According to statistics, as of June 2008 there are over 103 million websites on the World Wide Web. With this kind of competition, you might think you need a miracle to be found in search engines. In fact, it just requires some hard work, time and some realistic expectations.
Which Search Engines Do I Need?
The first step to getting your website found is to submit it to the major search engines. Only three sites – Google, Yahoo!, and MSN – generate the results seen on all primary search engines. According to research, Google is responsible for nearly 50% of all searches, Yahoo 24% and MSN 10%.
With its dominance of the search engine landscape, Google makes its own rules for ranking sites in search results and changes them often. Some changes result from its own continuing research or from competitive pressures. Google also shakes things up to prevent large, well funded companies from dominating results permanently or to counteract the dynamic of people gaming the system to enhance search engine results.
Google usually doesn’t index sites with new domain names for up to six months after the site goes live. The delay allows time for development and avoids wasting search resources on fly-by-night sites, but it can be very frustrating if you have a site that needs to be active by a certain deadline.
Type your URL into the search box at www.google.com – if your site appears in the results, Google has indexed it. If not – and it’s been more than a few months since you originally submitted – resubmit your URL. Even if you have an existing site, it may take a few weeks for Google to fully index a redesigned site.
Go to each of these URLs to start the submission process by hand.
Google feeds six other search engines:
Yahoo! feeds two other search engines
MSN is independent, feeding only HotBot:
Buying ads from Google AdWords (Pay Per Click) can provide a presence on Google until your site is indexed.
Building a Search-Engine-Friendly Site
A well-structured, search-engine-friendly site allows search engines to index your site easily. Up to half of all sites are so badly structured that search engines never ‘see’ them in the first place.
Getting good rankings is done with a combination of content optimisation and standards-based web building. This means that if your site is well structured, accessible and has concise, relevant content, then you’re already halfway there. Sticking to web standards will give you another boost, with the last push coming from developing reciprocal links with other sites.
Requirements for search-engine-friendliness change over time as technology and search engine algorithms improve, however the following details best practices to help you compete against all the other sites struggling for the same visibility.
01. Choosing Keywords
Google returns results from pages featuring keywords entered in its search box. To get into those results, you need to determine your keywords. Keywords are the word combinations and phrases that people use to search for sites. If those keywords appear in your site, and your pages have been indexed by Google, then your site should appear in the returned search. The problem is, so will every other site containing the keywords. Google employs a ranking system to decide the order in which sites are returned, and keyword relevance is one of the primary components in that system.
Essentially then, keyword optimisation is all about skewing those results in your favour. You do this by making sure that your page contains a good balance of appropriate keywords to relevant content.
02. Make Sites Accessible
Sticking to web standards and the principles of accessible web building will help ensure that your site ranks highly. Many people new to search engine optimisation are surprised by how much of it is based on fundamental design principles, with rule number one being that you should follow accessibility guidelines outlined by the World Wide Web Consortium and other organisations.
Start by making sure that images in your site are correctly and descriptively labelled throughout. Also ensure that every page in your site has its descriptive title using the <title> tag. If you can include one or more of your keywords in that title in a way that doesn’t seem forced, then that’s even better.
Hyperlinks should be clear and easy to follow too. If your human visitors can’t find them, then Google can’t. This means making sure that there are text alternatives to all navigation options – and that images used for navigation are properly labelled using the ‘alt’ tag. The same advice applies to image maps. Don’t forget the ‘title’ attribute in hyperlinks either – it’s another opportunity to include relevant keywords naturally.
In the same way as you provide alternate links for images, you should provide descriptive text in pages that include plug-in content. The ‘object’ tag that’s used to embed media files and Flash content, for example, takes the ‘alt’ parameter. There should also be an adequate and clear description of content in the body of the page too. Try to avoid linking directly to rich media files if you want Google to index them, and always embed media files in an HTML page.
03. Keyword Calamity
Keywords are important, but there’s a wrong way and a right way to deploy them. While seeding content with keywords is useful – there are mistakes that everyone makes when trying to get their sites noticed by the search engines. Be careful not to repeat these errors; at best you may alienate users, at worst your site will be excluded from search engine databases. The ‘relevance’ of a page is decided by a number of factors, including the number of times a specific searched for word appears. Search engines are also designed to seek out and ignore deliberate repetition. So, if you have a site about garden gnomes and you place the words “gnome, gnome, gnome, gnome…” in your keywords, your page may get filtered out. Similarly, it’s not a wise idea to put keywords in your pages that attract hits that don’t have anything to do with the content within.
04. Black Hat Techniques
Beware of using the optimisation techniques that could get you banned. Some techniques recommended by SEO sites may give you an advantage – but only in the short term. In the long run, some methods can actually damage your Google page rank.
Doorway pages – pages crammed with keywords that link back to a main site – are frowned upon and should be avoided. Double that advice if your text is hidden, rendered at tiny font sizes, coloured to match the background of page or tucked away at the bottom of the page that’s had scrolling disabled. This trick tries to fool search engines into thinking there’s more content in a page than there actually is, but Google’s too clever for that.
Google also frowns on pages that redirect you to other pages, whether used legitimately or not, because this has been used as a technique to forward users to sites with content they weren’t actually looking for. Similarly, the practice of cloaking – a trick where you try and fool the search engine with fake content – won’t get you very far either.
While half the search engine optimisation battle can be won with carefully optimised content that contains keywords, don’t go overboard. Stick to the 15% rule and always make sure that keywords and phrases fit naturally into your content. Long lists of keywords without context are inadvisable.
05. Do your Research
Find out what your visitors are searching for with help from your log files.
Do some digging to discover how your current visitors find your site, and you’ll be able to refine and optimise your content further. It can be as simple as asking your visitors how they came to find your site and what phrases they entered into a search engine. And the question can be incorporated in your registration procedure quite easily.
Alternatively, you can look through your site logs to find out what search terms visitors are already using. If they came from a search engine, the terms should be embedded in the referring URL. Once you know what keywords people are using, you can expand on that, optimising the use of them in prominent areas within your site. Your log files will also reveal the pages in your site that are most popular – enabling you to identify neglected sections. When you’ve found them, review them and look for reasons why they’re not working. It could be due to broken links or weak navigation. Think about each section within your site as a mini-site, with it’s own unique content, and seed keywords in the content. When done, resubmit the pages back to the search engines.
06. Optimising Content
True search engine optimisation is based on your content. Poor spelling and grammar will decrease the probability that your site will appear high up in Google’s search results. And perhaps worse, these errors may appear in the description snippet that accompanies your site, making you look bad and destroying your optimisation work. It’s also important to bin the jargon, so aim to create content that’s written in clear English.
Journalists often use a structure in their writing called the Inverted Pyramid. Simply put, this means that they ensure that all the important information appears in the first paragraph. After that comes detail and description. It’s good to follow this pattern to make your content more readable, but it also improves your chances with Google. The search engine puts more weight on content higher up in your page, so it makes sense to put the most important keywords early in your text.
While embedding keywords in meta tags is less effective with Google than it is with other search engines, placing the kinds of words and phrases your visitors might search for in your content is essential. In fact, it’s the most important factor in search engine optimisation. Preparation is essential and begins with a hunt for keywords that potential users might associate with your site. Start with a simple brainstorming session on paper. Write down all the keywords and phrase combinations you can think of that fit your content. Comb your server logs for keywords your visitors have used and flick through a thesaurus for further inspiration.
SEO experts recommend that between 5 – 15% of the textual content of an optimised page should be keywords included naturally in your content. And just adding a list of keywords to a page will make your ratings plummet. Remember, you’re aiming for that magic figure of 15%. Getting the density figure too high may have a detrimental effect on your site’s placing.
07. Adding Meta Tags
Google decides what order sites appear in in it’s search engine results using a patented set of algorithms that go under the umbrella title of ‘PageRank’. The company claims that there are over 100 different factors in this secret recipe. Many sources claim that meta tags – the descriptive hidden tags embedded in the head of a page – aren’t one of those factors. But not so, says Google. In particular, it claims that although the keyword and description meta tags are just a small component in the PageRank algorithm, they’re still in there.
Other search engines use both tags to influence ranking. Yahoo!, in particular, searches through the description meta tag and will display the text in the results it returns. Optimising for Google alone is folly, especially when your site is partially ranked according to the number of quality links back to you.
The meta tag code includes title, description and author information for your page. Your list of relevant keywords should be separated by commas. Don’t bother with plurals or alternate spellings and try not to repeat words.
The title should be descriptive and concise – remember that some search engines will return this as the descriptive snippet. A couple of sentences will do. Try to include your most important key phrases and keep to under 150 characters.
There’s little evidence that search engines query the category meta tag, but selecting a category won’t do any harm.
08. Site Structure
The hierarchical arrangement of your pages and the directories they’re contained in, can have an influence on your Google rankings. To be precise, it has an impact on how effectively your site is indexed by Googlebot*, the search engine’s software spider.
The key is to be organised. Arrange the content of your site into distinct categories and make sure that each category is accessible through your primary navigation system. Your front page should provide direct access to each category, and to choice content within those categories. To help keep URLs shorter on static sites, you can store pages from each category in separate, descriptively named directories, and include an index file in each category with a frequently updated list of all content – like a mini site map. Bloggers will be familiar with the technique of listing archived pages in a navigation sidebar, and most content management systems enable you to generate those lists automatically.
* For more information on how Googlebot works, visit http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/topic.py?topic=8843.
09. Page Layout
Clean layouts and a lack of clutter will help Google index your site. You’d be surprised the difference a clean, well organised page layout can make to your rankings in Google. To get an idea of how Google sees your pages, try looking at them in a text-only browser. If your page breaks, then Google won’t be able to make the most of it either.
Your web pages are indexed in the same way a person reads, from top to bottom – so important content should go near the top. A common layout problem is cluttered code preventing spiders from finding your content. Tables, for example, make life difficult for Google – and nested tables add to it’s woes. As for frames, Google only copes well with frame-based pages when they’re well formed and conform to standards. This means embedding your full page content in the No Frames section as text. It is advisable to use CSS to layout pages, separating form from content. And if you do use CSS, use standard HTML mark-up rather than creating custom classes.
Look at your pages in a text-only browser to get a good idea of how a search engine spider sees them.
10. Links Matter
Links from other sites can improve your PageRank significantly. It’s well known that a major component of Google’s page rank is the number of ‘quality’ links back to your site. Ironically, you can help boost this by submitting to directories other than just Google’s. Target web directories that deal with the subject matter or service provided by your site. These are in turn indexed by search engines and can help to boost your page rank.
It’s equally important to nurture real links back to your site from similar ones. Ask partners, suppliers, industry-related portals and friends to link back to you, and offer reciprocal links in return. There’s some evidence to suggest that having a page of links to other quality sites with similar content can improve your rankings.
For more information on optimising your site for Google, contact us.