Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a complex art, but by applying a few simple ideas to all website content, publishers can grow their traffic dramatically. Search engines rank sites on their results pages based on how useful and relevant the sites are to people searching for information. They take into account the words you use, your site’s reputation, and how many people find your content valuable. SEO is aimed at influencing the search engines to rank your site higher. But since the search engines, and Google in particular, want their rankings to be completely organic, they are constantly changing how their search algorithms rank pages to make them less susceptible to manipulation.
Back in the early days of search, attempting to get to the top of search engine results pages by tricking search spiders (search engine spam) was common. This approach is often referred to as “black hat SEO,” and even today it represents an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between publishers and search engine providers. Instead of spending time and resources trying to game the system, we believe SEO is better used for making relevant, quality content more visible to Internet searchers. This is the approach that will bring you the most long-term benefit and expose you to the least risk of begin punished by the search spiders. How do you do that?
Keep in mind that much of SEO is based on context. For editors, this means it’s time to let go of the clever headline. Clever is great in print, because it is always in context: adjacent to the article, images and the entire publication. When you take a headline and present it without its original context (as on a search engine results page), cleverness becomes a liability. So simply by writing headlines, section headings, and even paragraphs that can stand alone and still be intelligible, you will begin to improve your search engine rankings and drive more traffic to your site.
The real basics of SEO
SEO is driven by keywords and meta tags. Defining keyword and tagging policies in your content management system and editorial workflow is critical for your optimization strategy. Here are eight key areas for bulking up your keywords and meta tags:
- Relevant keywords in the URL: Use whole words for file names that accurately describe the content on that page, such as “how_to_write_for_the_web/”. Ideally, your CMS will make this easy for you to do.
- “title” tags: The “title” meta tag, visible at the very top of your browser window as the page title, is very important for search visibility. Keep it short, information-dense, and clear. Use a call to action if appropriate. This is the worst place for clever wording that loses meaning out of context.
- Keywords in anchor text: Anchor text refers to the visible words in a web link (demonstrated with a dummy link here). The worst possible anchor text is meaningless and out of context, as when you say “for more information, click here.”
- Inbound link anchor text: If you place a link to a specific article on your site in blog comments, article comments or forum posts, you may see real impact. However, be sure a reader who clicks through to your site gets real value in return. Nobody likes comment spammers.
- Relevant keywords in headings (H1, H2, etc. tags): Headings are HTML shortcuts for formatting headlines. Search engines pay attention to these as well. Strive for relevance and meaning.
- Keywords in the beginning of a document: Search engines want you to get to the point quickly (just like your readers!). Pages should be coded so that the main content appears before sidebar or other secondary content. This is analogous to keeping important content “above the fold”.
- Keywords in “alt” tags: Search engine spiders read text. “alt” tags are text descriptions of an image. Most browsers will show the alt text when you hover your mouse pointer over the image. This is also helpful for the visually impaired.
- Other meta tags: “description” and “keywords” metatags don’t move the needle much anymore for search engines, but they are worth populating if your CMS makes it easy to do so.
Another key element of SEO is getting other sites to link to your content. This has the dual benefit of driving traffic and building your site’s search reputation. Examples of desirable incoming links include:
- Links from “authority sites”: These are sites that search engines recognize as having high relevance and popularity on a particular topic. Links from .edu and .gov sites are a good bet for many B2B sites. If you can persuade someone at one of these sites that your content is valuable to their audience, you may score an inbound link.
- Links from similar sites: Having links from sites that cover the same topic as yours is very useful. You’re not likely to get love from direct competitors, but you can absolutely get some from bloggers if you’re linking back to them as well.
There are three other important points not specific to keywords or inbound links:
First, if your site has broken links, or a majority of content is protected behind a registration gate, search engines won’t be able to crawl it, and neither will new readers.
Second, your site map should be just that: a guide to every page on your site, or at least every page on your site you want to be found in search, listed hierarchically. This process should be automated, because few things say “my website is not a priority” like an out–of-date sitemap.
Third, the more unique and fresh your content, the better. Search engines seek out relevant content that doesn’t appear elsewhere on the Internet. Your article archives fit the bill perfectly, particularly “evergreen” content. News is less valuable. And by adding new content as often as possible, search engines will notice and begin checking your site for updates more often. Minor edits to existing content won’t do. This is one reason to have a collection of blogs that are updated with new posts a few times each day.
SEO practices to avoid
- Keyword stuffing: Arbitrarily inserting a keyword many times into an article is an old trick that will backfire with search engines and turn off readers.
- Keyword dilution: Just as articles should have a clear focus, so too must your keyword strategy. Pick no more than three related keywords to optimize for in any one piece of content, or the impact of all your keywords will be diminished.
- Attempting to fool spiders: Anything that attempts to trick search engine spiders and users is a bad idea. This includes practices such as hidden or invisible text, cloaking, single pixel links, and doorway pages. Don’t try to increase your rank in search with deception.
- Cross-linking: Site A links to site B, site B links to site C and site C links back to site A. All the sites are yours. See “Attempting to fool spiders” above.
- Duplicate content: Search engines can easily see that you have multiple versions of the same content and will penalize you for it. If you need to duplicate content in multiple places, be sure to block search engines from all but one instance.
- Flash: Pages (or sites) built with Flash are usually invisible to search engines. You’ll need to bake in text descriptions for all your Flash elements, build plain-HTML alternate pages, or both. Better yet, avoid using Flash as a means to make your website sexier with animations and sounds. If your audience values those types of features, much of it can be accomplished with CSS.
- Frames: These are SO 1997. Avoid them. Search engines hate them, and so do users.
- Dynamic URLs: These types of addresses are assembled on the fly from your content database, generating URLs with references (such as “pageid=cor3549?catid=sq909/”) that are readable only by software and the database administrators who set them up. This was a cool idea in 1996. There are many ways to convert dynamic URLs into human-readable and search-engine-friendly URLs. If you can’t understand the topic of an article by looking at the URL, you should get this fixed.