While social media sites like Facebook may be getting all the press these days, it’s important to remember that search not only started it all, but is still the most effective internet marketing channel.
Any internet marketing strategy needs to be heavily weighted toward search. And search engine optimization is the first place to start.
Studies consistently show that organic search results, the ones that display on the main body of search results pages, significantly out perform purchased AdWords that appear along top and right side of search results. Organic search results are free, they get clicked much more frequently, and they carry a sense of trust and authority over their link-for-hire cousins–precisely because they can’t be bought. The value of organic search results make the extra work needed to optimize your pages well worth the effort.
Optimizing Every Page
Search engine optimization is not about getting your home page to the top of search results. It’s about optimizing every single page on your site–since they all contribute to traffic. Some pages will get a lot of traffic, and some will just get a little, but a lot of a little is still a lot. In fact, as you’ll see next month when we review our search traffic in Google Analytics, sometimes infrequently visited pages can be more valuable than home page visits. It has to do with the searcher’s intent–but I’ll come back to that concept later.
Search engines like Google are very secretive about how they rank pages for search phrases, but whatever subtleties they may employ, they never wander far from the basics. The most important criteria for any search engine are the words on the page.
It’s every search engine’s goal to help you find what you’re looking for. Like digital librarians they sift though billions of pages in their website stacks to find the very best resources to recommend. When you think about how little they have to go on–the few words we enter into a search box, contrasted with how many sources there are to consider–among the billions of web pages, the fact that search engines work at all is pretty amazing.
Becoming an Assistant Librarian
If a search engine is like a librarian, then search engine optimization is like being a librarian’s assistant.
As an assistant librarian, it’s your job to make sure every book–or in this case, every web page–is properly identified, categorized, and cataloged, and tagged to make the librarian’s job easier.
Part One – Finding the Main Subject
The first task is to properly identify the main subject of every page. Subject identification is a discipline that must be done dispassionately. We need to be careful not to let our natural self-interest influence this effort. This is library science, not library lobbying. It’s tempting to characterize our pages in the broadest possible terms in hopes of increasing traffic from popular search terms. But the actual subject of any particular web page is usually much narrower than we might like to admit.
Let’s take this page as an example. What is the main subject of these last few paragraphs? Well, obviously it’s about Search Engine Optimization, right? Wrong.
Search Engine Optimization is a very broad subject. I certainly can’t claim this page provides the best answers for every question about the huge subject of search engine optimization. Nor is it a broad overview of the subject of search engine optimization. So “search engine optimization” as a target phrase, while tempting, is much too broad to attach to this page.
If I’m to dispassionately characterize this page I need to get down to the real point of these words. What am I saying in particular about the broad subject of search engine optimization? I think something like “identifying the subject of a web page for search engine optimization” is far more accurate.
Of course very few people will ever perform a search using the phrase “identifying the subject of a web page for search engine optimization.” But if I’m going to be a dispassionate, ethical assistant librarian, I’m going to have to be as precise as possible in my identification of my page’s actual main subject–even at the cost of some potential traffic.
Staying on the SEO Straight and Narrow
In order to stay on the SEO straight and narrow I need to have a genuine respect for searchers and search engines.
There are many websites that address the general subject of search engine optimization far more effectively than this one does. If search engines are working properly, those pages should be listed in the top search results for “search engine optimization.”
As a searcher I want relevant results to my searches. I don’t want to waste my time on pages that don’t meet the intent of my search. So if I want search engines to provide accurate results to me, then I need to maintain my integrity when it comes to characterizing my pages to search engines.
Besides, even if I didn’t value integrity, it’s unlikely this page would ever rank on such a broad phrase like “search engine optimization.” And even if I could get ranking, it wouldn’t mean much. Again because of search intent. High ranking might bring visits to this page–but I’d also see a correspondingly high bounce rate. The degree to which this page does not match the intent of the searcher, the visitor will just leave. And what does that accomplish? Aside from ramping up the number of visits recorded in my stats, the end result is a waste of time.
On the other hand, if a searcher really was looking for advice on how to properly identify a web page’s subject, they would benefit from this page. The golden rule of search engine optimization: as a page’s content matches the searcher’s intent, the better the results will be.
So for this page I’ll narrowly define my subject as “identifying the subject of a web page for search engine optimization.”
Now it’s time to translate a bit.
Found in Translation
If the proper subject of my page is “identifying the subject of a web page for search engine optimization” I still have one more step before implementation. I call this step “subject translation.” It’s really pretty simple. All you have to do is ask yourself the question, what might I type in to Google if I were interested in learning about how to identify the subject of a web page?
And in asking this question I’ve come close to answering it. I’d probably type in something like “how to identify the subject of a web page.” This translation step is important because people don’t usually use the best possible words and phrases in their search requests. They play around with different ways of wording their queries until they get what they want. As the translator, you simply want to take the subject and translate it slightly, to match the words and phrases people might actually use to find it.
So in this case I’ll translate my subject from “identifying the subject of a web page for search engine optimization” to “how to determine the best keywords for a web page.” I’ve added the phrase “how to” because people sometimes form their search phrases with questions. I’ve changed the word “subject” to “best keywords” because while determining the subject is what really is at issue, people don’t think of it that way. They think about “keywords”–so they’d likely use that word in their search.
Finally, I’m going to check a couple things out before I nail down my phrase. I need to know if people usually spell “keywords” as one word or two, and the same question for web page. For this I’ll use Google Trends.
Google Trends (trends.google.com) is a great tool for determining which words or topics people are typing into search Google most frequently. In this case I just enter the two options separated by a comma. Keywords, and Key Words. Clearly Keywords as one word is more popular so I’ll use that, and web page is usually entered as two words so I’ll stick with that.
Implementing the Search Phrase
Now that I’ve determined my subject and translated it I need to implement it on my site. There are a few places to use this phrase to optimize the content.
The actual visible title of the page should ideally use this strategic phrase. But sometimes the strategic phrase is not a good choice editorially, so feel free to alter it. In this case the phrase “how to determine the best keywords for a web page” is too long for my visible page title, so I’m making the editorial decision to truncate it for the visible page title. I’ll use “Determining Web Page Keywords” instead. Our CMS is designed to always uses “H1” tags for these visible page titles. If you’re hard coding your page or using a different system, make sure this convention is followed. “H1” is HTML code that indicates that the content is the topmost heading. That’s one facet of page information search engines take into consideration. If your content management system doesn’t use H1 tags for page titles, don’t sweat it. Remember, it’s the words themselves that are of utmost importance, not the HTML code.
The second area to implement this phrase is in the “browser title.” That’s the content that shows up at the very top of the browser above the File menus and tools. This is the phrase that is listed in the search engine results. It’s also the phrase that would be used if someone were to bookmark the page. Most content management systems will provide a place to control the browser title. Ours is under the “meta data” tab. Here I will copy and paste my phrase just as I formulated it. You can also place your target words and phrases in the keywords and description fields. But because this content doesn’t visibly show up on the page, people have been known to stuff them full of irrelevant phrases in hopes of tilting search traffic their way. As a result search engines pretty much ignore these fields. I usually just repeat my same phrase in these fields just in case they use it in some minimal way, but leaving them blank is fine too.
The NewfangledCMS gives me the ability to control the URLs for each page. Some content management systems use generic ID numbers to build the URLs for each page. In fact, if I don’t indicate a specific page URL here, ours will use a database record ID too.
A friendly, editorially relevant URL is helpful and is a minor factor in search engine ranking, but it’s not that big of a deal, remember–it’s the words on the page that are most important. When using a feature like this you’ll have to make sure that every page on your site has a unique file name–you can’t use the same URL refer to two different pages.
I’ll use the same phrase as I’ve targeted for my browser title. Our system converts the phrase to all lower case and adds dashes or underscores between words. You can’t add any special characters in a page’s file name–no apostrophes, ampersands, or asterisks.
But Did We Get it Right?
The process of search engine optimization can be a subjective one. I did my best to analyze and think about the subject, translate it for effectiveness and did a bit of research on usage and spelling. I put our phrase in all the right places. Now I have to wait and see what happens. It can take a few days for search engines to spider a site and find new pages. And even then it can take a little more time to see these pages to show up in search results.
Google optimization tools help me monitor whether my new page has been spidered or not. You can also use Google search console to monitor spidering and indexing. Our tools show a Google box on the top right of our pages when logged into the CMS. It shows page-by-page how many times someone searched for content in Google and ended up at each page. It also shows me the last time Google’s spider (GoogleBot) hit our site and when it got to this specific page. Finally, I can see what phrases people used to get to this page. This is the information that’s most helpful. Search engine optimization is an iterative process. You do your best to come up with accurate phrases but sometime you’ll discover that people find your content using words you never anticipated. Seeing these phrases helps to adapt titles and phrases to match the way people search.