Webvanta Blog: Creating Effective Websites

SEO: The Low-Hanging Fruit

Search engine optimization (SEO) is perhaps the most confusing, ill-defined, and controversial part of web design today. It has a certain ‘’http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant’ target=’_blank’>blind men and an elephant’ quality to it, with Google being the elephant.

There is a vast amount of advice available on SEO. You can spend your life reading about it, and anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars a month on SEO consultants.

This situation leads to a sense of overwhelm among many web designers, and especially among site owners, and as a result they just ignore it. We see web sites every day that have terrible SEO.

It’s a shame, because everyone wants to bring more traffic to their site. Search engines bring free traffic, and for many sites they are the most important source of visitors.

The good news is that there are some simple things that will provide a huge boost to most of these sites. Follow the easy steps in this article, and you’ll be way ahead of the average site.

Make Sure Every Page is Accessible and Has a URL

The most fundamental thing you must do is to ensure that every page of the site is accessible by following links, starting from your home page, even if JavaScript is disabled and Flash is ignored. (You need this for accessibility as well as for SEO.)

This is not hard to achieve, as long as you are not using Flash for your navigation, and JavaScript is used as it should be: for enhancement, and not as a requirement.

You can also easily do an end-run around any issues by linking to a site map from your footer, and including a link to every page in the site map. Providing an XML site map also helps in this situation.

It is essential that every page have a unique URL. That means not building the entire site in Flash, or using Ajax to swap out the contents of a page without changing the URL. It’s OK to use JavaScript to hide and reveal parts of a page, as long as all is revealed if JavaScript is disabled.

The All-Important Page Title

Assuming these basics are taken care of, then the two most critical things are the page title (the metadata title in the <title> tag, which appears in the browser’s title bar) and the contents of the first <h1> element on the page.

The page title is super-important, and very commonly overlooked or written poorly. If your site has the same title on every page, you’ve thrown away most of your SEO opportunities. Go in right now and write a unique page title for every single page.

The page title can include the name of the site, but it should begin with content that is unique to each page and describes that page. The page title will appear as the headline in search results, so it must be written in such a way that the first few words telegraph to the user that this page has what they’re looking for.

Having a page title like ‘Home’, ‘Products’, or ‘About Us’ is useless (and very common). You can’t assume that the viewer of the search results (or the search engine) has any context; the title must be completely explicit, and include as many keywords as you can reasonably get in there. Keep the length below 65 characters.

For example, instead of ‘Products’, use something like ‘Quality dog food and cat food at the best price’.

Next Up: The Visible Headline

Next most important is the visible headline on the page, which should be in an <h1> tag. We see a number of common mistakes here:

  • Pages that have no headline
  • Headlines that are in <p> tags, or other tags, which are then styled to look like headlines
  • Headlines that aren’t explicit enough

Make sure that your page begins with a headline in an <h1> tag. You can style it to look however you want; it doesn’t need to be visually huge.

In writing that headline, keep the site visitor in mind, but make it more explicit that you might naturally do. This is much the same as for the metadata page title, except that you may want something shorter.

Now Fill In the Meta Description

The metadata description tag is important not for getting your page listed on the search results page, but for getting users to click on the result if they do see it.

The search engine will show your description as the two lines of text below the headline; if you don’t provide a meta description, it will grab something from the body of your page, which may or may not be what you want.

The description should be about 150 characters long, since that is what fits in a typical search listing. Think of it as a teaser that promotes your page. Write it for humans, not for search engines. But it is helpful to include your targeted keywords, because the search engine will highlight them, drawing users to your listing.

Don’t Worry About Meta Keywords

The metadata keywords are not worth worrying about, at least on your first pass. Google ignores them, because they are too easily abused. Other search engines may use them, but you won’t sacrifice much by ignoring them.

This does not mean you can ignore knowing what keywords you are targeting. But the place to use the keywords is in your page titles, headlines, and body copy, not in the meta tags.

Keyword research can be valuable for making sure you are targeting the right keywords, and that they are used in lots of searches. This is one of the first things you might want to bring in an SEO consultant to help with, or you can spend the time to learn to use the research tools yourself.

Now What?

Of course, this is just the beginning. You need to have lots of content on your site, and it must include the keywords that your targeted visitors are searching for. And to get good search engine results for competitive terms, you must have lots of other sites linking to yours, and doing so with good anchor text. That’s link building, which is a topic for another day.

But if you just follow the simple advice in this article, you’ll be way ahead of many sites. Once you have these basics taken care of, you can dive into SEO more deeply, but don’t let all the confusion and conflicting advice keep you from attending to these basics.

Topics: SEO

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