A wise man once said, you can’t judge a philosophy by its abuse. True right? And yet, most of us do just that all the time. I can think of plenty of examples from every corner of my life, but here’s one that is relevant to you: I stumble upon quite a bit of material written about search engine optimization (SEO) on the web—most of it disparaging critiques of a system perceived to be against consumers, against design, and against truth. (In fact, one in particular prompted me to add this article topic to my editorial calendar in the first place.) Because SEO is a big part of what I talk about with my clients, I brace myself and read each and every one of these articles. Most of them misunderstand how Google works—among other facts—and just continue to propagate myths and bad practices. But you know what? Some of them also make great points about how frustrating the web experience can be due to very real abuses of SEO. But does that mean SEO is all bad? Well, it depends upon what you mean by SEO.
The trouble with acronyms is that, sometimes, the more they’re used the farther away their meaning gets from the original set of words they represent. So, from search engine optimization—the process of making information on a web page more available and understood through search engines, based upon an understanding of how they work—we get SEO, which can mean all kinds of things to different people. To some, SEO simply means a method of getting a website to be listed on the first page of Google search results. To others, SEO is a title—Search Engine Optimizer—for those who’s job it is to optimize their clients’ content. But neither idea is quite on point. Being listed on the first page of Google search results is meaningless unless it is for search queries relevant to the information contained in your content. And, in my opinion, anyone who creates content for the web should be a search engine optimizer. In fact, those who actually create the content are much more equipped to do this well than a third party, provided they understand how search engines work.
I already covered how search engines work in my last post, so this time, I want to focus on how you can use that knowledge to do your own optimization.
How to Do Your Own “On Page” Optimization
Assuming you use a content management system that enables you to control the on-page factors I mentioned above, optimizing your content for search engines is actually a fairly easy process. The difficulty isn’t in the implementation so much as it is in choices you make. This should become more clear as I review the four major items you’ll need to consider as you optimize your web pages.
1. Title Tag
The title tag, which appears at the top of your browser, is different from the title a page might display at the beginning of its content. For instance, this page’s title (also it’s H1, but more on that later) is “Understanding Search Engines and Optimizing Content for Them,” which you can read right above the first paragraph. But the title tag for this page is slightly different; right now, it’s, “How Search Engine Optimization Works.” Because the title tag is one of the primary pieces of information that Google analyzes when indexing web pages, it’s important that it be an accurate description of what the page’s content is actually about while also corresponding to phrases that searchers are likely to use—something the founder of my firm, Eric Holter, goes into much more detail about in a video on how to do SEOthat is well worth your time.
With that in mind, look back at the differences between the page title and the title tag for the page I linked to. The page title is longer than I’d want the title tag to be (though not too long—anything under 70 characters will be technically suitable for Google), but it also works more from an editorial perspective than from what people are likely to use as a search query for information on SEO. Search queries don’t need to be grammatically correct sentences; they can be one word or several that in combination identify the idea you’re looking for. I think that’s pretty intuitive when it comes to searching, but anticipating the search queries that people might use to find content like yours isn’t so easy. You can use Google Trends to evaluate search terms you’re thinking of using in your title tags, but it’s also probably going to take some trial and error. That’s why I was careful to note above what this page’s title tag is right now. I might very well decide to tweak it after I have some data to show how well it’s performing.
2. Meta Description
Unlike the meta title, a page’s meta description is not visible to users, that is, unless Google displays it in its search results. Let me explain: The meta description is another way to identify the subject of a page’s content. However, the content of the meta description will be indexed and used to populate the text of the snippet displayed when that page appears in a list of search results if it is the most relevant match for the query used. If the description is duplicate content, empty, or otherwise deemed irrelevant, Google will extract content from the page itself to populate the search result snippet. But remember, Google controls whether the description appears. If it doesn’t appear, there may be nothing you can do—that makes sense for your page’s content, anyway—to change that.
Since there isn’t a character limit to meta descriptions, you can craft something more grammatically correct than your meta title, but you still want to make sure that it contains keywords relevant to your page’s subject and is as succinct as possible.
3. Heading Tags
The heading tags—H1 through H6—allow you to organize a page’s content in a similar way as you might an outline. The H1, or largest heading, would be the title of the outline, which also means it can only appear once. Earlier I noted that the title, “Understanding Search Engines and Optimizing Content for Them,” is also the example page’s H1. This is because the Content Management System I use automatically displays the title a user creates for a page as its H1. That ensures that there’s no confusion around what the largest heading should be and, more importantly, that there is not more than one. As for the rest of the headings, there can be multiple of each. In fact, that page has several H2’s—each of the bold, blue headings above the paragraphs I’ve written are wrapped in H2 tags.
4. Link Text and Friendly URLs
Remember how I noted that Google’s PageRank algorithm was primarily concerned with the influence of a page? Well, one way that Google evaluates this is to look at the text used when linking to a page. The more descriptive it is of that page’s content, the better the search engine can understand the value of its incoming links. So, if I were to link to the homepage of my website by writing, “click here to see our homepage,” I’m telling Google nothing about where I’m directing users. But if I were to link to it by writing, “Newfangled is a web development company,” I’m providing Google—and readers—with a clearer idea of the nature of the content I’m linking to.
This same principle applies to the file names of web pages, which are often called “Friendly URLs.” A URL that is more indicative of the database technology being used—something like, “http://www.newfangled.com/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/182″—doesn’t do much to help Google interpret what it’s about, not to mention users who need something easier to remember. If you’re using an up-to-date Content Management System, it should include a rewrite engine that enables you to provide a Friendly URL for each of your pages.
There really is no magic to search engine optimization. In fact, control over and thoughtful implementation of these four on-page factors—the meta title, meta description, heading tags, and friendly links—is all you need to properly optimize your web content. And just so you’re assured I’m not over simplifying it, they are all we use to optimize the content of our website. Of course, search engine optimization is not a one-time procedure. It’s an ongoing process. The more often you add indexable, properly-optimized content to your website, the more likely you are to see significant gains in valuable traffic to your site.