There are many things to keep in mind when you are optimizing your website. It helps to remember that you are not only optimizing your website for the search engines, but also for you site’s visitors. After all, if you get a good ranking in the search engine results pages (SERPs), you have a better chance of garnering lots of visitors — but it will be the site itself that keeps them there, and hopefully encourages them to buy your product or service (or do whatever else you want them to do).
Fortunately, many of the points you will want to tend to when constructing your website to be easily handled by the search engine spiders will also make it more congenial for your visitors. There are five basic components you will want to address. These are accessibility; URLs, titles, and meta data; text; information architecture; and “canonical issues” surrounding duplicate content. I will discuss the first two in this article, and the remaining three in a follow-up article.
The first issue I will address is accessibility. An accessible site is one that delivers its content successfully as often as possible. In other words, the site’s content can be found easily by both search engines and users. This issue sometimes does not get taken as seriously as it deserves.
A number of factors affect the accessibility of a website. These include how well the pages function, the validity of HTML elements, reliability of the site’s server, and others. Problems with these features will cause search engine spiders to move on. Web surfers, too, will select other sites to visit. Do not ignore accessibility problems, but fix them promptly if you want to gain and keep a loyal following online.
Most sites encounter their biggest problems in accessibility in five basic categories. These include link issues, HTML and CSS problems, forms and applications, file size, and server reliability. In the next two sections, I will discuss each of these problems in more detail.
Spiders and site visitors hate encountering broken links. If an HTML link is broken, how can they find the page’s content? It’s impossible. Some SEOs believe that search engines lower the rankings on sites and pages that have many broken page links. Do yourself and your visitors a favor: check your links regularly. There are tools that can automate this process.
When you are coding the HTML and CSS for your website, please keep in mind that it must meet certain minimum requirements to function well and display successfully. Only after meeting those requirements will your site’s pages be spidered and properly indexed by the search engines. There is some debate about whether your site’s HTML and CSS must be fully in accordance with all of the guidelines laid down by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), but it surely couldn’t hurt. You can learn more about these guidelines at http://www.w3.org/; the site includes free services for validating your HTML and CSS code.
Likewise, if your forms do not function well, your site visitors may get frustrated and go elsewhere. As with the search engines not finding content that you really want them to find, this is a bad thing. It can’t be said often enough: users do not like sites that don’t work. So make sure that the functionality of every item on your website that requires input from a visitor is checked before going live, and consider carefully the effect of blocking that content from search engines.
There are certain things for which bigger is not necessarily better on the Internet, and one of those is file size. Most search engines will not fully index pages that are greater than 150K in size, unless they are really, really important (i.e. lots of pages, particularly ones outside the website, link to that page). If this seems unfair to you, consider the enormous index size, bandwidth, and load requirements of a search engine such as Google, and you might change your mind.
If you have a website for which you are building pages with very large amounts of content, you will want to keep the 150K limit in mind, especially if it is crucial that every word and page on your site is spidered and indexed. SEO Chat has a tool called “Page Size Lookup” which can tell you the size of your web page; you can check it out at http://www.seochat.com/seo-tools/page-size/. Incidentally, another advantage to keeping your page sizes small, aside from search engines appreciating smaller pages, is that a smaller file size means that your pages will download faster for your users.
The final accessibility issue I would like to address is server reliability. If your site’s server is slow, or it goes down more frequently than it should, spiders may have problems accessing it. Needless to say, web surfers will have problems accessing the site as well. Neither spiders nor surfers will be happy with a website that performs poorly.
If you are having problems with this issue, you will want to speak with your web host. Some web hosts provide guarantees concerning uptime; you should be prepared to hold them to any written contracts. If you cannot get satisfaction that way, you should consider switching hosts. Web Hosters, located at http://webhosting.devshed.com/, offers a number of articles that provide advice on choosing a web host. As a basic point, you typically get what you pay for; while there may be some companies that offer good web hosting services for free, if you run a business website, you should be prepared to invest some money in web hosting services to get the reliability that you need and your site visitors deserve.
URLs, title tags and meta tags describe your site and its pages to visitors and search engines. They need to be relevant, compelling and accurate for your site to rank well in the search engines. They are good points for including your keywords, since search engines tend give these areas a certain amount of weight when indexing web pages.
You want the URL of your pages to be both brief and descriptive. The URL should reflect the site’s navigation. URLs of individual pages should give some clue as to what the page is about, so a visitor seeing just the URL will know what they can expect to find. This can be very tricky with dynamic URLs. If the page provides data to a database so that the appropriate records can be displayed, both search engines and site visitors might gag when they see it.
For example, someone viewing a URL such as http://www.myopinionatedsite/reviews/
movies/Narnia knows that they will probably see a review of the recent movie made from the book “Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Compare that with the URL at Amazon for the page that features the three-DVD set for the same movie: http://www.amazon.com/gp/
Note that qid=, r=, ref=, and so forth indicate dynamic parameters; these tell databases what records to retrieve. Notice also that there are more than three dynamic parameters in this URL. That is bad; ideally, there should never be more than two dynamic parameters in a URL.
Here is a point you might want to keep in mind about the well-written URL. It can serve as its own anchor text when someone else picks it up and pastes it into other venues such as blogs or forums. A search engine finding the first URL listed, then, might give credit to the page for myopinionatedsite, reviews, movies, and Narnia. Notice that I said “might;” as with everything, this is subject to the search engine’s analysis. But it is much more likely to happen than if your URLs look more like Amazon’s.
Title tags not only serve as a place to put keyword terms, they also help encourage people to visit your site. Your title tag shows up in the blue link text and headline for a search engine result. So you want it to be informative and draw visitors to your site, without sounding too much like sales text. You should use the title tag to show your keywords, help brand the site, and sum it up as clearly and concisely as possible.
For instance, if your site is for a zoo, and you have a page devoted to tigers, don’t use simply “tigers” in the tag; try “Tigers — Habitat, Appearance, Behavior — Your Zoo’s Name.” Similarly, if you have a website for an electronics store, you probably have a title tag that reads something like “Plasma Televisions, Plasma TV, Plasma Screen TVs, SONY Plasma Screen TV, LCD TV at Your Store’s Name.” It would be much cleaner to use “Plasma Screen and LCD Televisions at Your Store’s Name.” Remember, your title tag provides a potential visitor with a first impression; a web surfer will decide whether to click on the link, or go elsewhere, based on what they see in the search engine results and how inviting they perceive it to be.
Meta tags matter for almost the same reasons. While the use of meta tags, especially the meta keywords tag, has declined to the point that search engines no longer use them in their ranking of pages, potential site visitors still see them. A number of search engines display the text of the meta tag below the clickable page title link in their results. Because of this, while a description in the meta tags may no longer influence where a page ranks in the search engine results, it can still affect the number of visitors your site receives from search engines. Note that meta tag descriptions are something a search engine may choose not to display; the odds are better that the description will be displayed if it is accurate, well-written, and relevant to the query made by the searcher.
That’s all I have time and space for right now. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading so far. In my next article on this topic, I will address the remaining points to remember when optimizing a website: search engine friendly text, information architecture, and “canonical issues” surrounding duplicate content. See you then!