In part one of this series, we covered the basics of how search engines work, and how they rank sites. In this installment, we’ll provide you with basic knowledge and techniques you can put to use right away.
As with part one, our focus is on helping demystify search engine optimization for newbies, business owners and managers. At a minimum, this series will help you have smarter conversations with agencies, search consultants and your own marketing team on how to improve search results and rankings.
Quick Recap of Search Engines
First, a quick recap: search engines largely “see” your website as plain text and HTML. Here’s what the Atomic Bell home page looks like to a search engine:
Looks quite different, eh? No images, no colors. Mostly text.
Search engine bots (also called spiders) “crawl” your site’s content regularly so that they can match up user’s search terms (keywords) to the highest quality sites. So the fundamentals of SEO (search engine optimization) largely focus on the what (keywords), where (HTML elements – more on this later) and the overall quality of content.
The “low hanging fruits” of SEO are HTML elements, which are made up of “tags”. It’s the easiest thing to focus on at first because it’s 100% at your control. Think of these “on-page factors” as the “blocking and tackling” of SEO.
“Off the page” factors, such as the number and quality of sites linking to your page are harder to control and take more time to cultivate.
There are countless online tutorials and books on HTML, so we won’t get into too much detail here. For those who aren’t familiar with HTML, the basics that you need to know are as follows:
- HTML provides instructions to a web browser about how to display a page and its content
- To do this, HTML uses a pre-defined set of elements to identify types of content (images, links, paragraphs etc.)
- Elements contain one or more “tags” that contain or express content.
A simple example of an HTML element in action is making text bold. The HTML <strong> element is typically used for this purpose. To do so, you use the opening tag <strong> and the closing tag </strong> to “bookend” the text you want bolded. Like this:
<strong> Some bold text here </strong> and back to normal text
would show up in a browser like this:
Some bold text here and back to normal text
Keywords are the Key
This may be obvious by now, but Search Engine Optimization is largely keyword driven. As a user, you type words or phrases into a search engine. In turn, the search engine returns a list of sites that contain those same (or very similar) keywords. (Google is smart enough to also match co-varieties of keywords and close matches with similar meanings) Those results are ranked based on many factors. For now, the most important factor to consider is the perceived quality of the site and its content. The first installment of this series covered the basics of how that is determined.
With that covered, let’s look at some of the most important HTML elements that will help improve your site’s search results.
The title element is widely regarded as the most important on-page HTML element for optimizing search results.
Intuitively, this makes sense: the “title” of your page should be a pretty good indicator to search engines as to the content it contains. Therefore, make sure your <title> element contains the keywords for searches you want to appear in. If you own a bicycle shop in Chicago, then it’s a good idea for your home page <title> tag to contain the keywords “bicycle” and “Chicago”.
The title tag also serves two important functions:
How your page is displayed within search results
When your site shows up as a search result, the <title> tag is the first thing displayed. So it’s also a critical component for getting users to click on that result and visit your site. Good, tight writing and use of keywords goes a long way.
Your browser window as you view the page
In most browsers, you can see the <title> tag text in the browser itself. On the image shown here, look at the two callouts with a red rectangle.
You can see the title tag text in two places on Firefox: at the top of the browser window, as well as the tab title. Note that in Chrome, you can only see the text as the tab title.
Meta Description Tag
Just as you can assign your page a title, you an also provide search engines with a short description. In HTML-speak, this is called the Meta Description.
Now unlike the title tag, the description won’t influence your rankings. But it can have a big impact on how many clicks you get when your site shows up in a search result. It’s easy to see why:
As you can see in the image, the meta description shows up under the page title and page URL in search results. If you don’t specify a meta description, Google will make a guess on what to display based on other content on your page.
Your meta description should be somewhere around 130 to 160 characters long. Any longer and it’s going to get cut off from search result listings. It should be concise, descriptive and written with the aim to compel potential customers to click-through to your site.
Page URL names
Using keywords as part of the URL names for your sub-pages is an easy, common sense tactic to improve search rankings. Of course, only do this if it describes the actual page content or you may be penalized.
For example, imagine a dental practice that wants to rank highly for “cosmetic dentistry”. It would be smart for that dental practice to create a web page devoted to quality content on that topic. Then, the dental practice might name the URL of the page something like this:
As always, use common sense: stuffing page names full of keywords in a nonsensical way is not a good user experience and could also penalize your rankings.
Keywords in Headings
Using targeted keywords in your content headings also helps boost search rankings. In particular, the “big” heading typically found at the top of a page’s content. In HTML terms, the biggest headline(s) typically use the <H1> tag, with <H2> tags being slightly smaller and so on.
Traditionally, the <H1> tag has been seen as the most important of these. However, there is some evidence that just having keywords within “big” text headings, whether or not the <h1> tag is being used, has the same or nearly the same impact.
This is an <H1> tag
This is an <H2> tag
This is an <H3> tag…you get the picture
Once again, this is fairly intuitive. Good copywriting uses smart headings to help guide and orient your readers. It makes sense that search engines would use this as an indicator of the page’s content and quality in relationship to specific keywords.
We have only begun to scratch the surface of search engine optimization. There are a host of books, sites and blogs devoted exclusively to this topic – not to mention armies of consultants and agencies.
It’s important to emphasize that Google continues to refine and improve its algorithms and methodologies on an ongoing basis. So what works well today, may not work tomorrow. However, the core guiding principle of providing quality content remains constant.
If you’d like to learn more, here are some of the top sources for up-to-date information (linking to content geared towards beginners when possible):