Understanding Search Engines
Search engines strive to provide users with the “best” set of results for their queries. If you think of the keywords a user types into the search field as asking a particular question, then the top results that are returned should help answer the user’s question. Each engine uses a different algorithm to determine which Web pages to show in the results, but every search engine has the goal of showing its users high-quality and relevant results.
The first step to understanding SEO is to recognize that search engines order their rankings based on calculations of quantifiable data. While the exact ranking algorithms are unknown to all but the search engine engineers themselves, we do know many of the factors that are considered. When you build your website with an eye toward how a search engine might evaluate the page, you’re off to a good start getting more traffic from sites like Google and Yahoo/Bing.
Understanding Common Problems
Common problems that will prevent your Web page from showing up at the top of the results can be grouped into a few categories including:
- the search engine can’t find your page
- the search engine doesn’t understand what your page is about
- the search engine doesn’t think your content is relevant to the user’s particular query
- the search engine thinks your page isn’t authoritative enough (i.e., there are other pages about the same topic that the search engine believes are more trustworthy than yours).
In addition to the common categories above, one more reason that your page(s) might not show up in any search engine results could be that your site has been banned. This will happen if a search engine believes you’ve participated in any behavior that goes against its terms of service.
Keyword research is one of the most important first steps of SEO. Keyword research will tell you which search terms you should pursue in your optimization work. If you don’t start the SEO process with research, you may end up wasting effort on low-quality keywords that won’t send many visitors your way.
High-value terms are those that have the most potential to drive well-qualified traffic to your site. The terms you target should be:
- Relevant to the content you have to offer - so you’re attracting traffic that will stay on your site rather than bouncing immediately.
- High-volume - so you attract sufficient traffic to make it worth your efforts.
- Attainable - you want to concentrate on optimizing for search terms you have a good chance at achieving high rankings for.
Page Titles & On-Page Optimization
Start your SEO efforts by focusing on those things under your immediate control. Since you can easily control the text that appears on your Web pages, on-page optimization is usually the lowest hanging fruit. In addition to the copy on the page itself, the other page element that’s going to give you a lot of bang for your buck is the page title (i.e., the <TITLE> tag).
Site Structure & Internal Linking
How you structure your site directly impacts how search engines discover your content and what they think is important on your site. Pages within a site can work together to increase your search ranks for a broad array of search terms. By building your website with an SEO-friendly information architecture and a solid internal linking strategy, you’re laying a strong foundation for achieving equally strong rankings for your current and future content. Links are believed to be one of the, if not the single most, important ranking factor in Google’s algorithm. Taking a moment to assess your site's internal linking structure can be highly beneficial to your SEO effectiveness.
When creating a new website or a new page on your site, this checklist will help you take basic steps to improve SEO and avoid pitfalls:
- For each page on the site, select 2-3 high-value keyword phrases that are directly relevant to the content on that page.
- If possible, fill out 5-8 additional related keyword phrases.
- Create a unique Title Tag for each page.
- Homepage Title Tag starts with program name. Include tagline if applicable or a short, descriptive keyword phrase that contextualizes what the program is about (e.g., Independent Films, History of the American Ballet Theatre).
- Non-homepage Title Tags include target keywords selected in the previous step.
- Use clean URLs. (Example: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/reports/interview-lenny-kravitz.html)
- Use keywords in URL slugs.
- Separate URL keywords with hyphens; remove unnecessary words.
- Avoid using variable strings (example: ?pageid=21&episode=chocolate&).
- Don’t change URLs of existing pages without creating redirects.
- Write unique, targeted meta description of around 150 characters for every page.
- No two pages should share the same description.
- Each description includes the page’s target keywords near the beginning of the meta description.
- Meta description should be compelling copy that entices search engine users to click on the listing. ( Tip: Rather than describing what the page is about, think in terms of why someone would want to see it.)
- Do not put broadcast dates in the description.
- Make sure each page has unique, descriptive text on it.
- Aim for at least 200 words of unique copy for each page.
- Verify that code elements are SEO-friendly.
- Do not use Flash for navigation or critical content elements!
- Make sure all images have descriptive alt attributes.
- Do not use frames.
- Use descriptive link text for all navigation elements.
- Use external CSS files for styling and positioning.
- Create SEO-friendly site architecture.
- Exclude site search results pages using robots.txt (You must architect your site so that internal search results URLs are in a separate subdirectory).
- Top-level navigation links point to the site’s most important pages.
Things You Can Start Doing Today
Follow these five steps to start improving your SEO today:
- Find one page on your site that doesn't get as much organic search traffic as you think it should.
- Pick two or three keyword phrases for which you want that page to rank.
- Create a unique Title Tag incorporating your primary keyword phrase (at the beginning!)
- Make sure the page has at least 200 words of copy on it.
- Find a related page on your site and add a link to your target page, using your keyword phrase as anchor text.
For additional tips and suggestions, check out the SPI blog.