Make It Easy for Spiders to Search Your Site: An SEO Primer
by Linda Carlson
What gets people to your Web site? Assuming you’ve printed your URL on your letterhead, press releases, package inserts, and flyers and that it’s included in every email and every tweet, what more can you do without buying online ads?
The answer is SEO, or search engine optimization. In other words, you have to make your Web site so easily searchable by search engine spiders that it is among the first listed when someone does a search for your topic or authors. And when we say “search engines,” at this point we mean primarily Google.com. Like it or not, Google is today’s most popular search engine, and because of its accuracy and its uncluttered appearance, many people consider it best at getting people to the information they seek.
So what makes a Web site easily searchable? That’s the question a sales rep for Atlanta-based Qiigo (pronounced key-go) recently offered to answer for IBPA. Along with generalities, he provided a few extremely valuable specifics—and he provided them about the IBPA site, which is now even stronger as a result.
Although I built my own Web site using Adobe GoLive, part of CreativeSuite, I am not a techie, so this article has the “what-to-do.” We’re leaving the how-to’s for your own Web site guru or the technical staff at your Web hosting service.
Starting with the general information, here’s what Chris Stinson says we must remember when creating or enhancing our Web sites:
Content.“Search engines love well-written, well-planned pages,” he began, adding, “Good, relevant content packs a lot of SEO punch.” Besides informative content, a Web site needs enough of the proper keywords in just the right amount (“keyword density,” the SEO consultants call it) to attract search engine crawlers.
Backlinks. A link on another Web site that points to your site is a backlink. “Think of it as a business reference from a colleague,” Stinson explains, noting that search engines see backlinks as evidence that third parties consider your Web site content both worthwhile and relevant. Besides soliciting links from relevant Web sites, he recommends obtaining links from such hugely popular social media sites as Facebook, Twitter, and Digg.
Now let’s get specific. After checking ibpa-online.org during the summer, Stinson started with praise: “This site is put together really well.” (And when I Googled “book publishers” as a test, IBPA did come up on the first page.)
His related recommendations for SEO there and on publishers’ sites generally:
Point all search queries to one domain. When he visited the site, Stinson explains, IBPA was splitting its “SEO value” between www.ibpa-online.org (which is what people reach when they type in the “www”) and https://articles.ibpa-online.org (which is what they reach when they type in only “ibpa-online.org.” His comment: “In the eyes of Google and the other search engines, these are two different domains.” This appears to be a common issue, because Google’s own tips for Webmasters reference it.
Solution: use a 301 redirect on the .htaccess that is located on the server. The 301 direct has other purposes, another techie clarified: If you move your Web site from one server to another, it’s the 301 direct that gets your visitor to the right place seamlessly.
Create descriptive “alt tags” for all images on the Web site. Designed to be the alternative text description for an image, the alt tag displays before the image is loaded in the major browsers, and it displays instead of the image in text-based browsers like Lynx.
Search engines cannot see an image, so they use the name or alt tag when searching. You can take advantage of this opportunity by creating tags with promotional language. For example, label the image of a book cover with language like, “‘The Story of Eden’ by Adam and Eve, now 100,000 copies in print.” You might tag an author’s photo with his or her full name, the book title, and your publishing company’s name. This is easy for us nontechnical types to do; most Web authoring programs prompt for it.
Add keywords to the image alt tags. “When placing an image on a Web page, you want to name the alt tag using the keywords that you are focusing on,” Stinson advises. For example, “The Story of Eden” might be labeled with such keywords as paradise, snake, apple, temptation.
Create an .xlm sitemap. This road map for spiders is needed in addition to a sitemap that helps humans navigate the site—for instance, https://articles.ibpa-online.org/sitemap.aspx.
Add analytics. “Without analytics, it is hard to tell where your visitors come from, the stickiness of your site (that is, how long they stay on the site), and your top-performing keywords,” Stinson notes.
One free option is Google Analytics, formerly Urchin. It records such information as:
• total visitors in a given period and average visitors per day
• total page views and average page views per day
• average page views per visitor
• average length of visit
• the most popular pages
• the search terms that send the most visitors to your site
• referrals (what search engines or other sites send visitors to your site)
• which pages visitors usually start on
• which pages visitors usually exit from
Your Web-hosting service may provide this for free, or you can sign up for it with Google.
Get each page’s keywords in its file structure. For nontechies, “file structure” means the words after the “/” in a URL. Stinson’s example clarifies this: on the page https://articles.ibpa-online.org/pubresources/events_awards.aspx, the first words in the source code’s meta tag were “Marketing programs for publishers.” But that’s not what that page is about. It’s about seminars and awards, such as the Benjamin Franklin program. So the best meta tag words are something like “Awards programs for publishers.” For a page truly about marketing programs, the file structure would be https://articles.ibpa-online.org/marketing-programs-for-publishers.aspx.
Remember, says Stinson, that in the eyes of search engines, each page of your Web site stands alone.
Create unique title tags for each page. On the IBPA site, the title tags (the information at the very top of the browser window, often in a colored band by the browser icon) were the same on many pages, he observed. When a visitor scrolled through the menu, “IBPA, the Independent Book Publishers Association” is what usually showed.
The one exception I found in a quick visit in July was https://articles.ibpa-online.org/benefits/membenefits.aspx, where the tag is “Independent Book Publishers Association—Member Benefits.”
A different, descriptive tag for each page helps search engines identify the page’s content. (After this piece of advice from Stinson, I hastily checked my own bare-bones Web site, and I am relieved to report that each page does have a unique title tag. To see how simple these can be, visit lindacarlson.com.)
Linda Carlson writes from Seattle, where she invites you to improve her site’s Google ranking by linking to it.
For More Tips and Tools
The Google and Qiigo Web sites offer more help for those of us who want to critique our own Web sites and do a little tweaking.
Google Webmaster Central (google.com/webmasters) is the place to find basic tips, many of which echo and further explain information in this article. For example:
• Use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn’t recognize text contained in images. If you must use images for textual content, consider using the alt attribute to include a few words of descriptive text.
As “Make It Easy for Spiders to Search Your Site” points out, legitimate links from other sites are important in your site’s Google ranking. To estimate how many links you have, Qiigo suggests that you type “link:” and your URL (or a competitor’s) into the Google search window; you’ll see how many pages link to that one. When I tested this in July for IBPA with “link:www.ibpa-online.org” in the search box, Google showed 563 links, including IBPA pages that link to other IBPA pages.