Search Engine Optimization - Improving Search Engine Rankings

A Quick SEO Primer

By George Jaros


How can I make my site appear at the top of the Google search results?

I get this question a lot. Unfortunately there is no way to guarantee that your site will rank #1 with Google, or any of the other big search engines for that matter. That is because search engines use very complex algorithms to determine the placement of a page within their rankings. You can, however, improve your rankings by making your web site Search Engine Optimized. This is a very long and arduous process and there are companies out there that charge hundreds and even thousands of dollars to optimize web sites for search engine placement. Most companies can't afford thousands of dollars for their site rankings, but there are some things that can be done for free that will help.

SEO Tips

1 - Page Content - This is the single most important thing to work on to improve your rankings. The more information you have on your site the better it will rank. Rather than have a sentence or two on each page you should work on getting as much pertinent information as possible.

2 - META Tags TITLE Tag, and robots.txt - There are two elements that are used by search engines to know how to index your site. META Tags are HTML code that contain information about the page. They aren't visible to visitors but search engines read them and use them to get information on your page. They should appear within the <head></head> section of your code. The two most common META tags are Description and Keywords. A Google search for META Tags will provide a ton of information about them and how to use them.

The TITLE tag is similar to the META tags. It should also appear in the <head></head> section of your code and should contain a descriptive title of the page as well as any important keywords. This is the title that most browsers use for the site, both in bookmarks and in the window title bar. It is also the title that search engines will display when your site comes up in a search. Instead of simply having a title of "History" you should have a title of "Your Company, Chicago, Illinois - A History of Your Company"

For both META tags and TITLE tags there are several rules to follow and tricks to making the tags work best for you. There are several different theories, and most likely the effectiveness depends on the search engine, but here are a few things to keep in mind when writing your description, keywords, and title.

robots.txt (note the all lowercase file name) is a file that should be in the same directory as your web site. It contains information about how search engines should index your site and what links it should follow while looking for more pages. Not having a robots.txt file doesn't drastically hurt your rankings, but it is an important file to use correctly. Again, a Google search will provide a lot of information.

3 - HTML Code Formatting and Page Design - Believe it or not, a good web page design and clean HTML code can actually improve your site rankings. Google (and other big search engines, like Yahoo and MSN) have the ability to parse out HTML code (the language that a web site is written in) and determine if a site is well designed. If the search engine sees things like lots of meaningless graphics, hard to read text (like light gray text on a white background), and other elements of poor design, it can actually hurt your rankings.

The formatting of the actual code matters as well. Pages that conform to coding standards may have improved rankings. This is an aspect in which many sites are lacking. Pages should have all the necessary parts:

<!DOCTYPE...>
<html>
	<head>
		<title>Your Page Title</title>
		<META name="description" content="Your Site Description">
		<META name="keywords" content="Your Site Keywords">
		Other header code...
	</head>
	<body>
		Page content...
	</body>
</html>
Some things that I notice on many sites are missing DOCTYPE tags, code outside of the <html> and </html> tags, display code outside of the <body> and </body> tags, and non-standard or deprecated code.

In a web page all code should be between <html> and </html> tags except for the DOCTYPE tag (which tells the browser what standard the code following will be using). Many sites have several or even hundreds of lines of code before the <html> start tag and/or after the end </html> tag.

Often this code is automatically added to the page by the web host (this is a big problem with using free web hosts for anything other than a personal site - they add a whole bunch of junk that actually hurts how your site is perceived by both visitors and search engines). Most professional hosting services (like Web 2 Market) do not force their paying customers to include advertising. Web hosts can be found for as little as $5 a month or as much as several hundred or thousands of dollars a month, depending on the amount and type of service required. Many cheaper hosting plans still include required advertising, but it is often much less obtrusive than the free services. And domain names can cost as little as $6 a year. A dedicated domain name (www.yoursite.com instead of www.genericwebhost.com/acct1234/yoursite/ or yoursite.genericwebhost.com) gives a site a professional appearance and improves search engine rankings, especially if the domain name contains relevant keywords or your company name (www.yourfullcompanyname.com instead of www.yfcn.com)

Another common error is placing display code (code that outputs information meant to be seen by the visitor) outside of the <body> and </body> tags. The only code that should be outside of the <body></body> tags is code that belongs in the <head></head> section of the page (TITLE, META, SCRIPT, STYLE and LINK tags and occasionally a few other bits of code).

Non-standard or deprecated code can also hurt your page rank. Bad code is usually caused by one of four things:

  1. An inexperienced (or lazy) web developer. Even the best web developers are guilty of this sometimes. Most browsers, especially the main ones (Firefox, IE, Opera, Safari), are smart enough to play well with some bad or deprecated code (like FONT tags). And sometimes the bad code is necessary for cross-browser compatibility, since not all the browsers handle all code exactly as the standards say they should. Some bad code is not usually a problem, but where it does become a problem is when there is a lot of bad code in a page. This is usually caused by an inexperienced web developer that doesn't know which code has been deprecated or doesn't understand HTML and web development enough to spot the errors in the code. Bad and deprecated code can also be caused by web development software (see #2) or a combination of inexperienced developers using web development software.
  2. Web development software (like FrontPage, MS Word [which isn't a web development program, but that doesn't stop some people], Dreamweaver, etc.) is almost always guilty of adding in extraneous code. Often this type of software will add bits of its own code into a page that only the software recognizes, like for managing editable sections of templates in Dreamweaver. This is great for the developer using the development software, but results in bloated, oversized pages with a lot of useless code. Some programs are more guilty of this than others.
  3. Old webpages often have bad or deprecated code. Over the years code that was once standard (like FONT tags) have been replaced by more powerful, efficient code (like Cascading Style Sheets). Often pages that have been around for a while are left with a lot of the old code.
  4. Too many developers can also cause bad code. You've heard the expression "Too many cooks spoil the broth"? Well the same goes for web pages. When a page is worked on by many different developers, either at the same time or over several years, each developer leaves behind little bits of their own style of coding. Usually this results in poorly formatted or poorly documented code, but often it also results in broken, extraneous, and deprecated code.

4 - Images, Links, etc. - All images should make use of ALT tags. This is a bit of short descriptive text that is read in place of the image by search engines (and text based browsers). An example would be like this:
     <img src="/images/storefront.jpg" alt="Your Company - Serving all of Chicagoland since 1977 - Storefront">
Not only is the text in the ALT tag given extra weight by the SE, but it provides a description of the image for image searches, like Google Image Search or Yahoo Image Search.

All links should make use of the TITLE tag. This is similar to the ALT tag used by images, but it provides a description of the link. This should be used for both internal links and links to other sites. An example would be:
     <a href="history.html" title="A brief history of Your Company in Chicago, Illinois.">

Notice how both the ALT tag and the TITLE tag in the examples above contain important keywords.

5 - External Links - Linking to other web sites is important and can help your search engine rankings if done carefully. Search engines like Google not only look at your site and the content on your site to determine its rank, but they look at other sites that you link to AND sites that link to yours. Links to a few other sites that are related to yours are important (links to similar companies, industry resources and publications, local resources, etc.). If you link to sites that are completely unrelated it can actually hurt your rankings. It is also important to get other sites to link to yours also. If you have a lot of sites that link to your site search engines will consider your site with more regard, kind of like a contractor providing references - references related to the project at hand are good, unrelated references don't help much. Just like the sites that you link to, you want sites that link to yours to contain related information. Posting your site randomly to a bunch of free directories won't help your rankings and could potentially hurt them.

6 - Other Tips - There are countless other things you can do to improve your rankings, too. This is why some companies charge so much for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) services. It really can be a full time job. Here are a few other items to look into:

Undoubtedly there are a bunch of other methods for boosting your page rank that I haven't covered here. But these topics should give you enough to get your site ranked fairly well. I've relied on these simple techniques, especially having well thought out page content, and have had great success with my page ranks. I've seen sites climb from 50th to 2nd in Google search results simply by applying the techniques here. Sites may not be #1, but they do very well and get the exposure they deserve. If you are still looking for more ways to improve your page rank, do a Google search. You'll find hundreds of pages, tips, forums, and discussions.


 

 

Pages by George Jaros
© 2007 George Jaros and Web 2 Market
May 31, 2007