CIF Best practice Guide - Search Engine Optimization
The least costly, most effective marketing investment for your site
Optimizing your website so that it ranks well in search engine results is the best investment you can make in terms of having your website discovered.
Think of a search engine as a robot visitor that never buys anything, but that refers many other people to the websites that it likes.
It is common for a website to rank well for its own name, but little else. This means that search engines are aware of the site, but do not consider it relevant to any keywords or subjects in particular. Make sure that your site ranks well for the keywords that your target audience is using.
How search engines work
A search engine spider is a program that surfs the Web in a fairly random manner. The spider will visit a page, take a snapshot of the page and send it back for indexing, then choose another link on the page and follow it.
It is important to note that the spider does not visit all the links on a page in order. This means that if you have a poor navigation system it may take a very long time for the search engine to index all the pages in your site.
Additionally, if there exist on the Web only have a few links to your site, then the chances of a spider following a link to your site is much lower. If you have no incoming links, then you will have no chance of being indexed at all unless you somehow let the search engine know where you are (i.e., through registration with the search engine).
Keywords: critical for the success of your site
How do people search for your Web page? If they have not memorized your URL (don't count on it!), they will type keywords in a search engine.
If the search term most often used by Web users to find a site like yours is not mentioned on or associated with your pages, then your Web pages will not be ranked as a result for searches using that term. For example, if you want to rank well for "training", but your page talks only about "education", your site will not be considered relevant for searches on "training".
Since search engines use keywords to provide search results, it is critical to know what keywords your visitors are using, and to make sure that you use exactly those words on your pages. It is useless to rank highly on terms that people do not search for.
Make sure that your keywords appear in the crucial locations on your Web pages. The HTML <title> element is most important. Failure to put target keywords in the <title> element is the main reason that perfectly relevant Web pages may be poorly ranked.
It is better to add specific keywords to the text on your different Web pages than to try "stuffing" too many keywords. Search engines will index up to about seven keywords and either ignore the rest or interpret them as spam. It is therefore recommended to include between five and seven keywords to the main text on each of the main pages of your website.
(Source: Search Engine Optimization Analysis and Guide, by McAnerin Networks, Inc. March 2005. Protected document)
How can CIF fund recipients optimize their websites?
Alternatives to Flash and Image maps
Client-side image maps and Flash animations are unfriendly to search engines and should be avoided where possible. If you have to use an image map, you should provide redundant text links for the links in the image map.
Since Flash animations are generally not indexed by search engine spiders, content presented solely in Flash can run the risk of never being listed in search engines. A Web page that includes nothing but Flash is basically an empty page, as far as search engine spiders are concerned. For this reason, Flash content should be provided as an alternate format to an indexable (X)HTML text version.
The HTML <title> element is one of the most important pieces of content on a Web page. It is critical to think carefully about how to write it and to make certain that every single page on your website has a unique, legible, and keyword rich <title> element.
Search engines pay special attention to your <title> element since, as the title for the page as a whole, it should provide a lot of information about the content on that page.
Alt attributes for images
Pictures have no meaning to search engines. This is why you need to include alt attributes for each <img> element in the (X)HTML code. A search engine spider is essentially a blind visitor, and therefore looks at the page in text-only mode.
Including alt attributes will increase the chances of having your website indexed in search engines because, while the engines can't understand graphics, images or photographs, they can index any words found in the alt attributes.
Additionally, your Web page will not validate to W3C standards if any image does not have an alt attribute. The good news is that it's easy to do, and can significantly improve the ranking of your pages.
A metadata element is a line of code in an (X)HTML Web page that serves the purpose of describing the page to search engines and other data harvesters. It is not visible to humans visiting the page unless they look at the source code of the page.
The pages of your website use valid (X)HTML code, you know that a search engine spider will have no difficulty reading the page and following the code.
In addition, the validation process checks for mistakes, which helps improve your website, as well as its sustainability over the long-term.
Creating a site map is one of the most useful things to do. A site map represents the navigational structure of the site, and so provides search engines with a single location in which can they can find all the links needed to index all sections of the site. It also improves indexing because the links that are followed by the search engine are located within your website, rather than external links that would lead the search engine spider to a different website.
Incoming and reciprocal links
Although search engines are focused on text content, they require a way to measure the quality and trustworthiness of that content.
They accomplish this in two ways--first, they analyze the page resource itself for certain characteristics; and second, they analyze links from other sites to that page.
Links are an indication of third-party validation. Incoming links to a Web page from other sites are viewed as votes for that page, and are generally used to rank that page in search engine results. If a trustworthy website links to your site, then it is assumed that your site is also trustworthy. The reason for this is that incoming links are not normally under the control of a website owner, unlike the content. This makes them harder to manipulate.
Of course, spammers can easily create thousands of websites and link to themselves and other spammers in order to avoid this trust test. For this reason, search engines not only count links coming into a Web page, but also consider the source.
No cheating allowed
Never "spam" (i.e. use unethical techniques in an attempt to trick the search engine spiders into giving a Web page a higher ranking). Avoid excessive, irrelevant use of keywords or hidden text.
Many search engines will refuse Web pages with keywords that do not reflect the content. This would be similar to "false advertising", since the keywords "promise" certain content that cannot be delivered.
Even if you manage to get good ranking for your page, the search engine will eventually take steps to remove it.
What prevents search engine spiders from crawling your pages?
(X)HTML code that is not valid: Even if a browser displays Web pages with poor coding, search engine spiders are not as forgiving.
Frames: Search engine spiders have a lot of difficulty reading frames.
Parametrized URLs: URLs that include a question mark followed by name/value parameters can pose problems for search engines. If your site's URLs include name/value parameters, try to keep them to a minimum, and avoid using parameter names such as "id" or "sid", since spiders assume these to indicate the use of session IDs, and will avoid following the URL.
Flash: Use Flash for content you do not want search engine spiders to find. If you do use Flash to present text content, provide an equivalent non-Flash, (X)HTML text version.
Tips if you use a CMS to create your Web pages
Key features of a search engine friendly content management system (CMS) include the ability to
- customize every line, including metadata, within the header on a page by page basis;
- create custom <title> elements;
- add alt attributes to images, including linked images and image map <area> elements;
- create fully W3C-compliant and valid code;
- use search engine friendly URLs;
- avoid temporary URL alteration (such as session IDs);
- create a site map, preferably a multi-tiered, hierarchical site map;
- use external CSS;
- avoid forced cookies.
<meta> Elements: Information not intended for users to see, but which typically passes information to search engine crawlers, browser software and some other applications. The <meta> elements of a page are found within its <head> element.
Organic listings: listings that search engines do not sell, unlike paid listings. Instead, pages appear solely because a search engine has deemed them important to be included, regardless of payment.
Paid inclusion: advertising program where pages are guaranteed to be included in the index of a search engine in exchange for payment, though no guarantee of high ranking is given.
Paid listings: listings that search engines sell to advertisers, usually through paid placement or paid inclusion programs. In contrast, organic listings are not sold.
Paid placement: advertising program where listings are guaranteed to appear in response to particular searches using particular terms, with higher ranking typically obtained by paying more than other advertisers.
Paid placement listings can be purchased from a portal or a search network. Search networks are often set up in an auction environment where keywords and phrases are associated with a cost-per-click (CPC) or pay-per-click (PPC) fee.
Rank: how well a particular Web page or website is listed in search engine results. For example, a Web page about apples may be listed in response to a query for "apples". However, "rank" indicates where exactly it was listed, be it on the first page of results, the second page, or perhaps the 200th page. Alternatively, it might also be said to be ranked first among all results, or 12th, or 111th. Overall, saying a page is "listed" only means that it can be found within a search engine in response to a query, not that it necessarily ranks well for that query. Rank is also sometimes called position.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO): the act of altering a website so that it does well in the organic, crawler-based listings of search engines.