SEO – an introduction to Search Engine Optimization

This material was left over when I wrote the book Web Strategy for Everyone. Rather than throwing it away, it is now published with some editing – though not quite as ambitious as it would’ve been in print 🙂

Search engine optimization is all about optimizing one’s web presence for search engines to take a liking to your site. It is often abbreviated SEO. Something quite different is keyword optimization – the editorial part of the process of SEO.

Search Engine Optimization ≈ Make your website’s content great according to search engines

Search engine optimization, also known in short as SEO, is your attempts to attract visitors to your website by making your site as good as possible in relation to search engines and their users. It is possible to divide SEO in lots of niche terms, but I will restrict myself to make a difference between search engine optimization and keyword optimization because, in its basic form, it’s about either technology or linguistic. This post will therefore not take up the subject about search engine marketing (SEM).

Search engine optimization is basically to have great content. What‚ then, is good content? The following features are a good start for the content you wish to attract users to:

  1. Unique – same content is not available on other sites (such as through syndication / RSS, etc.).
  2. Suitable length – short product texts are regarded as facts.
  3. Appreciated by others – has links to itself, and many visitors (Google has access to your visitor statistics if you have Google Analytics).
  4. Posted on a website that has subject-related authority – to more information about similar things are.
  5. From a trustworthy source – the author is an authority in the hen write about?
  6. Accessible – well put, not long chunks of text, and preferably marked up with RDFa/Microdata techniques such as Schema.org so even machines understand what the content is about.

Search Engine Land has an excellent list of the SEO’s periodic system, where you can see more positive factors.

There are also bad signals, among other things:

  • Many different authors with few posts per site. At least Google does not like guest posts or suspected sponsored posts. Many writers can be an indication of a suspicious behavior.
  • Outlinks to pages with low credibility, or links that lead to error 404, or hacked websites.
  • Too many links. Offering hundreds of links in your content exhibit an inability on priority, everything cannot be a priority.
  • Slow page views. Both search engines and users have better things to do than to wait for a slow website.

Sitemaps

The structure of the website needs to be good enough for a crawler to be able to look around, but there is still a point to submit a sitemap to the search engines. This is done by Google through their tools Search Console and Bing with it is their Webmaster Tools that apply.

SEO best practice changes over time

A common mistake among those who do not work with SEO very much is to believe that it does not change very much – it does, a lot! We notice that especially more and more. For instance on the books released about SEO that nowadays are named with the year of release, and the authors trying to delist their books a couple of years after they are released. This is the reason why I did not include a chapter on SEO in my book Web Strategy for Everyone, the subject-matter is to agile for print.

A common misconception is that it is beneficial to enter keywords, so-called meta-keywords. It is still widespread, but there are many more examples that it is important to keep on top of the updates in SEO.

The reason is attempts to spam Google…

For example, Google is fighting a constant battle against search engine spammers attempting to lure in visitors. The problem Google is trying to solve is to display only relevant hits from the original source of that which is sought after. For instance, it’s not supposed to be meaningful to build a site which largely contain materials snatched from Wikipedia, then Wikipedia is to be displayed in the list.

If you want to learn more about these updates, you can visit SEO forums, or search for animals names Panda and Penguin which were the first two major upheavals in SEO. While you’re out there and googling you can also read about the Google algorithm Hummingbird, its aim is to understand a search query’s context and provide sensible synonyms and related searches. This is what the book Web Strategy for Everyone referred to as Web 3.0, or, the Semantic Web. An attempt to make machines understand content and context, and to bridge the different data sources differences in structure.

Everyone needs to know some SEO!

The reason why all website owners, editors and bloggers need to learn a lot about search engine optimization is that otherwise they avoid customers and visitors. Compared with the physical reality a optimized site shop is placed on the street where its customers are frequently visiting. The website that is not optimized at all is like having a department store on top of Mount Everest, surely a cool concept store, but there are not many customers in the vicinity.

Keyword optimization is to make your website attractive to search engine’s and to clearly position the keywords your audience uses so the website will be easy to find. Besides some initial technical measures it is eventually those who handle the content the website shows up who have the greatest impact on the site, making for it to be keyword optimized.

Somewhat simplified, one can say that only text is searchable because it is difficult for search engine’s software to understand the content of image or video without it offering descriptive text. Although the machines are getting better at understanding images, video and speech, it will be a while before we can take a pass on the production of texts.

Glossary of SEO

  • Keyword Optimization, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) – The activity and know-how on how to improve websites to be easily found through a search engine.
  • Search querys & keywords – Usually one or more words that a user types into a search engine in the hope of finding something relevant.
  • Search results & SERP (Search Engine Results Page) – SERP is often used by those already initiated into the search engine industry and construed as Search Engine Results Page. On the Swedish search results page, that page of the search engine in response to a search term.
  • Visitors – When referring to a visitor of a website, it’s about all the visits provided. Much like the visitors to a business, some are recurring others are not.
  • Unique visitors – A unique visitor is different from a visitor by that we are able to identify them as an unique individual, able to perform multiple visits to a website.
  • Page views – Number of times a visitor viewed a page on the site, or the number of views for a certain page.
  • Unique page views – Number of unique visitors who viewed a page. For example, it is not unusual for a visitor to visit a single page multiple times, which is a single unique page view.
  • Index – The search engine’s index is what it knows about and what its users can search within.
  • Bot, crawler and spider – Is the search engine software searches the web for new, changed, and deleted material as pages, images and other types of documents.
  • Inbound links – the links pointing to your site. So other sites that link to yours.
  • Keyword Density – The percentage of text that consists of relevant keywords.

Editorial keyword optimization

Wording and editorial

The visitors you want to reach are those who are actively looking for something your website offers. Therefore, it is very important that you are familiar with how your audience express themselves and what search queries they use.
Are they looking for ‘gore-tex hiking boots’ or ‘The North Face Hedgehog GTX 2016 edition’? While both search queries perhaps are describing the same product, someone searching for one of them does not necessarily get to see the other one in their search results.

It is paramount to be aware of the words used so there is no risk that extremely rarely get a match between the words you have chosen to use and a search engine user accidentally enter to search.

Usually it is a combination of several possible words that constitute a search term. Try to naturally get the most commonly used word for each sub-page of a product. Later in this section is useful tools like Google’s keyword tool you can use to find out how many people use certain search criteria.

Heading! = Headline

Keep in mind that there is a big difference in a heading and a headline. A heading is more of a name for something while a headline is descriptive of what you can expect from the content.

Sample heading:
Tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

Sample headline:
Wolf ate grandmother

Of the two examples above, only the last one is wise to use a large extent on the Web. The heading indeed talks about the kind of information – a fairy tale – and who is involved – Little Red Riding Hood and someone / something called the wolf – but it summarizes in no way what is to come. The point of instead writing that a wolf ate grandma is to summarize all the text has to tell. This way of obfuscating the content is all too common.

Writing for the Web is to write what is most important first. A descriptive title, a summary preamble when necessary and that the most important in the body comes first and then go into the details and references to learn more.

Writing page titles

Page title on The New Yorker
The page title on The New Yorker articles is the same as the headline.

The page title is the name of the page and is often reflected in the top of the browser window (at least on computers). The page title is also the clickable text in the search engine’s result page and the name in a browser’s bookmarks.

Often, the page title is the same as you choose to name the webpage. In some web content management systems you can manually write whatever you want for the page title and some other phrase for the main header of the page.

There are two common variations of how page titles are written. What divides them is whether the site’s name comes first and the unique in the page’s name comes first. To be unnecessarily obvious, two examples below:

  1. Weekend trip to Prague – Travel Company Inc
  2. Travel Company Inc – Weekend trip to Prague

In example 1 above, the unique information comes first, which means that the words weekend trip to Prague is more keyword optimized than the company name.

Example 2 focuses on to clearly tell who the owner of the site is – at the expense of the actual content of the individual page.

Before choosing the syntax of example 2 it is good to think through whether it is worthwhile to compete to appear on one’s brand. It is often enough the case that users are looking for what a business does or offers rather than the company itself. Moreover, it is common to be ranked really high in search engines if users are searching for one’s brand. So I would absolutely recommend example 1.

In fact, some take this to such an extent that they only write the page name in the page title. After all, there are URL nearby on a search engine and it usually specify who the sender is.

It is worth bearing in mind that the length of a page title, if possible, should be a maximum of 70 characters. You will not get much more space in the search engine result page and, also, it is probably not that common to read much more than the first few words. Yes, users are skimming, almost all the time on the Web.

Headlines

In order to clearly divide a body of text and have a good readability, we as readers need information structure. For this we use headlines that describe the body of text below the headline. It is not enough to format a header with bold large text – the headlines must have the correct HTML code to remove all doubt that it is a headline. The same applies to the headings.

If possible, it is recommended that all important subpages has a headline and at least one sub-heading of level 2. These titles will come in the right order, sizes, in descending order, without any level is missing.

If I had a dime for every time a web editor explained why they did not use the correct heading levels, or real headlines at all, it would at least paid for a family pizza. The most common argument is that the text becomes too large, the different color, change the font or is in uppercase. It is a problem they should rather take up with their web developers.

Words in a headline are worth more than those in the subsequent body text. This is because it is more prominent. Actually, it’s logical. When sighted, blind and machines skim the text through the headlines as they act as entrances to the text which is between headings.

Alternative text for images (and other media files)

Alternative texts are for describing media files content for those who cannot perceive the content, such as those with deficit sight, the blind, deaf – and that includes search engines!

Putting alternative text on images is really for the visually impaired and those not loading pictures. The text is meant to explain the image, which for those not loading pictures can explain which of the pictures are worth to load at all.

The reason why some choose not to load images in their browsers are often due to a dubious internet connection, or perhaps that it costs money on most cellular connections, or to avoid advertising.

Although alternative texts will be used primarily to explain the images’ content for those who cannot take part of the image you have the possibility to use other terms when writing those almost invisible phrases. Consider using synonyms and suitable words that is not present in the body.

Body text

That a page contains more than images is important because otherwise there is no text to search for. It is considered by many SEO professionals that there is a critical minimum amount of text – which of course is difficult to put a static figure on. Then there is the problem search engines are increasingly trying to avoid the so-called content farms. A content farm is a website containing pages with either very targeted text and commonly content that is not unique, for example snatched from Wikipedia.

In addition, the body is the ultimate place to have a good breadth of searchable keywords. You can also put some effort with something called keyword density, thus using the same words many times over.

However, website copy is for the benefit of the reader in the first place. It ought to be a legible and comprehensible text, to please the search engines is secondary. So, when you achieved legibility you can care about SEO. Such as the body text being at least 300 words, a level that is constantly raised according to most SEO in recent years.

Bullet points and numbered lists

Words that appear in a list on a web page is considered to be of greater value than that which lies in the body text, at least compared to text in ordinary paragraphs. Besides lists visually guides the reader in a body of text – regardless of whether the person uses a screen reader or not – also for search engines lists stand out, often with containing relevant facts or summaries. This for the simple reason that lists visually stand out from the other content.

If you have a text that lists things also format the content as an ordered or unordered list. It also makes text easier to absorb, and lists are a great way to not scare the visitor away with a massive wall of unstructured body text.

Inbound links and URLs

Having many quality inbound links, especially from known or trusted sites, is important to show that the website’s content is worthwhile linking to.

Many tend to register their sites in different link directories, exchange links on webmaster forums or email their partners to get links. To a limited extent, it is still worthwhile to get the website listed in these contexts. But remember that words in the clickable text of the link is associated with the site. Therefore, send a thoughtful suggestions so the anchor text don’t become ‘Check their site here …’

Descriptive URLs are also relevant in SEO, only since they sometimes become the clickable text when some post the URL in forums, or commenting on the Web. Not to mention that it is good for those who stumble across an URL to be able to figure out what is referred to.

Example of a descriptive URL, also called “friendly URL”:
webstrategyforeveryone.com/performance-for-intranets/

Example to the contrary:
www.gp.se/sport/1.565873

The addresses of your pages are worth trying to keep as brief as possible – but still descriptive. This is something that many Web Content Management systems (WCMs) struggle with. Such as the URL syntax in Episerver, which my employer, Region Västra Götaland, uses, becomes absurdly long sometimes:

www.vgregion.se/en/Vastra-Gotalandsregionen/Home/
Healthcare/Public-Health-/Public-health-policy-Vastra-Gotaland/
Living-conditions-based-on-equity-and-equal-opportunities/
Region-Vastra-Gotaland-is-developing-a-system-to-monitor-health-
inequalities-/

Try typing that correctly when read to you over the phone…

Some addresses are so long they become uncomprehensible. Also there is the risk they do not work when sending e-mail, or when posted in forums since many system cuts “words” that are too long and inserts spaces (in order not to break their design).

Website speed – Web Performance Optimization (WPO)

Google Search Console
Google Search Console is measuring the time spent downloading webpages from your website.

That a website is loaded swiftly has become a more and more important argument in recent years. Above is a picture from Google’s tool Search Console, one of many ways to keep track of your websites’ performance. In the example, it takes an average of 0.61 seconds to load a page which is not great but also not alarmingly bad.

The speed of a website is one of the factors that influence whether a website is ranked high on search engines. Therefore the website speed is not only an usability metric, considering users converts to a higher degree on fast websites, but also since it’s one of the ranking factors of Google since a couple of years.

If the website has poor performance it is commonly one of the reasons below:

  • Slow web host. Is the site on the website host’s budget class? Then you cannot  expect particularly good performance – at least not for a website based on a content management system like WordPress, etc.
  • Poorly optimized website. WordPress is among the most common systems nowadays. The problem with WordPress among others is the ease of adding plugins that negatively affects performance. Often the website get an additional stylesheet and an extra Javascript file. Also, the plugin is of varying quality. Evaluate whether there are better versions of the plugins you need.
  • Too many, or too big, files. To upload lots of pictures of high quality and have lots of Javascript features affect performance significantly. A user usually cannot download more than 3 files at once from your website. If you have more than three files in total, a queue is there for the remaining files. That queue is fairly long on most websites, unfortunately.

A lot of tricks and my own experiences regarding performance optimization is available in Web Strategy for Everyone.

Common solutions to performance problems are:

  • Optimize images so they do not take as long to download. An image file size can be optimized in Photoshop, for example using its feature ‘Save for the web’, using applications such as Imageoptim for macOs, FileOptimizer for Windows or web services as Smush.it.
  • Ask the web developer to combine stylesheets and Javascript into as few files as possible. The Javascript library Jquery is often used on websites. Instead of having the file on your own website, you could use Google’s so-called CDN (Content Delivery Network). If you have many Javascript files you can look for CDNs offering to serve your unique files as well. This is often free, perhaps you’ll like Cloudflare (as much as I do).
  • Change web hosting. Often small hosting companies are faster than the big ones for about the same cost. How come is the topic for another blog post, though. If you have plenty of money for your web project, maybe consider a Virtual Private Server (VPS), or even a dedicated server. If so, this is the time to talk to web developers or involve an experienced web consultant. If you’d like my advice just post a comment to this post.
  • Evaluate the code behind the website and review any plugins. Not infrequently, there is code that can be improved and other plugins that provides better performance.

Meta description of pages

Description meta-section of the HTML code
The meta description of a website sometimes appears in search engine results page, its ‘SERP’.

The description, or ‘meta description‘ for the technically minded, is a, to the browsing user, hidden text that briefly summarize what the webpage is about. The meta description should always be unique to each page of the website, otherwise there is no point in having them.

The picture above shows one of the few cases when a user can view the meta description text. Next to the page title when showcased on a search engine’s results page, its SERP (Search Engine Results Page). The meta description is supposed to summarize the content of a webpage and need to be well-written to attract the users to your website.

The meta description is placed in the source code between HTML tags <head> and </head>. It may look like this:

<meta name="description" content="List for those who want 
learn the latest on substance X. Here you will find advice and
tips from the professionals X. "/>

If you’d like to see what your competitors are using for their meta description texts, choose to view the source code for each webpage, and early in the code, you will find something like the above.

Keywords (is really not that important in external SEO – the last 15 years)

Keywords in the HTML code
Keywords are not used on Google, but can make use of them in your site’s own search function.

Keywords was once important to reach out in the search engines. They are still used today in some search engines. But because of the proportion who use Google as their search engine, and since Google does not care about keywords, it is not always worth the effort to work with keywords on your website.

The reason that Google, and probably other search engines, do not care about keywords is since its ease of manipulating the keywords in a massive scale. Spamming search engines with keywords have simply led to them not considering its use any longer.

If you still choose to work with keywords (mainly for your own internal search engine) you are recommended not to put all general words on all pages. Try to keep it unique for what each page contains.

For large organizations that have their own search engine, or a internal site search, keywords can definitely be worthwhile to be used on their own search engine.

If you’re looking for the keywords in the HTML code, look between <head> and </head> like in the code below:

<meta name="keywords" content="keyword1, keyword2, etc." />

Validation

The website’s underlying code is supposed to validate the code standard it is claiming to adhere to. Anything else is sloppy coding. However, all mishaps are not critical to how well your site performs in the search engines. Still, everything that is easy to fix (or deemed serious) is good practice to fix. If your website’s code is not even close to validate it can prove difficult to interpret for search engines and other machines you rely upon.

To find out if a website validates according to the web standard, you can go to the web standards organization W3C and enter the address you want to check – validator.w3.org

Useful tools and methods

Create a list of priorities words and search terms

Open a spreadsheet and enter the keywords you think are relevant to your website. Also, rank them in their relative importance and how descriptive they are.

Using Google Keyword Planner, see below, you can get help and insight regarding accompanying words used and see how much volume the search terms have.

Google Keyword Planner

With this tool you can enter the keywords you want to find accompanying words and see the search volume for the search term. Really good when you need guidance on the wordings and expressions to choose when writing web copy.

Keyword Planner is part of the Google Adwords platform, but it does not require an account or active keyword campaign to dig into the keywords. Try Google Keyword Planner ›

Plugins for your web browser

SEO Doctor
The Firefox plugin SEO Doctor helps you to evaluate the search engine optimization of webpages.

There are lots of browser plugins, at least for Firefox, that help you out with search engine optimization. Two of the most appreciated for novices is SEO Doctor and SenSEO.

With SEO Doctor, Firefox can review every webpage you browse, even your competitor’s webpages. Clicking to open the SEO Doctor plugin shows a dialogue with details explaining the score. You also get hands-on guidance on what can be improved with the individual page, such as including a sub-heading or meta description for instance.

SenSEO is an extension for Firefox
SenSEO: This example shows how good a website is tailored to the word chocolate pastries.

SenSEO is advantageously used to evaluate how a particular word is optimized on an individual webpage.

In other words, when you have found a word you want to rank better in the search engines is then SEO tool to see what can be changed.

Performance Measurement

Göteborgs-Posten according WebPagetest.org
My local newspaper, Göteborgs-Posten, takes, according WebPagetest.org, 13 seconds to load.

There are many online services that assist in analyzing how quickly a website can present itself to the users. If you are not inclined in web tech, it is worth talking to a web developer to get some perspective on the reports.

One of the services is WebPagetest that looks like the picture above. Another is Google Pagespeed Insights, another is Sitespeed.io for those feeling a little more technically minded.

Validation

W3C is the organization that writes the recommendations for many web technologies. They offer a service to see how well a website adheres to the standards they’re claiming to follow.

W3C has a good validation service to minimize the amount of incorrect code
W3C has a good validation service to minimize the amount of incorrect code. My local newspaper, Göteborgs-Posten, is not receiving top marks …

Above is how well GP.se adheres to the code standard they chose. Unfortunately, not that flattering. Check out your own website with the W3C ›

Checklist for editorial SEO

If your should you make a checklist about SEO for your web editors, or when you write copy for your website, then check out the below suggestions.

Below is a checklist in order of priority, for which effect can be achieved through SEO.

  1. The page title contains relevant keywords and is shorter than 70 characters.
  2. The main header (H1) contain important (and possibly unique / new) keywords, or supplemental synonyms the website needs.
  3. Subheaders (H2) contains relevant, or use supplemental, keywords.
  4. Thoughtful keywords are included in links’ anchor text on other websites, those who link to your website.
  5. If there are images, they have suitable alternative texts.
  6. Content that is suitable for lists are placed in lists (UL / OL).
  7. Important keywords are one or more times in the body, preferably also early in the text. Ideally some synonyms as well later on in the text.

More on Search Engine Optimization

Also, check out the book Web Strategy for Everyone ›

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