SEO and the Modern Web

The purpose of a search engine has always been to connect people with the information they seek, and as time goes by, they get better at doing it. In the early days, these Web crawlers were easily fooled by authors who engaged in keyword stuffing, link farming, and a myriad of other tricks to climb the search result ladder. As time went on, search algorithms evolved and those old devices no longer worked. Unfortunately, many people still think that there is a magic lever that a Web developer can pull to push their website to the top of the result list. Well, I’m going to tell you that it’s simply not true – or at least it hasn’t been discovered yet. Your search ranking is more in the hands of your marketing team and content authors than the Web developer now. So, if you’re not a great writer, it may be time to learn how to become one – or time to hire someone who is.

Quality Keyword- (and Synonym-) Rich Content

Writing high-quality content means writing for people, not machines. Continuously repeating a word or catering to what you think Google wants to hear instead of to your actual readers is likely to have the opposite effect: a lower ranking or even penalization. The first step to good SEO is to put your readers first.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid using keywords, just that you should use them strategically. Synonyms can be helpful in that respect. It’s also worth noting that you shouldn’t use words that are over-saturated in the major search engines already. For example, I’m not expecting to appear on the first page of results for words and phrases like “SEO” or “search results.” There are too many high-ranking websites that are already targeting those words. However, I may appear in a search for something like “modern optimization for higher search ranking.” You can check the popularity of a search using Google’s keyword tool. Do some research with some keywords you would like to use to see what the competition/demand ratio is.

Links and Referrals from High Ranking Websites

There’s no question anymore that the author plays the most important role in improving search results. However, it doesn’t matter how good your content is if no one else knows about it. Search engines are basically a form of popularity contest, and if other people aren’t talking about you, then don’t expect Google to trumpet your site either. That’s where marketing comes in. You need to promote your website. The easiest way to do this is to leverage your social media networks, such as Twitter and Facebook. Your public tweets and posts get picked up by search engines and count as a vote for your website. But more importantly, they may be picked up by other website owners who decide to help spread your word by linking to you. Links from well-regarded websites in their respective fields are essential to being noticed by the major search engines.

Don’t waste time posting links to your website in blog comments or by purchasing a spot in a list of “featured” sites. Google is smart enough to recognize these areas of a Web page, and you aren’t likely to see a good return on the time and/or money spent. Focus on avenues of marketing that will truly draw attention from experts in your field, and the search engines will follow.

Useful Website Optimizations to Improve SEO

Notice that, so far, I haven’t talked about anything that requires the assistance of an SEO “expert” or Web developer – except for having a website that allows you to publish content, of course. As I said earlier, a developer is no longer the leading influence in your search ranking. It’s true that we’ve already covered the two major influences on optimization: good content and lots of inbound links from respected websites. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t changes you can make to improve your SEO.

Make Sure Your Site Loads Quickly

A website that takes more than a few seconds to load is going to seriously jeopardize your ranking. A user isn’t likely to stick around and wait for your website when it’s just as fast to click the “Back” button and click the next result in the list. Google knows this, so why would it include a slow Web page in the top results? Here are a few ways to improve your page load speed.

Use GZIP and Other Compression Techniques When Serving Files

Make sure your server GZIP compresses your files before sending them. This ensures that they download quickly by temporarily replacing common strings of text in the file and undoing the process on the Web browser’s end. To see if the files are being compressed, use your browser’s developer tools to check the server response, and look for the following: Content-Encoding: gzip

In addition to GZIP, you should strip whitespace characters from your HTML, CSS, and JS files (otherwise known as minification). For large files, this can make a big difference.

Image compression is important as well. If you aren’t sure when to use GIF, PNG, or JPG, then you need to learn. Also, don’t send images larger than they’ll need to be. This can be especially challenging when supporting small, mobile devices and high pixel-density displays.

Reduce the Number of HTTP Requests

Browsers usually only download a small number of files synchronously (i.e. at the same time). So if your website has seven CSS files and twelve jQuery plugins, you may be holding up the display of your website. Combine these files into as few as possible, or load your JavaScript asynchronously (lazy loading).

If you have a large number of background images, consider combining them into an image sprite. There are many tutorials that explain how this can be done. If you use Compass, then you can automate the sprite creation process.

Optimize Server-side Code

Slow loading pages aren’t always due to network-related activity and file sizes. If your server-side code is doing a lot of unnecessary work, then it could take awhile before the files even get sent off. The test-driven development (TDD) process is a great way to catch code that isn’t up to snuff.

Create Clean, Semantic HTML

If you use appropriate HTML tags to define your content, it will be easier for search engines to categorize your site and find relevant information. New HTML5 elements, such as main, article, and aside, are much more descriptive than generic div tags. Clean, well organized code means that Web spiders won’t have a hard time finding the “meat” of your content, and your file size will probably benefit as well.

Create a Google+ Account and Make Use of Rich Snippets

Rich snippets are a way of categorizing your content and providing short bits of useful info along with your search result description. For example, if your content is a review of a local restaurant, you can use a rich snippet to display a star rating with your search result. Types of rich snippets currently include:

While not a standard rich snippet, Google offers support for an author snippet that will cause the content author’s picture and number of people that have the author in their Google+ circles to appear next to the search result. This draws attention and will increase your click-through rate. It also requires minimal effort to set up.

Canonical URLs and 301 Redirects Ensure the Right URL is Indexed

Most websites use SEO-friendly URLs instead of complex query strings with ID’s and other variables. But they often forget that the page will be accessible through both the short, nice URL and the long, ugly one. If a search engine finds both URLs, it looks like you have duplicate content on your site. Most of the time, only one URL will appear in the result listing, but worst case, you may suffer a penalty if Google thinks you’re trying to game the system.

Canonical URLs are supported by all the big search players now, and they’re basically just a <link> tag that tells crawlers where to find the primary source of information (i.e. the friendly URL). Be careful though; if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could destroy your search ranking. Imagine a case where your CMS accidentally adds canonical link tags pointing to the wrong URL. You might not notice it without checking the HTML source code, but it would wreak havoc on your page rank. A sitemap.xml file is also important. Google, and probably others, use this file when determining the preferred URL to a page.

If canonical URLs aren’t a good fit, be sure to use 301 redirects to keep users and spiders off the wrong URL. Most public websites should have a 301 redirect for the “www” subdomain, either to it or from it – it’s up to you.

While we’re talking about redirects and canonicalization, it’s worth mentioning that a high number of broken links isn’t good for SEO either. Regularly check your pages for links that no longer work.

Shoot for Long Page Visits and Low Bounce Rates

Traffic tools, such as Google Analytics, provide a wealth of information about your site visitors. If the average time spent on your website is only a few seconds and you have a high bounce rate, it’s a sign that people aren’t finding what they want from your site. Take a closer look at your content and see how you can revise it to target the people that would find it useful.

Only One Meta Tag Still Applies to SEO

Okay, that heading may be exaggerating a bit, but only a little. The meta description tag is probably the most important of all the meta tags, and it’s still not as important as the other items I’ve listed. If your SEO expert is telling you that you need to optimize your meta tags, he’s probably behind the times.

However, the meta description tag will sometimes be used in the actual search result summary for your page – but only if Google couldn’t find something better in your content itself. The reason meta tags are large ignored by search engines is because they were abused so often by developers trying to get a leg up in the results. So now, less attention is paid to content that isn’t actually visible on the page. Still, make sure to include a description – it may give your page one more opportunity to reel in a reader.

In summary, in order to perform well in search listings, you need great content and lots of inbound links from great websites. These are the two most important things to SEO, but don’t forget that there is still room for a Web developer to make optimizations – just don’t expect him or her to bring your site to the top search result in Google with a few code changes.

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