Search engine optimisation (or SEO) can often seem like a mystical mixture of magic and trickery… but to the trained eye, it’s a logical progression based on a basic and clear premise; to ensure high quality search results based on the unquestionnable affirmation of a website’s purpose and value.
The key here is to remember that SEO is not as cloaked in mystery as it seems, for search engines, as well as us, want to be sure that the search results they return are of the best possible quality. And here’s how we tell search engines that ours is the best website (and more specifically, web page) to rank first…
Imagine first, if you will, a floor covered in A4 pages. Each one is a document and I am going to ask that you find for me the document about wine making. So let us begin.
It is not unlikely that your search for the wine-making document will begin with a glance over the titles of the documents. With so many available documents to choose from, you’ll seek the most obvious clue to what the document is about and (hopefully) you’ll be looking for words like ‘wine-making’ (because that’s the document I’ve asked you to find).
This is what Google does when returning search results. Google ‘bots’ are continually indexing your site and will make a decision on whether or not your website meets the demands of the searcher by considering firstly the title tag. For this reason, you must ensure your title tag is well optimised – that is, that it has the relevant key words for the page on which it is a title.
For the wine-making document, you may think a title such as “Wine Making” or “How to Make Wine” would be a clear title. For your website, you have 70 characters with which to tell Google what your site is all about. Perhaps if our document was a website, we’d consider a title like this:
How to Make Wine | Guide to Wine Making for Amateur Wine Makers
As in the example above, you may choose to use a ‘pole’ (that’s the line in the middle, usually found above ‘backslash’ on your keyboard) to seperate key elements of the title. Or you might not. Either way, keep it within 70 characters, ensure it says what your webpage is about, and you’re doing pretty well.
Remember that each page of your website is a different document, so every page needs to have its own purpose and therefore its own title. Also bear in mind that the title tag is the bold text you see as the title on the search results, so it needs to be human friendly as well as bot friendly.
Your developer will amend your title tag for you in the HTML code or you can control it yourself if your website is based on a CMS (content management system).
So you’ve found your document and its title suggests this is the wine-making document I’ve asked you to find. But it’s important you find the correct document, so you’ll want to check the title is telling the truth. A short description of the document might be useful to you then…
This is what Google is doing when it looks at your webpage. Provide it with a good description (also known as a ‘meta-description’) to show Google that your webpage is still the most relevant of all available webpages on that subject.
You have 160 characters to tell Google what your website is about in your description. For the wine making document, we might write a description like this:
Wine making guide for beginner/amateur wine-makers. This guide will help wine-makers to make their own wine, providing you with instructions to make the perfect wine.
The description won’t be seen by your audience; it’s controlled within the HTML code or the CMS, and may be used by Google in the search result description. Bear in mind that the earlier words in the description and title have more importance than those later in the description or title, so phrase accordingly.
OK, so now you have your document, the title appears to be relevant and the description says it’s the correct document too. But all of that is no good to anyone if it’s not backed up by quality content which also fits what the document has so far proclaimed to be – after all, the content is what the audience is most interested in.
So think about the wine-making document; what would you be looking for to ensure you’ve got the right one? You’d look at the subtitles first – do they seem to follow what the document is supposed to be about?
Step 1: Preparing to Make Your Wine
There are different types of subtitles, starting with ‘Heading 1’ (or H1) to ‘Heading 2’ (H2) and so on. Higher prominance is given to Heading 1, then Heading 2 and so on – you can make use of these within the formatting of your text, possible through Word or your CMS/HTML code.
Then, does the body of the content meet what the document is supposed to be about? Is the wine making document really about wine making?
Some experts will suggest that there are preferable keyword density to aim for (2-10% for the geeks out there), but don’t get your calculator out yet; if your content features your key words within the constraints of ‘normal’ and doesn’t stray into an odd, keyword heavy jumble, you’ll be fine. You may also consider formatting – use of italics to highlight key phrases or underlining to show important points will also help Google to understand what your webpage is all about.
I would in fact argue that your content is the most important element of SEO. Without good content, you simply cannot progress up the rankings (to nod again to the geeks out there, I do mean the Panda Update). Google has made it clear that websites with content which is unique and valuable will rank far higher than plagiarised or re-posted content.
(Note – you can tell Google when you have purposely re-posted your own content by highlighting which version is the original using canonical tagging).
4) Images and Alt Tags
So your wine-making document is in your hand and you’re ready to present it back to me as the document I requested. But wait – why are there photos of turtles carrying kittens (or other such viral-yet-pointless imagery you’d care to use as an example)? Not relevant imagery will cause you to question your decision – is this really a document about wine-making?
Instead, imagine the wine-making document has images of wine, and making wine, and drinking wine… Much better, right?
Again, same applies to Google.
The thing is, Google can’t ‘see’ images – all Google sees when it looks at our webpage is a collection of HTML code hopefully made clearer by the title tags, meta descriptions and body content we have added. When it comes across images, it can either see absolutely nothing, or it can see alt tags (alternative tags) – this is how it knows what our images are.
And you might as well make the most of these alt tags (because a lot of website don’t) – not only do they indicate what your webpage is about for regular search results, but they also dictate which images are chosen within image results.
For this reason, don’t limit yourself to simply stating what the picture is:
Instead, consider what your image means.
Bottling your wine is an important part of the wine making process
Alt tags also apply to videos and they are controlled within your CMS or website code. Remember it is not just Google that will see these tags; users will see the alt tag when they hover their mouse over an image, and users making use of accessibility options will find the alt tags very useful in getting the value of imagery.
You should also consider the name of your image – what have you saved it as? Even the file name can have an impact on your image SEO, so choose carefully:
wine making guide.jpg
And there we have it! You’ve found your wine-making document! Everything within it tells you that that’s the most relevant document to my request for you to find a document about wine making. And that’s exactly what’s happening when Google looks at your site. Hurray!
Um, not quite.
On-page optimisation (everything I’ve taught you here) is only 30% of the story. Because on-page optimisation is all controlled by you (and let’s face it, you’re going to be a little biased), Google has to look to outside sources to verify what you have led it to believe of your website.
The process Google goes through (and which you need to facilitate) to achieve this ‘outside verification’ is off-page optimisation and is essentially the casting of ‘votes’ by sources of authority for your website’s value. Look out for a guide to off-page optimisation, coming soon.
Please feel free to post any question or comments you have below, or find me on Twitter @lauralhampton.