This post was originally written for Alberon. I have reproduced it here because the original post is no longer live.
As a website owner, content optimisation and link building are two things you can do to improve your search engine rankings – but there are also things you need your web developers to do on your behalf.
Search-engine friendly code
Search engines use computer programs called spiders (or crawlers) to read the content of all the websites on the internet. Although they’re very smart, they can’t read everything a human can. In the past, the biggest problem was websites built in Adobe Flash, which couldn’t be read by spiders – but Flash is a dying technology these days.
Real heading tags
In our article about content SEO, we recommend breaking up content with subheadings. You should check that your CMS does this with real
<h3> HTML tags, rather than just changing the colour and size of the text, so that search engines know they’re subheadings. Conversely, make sure you’re not using heading tags to style regular content – they should only be used to structure your page.
Alt text for images
Spiders can’t understand images, so make sure your CMS allows you to enter “alt” text – that’s a description of the image which is embedded in the HTML code.
Last year Google started ranking mobile-friendly websites higher when users search from a mobile device, in order to give the best possible experience to those users. This means it’s more important than ever for your website to look good on mobile phones and tablets.
The best way to do this is with a responsive website – that’s a website that automatically adjusts to suit the device, whether that’s a mobile phone, a tablet or a desktop computer. The alternative is to have a separate mobile website – however, this can dilute your SEO efforts because now you have two websites to optimise and maintain.
Keep content above the fold
Make sure the main page content is easily visible on the first screen the user sees – you may be penalised if the top of your site is full of adverts (even for your own products/services) and the real content is buried further down the page.
An XML sitemap is a specially formatted file listing all the pages on your website, making sure the search engines find all the pages you want them to find. You can also use it to give the search engines extra information about each page, to help them understand your content better:
- When the page was last updated
- How often you expect it to change (i.e. how often they should come back to check)
- How important the page is compared to the other pages on your site (e.g. the homepage is usually the most important, and legal notices the least important).
A HTML sitemap is simply a page with links to all of the other pages on your site. They are less important than XML sitemaps, but they can still help search engines to find all the content. They are also useful for visitors who want an overview of all your content.
It’s important that your sitemaps are kept up-to-date – otherwise they lose their value, and if they contain too many broken links search engines will stop trusting them. Ideally they should be updated automatically by your CMS whenever you make changes to the site content.
Sometimes it’s possible to access the same page via different URLs. For example, all of these URLs may point to the same page:
Different people could link to the page using those different URLs, and if you don’t tell Google that these are all equivalent it could dilute your SEO efforts by treating them as separate pages.
Instead you should choose one version that you prefer people to use – this is known as the “canonical URL” for that page – and each page should have a meta tag telling the search engines what the canonical URL is. It’s also a good idea to redirect all visitors to that one URL to ensure everyone uses the canonical URL when linking to the page.
Redirect when URLs change
Any time you change the URL for a page, the old URL should automatically redirect visitors to the new one. That way all existing links keep working, and search engines transfer your old ranking to the new URL rather than seeing it as a brand new page. This is especially important when you have a new website built.
Make sure all the old pages redirect to the equivalent new page (where available), to minimise the impact on your SEO and to ensure you don’t lose visitors following old links.
However, be aware that a small portion of your ranking is lost each time you redirect to a new URL, so it’s best not to change URLs regularly or without good reason.
Secure your site with SSL
SSL (also known as HTTPS) protects your visitors by encrypting the connection so other people cannot spy on them or steal their passwords.
Google recognises this, and is pushing for all websites to the SSL, to increase the security of the internet as a whole – so it has started using SSL as one of the factors that increases your ranking.
As an added benefit, links from other SSL-protected websites will show up in your analytics traffic sources data – which they don’t for insecure websites.
Page load speed
Users prefer websites that load fast, so Google gives a higher ranking to sites that load quickly. You can take advantage of this to achieve a better ranking (and improve user satisfaction) by making sure your website loads as fast as possible.
Some ways to do this include:
- Host your website on a server in the same country as your target audience
- If you have a world-wide audience, use a content delivery network (CDN) that has servers in many countries
- Optimise the website code to run as fast as possible
- Generate dynamic pages ahead of time, instead of waiting until they’re needed (e.g. with a caching plugin)
- Remove unnecessary content and images to reduce the total page size
- Minify (compress) source code and images
- Remove unnecessary third party scripts (e.g. replace social media buttons with static links)
Breadcrumbs are those “You are here” lines you see on websites – for example:
While this doesn’t directly improve your ranking, Google will pick this up and display your breadcrumbs directly in the search results, which can help users to see how a page fits into your site structure.
Another way to make your pages more noticeable in search results is to add Structured Data to your pages. This is a way of giving search engines specific information to display such as:
- company/organisation details (e.g. phone number, logo and social media links)
- prices and stock availability for products
- star ratings for reviews
- dates and times of events
- cooking times and ingredients for recipes
- thumbnails for videos
Technical SEO alone won’t get you to number 1 in Google – not without content optimisation and link building – but get it wrong and you might not rank at all. So make sure you work closely with your web development team to ensure your website is optimised at every level.
Check back next month to learn about some black hat SEO practices, and why you should avoid them if you want to rank well in the long-term.