One of the most common questions asked in webmaster forums is how to get a better ranking in Google. When you read some of the replies it seems like getting to the top of the search engines is something akin to rocket science.
It’s not. By following some very basic guidelines when creating your website, you will instantly put yourself above a large percentage of the sites out there.
The following advice is based on personal experience of designing sites for the last ten or so years. It’s very much aimed at the beginner or novice webmaster but might still be a good little refresher for the more experienced designer.
1. Title Tag
Google scores this very heavily so if you don’t bother reading the rest of this article at least pay attention here. The TITLE tag is what displays at the top of the browser window and is also used in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) as your link.
The first 65 characters are the most important as Google pretty much discounts the rest for search purposes. Make it relevant to your site and use your keywords/phrases in the first 65 characters.
Don’t do what a lot of people do and put your company name at the beginning of the TITLE tag. The chances are that people aren’t searching for your company name. They’re searching for what your company does. Use your keywords/phrases at the beginning and stick your company name at the end.
Also change your TITLE tag for every single page so that it is relevant to the page content. This is very, very important.
2. Description Meta Tag
The description tag does what it says on the tin. It’s what people see as a description of your site in the SERPs. There’s no hard and fast rule on this but, generally, I stick with 50 words or less. Anything more is overkill. Anything over 160 characters will get truncated in the SERPs anyway so aim to make a concise description.
A common mistake is to keyword stuff a description. This doesn’t make for good reading and will probably result in fewer clicks. When you do a search and see a description like “Cheap iPod. Cheap iPod. Cheap iPod” you think spam and so will your potential visitors. You should make your description a well written sales pitch using your keywords.
Again, try to write a separate description for each page so that it ties in with the content and the TITLE of the page.
3. Meta Keywords Tag
A few years back the keywords tag was heavily used by the search engines. Due to keyword spamming (see the cheap iPod reference above) they’re not used so heavily but still should form part of your basic SEO process. 1024 characters is the max for keywords however I rarely use more than 10-12 specific keywords for any of my sites and they all score pretty well with the Big 3 (Google, Yahoo, and MSN).
Here is the most important part of keywords. Forget keywords. Think key phrases. Research has shown that most people now type in 2-3 word search terms to get more specific results. Use a tool like the Keyword Suggestion Tool over at SEO Book to see what people are actually searching for and incorporate this into both your content and keywords.
Once more, change your keywords tag for each individual page so that it accurately reflects the content of your page. This point cannot be emphasised enough. You will lose points by having a generic set of TITLE, DESCRIPTION and KEYWORD tags. Make them unique to each page and make sure they focus on specific content.
4. ALT tags
The ALT tag is what you see when you hover over a picture in your browser. They were originally designed for people who were surfing with images turned off in the good ole days of 14.4k modems! They’re supposed to be used as a description of the image.
The Big 3 don’t use this as much as they used to but it is still a good option for adding to your keyword/phrase score. You might pick up some traffic from Google image search, for example. Just make sure you don’t keyword stuff.
5. Heading tags
Wrap your page headline with an H1 tag. Google loves heading tags. Make the H1 descriptive and use your #1 keyword/phrase. In the old days the H1 tag looked ugly. It was massive and ruined the look of the page. These days, with CSS, you can style the H1 tag to look how ever you want it to.
Whilst there are other heading tags, the only ones I use are H1 and H2. Forget the rest.
6. Link Text
Having a wonderful Flash or Java navigation system may look great but the spiders can’t read it which means they can’t find the rest of your site. Ensure that you have some kind of text based navigation system somewhere on the page. Make the text as descriptive as you can without it becoming overbearing. A link marked “Contact” will not score as well as a link marked “Contact John Smith” whereas a link marked “Contact John Smith, the most reliable painter and decorator in West London” would just look daft.
7. Site Map
Spiders love site maps. It allows them to spider every single link on your site from one place. Users love site maps too for exactly the same reason. Make the link itself a descriptive one. There are sites out there which can auto generate HTML site maps for you but, generally speaking, they only provide a basic “index.html”, “news.html” style site map. You ideally want the link to your news page to be something like “For all the latest West London painting and decorating news” as the physical text which points to the news.html page.
8. Link love
The Big 3 score sites heavily on the number of incoming links to a site. Linking is probably the single most important part of SEO at the moment. It warrants a whole series of articles to itself not just a couple of paragraphs here.
My suggestion would be to start by getting listed on the SEO friendly directories I mentioned the other day. The reason why they’re SEO friendly is because they provide a direct link to your site (i.e. http://www.yourdomain.com/) rather than the hundreds of directories out there which provide an indirect link (i.e. www.theirdirectory.com/categoryname/redirect123.php) which provide no SEO benefit.
The most useful and reliable source of incoming link information I have found so far is Yahoo! Site Explorer. Simply type in your domain name and you can see who is linking to you.
9. Site content
Be specific with your content. If you write a page which covers a multitude of subjects, don’t expect it to score well in the SERPs. Aim for 500-600* words. This gives enough content for the search engines and also makes for a better read for your viewers. Your first paragraph should be the one where you identify the keywords/phrases that you want to score heavily on.
Remember, though, to ensure you are writing with your readers in mind just as much as the search engines. Don’t keyword stuff just to try to score SERPs. If it doesn’t read well, rewrite it so that not only are you point scoring but you’re making for an engaging read. Scoring well on the search engines is one thing, delivering the content the person has searched for is another.
For SEO purposes focus your page to one specific topic and ensure your copy backs up the meta tags you used earlier.
10. File names
If your site is about classic cars, for example, and your page is dedicated to the Triumph Spitfire, why are you using “page1.html” and “pic01.jpg”? Call your page “triumph-spitfire.html” and call your picture “triumph-spitfire.jpg”. Simple but regularly forgotten advice. Make your file names clear and succinct and you will benefit tremendously.
So there you have it. 10 very easy ways to boost your search engine score. A word of caution, though, don’t overdo any of the above. Keyword stuffing or trying to cheat the search engines will not improve your rankings. In fact it will probably harm them. Do all of the above in moderation and you will see an improvement.
NOTE The structure of the above article was based on an article for Entireweb by Scott Hendison. I’ve taken the content he presented and elaborated on some of the areas I personally have had success in.
* – Yeah I know I’ve used more than 600 words but could you really see me being able to cover all of this in less than 600 words?