Basic search engine optimization (SEO) steps EVERY enterprise should take (Part 2 – technical details)

In Part 1 of this series, I posted a search engine optimization (SEO) checklist that every IT shop should follow, no matter what your size or industry. The technical part of that was called "Clean up your website," and went like this:

  • Make sure your listing looks attractive in the search engine results
  • Use static URLs, with keywords
  • Have a clean linking structure
    • No forced Flash intros
    • No frames
    • Limited tables (<div> is better)
    • Sitemap
  • Pluck the HTML low-hanging fruit
    • Use your <ALT> tags
    • Use <noindex> and <nofollow> tags

Let me now expand on each of those points.

TITLE and DESCRIPTION metatags

If your website comes up as a hit on a search engine results page (SERP), the searcher will usually see:

  • A title (clickable)
  • A capsule description (165 characters or less)
  • A URL
  • Some other stuff she'll probably pay no attention to

Clearly, then, the title and description are rather central to whether she chooses to actually click through. The good news is: You can control both of them. There are HTML tags both for title and description, with formats like:

<em><title>Data Warehousing | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services</title></em>

and

<em><meta name="description" content="Analysis of issues in data warehousing, with extensive coverage of database management systems and data warehouse appliances that are optimized to query large volumes of data.></em>

What's more, the TITLE and DESCRIPTION metatags carry much more weight in determining your search engine rankings.  That's precisely because they have human-readable consequences; search engine algorithm designers figure you're much less likely to game those than you might be to stuff crapola into, say, the KEYWORDS metatag.

Static URLs

For a page to be found by search engines, it needs to have a static URL. And that URL should be as cruft-free as possible.

http://www.amazon.com/Thicker-Than-Water-Linda-Barlow/dp/0451406028/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1213057415&sr=1-1 does not, to my knowledge, show up in Google's results.

But http://www.amazon.com/Thicker-Than-Water-Linda-Barlow/dp/0451406028 does.

No forced Flash intros

Search engines generally don't index Flash. They may not "see" links through Flash. Basically, Flash-only pages are useless from a search engine standpoint.(They're also a disaster in terms of human readability. Any web designer who wants to use "artistic" Flash when simpler methods would suffice should be immediately fired, and strongly encouraged to find an alternate career.)

No frames

Frames are an obsolete web technology. A big reason is that search engines are confused by them, so that using them interferes with getting your pages indexes.

Minimize your use of tables

<div> tags can replace tables for most purposes. Use them in place of tables whenever you can. They make for more consistent, standards-based formatting, and they also are less likely to confuse search engines.

Sitemaps

There are actually two kinds of sitemap, and both are good ideas. First, every page on your site should have a link called "Sitemap," which helps confused surfers find what they're looking for. Human-readable sitemaps also help with an important SEO task - getting all your pages indexed. That's because the "closer" (as measured in clicks) a page is to your home page, the more likely it is to be indexed.

Unless every page on your site is already being indexed (except the ones that you don't want to be), you may want also want to use "XML sitemaps" strictly for the search engines' crawlers' sake. I'll confess to not knowing much about them, but Google pushes them.

<ALT> tags

<ALT> tags were invented for text-only browsers, to indicate what the screen should show if a particular image wasn't there. In the modern era, they have two uses. One is the original one; after all, an image might be blocked for some reason. Second, they're a useful way to get some keywords onto a page, for SEO purposes.

For example, when I changed my business name from Monash Information Resources to Monash Research, I discovered that www.monash.com didn't rank so well for the new name, even after I rewrote the TITLE and DESCRIPTION metatags. (A lot of Monash University sites ranked higher.) Since I didn't want to change the actual page text to include more instances of the word "research," I only had two easy tools at my disposal:

  • Rewrite the links from other sites I controlled to include the phrase "Monash Research," and wait for the results to percolate through the Google rankings.
  • Edit ALT tags into my HTML, in formats like <a href="index.html"><img src="images/monash-header-10-07_01.jpg" alt="Monash Research logo top" width="326" height="87" border="0"></a>

I'm pretty sure that the ALT tags were helpful in achieving that result ... but I'll confess to not having removed them again to make experimentally sure. :)

<noindex> and <nofollow> tags

It may seem paradoxical, but there are several reasons you may not want search engines to "see" all of your site. Some of your pages may not be results for any interesting search (e.g., your privacy policy). Some may have duplicate content (e.g., printer-friendly versions of your main pages). Instructing search engines to ignore these pages may increase the rankings or the rest of your pages, or may help to reduce searcher confusion.

There are at least three ways to do this.1. Use <nofollow> on an individual link. This tells the search engine to ignore the implicit "recommendation" that the link would otherwise provide, via syntax like <a href="http://www.dbms2.com" rel="nofollow">linkname</a>

2. Use "nofollow" on a page, applying to all outgoing links. This is like nofollowing all the links on the page.

3. Use "noindex" on a page. This tells a search engine to not index a page, which usually (not always) keeps it out of the SERPs altogether, via syntax like <meta name="robots" content="noindex,follow" />.

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