Basic SEO - one page at a time

Most of the pages you publish on the web should take into consideration how they will rank in search engines. Whether or not there is another person who does most SEO (Search Engine Optimization) for your website, it helps if the person who is adding or editing pages is aware of some of the basics, which is what this page intends to cover.

Do THREE things, regardless of how little time you have.

# 1 - Check the page for syntax errors

There is no reason to have any syntax errors on the page.
Use this free service: W3C markup validator
If you skip this step, be prepared to waste a lot of time trying to track down problems later on.

# 2 - Give the page a title (with left-justified keywords)

If your page comes up on the search results page, it will have a clickable top line taken from the title of your page. It will stand out more than anything else.

Try to come up with three, or at least two words that describe what is on the page AND that you think searchers will use to find your page. Put them as far to the left as you can. For example:

<title>Page SEO Basics - basic search engine optimization for any web page.</title>

# 3 - Give the page a meta description

It should be a short summary of what the page is about. Not more than 150-160 letters.

Don't repeat anything from the page title (except the keywords), since the title is right above it.

This is your last chance to persuade the searcher to click on the link to your page. The searcher will on average spend only about a second to look at it. Be clear, be succinct! Example:

<meta name="Description" content="Before you create a new web page, it helps to know some basics about search engine ranking. Then you can design the page, so it ranks high, as soon as it is published and indexed." />

These three steps are the absolute minimum. To go beyond this, you will need to put in more time and effort.

Who will be linking to your page?

Interestingly, the most important factors determining your page rank, have nothing to do directly with anything that is on the page itself. Instead, they have to do with the variety and quality of links you will get to that page from other websites.

The ideal outside link to your web page is one that is on the home page of a site that is better-known and more highly regarded than your own. Less valuable is a link that appears on a more obscure page deep inside the site, especially if it has a large number of similar links.

The context is important in the sense that it needs to reflect positively (or at least not negatively) on your page. If the link is surrounded by text that refers to your page in a negative way, then, the search engines will take note of that and your page rank will suffer as a result.

Outgoing links matter too.

Outgoing links (the links that you put on your own page to other websites) also affect your page rank. While they may not do much to improve your page rank, they can certainly damage it, if you link to less than reputable sites. Just because they were reputable when you created them doesn't necessarily mean all of them will remain so. You need to check those outgoing links from time to time.

Change the page content often, but the page name rarely, if ever.

At some point, somebody at these other websites will, hopefully, consider whether or not to link to your page. Site navigation comes into play here. The link to your page will contain the names of the page itself and all folders it is contained in. Ideally, these should all be descriptive and easy to remember, and not subject to change anytime soon. You don't want to lose the link to your page because it was added incorrectly or because you later changed the location or the name of the page.

If you have to change the name of the page, consider keeping a page with the old name and replacing its content with a 301 redirect (which is a just short script). Otherwise, somebody needs to contact all those other websites and ask them to update their links to your page.

If your page combines content that is of great lasting interest, as well as content of great news value, you may be tempted to give the page a name that refers to its newsworthy content. As an alternative, you can give the page a more permanent name, but move the newsworthy content to the top with that catchy page name you were thinking of as an h1 header tag instead.

Changing the content of the page frequently is good for its page rank, but changing its a name can result in losing the so-called link juice that the old page had.

Consider your wider audience at websites linking to your page

Your primary target audience is of course the visitors who came to your page directly, either from a SERP (search engine results page) or from other pages on your site. As long as you do not risk losing them, you should consider also the visitors who came via a link from other reputable websites.

How can you know who they are, if you haven't even published the page yet? Somebody needs to know which these other websites are, since you will want to get links from them, not just to this page, but to as many pages as possible on your website. If you have no clue, look up your closest competitors and then look up who they get their links from. This, of course, goes beyond the very basic SEO covered here, but is not hard.

To get links to your page, it needs to have content that is of interest to the visitors to those other websites. Don't ignore your primary audience, but be aware of your potentially much larger audience from other sites. You may have to take a closer look at those other web sites to get a feel for what their interests and concerns are so you can look for ways to address them when you write your page.

Sometimes it can be as simple as using more generic terms. Example: If your page is about how you can use an R2-D2, you could widen the topic a bit and write about how you can use any astromech droid, not just the R2-D2. Don't write that the R2-D2 has a built-in periscope, when you can just as easily write that the R2-D2 is an astromech droid, and, like all such droids, has a built-in periscope. Now any owner of an astromech droid, not just the R2-D2, can benefit from your page.

Back to earth and onto your page - the page title

The most important factor on the page itself is the page title. Ideally, it should include the keyword that was used to bring up the page in the search engine results pages. If it does, then it will be bolded on the search results page. Keyword selection is the most important part of SEO, but since this is a very basic introduction, I will only cover the most basic considerations.

Avoid using a title that consists of only one word. When you use a search engine, you rarely use just one word as the search term. If you do, you typically find that the response is too broad to bring up the content you are looking for, so you then try to narrow it down by adding a second or even a third word.

The keyword should be neither too generic ("Jewelry"), nor too specific ("Item B10538"), but somewhere in between ("handmade silver bracelet").

Most of those words need to be in the title of your page to rank highly for that phrase.

Those words must of course capture the essence of what is on your page. It may be easier to determine what it should be by completing the meta tag description first.

The description meta tag

The search engine results page will list each page hit as an entry with three parts, typically consisting of the page title as the top line, then 2-3 lines from the meta description tag, and finally the URL. If the page came up because the search terms appear on your page but not in the description, then a different portion (or portions) of the page may be used in place of the description.

The meta description tag may not affect your page rank, but, if used, it will certainly be your last chance to persuade the searcher, in more detail than you can with the page title, why they should click on it.

It should be a good, clear summary of your page, that your English teacher would not object to. While the users may themselves not have a good grasp of the English language or much appreciation for those who teach it, they will nonetheless use the same criteria as your English teacher. Unless your page is in Spanish of German of course.

Finally, there needs to be text on the page.

This text should match the page title and the meta description, ideally within the first 100 or so words. The text must be in a form that the search engine robots can read, and not just in images.

If you have any images on the page, the search engine robot has no way of knowing anything about them, except their filenames and alt tags. The alt tag is a way to describe for robots what the image shows.

Try to use the main keywords for your page in both the image filename and the related alt tag. The alt tag still needs to be a clear description of what is being depicted in that image.

Not all pages should be picked up by search engines

There is at least one page that should never be indexed by a search engine. That is the "Page not found" page, if you have one.

Normally your web hosting company offers you a choice when users request a non-existing page. The default is typically a generic page supplied by the web hosting company. As an alternative, the web server can be set to serve either your home page or a custom "Page not found" page that you must create and upload.

If you choose to create and upload such a custom 404 page, then the search engines should not be allowed to index it and include it in search results. One way to accomplish that is to add a special meta tag to that page only:

<meta name="robots" content="noindex, nofollow">

Another way would be put a similar directive in a "robots.txt" file and place it in the root directory of your site. This may not be a good idea if you have no other pages you need to exclude, since it is easy to make a mistake with that file, with the result that pages you do want to be indexed do not get indexed.

You may have other pages that you do not want search engines to see, but it is important to keep in mind that compliance with the "robots.txt" is entirely voluntary and the only way to prevent pages from being crawled is to use some other form of access protection, such as a password, for those pages.

Duplicate content, infinite content

Duplicate content, where identical (or very similar) content is served in different pages, will typically result in a significantly lower page rank.

A variation of this is (seemingly) infinite content, which can result in having only a portion of your site indexed by the search engines. An example is using session IDs in URLs. This makes it harder for the search engines to index your site. Use cookies instead.

Duplicate set of HTML, HEAD, TITLE and/or BODY tags

On every web page, there should be

exactly one set of <HTML...>...</HTML> tags,
exactly one set of <HEAD>...</HEAD> tags,
exactly one set of <TITLE>...</TITLE> tags, and
exactly one set of <BODY>...</BODY> tags.

It is not unusual to see more, but it represents a problem, since it is hard to predict how browsers and search engine spiders will handle these situations.

One possible cause of this is a buggy CMS (content management system) that automatically adds these extra sets of tags, as discussed in this webmasterworld post.

It could also be that a web programmer uses (PHP) "include" files in the body of the page without checking if those files have head tags of their own in them...

It may be a good practice to check that, whenever a page has been updated, it has exactly one opening and one closing tag, for each of these four types of tags.

Or, you could simply check the page for any kind of syntax error using the free W3C markup validator service.

Feeding a web page with syntax errors to a browser or a search engine spider is not all that different from talking to a person who is hard of hearing. If they don't hear what you say, they will try to guess. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they don't, and it may not matter. But more often than not, they will guess incorrectly and the result will be... startling. If you don't want your web pages to startle visitors to your site, check your syntax!

Before you publish your page

You guessed it: check it for syntax errors!

Take one last look at your page title and your description meta tag. Do they still accurately match what is on the page?

Is everything on the page factually correct, current and relevant to your users? Is the spelling correct?

Other resources

A comprehensive list of search-ranking factors is available from seomoz.org.

Google, of course, has its own guide to SEO, where you can find additional information.

I have learned a lot about SEO from a book called "Search Engine Optimization An Hour A Day". The authors have a related website called www.yourseoplan.com where you can find a lot of interesting information and resources.

Another resource is the Etsy page about SEO, which has a link to the Etsy Guide to SEO (by seomoz.org). Etsy was featured recently (Dec 17, 2009) in an article in the New York Times.



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