SEO Basics

By Steve Hoenisch

Search Engine Optimization in a Nutshell

This page presents a concise description of legitimate search engine optimization techniques for content-based web pages. The use of one or two of the following SEO tips in isolation is unlikely to boost your natural search results -- with the possible exception of the first three techniques. Applying all the following techniques at once is a potent content-focused formula for improving search engine rankings. In the end, the key to SEO for content is highly focused work that pays strict attention to a number of details simultaneously.

Use the first heading on your page to summarize the content of the page and set the heading in an H1 tag. The heading accurately and concisely describes what the page is about in plain language. It includes the page's subject: Topicality is key.

Place the heading in the title tag within your HTML header and limit the text to no more than about 66 characters, including spaces. In the search results of Google, the text in the title tag is cut off after about 66 characters and replaced with an ellipsis.

Using marketing-focused, brand-oriented language for your titles is a critical error that is virtually guaranteed to undermine your results for those pages. Ditto for including the name of your company or web site in the title tag in pages other than your home page, your legal pages, your site map, or a similar top-level navigational page.

Including a category and subcategory in the title tag is another critical error -- and a troubling one because several SEO firms recommend it. It is unlikely to produce optimal results. The place for categories and subcategories is in descriptive URLs, discussed later.

Include an accurate description of the page's content in the metadata. Again, the description represents the content of the page in which it is embedded, not the content of the whole web site. To avoid having your description cut off mid-sentence in Google's search results (when it displays the description), the description should be no longer than about 156 characters and spaces. Think of the description as being your lede, the nutshell statement that summarizes the news in a story. Example:

<meta name="description" content="Abstract: A text linguistics thesis that conducts a topical structure analysis of accomplished English prose by studying newspaper editorials."/>

Include in the metadata field for keywords a few highly relevant words from the page's text. These keywords categorize your page's content. The keywords are specific to the page in question and accurately classify its content. Include synonyms. Example:

<meta name="keywords" content="topical structure analysis, topic, comment, theme, rheme, discourse analysis, text linguistics, newspapers, editorials"/>

The keywords that you select for your metadata naturally recur in the content of the page -- because that is what the page is about. If a keyword does not appear in the page's content, avoid using it in the metadata.

Every page should target a keyword or keyword combination, such as Linux Desktop Management. Try to include a closely related -- preferably subsidiary -- secondary target. The target keyword or keyword phrase is to appear as or in your top-level heading and is set in an H1 tag. Set your secondary target in a subheading.

Engineer the content to contain in-depth information about your keyword target and several natural recurrences of the keyword in the text. Again, topicality and depth are key: Stay on topic, provide details.

Don't waste time going after high-level, waste-basket categories like "group policy management"; instead, make sure the page addresses the correct level in the taxonomy's hierarchy: "group policy for Linux, Unix, and Mac."

Before you write, query Google to check the ranking of others for the target. Analyze the search results with an eye toward engineering your content to obtain a place among the results, but don't waste time obsessing over the results, which will vary over time according to a number of factors, many of which you cannot control. Like the fitness and diet business, the web and the tech industry are rife with SEO shamans: Anyone who tells you they can guarantee results, or imply that they have a magic formula, is lying in an effort to steal your money, or worse: They will employ illegitimate techniques that temporarily boost your rankings -- until the search engines find out, which they will, and then your site will be penalized. The simple fact of the matter is that SEO requires highly focused content engineering that pays strict attention to a number of details simultaneously, which leads to the most important point:

Present high-quality content that delivers on the promise of the title, description, and keywords in your metadata and the first heading on your page. By high-quality content, I mean written and edited to meet the standards of professional publishing -- content that could be published as a magazine article or as an entry in an encyclopedia. The content is clear, direct, organized, factual, detailed, and informative. It abides by the rules in The Chicago Manual and Words into Type. It has breadth and, more importantly, depth: For SEO, the topical depth of a page is far more important than its topical breadth. All other things being equal, fact-based information with technical content that's written from a neutral point of view will trump marketing-oriented information every time.

After you've written your draft, edit your material for word order, frequency, and relevancy. Be specific while maintaining relevance to the topic. Repeat your target keyword or keyword combination and its synonyms in your text a couple of times without splitting the word order.

Use descriptive URLs. The words that you use in your directory paths and file names are indexed by search engines and are searchable. Use the names of the directories in the path to classify the content and the file name to identify its subject. Example:

In your content, add a few inline hyperlinks to closely related pages, especially pages that provide depth -- supporting information and technical details -- about the topic. Set the links in HTML, not script, to expose them to crawlers. At the end of the content, link to a few closely related pages.

The ultimate goal is to engineer your content to present an interlinked network of in-depth information about a subject and its related topics. Building up a number of related, interlinked, high-quality pages on a topic will help boost your rankings. In other words: Develop a semantic network of content that reinforces your keywords.

Include multiple subpages to reinforce a given topic with breadth and depth. Typically, to get into a high-level, contested category, you must create a number of related, interlinked pages with high-quality content on the category and its subcategories. Include in each page an image or screen shot that complements or reinforces the content of the page. Use descriptive URLs for your images and provide descriptive alternative text for each one.

Break up the content of your page with subheadings and set the headings in an H2 tag. Engineer the headings so they contain the secondary keywords that the section targets. A hierarchical structure that includes a main topic and discreet subsections, all marked off by correctly sized headings, shows readers and search engines alike what information is important and what information provides supporting details. Readers can more easily scan the content for the information they want, and search engines can more accurately categorize the page's content.

If you use H2 for a subheading directly under the H1 tag, then H3 might become the heading used for the subsequent sections. The point is that you want to begin with the H1 heading at the top of the page and create a hierarchy from the top down, with each subsequent section that is at the same level in the hierarchy being represented by the same size heading. Each nested subsection is headed by a smaller sized heading, resulting in an outline format.

For consistency, develop a standardized approach to structuring your web pages. Use a content model that forces each page to adhere to both your local objectives (SEO as well as clearly organized and structured information) and global objectives (such as selling software).

--Steve Hoenisch


Document Icon Set Your First Heading in the H1 Tag for SEO

Document Icon Include a Unique, Accurate Title in Your HTML Document's Header

Document Icon Apply HTML Heading Sizes to Reveal the Structure of Content to Search Engines

Document Icon Use Dublin Core Metadata for Search Engine Optimization

Document Icon Tag DocBook XML Documents for Search Engine Optimization

Last Updated: August 2, 2011.

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