I’ve learned, forgotten and thrown out more SEO tips over the past 5 years than I care to remember. Search engine algorithms change so fast it’s hard to keep up. Google’s algorithms have changed so much the past year that I feel like I’m doing the tango with it; and not always without treading on its bots’ toes. I feel like an SEO beginner again. It’s not a nice feeling.
So what is good for SEO now? Is there a definitive answer? Can we stay one step ahead of search engines?
Just like you, I want to know those answers. Desperately.
I’m going to be brave and share my search engine optimization tricks and knowledge. I hope you are willing to take a step into this brave new world I’m heading into by sharing your search engine tips with me. After all, in the Internet world, reciprocation is everything.
What I know About SEO
Apparently, not much, any more ;)
What you write should be readable, meaningful and engaging. Most of all — this is vital — it must be written for humans. If humans can read it and make sense of it then search engines can index it properly.
What follows is advice about how to use specific page elements that optimize your content for search engines. This is essentially the same as optimizing for humans:
- Use a good title that says what your post is about
- Introduce your subject
- Use headlines and sub headlines to split up your content
- Summarize what you have said
- Keep to your theme without too many distractions
- Write good English (or whatever language you use)
- Repeat your key message in as many different ways as you can.
- Use a good headline, byline and blurb
- Keep your site well organized
That said, here are the important bits that help to keep content structured for humans and search engines.
Title Tags and Header Tags
These help to make your content easier for surfers to scan by making sections of text stand out.
Unless reading a story or proofreading, most people quickly scan text to see whether it has the answers they’re looking for. If it doesn’t, they click back to the search engine. Search engines monitor those click-backs. Make your text easy to scan to help surfers discover that your content is relevant to them.
When text is properly structured with headers and sub headers that highlight what each section of text is about, it makes it easy for surfers to find what they want and for search engines to index your content.
I use the Table of Content plus plugin to add an easy way for people to locate post sections. TOC+ Works by indexing header tags (H1 to H6). Use this plugin to help you think about page layout as you type.
When to use it:
- The site title but on the home page only.
- Post and page titles.
Do not use H1 tags for the site’s title on any page but the home page. On your site’s homepage, the site’s title is the most important title. Off the home page, the post or page title is the most important title.
Do not use H1 tags anywhere else within your site.
H2, H3, H4, H5 and H6
Use these to mark sections and sub sections within your text.
Don’t worry about headlines used in WordPress widgets. Search engines know where the content is within a WordPress site. Ditto for other content management systems (CMS).
Use key words and phrases to emphasize your message and theme. Target keywords in the page and post content. Don’t over repeat them. Use synonyms.
I like to write questions that I know people will search for. If you look at some of my posts you will see they contain questions or statements that are part structured as rhetorical questions or structured to contain part of the language used within a question but without them requiring question marks.
When you write a post, think about how people will search for it. Use a search engine to research your subject and write down every search term and phrase you use in the process. Work relevant phrases and search terms into your content.
Meta Tags and Meta Elements
These are important. Always were. Still Are. SEO Ultimate and other WordPress plugins let you control the important meta tags for a reason.
Think about it: why write good copy if you can’t be bothered to write good meta tags and meta descriptions? You’re kind of losing the battle if you don’t add meta tags.
Keyword Meta Tags
These are still used by search engines to get an idea of what a page is about but search engines place less emphasis on them than they did in the past.
These do not need to match page content. It is helpful if they do because they help people find your content through tag clouds.
Use around 8 key word metatags per page. Do not use them to spam words and phrases that do not relate to your content. Search engines watch for keyword spamming and lower a site’s authority accordingly.
Very important. It will be the first thing someone sees when your page is displayed in search results. It should read like a newspaper headline.
When you search for a solution to a problem, do you click the result that says, “SOLVED” at its front? I do. Now do you see why this is important?
Important for when you want search results for your content to display a particular description under the title.
This should be attention grabbing. It should contain your main key word or key phrase. It should look like a newspaper billboard post. It should be written in around 140 characters, just like a tweet.
Leave the meta description blank if you want search engines to auto select the description displayed in search results.
Search engines read from top-left to bottom-right, just as we read text in English and most Indo-European and Romance languages like Latin, French, German, Dutch and Spanish.
Greater emphasis is given to links that are higher up in your page content. This is because most people place reciprocated backlinks in site footers, resource links at the end of their texts and related posts links at the end of their texts.
Do not have more than 10 links out of a page. Put your less important ones toward the bottom of the page and/or give it a noindex tag.
Links should have unique anchor text. Google recently changed its algorithm to check for uniqueness in link anchor text. If you have lots of backlinks and you’ve recently noticed a drop in your search engine placements then it might be because most of your backlinks look the same.
Link anchor text carries more weight when the anchor text is unique and link is at neither the end nor the start of a sentence. For example “blah blah blah LINK blah blah blah.” is good; “LINK blah blah blah.” Is bad; and “blah blah blah LINK.” is bad.
Be careful who you link to. If you link to spam sites then you might be tarnished as a relative of the spam site. Use the nofollow and noindex attributes on links to bad sites. This applies to ads and sponsor links too.
When you write a post, make it 300 to 500 words long, minimum, unless you have a specific reason to make it shorter.
Make sure your main keywords are in the top of the content. That very first paragraph must contain the main keywords and phrases you are trying to target. Those keywords should occur in the page URL and in the page title.
Images and Alt Text
Search engines cannot yet properly recognize events in images. They can detect color, they can detect faces, shapes, animals, plants and objects but they cannot determine the event. When you look at an image of a child and a football, you know the child is playing football. Search engines do not.
Use alt text for your images to describe the who, what, where and the when of an image.
Use the alt text to hide search phrases that you couldn’t get into the main body of text. Make sure it relates to the image, its surrounding text and that it is written in a natural language format. Images are also good for linking to internal content.
Disclaimer: just because search engines can recognize items within images doesn’t mean they do. I merely stated a capability, one that will be more utilized in the future.
A backlink to a post or page is a vote for its quality. It doesn’t matter whether someone is linking to you because they hate what you’ve written or whether someone is praising your site and your talent. A backlink is a backlink.
You need between 10 and 15 backlinks to a post to help it rank well. They can be externally inbound links from other sites or they can be internal links i.e links from one post to another.
Each page within your site will attract its own weight (authority) with search engines. Think of your website as a network of its own where content should interlink.
Use your list of key words and phrases to get backlinks. Find sites pages that discuss themes around those key words and phrases and get a backlink from them. Use content already within your site to backlink to your page, internally. If you do not already have a post that relates to a keyword, write a post and link to it from the specially written post. Posts that explain a particular keyword or phrase are good for this. Some webmasters create blogs for this purpose using free sites like WordPress.com and Blogspot.
Never forget that search engines give more weight to backlinks from trusted top level domains such as .edu and .gov. You should aim to get backlinks from such sites.
URL Structure: Permalinks
Search engines place emphasis on the words within a post’s URL:
- Words in the URL should match some of the keywords in a post’s title
- Words in a post’s title should match some of the keywords in your post’s content
- Headlines and sub headlines should reinforce your keywords
If your URL is automatically created by your CMS then your URL will probably match your title.
A good URL structure to use is
Notice the post/page ID tagged onto the end. A requirement for getting a post into Google News is to have a unique ID for each page.
WordPress users can use the following permalink structure:
WordPress permalinks can be changed years after a blog has been active but read the guide at the link.
If your you are not worried about your site being listed in Google News search results then you can remove the -%post_id% part of the above WordPress permalink structure example.
When to Create a Subdomain
Search engines like Google are believed to analyze URLs to match relationships between what a searcher wants and what a page contains. news.example.com/science/todays-headline/ should rank more highly than example.com/science/todays-headline/.
If your site has many, many posts that cover the same topic, create a new subdomain site and use the topic’s theme as the subdomain’s name. For example news.example.com or fun.example.com. Move posts to the new subdomain and remember to create redirections from their old location to their new location.
More important than ever before, now that Google determines content age when displaying results and because surfers can list results by time frame, if your pages are too old or not updated regularly enough then you might miss out on traffic. Update old posts regularly and write new content regularly.
Do not duplicate content. Do not use other people’s content within your own site. Do not reuse your own content within your own site. Search engines do not like duplication. They either demote a site as a splog or they share ‘page rank’ between pages with duplicate content.
Quotations are fine. Small snippets are great. Use blockquote tags to show content is quoted from elsewhere and backlink to the content source to ensure search engines can locate the originator and that they know not to penalize your site as a splog.
Some webmasters use screenshots of other people’s content to prevent duplication penalties.
If you do duplicate content, add nofollow and noindex attributes to the page header.
To www or not to www?
Search engines index a page relative to the URL it is accessed by. If a page can be accessed as http://example.com and http://www.example.com then it is, according to search engines, a twin. The search engine doesn’t know that both URLs lead to the same page so treats them as two separate pages.
When a page is indexed twice under two or more URLs it causes search engines to split authority and ranking between both pages. This is very bad.
Choose whether you want your URLs to look like http://www.example.com or http://example.com. Eternally stick to your choice.
WordPress and similar CMSs will let you decide whether to allow the www or not.
robots.txt s used to ask bots not to access certain parts of a site’s directory structure. Good bots obey it. Bad bots barge past it.
Use the robots.txt file to prevent bots indexing pages via multiple URLs. This is especially necessary when you use WordPress which can list pages under category URLs and tag URLs as well as under their own URLs.
WordPress users should install a plugin similar to Ultimate SEO and edit the robot meta tags to deter indexing of
- Administration back-end pages
- Author archives
- Blog search pages
- Category archives
- Date-based archives
- Tag archives
- User login/registration pages
You need to shout to the world that your site has content. Scream as loud as you can every time you publish. But, if you don’t want a sore throat, let your website do it for you.
Use good list of search engine and syndication sites to ping. WordPress and similar CMSs have built in ways to ping sites; their ping lists can be updated with ping lists like the one published here at JournalXtra.
Search engines can’t see it. Use it for games and videos but not much else. Whatever you use it for, never, ever, ever, ever create a big front page to your site that is built entirely out of Flash. See first sentence for the reason.
Surfers and search engines will not find your pages unless there are links to them. For the most part, there will be a link to any page in a site that is in a search engine index.
Increase visibility to search engines by using a sitemap and register that site map with search engines. A good site map generator will add its location to your robots.txt file. There are several good WordPress plugins that create sitemaps. I recommend Better Google XML Sitemaps.
The art of hiding content:
- The skill of displaying different content to surfers and search engines
- The craftiness of hiding content from search engines
- The talent for displaying different content to surfers based on IP, browser (user agent) or referrer
Which of the above do you think is bad for SEO?
Probably all three to different extents.
Never hide content from search engines. Don’t hide text by giving it the same color as your page. Don’t hide text in divs, iframes or behind images the size of a single pixel. Don’t hide text in dropdown boxes that have no way to be opened (I’ve done this one in the past). Don’t serve a different page to a search engine to the one you serve to your visitors.
Search engines know the tricks. Search engine bots sometimes use false user identities so they do sail through filters and eventually detect cloaked content. Search engine owners check sites manually – they have teams of people who surf the web all day to detect cloaking. So, be careful.
Serving different content to different users based on browser and IP address is common. It shouldn’t harm SEO provided search engines are not served different content from the content served to surfers.
Mobile sites tend to serve similar content to their non mobile equivalents. This can attract duplication penalties.
If your mobile site is not a different site to your non-mobile desktop site but serves different content to mobile device users to the content served to desktop users then you could be penalized for cloaking. As said above, this might not be an issue but it could be.
If you want a version of your site for mobile device users to access then you should use a mobile ‘m’ subdomain. The m domain is the standard place to serve a mobile site. Even Google uses it.
Google and other search engines have dedicated bots to index mobile sites. Real mobile sites use XHTML and a different doc type to desktop sites so duplication penalties are unlikely to occur through serving the same text from a mobile site as is served from its desktop parent. To be safe, place a link in the footer of the mobile site’s pages so that each page links back to its desktop equivalent.
I build mobile sites for a living. Visit my business site to see what a mobile site can do for your business.
Underlining, Emboldening and Italicizing Text
I’ve recently learned that search engines place emphasis on text that is underlined, emboldened or italicized.
It makes sense. When we read text we usually understand that decorated text has special significance. When we write we make important concepts stand out within our sentences and paragraphs. Make sparing use of underlined, bold and italicized text to highlight your keywords and key phrases.
I usually italicize my lead-in paragraph. This paragraph usually contains my main key words and phrases so it seems reasonable to increase its weight with search engines.
Ads & Paid Links
Use as few ads as possible. Google is the dominant search engine. It now penalizes sites that place too many ads above the ‘fold’. The fold is the top part of the page seen in a browser window when scrolled all the way to the top. If you fill it with ads, Google’s search bots will detect them and your site will lose its page position. The good news is that when you remove offending ads your site will stop being penalized so if you already cram ads into the top part of your site, remove them now.
Paid links are a big no-no.
Search engines use backlinks to determine site and page authority. Some people try to game search results by paying for backlinks on high ranking sites. When either party is caught, both party’s lose Google position. Stay away from paid links if you need search engines for traffic.
When I was taught to write essays, I was taught to pick a theme, make a message and to repeat that message to drill it into my audience; and to use the following content areas:
- Title – say what you’re writing about
- Intro – Say what are you going to say
- Body Text – Say what you’re saying
- Summary – Say what you’ve said
Search engines look for those characteristics too. So, write for humans, add meta tags for search engines and adjust your body text, link anchors, image alt tags and the page URL for search engines when you need to; get 10 to 15 backlinks from external sites to show search engines you’ve been awarded approval by other webmasters for your content; and use internal links between your pages to help search engines find them and to spread your site’s authority more evenly.
One more thing, I don’t always do as I preach so don’t use every page on my sites as an example of correct SEO practices. Bad habit, I guess, but one I’m not about to break anytime soon.