Tutorial: Search Engine Optimization — Basics
Reaching your audience or your audience finding you?
Google returns more than 240 Million search results in the US every day. If you are trying to connect with your audience, optimizing your ranking in search results is an important component of your marketing and promotion plan. SEO techniques will help you structure your content so that the content is easy to find when someone searches for what you have to offer.
Search Engine Optimization is the process of structuring content so your audience can easily find and use your published information.
Successful SEO depends on your ability to intelligently apply the principles of good structured information design. SEO isn't something you do to search engines; SEO is what you do to your content so that the content is accessible and useful for real users.
SEO is a process that is never finished. You must intentionally incorporate SEO into your publishing workflow. SEO is not an afterthought or something you can "add" to a site as a last step.
Good SEO begins the moment you decide that you want to publish.
SEO is a service you provide your audience and a way for you to measure how well you are serving your audience.
SEO is only useful if you have good content. SEO does not put lipstick on a pig. Delivering good original content from trusted sources is the work of search engine companies like Google and Yahoo! Search engines do not serve their clients by delivering mediocre or misleading content. If you do not have good content, no amount of SEO work will build long-term value.
There are two ways information can appear on the Search Engine Result Page (SERP).
Sponsored (Paid) Results
Note that these results are clearly labeled "Sponsored." Google makes the bulk of its revenue through these paid search results. SEO does not address getting your content to appear in sponsored (paid) search results.
The other category of search results is the natural or organic search result.
SEO is the process of getting your content to appear near the top of the natural search result list when someone searches for the kind of information that you have published.
80% of users click on one of the first three results. Obviously, your ability to bring in traffic from search depends on getting your content near the top of the SERP when people search for information that you have to present.
Search works. People generally do find content relevant to the search request. From Google's point of view, delivering excellent search results is the crown jewel of the company. Google is a great resource for enhancing your content so that your content can correctly match the appropriate search. Google's engineers are talented and very motivated to spot and stop any attempt to game the system. Google works hard to protect its brand and make search ever better. The best way to benefit from search is to follow the principles of good SEO that are publicly available and promoted by Google.
As your SEO plan expands and matures you may choose to use paid search to help grow your traffic. Paid search is logical part of a marketing campaign but has no direct impact on your position in the organic search results.
Understanding Page Rank
Keywords, Crawling and Indexing
In order to optimize your information for search, you need to understand how people search.The average number of words people type into the search field is 3.1. Those three words are key to users finding your content. These keywords are the way you connect with your audience.
Google takes the input of those three words and returns—frequently thousands, sometimes millions—of search results. Only 10 of these results appear on the first SERP. 80% of the users click one of the first three results.
Through direct observation of many billion searches and constant research and testing Google has a highly refined formula for delivering the best search results based on the three words entered by the user. Google's formula for search relevancy is based on more than 200 factors. The exact formula for displaying search results is Google's "Secret Sauce" and is not published. Google does provide extensive guidance that will help you make it your content "findable."
This tutorial focuses on Google's recommendations. Google had 64.9% of the search market in September 2009. The techniques presented here will also improve your "findability" in other search engines.
If you are publishing information on the web and want to reach the audience that would be interested in your content, Google Webmaster Tools is a primary resource. All of the tools and resources at the Google Webmaster site are free.
Google uses a "huge set" of computers to crawl billions of web pages. The program that does the crawling is called the Googlebot. Other search engines have similar programs generically called bots, robots or spiders.
The Googlebot uses web page URLs generated from previous crawls and new links found in the current crawl. One of the easiest and best ways to get your site found and thoroughly indexed is to provide a Sitemap.
Sitemaps do not directly impact your place in search results. Sitemaps put information about how to search your site and what has changed on your site in one place. Microsoft and Yahoo! both officially support the Open Sitemap standard.
Google does not provide a tool for generating sitemaps. One of the free (for sites with fewer than 500 pages) tools for generating sitemaps is at xml-sitemaps.com.
The googlebot reads and completely analyzes the content of your web site. The number and location of keywords, the relationship between words, links, images and image titles and captions all have an impact. This index of your site and the analysis of links coming into your site are the major factors in where your site appears in the natural search results on the SERP.
SEO and the Newsroom
Journalists work on deadlines. In a 24/7 online newsroom the deadline is always now. In this environment the most important elements of the news are accuracy and speed. There is no time to research keywords and going through a process of re-write for SEO doesn't make sense.
However, even under time constraints there are things that even breaking news stories can do to improve SEO and should be part of the natural workflow. Many of these recommendations are simply shapening the good writing and editing skills that are a stock-in-trade of every news organization.
- Include specifics in the lede. Include a dateline. In addition to making clear what happened provide clear, searchable information about where and when.
- Clearly and completely identify people. Photos should include cut lines with first and last names. The SEO addition is to include this identifying information in the alt tag.
- Structure the story with subheads. Readers on the web scan. 500 words without a break is not scannable. Put in two or three subheads into your article. Use clear information-rich wording for the subheads.
- Write a hed that is SEO aware. Include specifics—first name and last name, where—including city, and the news hook in easy-to-understand words. Do not use clever heds...the Internet is not a news stand.
- When you write the <title> tag information use this formula: hed + category + news organization name.
- The hed should have an <h1> tag. Subheads should use <h2> and <h3> tags.
- Don't paginate articles. Divide long pieces into two or more articles. Each article will have it's own head and information structure. Tie related articles together with internal links using keyword-rich anchor text.
For Tech Editors:
- Include story and hed keywords in the URLs.
- URLs must be unique for each article and they must be permanent.
- The URL must contain a non-date numeric code of at least three digits—Google (weird) requirement.
- Put CSS in external files that can be cached. This will improve the user experience and reduce bandwidth consumption.
- If you want stories to be considered for Google News, there are additional requirements for URLs and you will benefit from using a news-specific sitemap.
Keywords for Features and Projects
The average search is 3.1 words. This small input returns a SERP that is filled with sites that are focused on that content and have made that focus visible through content SEO best practices and are deemed most credible by Google's analysis of whom is linking to sites that focus on that content. Selecting the right 3 keywords is obviously critical for connecting your site to users searching for your content. If there isn't a match, you are unlikely to see much traffic from search.
Your content isn't likely to be "considered" by the search algorithms for inclusion on the SERP unless your content contains keywords that match the 3.1 word search term entered by the typical user. Researching and analyzing keywords can help you focus your content and help define your information presentation.
Keyword development is a process
So how do you determine what keywords to use?
Developing keywords is a process. As you go through your analysis you will continually improve your understanding of how visitors search for and find the information you have published. Just like the entire SEO process, developing and using keywords will improve over time if you continue to monitor and analyze user behavior.
First, your keywords must be "real." Do not add keywords to your document that are not genuinely part of your content. You need to analyze your content to see what are the naturally occurring keywords in your content.
Feature and enterprise project journalists and beat bloggers frequently become subject matter experts and are aware of technical terms and subject-specific vocabulary. These industry or trade specific terms may be good keyword candidates for technical reporting. The general public will likely need a more general keyword set. Understanding the target audience is a primary consideration for SEO in general and for keywords in particular. A member of the general public may not want to dive into a mathematical analysis of Google's Page Ranking algorithm, but an SEO specialist at a Silicon Valley start-up will "bounce" if the content is obviously written for a casual user. The role of SEO is to link the right content to the right user; keywords are the foundation for bridging content to users.
Should you re-write your content to include keywords that your users actually use to search for the type of information you are publishing? Yes. Your content is most valuable by connecting to users.
Google Keyword Tools
Google has two good free tools for developing keywords. Google Adwords has an external keyword tool that is available to everyone—no Google Adword account required. This tools allows you to type in a keyword and immediately see related keywords and statistics indicating the volume of searches using the term.
The Google Keyword Tools also can analyze the keywords on a web page. For example, if you are building a content around the general topic of immigration you might want to analyze the keywords used on community sites that cover the immigration issue. This will help you understand the language of the issue from the POV of the community.
Google Zeitgeist examines "Search patterns, trends, and surprises" provides insight into global, regional, past and present search trends. Google Zeitgeist is actually home to several tools.
- Google Trends - For a broad look at search query data, enter up to five search terms to see relative popularity over time.
- Trends for Websites - Google Trends for website traffic data. Type in a website address to see visitors by region and related sites visited.
- Insights for Search - A deeper dive into search query data for marketers and power users. Create your own lists of "most popular" and "fastest rising" queries for different geographic regions over time and by topic.
- Hot Trends - The top 100 fastest-rising search queries right now (U.S. only). Updates throughout the day.
The "People" Keyword Tool
Right from the conception and initial development of your project, ask people what keywords they associate with your content. As you listen to the answers you'll learn how to structure and present your content in terms that are meaningful (and searchable) by your target audience.
SEO Page Titles
The page title tells both the reader and the search engine what the page is about. The page title appears in the search engine result and should correctly inform the reader about the content. Good SEO requires that every page have a unique page title that accurately labels the page content. Never have a page go up with an page title "Untitled."
The page's title is the name by which the site will be bookmarked, the name that appears in the user's browser's menu bar, and most importantly, the name that will appear in SERP pages (to see how NOT to do it, Google for the string "Untitled Document" sometime).
The page title is contained in the web page <title> tag that is contained within the <head> tag. You do not need to be an HTML warrior to take care of the basics. A quick read of KDMC's HTML 101 tutorial will introduce you to the everything you need to understand how to find and change the HTML code you need for SEO purposes.
The page title should be a few words or a short phrase and should contain the key words that reflect the page's primary content. Place the most important key words near the front of the title. The W3C specification for the Title element is "less than 64 characters." Google actually uses the first 66 characters. Yahoo uses 120 characters. A good SEO strategy is to have your "primary" page title fit within the 66 characters and continue with an extended title that is less than 120 characters in length. Spaces and punctuation are included in the character count.
One important and frequently overlooked point is that the page title is what shows up in the SERP and is the first introduction the user has, not just to your content, but to your entire organization. The page title is also what appears if a user bookmarks your page. Good SEO requires that your home page <title> actually includes the name of your organization.
In the example above taken from Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide you can see that working with the Title Tag is not complicated. The only code necessary is the opening <title> and closing </title> tags.
Good page titles provide a strong enticement to end users. Consider this search…
…and the result…
The page title is the page element that connects the search result to your site. By including clear information about the focus of the site, a user knows what to expect at the site. The matching search terms are in bold to further connect the search result to your content. This connection is complete when the user clicks the link and arrives at your site.
The informative page title appears at the top of the of the browser tab or window.
For news articles use the hed for the <title> tag. Shorten the hed if necessary.
Description Meta Tag
Use the "description" Meta Tag
The description meta tag gives search engines a summary of the page's contents. While Google and other search engines now exclude meta tags from natural search result algorithms, meta tags still do serve an important purpose.
Whereas the <title> tag is a few words or a short phrase, the description meta tag may be up to a short paragraph. Google may use a portion of the description meta tag text as a search result snippet if it does a good job of matchup up with a user's search. Google will extract the portion of the text that best matches the user search. Put the best page content description within the first 166 characters.
A good, informative meta tag can drive additional traffic. In this example from Google's SEO Starter Guide the "description" meta information shows the description appearing in the search result. This informative description promotes the content.
A user searches…
…the results display an informative page title and a snippet from the description meta tag that promotes the content…
Use unique descriptions for each page if at all practical. Do not just copy and paste page content into the description meta tag. Do not "stuff" the description meta tag with keywords—keywords here will not improve your Page Rank.
While the meta tag "description" will not improve your Page Rank it is important if you want the user to select your site from the 10 returned on the page. You want to give the qualified user every reason to click the link to your page.
Use SEO-Smart URLs
Users and search engines both reward you for intelligent, readable URLs. For readers, URLs that are shorter have a higher clickthrough rate. Search engines reward you because keywords in your URL help the search engine determine how relevant your content is to a query. URLs frequently contain session IDs, sorting strings and other machine-generated code. Some of this may not be avoidable in your operation, however, if you can create "human readable" URLs make the effort.
Short, clean, readable URLs can be read over the phone without mistakes, and won't break when forwarded around in emails. Keep in mind also that many people "read" URLs as they're surfing, as a form of navigation breadcrumb system. Seeing that a piece of content is at http://domain.com/articles/sept_2009/mayor_quits/ tells the user a lot about where they are in the overall structure of the site.
Understanding URLs is the first step in learning how to make URLs a part of your SEO workflow. The actual work of changing the URL in WordPress is completely non-technical.
If your URL is http://kdmctutorial.com/article/2128.html/ the reader cannot determine what the page is about by looking at the URL. However, http://kdmctutorial/seo-basics-tutorial.html/ conveys the content of the page. If the user searches for "SEO Tutorial" both "tutorial" and "seo" would show in bold on the SERP. Do use punctuation in your URLs to improve readability for both readers and search engines. For example, http://kdmctutorial/seo-basics-tutorial.html/ is better than http://kdmctutorial/seobasicstutorial.html/. Use all lowercase in your URLs—lowercase is easier read and to recall. Do not mix www and non-www URLs on your site. In general non-www URLs are preferred because they are shorter.
Readable URLs help if your information is included in a blog post. If your URL is used as the anchor text other users are more likely to follow the link and you will get a higher Google relevancy rating for the link by having the keywords in the URL match the content on your site.
Changing your URL will improve your relevancy in search and will help you appear higher in search results so this is an important element to change. Even more important, "readable" URLs will improve your clickthrough...really the more important goal for your SEO work.
Site Structure and Navigation
Site Structure and Navigation
One "top level" (literally) decision you will need to make is what the actual address of your site will be. You register example.com and your hosting site enables you to install WordPress using that domain. Not a problem so far. The address of your site is www.example.com. The recommended best practice is to use "example.com" as the definitive address and redirect users who enter "www.example.com". This seems confusing but implementing a solution is important for SEO. Google will track both addresses separately and this dilutes the traffic reports. The actual step-by-step for solving this varies depending on your web site host. Excellent instructions and a more complete discussion are available at Google Webmaster Central's discussion of "Preferred domain (www or non-www)." While this is more technical than other aspects of SEO, do not skip this. You only need to do this one time and the Google directions are well-written. You web host will also be familiar with this process and will be able to help.
Your site must be easy to navigate or users will leave. You will be amazed at the "bounce rate" when you begin to monitor user behavior on your site. The "bounce rate" is the count of users who arrive at a page on your site and leave without viewing any other information on your site. One of the best ways to help users find good related content in addition to the content at the page they land on is to provide clear navigation to other content on your site.
Here are specific site recommendations:
- Keep your site focused on a topic. Do not mix gardening information with a petition opposing the current American war(s).
- The number of pages is important. A site with 1 page on a topic does not rate as high as site with 10 pages on a topic. The amount of content you have to offer matters.
- The amount of text content on a page should be at least 200 words. Recommendations vary, but 500 words is a good target for word count.
- The growth of pages informs Google that your site is adding valuable content. If it makes sense, grow your site with additional pages over time. Ideally you should add some new content to your site every day.
- Avoid using subdirectories on your server for your content pages unless your site grows beyond a few dozen pages. Search engines consider pages in subdirectories less important.
- Focus each page on one keyword phrase. Adding more keywords dilutes the SEO value. Focusing on one keyword phrase will also help you better edit and target your content.
- Spend extra effort shapening your keyword phrase and all SEO element for your home page. This is most likely the page that will be highest in search and is a good gateway to your in-depth content.
- Use text links for your site navigation. Use keywords as your text link words. This clarifies the site navigation to users and gives additional SEO significance to the target page of the link. This also helps direct users to the key content that matches their interest.
- Do not use graphics for navigation. Graphics cannot be read by search engine bots.
- Add an HTML sitemap to help users navigate your site. This is in addition to the sitemap.xml file that you upload to help search engine bots index your site. XML-Sitemaps.com will generate both xml and html sitemaps for you automatically and for free if you have fewer than 500 pages. Here is an example of an HTML sitemap produced by the commercial tool Site Map Pro. Here is the sitemap for w3schools.com.
- Add a custom "404" Page that matches the look and feel of the rest of your site. Add the (free) Google 404 widget to your custom 404 page to provide visitors with useful ways to continue with your site.
- Add "breadcrumb navigation" to aid in site navigation.
Use Keywords in Anchor Tag
Use Keywords in Anchor Tag
An essential component of the web is hypertext or hyperlinking—linking from one piece of content to another. The basic HTML element for creating a link is the anchor tag. The HTML format for the anchor tag is <a href="url">Link Text</a>. Both the destination URL and some link element are required.
You can improve SEO by using relevant, accurate keywords as the anchor text. Using descriptive keywords as the anchor text describes the destination content for end users and for search engines. Having someone refer to your site content with a "click here" link does little to improve your SEO. If the other text around the anchor text is also related the relevancy of the link increases.
The above example from Google's SEO Starter Guide shows that anchor text is directly related to the content at the site. If the surrounding text discussed collecting rare baseball cards then this link would add even more to the destination site SEO. A list of links with "Click here" would add little to the destination site's SEO score.
Linking from the page or article the visitor to your site is currently viewing to other content on your site helps the reader see more of your related content. These internal links also improve your SEO. Use the same thought in your internal links as you do with your external links.
Make your links easy to spot. With CSS it is easy to style your links and it is tempting to make your links blend smoothly with the rest of your text. Make sure your links stand out for visitors. Visitors to your site are interested in your information and your hypertext link are important.
Use HTML to Structure Your Content
Use HTML to Structure Content
People come to your site to find content. If you don't make information easy to find—and find quickly—the visitor you worked hard to attract will leave. Use basic HTML to provide structure to your content so that it is easy for the reader to scan and focus on the desired content.
Use the appropriate heading tags in your document. Journalists understand story structure with heds, dek, and subheds. Structure in HTML uses heading tags <h1> through <h6>. Actual usage is generally <h1> through <h4>.
This example shows the use of <h1> and <h2> tags to establish content hierarchy. Use HTML heading tags like you would the heading tags in an outline. An H3 should be subordinate to an H2. Only use one <h1> tag per page.
Only use heading tags to provide logical and useful entry points into a clearly defined portions of the content. Don't use heading tags to make text bigger or bold; use the appropriate HTML semantic tags: <em> for italics and <strong> for bold.
Where possible use your keywords in your headings. This will help with SEO and will visually guide the visitor to the words that best match the original search.
Optimize Images for SEO
Optimize Images for SEO
Images attract user attention and provide important visual information. Users can see and understand the content of an image. Search engine bots cannot; bots can only understand text. In order for bots to "understand" your images you need to use good SEO practices.
The most important action to take with images is to use the <alt> tag. The <alt> tag is a brief text description that is displayed if the image cannot be displayed for any reason.
This shows the alt tag text. Search engine bots can read this and add this information to the page index. Note also that the file name, "2008-world-series-baseball.jpg," also helps the bot understand the "meaning" of the image. Good SEO uses both the file name and the alt tag to make the content of the image bot readable.
In many WordPress themes there is a field for image captions. This is another opportunity to use add useful text that will help readers and bots. For example a caption that includes the first and last names of the people in the photo, the location and the date will help that image be indexed and found during a user search.
Google has two good technical recommendations for your images. First, use standard formats for your images. Stick with .jpg, .png, and .gif images. Speed is an important factor in user experience so pay attention to optimizing your images for appearance and size displayed. The second technical recommendation from Google is to keep all your site images in a separate folder on your server to simplify paths to your images. Use a keyword in the directory name for your images.
Use descriptive file names for your photos. Bots read file names and this is one more way to inform search engines about your content.
If you have a great photo, include a link to a larger version. Make sure you include good keywords as your link text in the anchor tag.
Build Connections and Links with Your Community
All of the previous elements are controlled within the site. All of these are the necessary foundation for building good SEO. Even if executed perfectly—a tough presumption—these preceding elements are not sufficient.
A significant amount of SEO is based on links to your site. Other web sites will link to your site because you have good, valuable content. Search engines use this inbound link information to rate the significance of your site and its content.
There are two elements that determine your place on an SERP. The first element is content relevancy. This relevancy is based on content analysis, how well you structure your content and how well you inform the search engine bot of your content. The second element is an analysis of the inbound links to your site to determine how valuable your content is to the larger community.
This link citation index or link popularity is based on the number and quality of the inbound links. A link from the Washington Post home page is intuitively more significant than a link from a hyperlocal site that serves a rural community of 2,000 residents. The link citation index takes both the number and the importance of inbound links into account. Each search engine has a unique method for actually calculating the citation index.
The Google Toolbar (for Firefox and IE) will show the a numeric pagerank for pages you visit. While the number is in fact a range, the displayed number is sufficient to determine a pages relative pagerank value. The scale displays an whole number value from one to ten, the higher the number the better. The scale is also logarithmic. Each numeric increment indicates a site jumps 10 times in significance. By using Google Toolbar pagerank you can see the relative ranking of sites as you travel the Internet.
Developing inbound links is both an organic and a planned process. As you develop great content people will find it and link to it. The better the content the more referrals and the more sites will link to your content. This organic process is well served by the attention to detail that makes your site easy to navigate and makes your well-structured content easy to use.
However, sitting back and waiting is not going to move the needle much—or move it very quickly. Here are considerations for developing your inbound link plan:
- Have a site brand and identity. In addition to having great content, have a strong voice. Set your site apart from the noise by providing clarity, focus and a unique perspective.
- Build a solid base of good evergreen content that can continue to grow and will be an ongoing resource for your audience—and a reason to bookmark and refer your site.
- Submit your site to general directories including dmoz.org (an open source directory project). Only submit to sites that have actual hard-coded links back to your site. Script driven URLs do not help your SEO. You can determine if a site uses hard-coded links by viewing the source code and searching for one of the URL links.
- Do not submit your site to Free for All sites. Sites that take "anyone" without any screening are just spam factories and links from them have no SEO value.
- Link Exchanges are just that. In general, link exchanges done solely for SEO are not part of a news organization SEO plan.
- Thank sites and bloggers that link to you with a personal email. The personal touch counts in the virtual realm just as much as in the traditional marketing world.
- Engage in your topic by quoting, linking, adding comments to other sites, and highlighting the good work of others.
- If someone does link to you with "click here" anchor text, send them your preferred, reasonable link text and politely request the change.
- Link to others first. Community news publications can do a valuable service by linking to active community organizations and to community services.
- Invite others to write a column for your site.
- Offer to write a column for other sites that explains why your project has benefits for that audience.
- Use Twitter. News consumers are heavily represented on Twitter. Feed your followers with news and information that is significant. Have a "voice" for your Twitter feed. Automated Twitter feeds—except for important breaking news stories or subscribed alerts—don't work well. Create a hash tag for special events and breaking news stories.
- Make it easy for your readers to share your content on digg.com, delicious.com, reddit.com, techmeme.com and others. Make it easy for readers to email and repost your content.
- Create content widgets your readers can post to Facebook, Myspace and blogs. KDMC has a tutorial: Creating a Publication Widget.
- Create a Facebook fan page and keep it active. Tie your Twitter feed to your fan page news feed. Give your fans "advanced access" to special features. Invite them to "beta test" new content areas or provide feedback on new initiatives.
- Create a Myspace page and keep it active. The demographic differences between facebook and myspace mean one "social networking site" will not reach your all your market segments.
- Partner with your community/audience. Ask your audience for tips, leads and ask what the community considers important. Ask for content you can use including photos, videos, opinion pieces and local news reports. Ask for feedback and suggestions on how your site can be more useful and helpful. Create a virtual suggestion box and post suggestions and your replies.
- Checking links to your site is easy—type: link:www.example.com into a Google search.
If all of the above appears to be great deal of work, you have the essence of the scale and scope of the job of building good SEO. This tutorial is a basic presentation of SEO. A Google search of "advanced SEO topics" or attendance at a national conference on SEO will reveal deeper levels of work in SEO.
The good news is this tutorial presents the essential first steps and when you implement these basics you will see a significant improvement in your traffic and audience engagement.
SEO is both an art and a science. Just like virtually everything we learn improvement comes with experience and with ongoing training.
There are many SEO training courses available—some are online; some are traveling seminars; some are on college campuses. These courses vary in price from free to several thousand dollars and the quality varies as well (not necessarily correlated to price).
Before you decide to pay for additional training I strongly advise you to take the online course at Google Conversion University. This online program will give you a solid foundation in SEO and Google Analytics. The instructional design is excellent and the material is easy to understand. The course is free. You may elect to take the $50 certification test to prove to yourself—and others—that you've mastered—or at least understand—the fundamentals of SEO.
After completing the Conversion University Course you will be better able to evaluate what other training you need and you will also be better able to gage the quality of the program you are considering.
About this Tutorial
Jerry Monti is a technology trainer at the UC Berkeley Knight Digital Media Center.
This content may not be republished in print or digital form without express written permission from KDMC. Please see our Content Redistribution Policy at kdmc.berkeley.edu/license.