way it should be!
Many developers use programs to build websites that allow you to create the page visually, then chop up the code. Some do a good job of reducing the code bloat, but it’s never 100%. Unfortunately, many “professional” designers don’t even know enough about code to fix the code bloat these programs create.
Reducing code bloat on your site cuts down on page download time, which is one of the signals search engines use when evaluating a page. By making download speeds quicker, search engines are able (or willing) to index more pages of your site for ranking in the search results. It also makes the user experience much better, which increases conversion rates.
By moving this code into external files, the visitor only has to download the file once and it applies to every page as directed. If the code is on the page, then it has to be downloaded with each page view. This, again, creates additional code for the search engines, and slows down the user experience.
Proper Heading Usage
There is some argument to the value of heading tags (h1-h6) in improving your search engine rankings. Again, the value may be small, but I believe that having strong semantic markup of your content using hx tags gives the search engines a better idea how to “read” your content and, therefore, value it.
Many webmasters simply bold paragraph headings or maybe make the font larger or a different color. That’s all fine for the visitor, and it may send a signal to the search engine, but the best way to indicate text is a paragraph heading is to make sure it’s in a heading tag.
Heading tags should be implemented similar to the outline format you used in high school. Your paper had your title (h1), three main points (h2) and your sub- (h3) and sub-sub- (h4) points. It’s that easy!
One mistake many developers make today is to put almost everything in a heading tag. Navigation elements, product links and even your logo! There is nothing wrong with using headings tags for each of these elements, but you want to reserve your h1-3 tags for your content areas. There should only be one h1 on each page.
Strong Navigation & Internal Links
Search engine friendly navigation and linking structures are the cornerstone of a search engine friendly website. This is the one area where, if everything else is done right but your link structure is all wrong, you’re shooting yourself in the foot in all your other optimization efforts.
Before developing your site, you need to have a clear idea of your navigational structure, and everything must have a clear purpose. Be willing to adjust and change your best ideas if your keyword research suggests you should in order to make the navigation more keyword and user-focused.
Two things to consider when building your navigation. 1) Be sure the search engines can follow the links. 2) Don’t make your navigation (header or footer) a site map to every page on your site. Both of these can hurt your optimization efforts.
Great On-Page Content
Several years ago, I had a potential client contact me to have us optimize their site. Through our discussions we came to an impasse. They were unwilling to make any changes to the content of their site. They had it “just the way we want it” and wouldn’t budge.
They had poured thousands of dollars into the design, and they liked it exactly they way it was. Not only were they unwilling to optimize the content, they were unwilling to take the text out of the images so the search engines could read it! At that point we knew there was nothing we could do for them.
Making sure your text is indexible by the search engines is paramount. Search engines cannot read text embedded in images, and that is one of the primary indicators for what each page of your site is about. If your pages have no (readable) text, the chances for rankings become very slim.
Once each page of your site is search engine friendly, you can then begin the targeted keyword optimization process. But don’t jump too far ahead. All the keyword targeting in the world won’t help if your site isn’t friendly to begin with. Start here and you’ll be surprised at how just making your pages search engine friendly will start bringing in the traffic you want. Optimization, at that point, is bonus!