SEO (search engine optimisation) for organic search by Matt Ottewill (March 2014)

 

NOTE: If you do not understand the different search information systems (indexes, directories, sites) you may wish to read about them first.

This article offers an overview of SEO (should more accurately be called SISO: Search Information System Optimisation - Ed). We'll deal with basic good common sense SEO practice for HTML/CSS websites sites here.

Note: Other highly technical resources deal with the subject of optimising dynamic and CMS web sites (such as WordPress), and this is an important subject that deserves diligence. Search the web for help on this subject.

What are organic and paid search?

Organic search results are the links that appear on a search results page (such as Google) ranked according to the relevance to a given search term by Google's algorithm. Optimising the design and content of a website to achieve the highest ranking is the subject of this article.

Paid search is commonly called SEM or Search Engine Marketing, and centers on Googles pay per click (PPC) AdWords service which displays paid for ads above and to the right of organic search results on Google's search results pages.

What is SEO?

When someone enters phrases and keywords into a search box at a search site, an algorithm (computer program) finds related web pages in its index (or directory) and displays a list of them in what it thinks is the correct order of relevance on its search results page. Google calls this process page (or site) ranking (or weighting). Ranking is a measure of relevance, so higher ranked pages appear above lower ranked pages.

Approximately (depending on which statistics you read) 50% of first time visitors to a site, find it by using a search site, the other 50% know the URL (from recommendation or advertising or good guesswork etc) and type it straight into their browser address bar. Therefore, if a site builder/owner wants to generate the maximum traffic, they need their site to be ranked as high as possible by the Google's, Yahoos and MSN's of this world.

Search engine optimisation is the process whereby a web site builder will try to ensure that the web spiders, sent out by search index sites, feed information to their search site algorithm in such a way as to give the site builder's site a high ranking in search results for a given search phrase or collection of keywords.

It is the job of a site builder to try and understand what search terms potential visitors may use, how the search site algorithm works, what criteria it uses to rank sites, and to exploit this knowledge when planning and building the site. In addition they may also control a budget for buying a higher ranking in the "Pay Per Click" ads that accompany the search results at a Search Site.

It should be said that even the best SEO strategy will not always guarantee high rankings, so you should be wary of telling your clients it will.

Which Search Information Systems must be considered?

There are many Search Sites on the web but most use one of the following Search Information System (indexes or directories) ...

  • Google (index)
  • Yahoo (index)
  • MSN (index)
  • Ask / AskJeeves (index)
  • Open Directory Project (directory)

Ensuring your site is indexed and understanding how these technologies rank pages for relevance to a given search phrase or keyword is a primary skill of the site builder and must be considered at the design stage of a new site. Search sites need their results to be relevant to users. If they are not, the users will search elsewhere. But search sites also need to keep the details of their ranking algorithms secret from the competition and to some extent site builders too. They want sites to be ranked on the quality of their content and relevance, not because of the skills of the SEO expert.

Can you out smart the search site experts?

Some of these search sites are multi-million/billion dollar businesses. Their core business is returning relevant results fast. There are some very clever people working at them. Its probably fair to say that any idea you can come up with to out-smart them, they've already thought of and accounted for in their algorithms.

Therefore, the real skill is to understand how they work and build sites that will help the spiders and algorithms to do their jobs. Much of SEO is concerned with avoiding facets of site design that will hinder spiders and maximising facets that help them. But be in no doubt, the quality of your content and the esteem users and other sites hold you in are paramount to good ranking.

How a site is ranked

A search index uses a number of criteria to rank a page or sites relevance to a given search, such as ...

  • An exact match for a search term
  • Pages with words from the phrase close together
  • The context of the phrase in the text
  • Page titles with the phrase in them
  • The importance of the phrase in the context of a pages content
  • Quality and usefulness of content
  • The number and relevance of other sites that link to the site/page
  • How long the site/page has existed
  • etc

Search engines look for these phrases in the visible text and html code (meta data and tags) of a sites pages. SEO is, of course, concerned with the exact technical methods you use to ensure your pages meet these criteria.

SEO good practices

This is the practical part of this article, giving you good advice on which web technologies are SEO friendly, which you should avoid, and how to improve your site ranking.

Let's start with good SEO practice guidelines for websites, YouTube channels, social media pages etc ..

  1. Ensure the titles (headings) and description fields of your YouTube videos accurately represent the content of the video and contain keywords/phrases most likely to be used by viewers when searching. So instead of writing “pedal powered machines” use “bicycle”. Also, if your video is entitled “Recording session at Blue Dolphin studios” but the description is about a gig you did last Saturday night at the Barfly, the search engine will be confused.
  2. Always enter meta-data keywords/phrases where available (eg YouTube video, <head> tag of web pages). Description meta-tags in web-pages are not used for ranking but can be displayed in search results.
  3. Write clear and concise body text that is relevant to your title, and be precise with your terminology at all times by avoiding abbreviation or substitutions of keywords/phrases. For example, use “video” not “vid”, and refer to your “new music video” rather “new video”. Write primarily for your users but with search in mind.
  4. Create a simple and clear heirachy to your site with each page being accessible from a text link. Ideally use a common navigation element.
  5. Ensure the <title> and first <h1> heading tags of your web-pages clearly represent the content of the page and include simple keywords/phrases. This is especially important because search engines use title tags to both help rank pages and for link text in search results. Our homepage <title> and <h1> tags contain “”FREE essential theory videos for project and home recording studio owners”.
  6. Use no more that 65-75 characters in the title tag.
  7. Place keywords/phrases towards the beginning of a title tag.
  8. Use the title/heading keywords/phrases 2-3 times again in the body content.
  9. Use the title/heading keywords/phrases in the <alt> tag of least one image on the page.
  10. Create URLs that are descriptive and contain keywords, for example “projectstudiohandbook.com” and “planetoftunes.com/synth/synth-types.htm”.
  11. Use hyphens to separate words in URLs.
  12. Ensure link text reflects its purpose so “here is a photo of Alma on stage” is preferable to “for a photo of Alma on stage click here”.
  13. Don’t use images of text, search engines can’t index them.
  14. Don’t place content in rich media file formats such as Flash.
  15. Always configure the <alt> tag for images.
  16. Don’t hide content behind password log-ins if possible.
  17. Avoid placing content in iFrames.
  18. Avoid placing links in JavaScript.

 

More advice about web site technologies - SEO pros & cons

Technology SEO pros SEO cons
JavaScript navigation   Spiders can't read them, don't use them
Text in images   Spiders can't read them, don't use them without the Alt tag configured
Short text links   Spiders prefer unambiguous longer link text
Long text links Avoid links that say "click here". The text link should state the content they target  
Dynamic pages   Spiders have trouble indexing them, may not index them at all, requires expert SEO skills to work around problems
Image maps   Spiders can't read them, don't use them without full text link alternatives
Frames   Spiders have problems with them, don't use them if your are concerned with SEO
(Page) Title tag Well written descriptive tags are important to search indexes. Try putting the page description before the site name  
Flash intros   Spiders can't read text in them, avoid like the plague
Flash navigation   No no no no!
Flash elements Use them for appropriate non text information parts of your site, they should not be a substitute for text Remember spiders can't read text in them so be cautious. You can pull text into Flash movies from external documents that can be indexed, but now mobile is shunning Flash, is it worth it?
Text Indexes love well written relevant html text content  
<h1>, <h2> etc tags Important to indexes, use them in a logical manner to indicated hierarchy of importance of content (not for styling) and make them straightforward and descriptive  
External CSS Leaves the markup uncluttered and semantic, use them  
Inline CSS   Clutters up the <head> tag unnecessarily, use external CSS
Meta tags Consider the use the <meta name="description" content= ...> and <meta name="keywords" content= ...> tags in the <head> tags of each page Not as important as some thing they are
Java applet navigation   Be careful, they can create index problems
JavaScript elements   They create code clutter, use external linked JavaScript elements
Alt tag Short concise human readable URLs, descriptive like the page title are best. Ensure at least one  
URLs Make them as descriptive as possible. Seperate words with hyphens  
Dynamically produced URLs   Avoid if possible
Text styling (bold, italic, case, lists etc) Spiders rank a words importance partly on its styling, so take advantage of this fact  

 

Cheating (black hat SEO)

There are various well documented underhand methods for artificially achieving a higher ranking (search the web for link farms, page jacking, cloaking, keyword stuffing, alt text spamming etc) but I would suggest you avoid them. As already mentioned you may possibly be able to out-smart the indexes (if they don't remove your site from their indexes completely!) but you won't out-smart your visitors and if your site doesn't contain content that is useful to them they won't re-visit or recommend you.

Keywords

Choosing keywords and keyword phrases are discussed here.

Content (text 'n' words)

Write good content

Arguably the best way to get a site ranked highly is to fill it with well written, relevant and concise content (text). Many business sites selling a small range of products have learnt this lesson. For example, you will often find technical help articles and tutorials accompanying sound recording equipment manufacturer sites.

Writing good content is a skill and an art, so make sure whoever is doing it is either capable or is happy to have their words re-written by someone who is. A friend (who shall remain nameless) has the job of re-writing the almost unintelligible writings of her boss. Her boss is great at ideas, she is great at grammar. The arrangement works.

Don't write content just for the sake of it, it must be useful to your visitors.

Technical note

Prioritise content in your html structure. If you are using CSS and <div> tags to position elements this is easy to do.

The importance of links

It is well known that page ranking takes account of the number of other sites which are linking to yours, and if these sites have high rankings and content that relates, so much the better. Here are a few ideas ...

  • Actively cultivate relationships with other webmasters and suggest reciprocal linking.
  • Including a page on your site which helps other sites link to you, with suggestions and perhaps a complete piece of code they can grab and use.
  • Don't favour image links such as gif banners and animations, spiders prefer descriptive text links.
  • If someone says they are going to link to you, check that they have and let them know if there are any errors.
  • You may already being linking to other sites, are they linking to you?
  • Try to link with manufacturer and retail sites that relate to your content.
  • Ask employers, friends and family to link to you.
  • Submit URLs to indexes and directories (obviously!).
  • Promote your URL at blogs and discussion groups.
  • Create marketing content for sites like YouTube and always display your URL prominently.
  • Link with related non-profit organisations.
  • If yours is an e-Commerce site, submit to shopping directories such as www.froogle.com

Paying for a higher ranking (AdWords, PayPerClick etc)

Why go through the pain of SEO when you can buy your way to a high ranking position with money(!).

Read more about pay per click, search engine marketing and ad-servers networks here

Submitting your site to search engine indexes

Although search engines will eventually find and index the pages of your website, it will speed up the process if you manually submit a site-map to them. Tip: You will need a Google webmaster account (free) to do this with Google.

Indexes

To find out what pages are already in an index (this works for Google, MSN and Yahoo), type "site:domain.com" (eg "site:planetoftunes.com") into the search box. If your pages aren't there you can manually submit them. Remember, these are the only indexes that matter. Use these links ...

www.google.com/addurl.html

siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/submit

www.search.msn.com/docs/submit.aspx

Alas, www.ask.com offers no way of manually submitting your site, you must wait for them to find you.

Directories

Do the same for ...

dir.yahoo.com ($300-$600 pa, urghhh!!!)

www.dmoz.org (free)

Submitting a Sitemap

Many indexes accept Sitemap submissions to speed up their indexing processes. A Sitemap is usually in .txt or XML format and lists all the URLs/pages on your site. Creating and uploading a Sitemap is a useful option for intermediate to advanced web site builders.

You can find out more about sitemaps here ... http://www.sitemaps.org/

Googles sitemap generator tool

This is a website that helps you create a Sitemap ... http://www.xml-sitemaps.com/

You can find links to help you submit Sitemaps to Google and Yahoo here ...

www.google.com/webmasters/ (create a sitemap in xml format, upload it to the top level of your site and then tell Google where it is).

siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/submit Yahoo requires you to create, and upload to your site, a .txt file containing a list of all the URLs/pages at your site. Submit your URL (eg http://www.planetoftunes.com/urllist.txt) to Yahoo as a Site Feed on their regular Submit page.

Aaron Howey has submitted this advice on submitting to MSN (thanks Aaron) ...

On your SEO page you were wondering about submitting sitemaps to MSN. While not possible directly (from many sites I searched) there is a backdoor way of doing it with www.moreover.com (apparently), there is a mini -artcile here detailing how to do this. http://www.seo-expert-services.co.uk/blog/posts/submit-sitemap-to-msn,-google-and-yahoo.html