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SEO tips

The field of search engine optimisation (SEO) is a dynamic ever-changing landscape. What worked today to get you to the top of the rankings may have little impact tomorrow. The fluidity of search engine results is fuelled by increasingly aggressive attempts by the search engines to refine and personalise their results and to reduce spam. For instance, each year the search engine Google makes about 500 updates to their algorithm. In 2012, two notable updates by Google – the Panda update and the Penguin update – caused a very noticeable change in rankings positions with many businesses loosing a great deal of traffic overnight.

While the search engines are constantly tinkering with their algorithms in order to get great original content to the top of the rankings, great content can often miss out on high rankings positions when on-page (technical) search engine optimisation (SEO) is poorly executed. We had a quick chat with some of the tech geeks at IT Itch and asked them what the most common technical SEO mistakes were, and what web developers should be doing to pacify the increasingly fickle search robots. In particular, we were curious about the most effective SEO tips for the current algorithm updates of the major search engines – Bing, Google and Yahoo.

Top technical SEO tips for 2012

1. Start with the URL

The URL is the first thing that search engine robots look at when a search query is populated through the internet and should be the first thing an SEO professional looks at. Your domain name(s) should be as short as possible and accurately describe the content of the page that it points to. They should include your best keywords and point to original content. Avoid having your content available via different URLs, for instance by using session IDs.

  • Here’s a suggestion: search for domain names here. Consider buying bulk domain names with different domain extensions if you want to rank well in multiple countries. For instance, get a .co.uk and a .co.nz if you want to rank well in both the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Buy out every available domain extension to protect your brand and to prove to the search engines that you are the global authority on your domain keyword.

2. Use concise, keyword-rich titles

The most effective page titles are between 10-70 characters, including spaces. Give each page its own unique title and make sure they contain your very best keywords. Avoid the temptation of going even one or two characters over the 70 character limit as concise, short titles look better to visitors and web crawlers alike.

  • Tip: use this snippet-optimizer tool to see how your titles, meta description and URL will look on the search engine results page (SERP).

3. Optimise meta descriptions

The meta description attribute allows web page authors to give accurate and meaningful descriptions for listings that are displayed in search engine results pages. Search engine crawlers take notice of keywords in meta descriptions, so make sure you use them here. Just like titles, remember to keep your description concise, but with the meta descriptions there should be a minimum of 70 characters used. The maximum length of a meta description is 160 characters. Make sure that every page on your website has its own unique meta description, with its own unique keywords (you want different keywords used on different pages to avoid ‘keyword cannibalism’ – a process whereby the search engine crawlers get confused as to which page is the best to show for a keyword, resulting in lower rankings for each page).

4. Use meta keywords to focus your SEO

In the early days of search, using the meta keyword attribute was a very popular and easy way to get your web page ranking for keywords. However, because webmasters could simply place false keywords within this element  (popular words that people search for but words that are not used within your page), search engines began to ignore this element to avoid spam. Today, the use of meta keywords probably has very little (if any) affect on rankings unless the meta keywords can also be found in the page copy itself. From an SEO practitioner perspective, however, the meta keyword attribute is good to use to focus your SEO effort. For each page on your website, you will be wanting to rank for a number of keywords. By embedding these keywords into the source code of the page, you will be able to come back and analyse your efforts more effectively (e.g. are you using your keywords enough in the copy of your page, are you cannibalising your page rank by using the same keywords on different pages).

5. Implement HTML headings

Every page should use HTML headings. The search engines are looking for focus, value and depth when ranking web pages, and HTML headings show yet another layer of focus. If your keyword is found in the URL, the title, the meta description AND the HTML heading, it is a very strong signal to the search engine crawler that your web page copy is focused on your keyword. The initial H1 heading should include your best keywords. Using only one H1 heading per page will strengthen your SEO effort.

6. Add ALT text to images

Adding ‘value’ to your site by providing images is a great way to attract visitors. However, search engines can’t physically ‘see’ an image the way people do, instead they rely on a description to be provided. Use the ALT text attribute to let the search engines know that you have a image for them to index. Include a keyword in the ALT text. Also change the file name of the image to include the keyword. Providing an ALT text will mean that your pictures will show up in an image search, adding another way for people to find your page. Keep in mind, however, that your page load time is affected by the number of images on your page – having too many photos to load will lower the quality of the user experience for some of your visitors.

7. Keep the text/HTML ratio high

Many websites provide far too little text content for the search engine crawlers to pay any attention too. While they may sometimes look great, they fail to provide any depth to visitors. Ideally the text/HTML ratio on your page should be over 50%. The more text you add to each page, the more chance you have of ranking for more keywords. If you make regular posts on a blog, they should be at least 400 words long too get the attention of the search engine robots.

8. Avoid frames and iframes

You should avoid using frames when optimising your website because search engines hate them – they don’t bother to index them since they conflict with the standard layout for a website. If you use them on your site you could inadvertently exclude not only search engines but visitors who have disabled frames in their web browser.

9. Avoid Flash and AJAX

While Flash may be good at enhancing the look of your page, it is awful for SEO. Flash cannot be indexed by search engines, meaning that everything contained behind the Flash content is affectively treated like spam. AJAX is in the same category as Flash.

10. Use robots.txt file

A robots.txt file restricts the activity of search engine robots and stops them from accessing certain pages and directories. A robots.txt file is needed to locate the XML sitemap.

  • Tip: check your robots.txt file for syntax errors here

11. Include an XML Sitemap

A Sitemap allows search engines to index your site more accurately. It is an XML file that lists the URLs of a site and tells the search engines which URLs they should crawl, how often you update your site and the importance of each URL. Submitting your XML Sitemap to Google Webmaster Tools and Bing Webmaster Tools is recommended by most SEO experts.

12. Include ‘lang’ attribute

Specifying your website language is good for usability. For multilingual sites, you should declare the contents language in the HTML code of each page and also declare the language code in the URL (e.g. company.com/es/contact.html).

13. Specify the doctype

Specifying the doctype (e.g. HTML 5) allows your web browser to correctly render your content. It is bread-and-butter SEO to specify the doctype and it should be second nature to every web developer.

14. Character encoding

Declaring the character/language encoding will prevent complications when rendering special characters. Like specifying the doctype, this is standard SEO practise that should be part of your web design routine.

15. Include analytic code

If you’re not using Piwik, Google Analytics, or another type of software to track your website visitors, you aren’t really doing search engine optimisation. These powerful pieces of software allow you to monitor and modify your SEO campaigns.

16. Use Microformats

Search engines are becoming increasingly fond of microformat markup, as it gives convenient summary information to search engine users at a glance. For instance, when searching for a product, microformat markup allows the product to be displayed with a rating and review. When combined with a picture of the product, this greatly increases search engine relevance and usability. When combined with social signals from social networks, microformats is a must-have for e-commerce websites.

17. Dublin core

The Dublin Core is a set of metadata standards that describe resources for the purpose of discovery in search engines. Dublin Core can be used to describe a full range of resources such as video, images, web pages, and even physical resources such as books or artwork.

18. Geo-Meta tags

Geo-Meta tags can be used to tell a search engine where the website is located. Some search engines ignore the geo-meta tags, but the search engine Bing seems to love them at the moment.

19. Always include a feed

If you want to continually be at the top of search engine rankings, you will constantly need to be updating your site with great new original content. Include a feed so that your great new content can instantly propagate the web when subscribers of your feed are alerted of content updates.

  • Tip: use a custom RSS feed and management tool like FeedBurner

20. Favicon

It’s a god idea to have a favicon image, especially one that reflects your brand. A favicon improves the ‘friendliness’ of your site and it also gives another signal to the search engines that there is value in your site.

  • Tip: if you’re stuck for favicon ideas, check out this great idea here.

21. Use Gzip

Use a file compression program such as gzip to boost the speed of your website, thereby improving user experience. User experience is becoming an increasingly important factor in search engine rankings.

Conclusion

Although search engine ranking algorithms are forever changing, SEO professionals can predict and mitigate against these changes by building redundancies into their SEO efforts. The more we do to optimise our pages, the less chance we have of getting penalised by the latest algorithms updates. If the updates are merely a weighting change (e.g. giving more weight to geo-meta tags and dublin core and less weight to microformats), the SEO practitioner that implemented all of the strategies will be unaffected.

If you would like a free SEO audit of your website contact IT Itch.

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