Your company has just finished publishing an all shiny and new modern website. Good going! However, how can you make sure that people are actually going to visit the site? Search engine optimization (SEO) is an essential part of building a successful website. Content is always king, but technology also has a part to play in the royal court.
Search engine optimization should be taken into consideration already at the design stage of a website; at the very latest, it ought to be taken into account when content is being inserted into the selected system.
Many SEO tasks can be executed fairly easily if they are performed during the insertion of the content; however, attempting to execute those tasks on an existing site after the content has been added may turn out to be very cumbersome.
Now, how do search engines determine which site will end up on top of search results?
Firstly, it is vital that a search engine should be able to index all content on your site. Many technical aspects, such as which kind of addresses the site produces, what the sitemaps are like and how the different language versions link to one another, affect this property.
Search engines use several different ways for measuring how valuable a particular site is in the search results. Among those ways, Google PageRank is probably the technique that has been reviewed and commented on the most. The main idea in PageRank is to evaluate websites based on how frequently those sites are linked to in other web pages.
The exact functionality of PageRank confidential and proprietary and known only to Google; no others can exactly know how PageRank works. However, educated guesses can be made, and Google has indeed revealed something about the logic of the algorithm.
The essential aspect in search engine optimization is to make the content of a site correspond as closely as possible to the word or phrase that was searched for.
Most content management systems provide excellent built-in tools for search engine optimization. However, it is up to the user to utilize all available tools, so as to make the content appear interesting and relevant to the search engine.
The following tips will bring you up to speed in optimizing your website.
1. Fix your headlines and descriptions
When creating a new page on your site, you should pay attention to the following aspects
- The headline of the site is descriptive
- The headline appears both in the <title> tag of the site and also in the <h1> level headline tag. In terms of search engine optimization, there ought to be only one <h1> level headline on a page. The recommended length for the <title> tag is 50-60 characters. However, the exact length cannot be determined, because a certain area is reserved for the headline, and the different characters of the font used in the headline require a different amount of space.
- Web pages contain a description section, presented in the <description> tag. It is recommended that the length of the description should be 150-160 characters, in which case it will fit into the description section displayed in Google search results. You should pay a lot of attention to the description, because it is visible to the users in the search results and will entice them to open the link if it is well designed.
- The title and description tags do not directly affect the position of a page in search engine ranking results.
- Expressions that are relevant in terms of search engine ranking occur also in the content itself.
2. Serve content in single location
When designing the content of a site, having the same content in more than one address should be avoided.
If content is repeated in more than one address, then the position in search engine ranking results will be divided between those addresses, instead of a single address receiving all the points.
This problem may be avoided by adding onto pages that contain the same information a so-called canonical URL address, which tells the search engine where to find the original content.
3. A map will show you the way
In a large website, even a smart search engine may find it hard to locate all the content available on the site. However, the task of the search engine can be made easier by providing it a sitemap in a format that the search engine can understand. Most content management systems have built-in tools for producing a search engine compatible sitemap about the content on the site.
In addition to providing a sitemap, the search engine can also be informed about such content that is not desired to be included in the search engine data. This can be accomplished e.g. by using a robots.txt file, with which it is for example possible to prevent the indexing of certain addresses entirely.
4. Fix your social media shares
Nowadays, your website is not found by search engines alone. Alongside the search engines, social media channels are vital venues for sharing content.
By utilizing the Open Graph protocol developed by Facebook, websites can determine how they wish to share the content displayed on a page.
By using the Open Graph tags, it is possible for example to define the headline, the type, the URL address and the image of shared content.
These pieces of information are defined in meta tags, developed specifically for that purpose, of which a few examples are presented below.
<meta property="og:title" content="The title" />
<meta property="og:type" content="The type" />
<meta property="og:url" content="http://url.com/" />
<meta property="og:image" content="http://image.jpg" />
Most content management systems provide readymade add-ons that are able to insert the meta tags automatically. You can find more information about the usage of Open Graph in http://ogp.me/.
5. A clear and distinct path to different language versions
Often, the content on your website is provided in more than one language. In terms of search engine optimization, it is essential that the entire content of the site, starting from navigation, should be translated to the language in which the user wishes to view the site.
It is also recommended that the users should not be automatically rerouted to any specific language version, e.g. on the basis of the language of the browser. Many people in Finland use an English language browser application but still prefer to browse the pages in Finnish. Providing distinct links to different language versions is a better alternative than automatic rerouting.
It is possible to provide information about which languages the content is available, by utilizing an hreflang link.
<link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en" hreflang="en-us" />
It is also recommended that the language versions should be distinctly available in their own URL addresses, instead of presenting them under the same address, e.g. by using cookies. Separate dedicated URL addresses for each language version also make it possible for the search engine to index them, because search engines cannot utilize cookies.
6. Make use of administering tools
Google’s Webmaster Tools is an irreplaceable tool for a website administrator. By utilizing the Webmaster Tools, the administrators can quickly inspect whether the site they are administering has problems with search engines or not. The Webmaster Tools can be used to present e.g.
- The statistics and status of search engine indexing.
- Possible problems in search engine indexing of the site.
- The duplicate headlines and descriptions that occur on the site.
- Missing headlines and descriptions.
- The search terms and phrases used in finding the site.
The tool that reports the used search terms and phrases is especially useful, because it provides valuable information about which kinds of search terms and phrases are used to end up on your site.
The tool also allows you to make removal requests to Google about such URL addresses that have by accident ended up in Google search index but that you would not have desired to be found in search results.
7. Technology matters
In addition to optimization of the content, the selected technologies and ways of implementation make a difference for search engines. For example, Google aims to influence also the security and usability of sites in their search results. For instance, mobile optimization will improve the visibility of a site in mobile search results.
Moreover, Google emphasizes e.g. the security of websites. In 2014, a change was introduced in which Google began to issue more value to SSL-protected websites in the search results. Security is a vital part in ensuring the reliability of websites, and this is also manifested in Google search results. You should therefore make sure that you site functions in the same way both in HTTP and in HTTPS addresses.
The latest adjustment implemented by Google in their search algorithm entailed evaluating web pages based on how well they provide content to the users, or based on whether they use elements that cover the entire content area or not. This feature especially affects searches made in mobile devices. According to Google, they wish to provide users the information that they seek as easily as possible. Therefore, Google gives clear and distinct tips to the administrators of websites on which types of elements Google will punish in search results, and on which elements Google concerns allowable.
Heikki Ylipaavalniemi, Developer