Good SEO or inbound marketing is all about having good content on your website which will will draw people to your site, where that stellar content can convert visitors to leads or sales. Getting lots of traffic does not mean much if you don’t have what people are looking for.
Don’t overlook the technical side of search engine optimization.
With all the attention being paid to “quality content” lately, many people seem to have forgotten about the most basic parts of on page optimization and are instead focusing on content development (that’s a good thing). Some are convinced that their site is perfect and they just need to do a lot more link building (not always a good thing).
Flipping our usual mantra of “Good SEO starts with great content” over, good content doesn’t do any better than bad if it is not presented properly. After all, that is really what SEO means – optimizing your site so that search engines will be able to find and understand everything. And having the best website in the world doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t look so good in the search results.
Let’s review some of the most basic elements of on page SEO…
What’s in your head?
Every web page has a “head” section that contains information about what the page contains. If you are using WordPress or another Content Management System, the CMS will often take care of much of this for you, but it is still good to know what is going on up there. Also, if your site is pretty old, or was not built by a professional (and sometimes a professional will screw this up, too), you may be missing some things or some of it may be configured wrong.
To see the source code of your web page, right click on your web page and select “View Source”, or find “View Source”, “Show Page Source” or something similar under the View or Develop menu of your web browser. Where you’ll find this varies from one browser to the next.
Near the top, you should see something like this simplified head section:
<title>Interesting User Friendly Title Goes Here< /title>
<meta name=”description” content=”Well written description goes here. Should be about 140 characters”>
<meta name=”keywords” content=”red widgets, widgets”>
<meta name=”robots” content=”index,follow”>
There will normally be lots of other things in there, too, but let’s start with the basics.
The Title Element
The <title> element is not technically a meta tag, but is arguably the most important piece of on-page SEO. This is what appears in the top of the user’s browser, and also what will usually appear as that blue link to your site in the search results. I say “usually” because Google has been truncating longer titles and sometimes replacing them altogether in the SERPs. Regardless, it is still crucial that you give more than a passing thought to the title element.
What goes in the title?
The title of the page, of course! Since this is the very first contact you have with a search engine user, your title should be interesting, appropriate for the content of the page, and use an appropriate keyword or phrase that users would be likely to type into the search engine. Finding the right balance of keyword usage and attractiveness to readers is not as simple as it seems. You want to rank well, of course, but first impressions are everything. So you don’t want some gibberish that looks like spam. If your titles are nothing more than keywords, users and Google will both be less likely to trust you. Or you may rank well until the next round of quality oriented algorithm updates, but you will still look like webspam.
Think of the title element as the headline of an ad. You want it to make people want to click on it. Not much point in being in the top search results if you don’t stand out.
The traditional SEO advice for titles is to have your target keyword at the beginning of the title. If you can do that without it looking ridiculous and still have titles that people will like, then do it on your blog posts and secondary pages. For your home page, however, use your company or site name. It looks better, and is better for branding and name recognition. With a well planned and executed SEO strategy, you can worry less about whether or not you have the right formula for what you think Google wants.
A search within the SEO world is a good example of how a branded home page title can stand out and get better results. Do a search for “Pittsburgh SEO company” (or use your own city) and see what you get. Probably seven or eight titles that all start the same way and one or two stand-outs. Now, which ones look like potential spam and which ones look like legitimate companies? Which ones do you think get more clicks?
Look at the search results in the niche you are working in. Some sites may be consistently ranking well with spammy titles, but more often the sites that are working on branding and not just keywords are ultimately going to be more successful. Are the real movers and shakers of your industry calling their site “Red Widgets Company Buy Red Widgets Custom Widgets in Red” or are they more like “ABC Manufacturing – Red Widgets and Accessories”? A couple of key questions to ask yourself about home page titles: “Would I be more likely to do business with a site that has a name, or a bunch of keywords?” and “Would I answer my business phone ’ABC Manufacturing’ or ‘Red Widgets Company…’?” Just because it is the web does not mean rational thinking, sensible communication and a professional appearance are no longer important. The internet is simply a tool with which we do business, not a whole new world without common sense.
Ultimately it is your call – go for the keyword, or stand out from the dozens of other sites that all look like they have the same name.
Important Stuff to Remember:
- Google and other search engines will shorten titles longer than about 60-70 characters, depending on what browser is being used and how Google is showing the results. This seems to be getting shorter, so aim for about 60 characters.
- Write titles that people will want to click on. If possible include your target search term at or near the beginning.
- Make sure there is only oneelement in the head section. If you are using WordPress with a plugin for SEO, the plugin may not get along with your theme and you can end up with two titles.
The Meta Tags
The Meta Description
The meta description tag tells the search engines what the page is about. When a user searches for something and Google determines that your description is accurate, it will often show the meta description you wrote. Otherwise, Google will piece together bits of text from the page to show the user where the words they searched can be found.
The meta description is not used in determining the page’s rank, but a good description is still very important as an indicator of quality and relevance.
Like the title element, the meta description is an opportunity to use the search results as free advertising space. A well-written description will lead to more people clicking through to your site. If possible, try to make it interesting and not just another opportunity to overuse keywords. If you can include your keyword, that will improve your chances of your meta description showing up in searches, but don’t try too hard and end up keyword-stuffing. Quality counts.
Also like the title, the meta description length is limited. 140-160 characters seems to be the norm, depending on the browser and how results are being shown. You can go a little longer, but Google will simply select what it feels is appropriate to appear in the results. It should be longer than about 70 characters, or you probably aren’t telling the search engines enough about the contents of the page.
You can also omit the meta description and let Google generate its own or let your CMS or plugin do the work, but it is better to have some control over how your page is presented in the search results.
Be creative and stand out in the SERPs:
Important Stuff to Remember:
- Short and sweet, about as long as a Tweet
- Write accurate, interesting descriptions – not a list of keywords
- Just one – make sure your CMS and any plugins are not putting in duplicates
What About The Keyword Tag?
The keyword meta tag is not completely useless, however. Some social bookmarking sites do use them to help you categorize bookmarks, for example. If you are superstitious, already use it, or for whatever reason want to use the meta keywords tag anyway – use only keywords which are very appropriate for the page (not your favorite keyword for the whole site), and only use a few.
Important Stuff to Remember:
- You don’t need the keyword meta tag
- If you still want to include it, use only a few very relevant keywords separated by commas
Robots Meta Tag
< meta name=”robots” content=”noindex,nofollow”>.
Some search engines ignore this tag, so if you really want to block something from search engine crawlers, it is better to use a robots.txt file to do so.
Important stuff to remember:
- If you use robots meta while developing a site or page, don’t forget to remove it!
- When in doubt, leave it out. Unless you are sure you want to block a page from the search engine index, don’t add a meta robots tag.
Other Meta Tags
Here are a few outdated meta tags you don’t need and should not use.
<meta name=”revisit-after” content=”30 days”> used to tell the spiders when to return.
<meta name=”distribution” content=”web”> once told the search engines how the content was distributed. Huh?
<meta http-equiv=”refresh” content=”30″> would make the browser refresh the page. Why? Who knows – to inflate hit counts for spammy sites selling ads based on traffic?
<meta http-equiv=”refresh” content=”x_seconds; url=http://www.domain.com/some other page.html”> would redirect to another page after a certain amount of time.
These are often found on older sites or sites built by people who followed some bad advice, and are no longer used since there are better ways or because the search engines have said not to use them. For example, redirects should be done through other server-side methods like in the .htaccess file.
There are many other meta tags like verification for Webmaster Tools and other sites, Facebook OpenGraph, Twitter Hover Cards, and a variety of new things to put in your head like schema markup and rich data snippets (more on those very important ways of interacting with search engines in a future post).
For now, this basic advice on meta tags and title elements should help you make sure you have what you need in your head and remove what you don’t.