Category Archives for Search Engine Optimization

How do search engines use meta tags?

Part 2 of What are Meta Tags?

We now know what are meta tags (previous post) and that they are really only two that we care about (well most of us, there are some additional ones that should be in a webmasters tool kit). So how do search engines use meta tags?

Keywords meta tag:

It used to be that you could put the keywords you wanted to rank for into the keyword meta tag, and the more the better right? Then you could sit back and consider yourself done with your SEO efforts. This has not been true for a while. Google completely ignores this tag and has for years, and while yahoo and bing probably look at the tag, it is not clear that they give it much weight in determining how to rank your site. Regardless, do not put 30+ keywords into this tag, this is known as keyword stuffing and will only harm your page. Keep it to 10 at most. If you do use adsense or other context driven ads on your site, there is evidence that they use the tag to determine what ads to show.

Description meta tag:

Technically this meta tag doesn’t help your web page rank any better, but it is still important. Why? Because if this tag is set, google will often show it as the snippet underneath the title in the SERPs (search engine results pages) rather than grabbing some random chunk of text off your page. I’ve seen some funny snippets over the years, usually from sites that have no text, so you get a snippet that says “you need flash version xxx to view this site”. Is that going to entice you to click? You can think of your description meta tag as the “welcome” mat to your site. Put together a catchy description (no more than 160 characters as that is all that will show) that will invite your reader to click through to find out more.

What are meta tags?

I belong to a mastermind group that is following a Joel Comm video series. We get together every week and discuss the particular session we watched during that week. Some of his videos do assume a certain amount of knowledge especially when they veer off the prepared materials.

The discussion was concerning meta tags and how important (or unimportant) they are for SEO. I was glad I watched because I picked up one interesting tidbit about meta tags that I hadn’t known before .. but I’ll get to that in another post.

So what are meta tags?

First off, it’s useful to understand that what you see on a web page isn’t the whole story, there are certain HTML code elements that are not visible on the rendered page but still read by search engines. Meta tags fall into this category. Meta tags are metadata, essentially data about data (if that is confusing, I’m afraid the wikipedia entry won’t be much help). However in this specific example, the concept is a little easier to grasp, since on an HTML web page, meta tags help describe what the web page is about.

What can you say about a web page? Well a number of things, but you need to only pay attention to two tags “description” and “keywords”.

  • Keywords is just that, a list of keywords that you think describe your page the best
  • Description is a few sentences that describes what your page is about

Many website building tools and CMS (content management systems) will have some way for you to fill these tags in, without having to learn how to code them into HTML. If they don’t, consider moving on to one that does.

Next – how search engines use meta tags

When to use “microsites”, subdomains vs. folders

I saw a blog post on when to use microsites vs. multiple domains. The blog post wasn’t that helpful, but reminded me that I wanted to sharpen my understanding of when:

  1. use of subdomain is called for versus a sub-directory
  2. when it makes sense to create a whole separate domain altogether

In my corporate web job, we often used subdomains because we were hosting the new website (usually an application rather than a pure HTML site) on separate servers. But then we would often create a “vanity URL” on the main site that redirected to the sub site. Interesting, but not necessarily helpful to answering the question or when, from the marketing or SEO perspective multiple domains is called for.

I was confused on what the term “microsite” meant. The wikipedia definition: “cluster of pages which are meant to function as an auxiliary supplement to a primary website … most likely has its own domain name or subdomain” helped quite a bit. From both the technical and user experience perspective, it makes sense to install something like a forums, catalog or other separate feature on a subdomain, like maps.google.com .. or even on a completely separate domain. And if it will have a distinct brand identity, a separate domain is called for. One more reason, mentioned by the wikipedia entry, is that it can help target your PPC keywords more accurately.

Subdomains appear to be treated similarly to sub-directories by search engines per Matt Cutts, which means you may not get much SEO benefit for the added complexity.

So microsites usually mean additional domains. However just because you want to expand your web presence into a related but different topic than your web site already covers, doesn’t necessary mean a new domain. A new domain adds management and other costs, and you might have to start from scratch to get it indexed by the search engines. You are also missing out on the opportunity to get your original site to rank for more searches because it has more content.

However, I’ve seen creation of a blog on wordpress.com or blogspot.com with links to a main site be quite helpful for ranking for desirable keywords. A specific tactic to keep in mind.

Sharing the Google Webmasters Tools love

Google LogoMany people are familiar with Google Analytics, a free service from Google that provides traffic statistics. Fewer are familiar with Google Webmasters Tools which is packed with all sorts of useful information about your site. Google Webmasters Tools gives you a number of hints on what to change or fix on your site to help it rank better, you can register XML sitemaps, see information on crawl information, and get SEO optimization suggestions.

However up to now, it’s been a pain to help clients, especially the less technically knowledgeable ones, set up verified Google Webmasters Tools access to their site. For every Google account, you had to upload a file to the root directory or add a meta tag to the home page.

Now, as long as you have one user is verified with Webmasters Tools, that user can easily add additional verified users.

In a blog post, sharing the verification love, the webmaster central blog outlines how it is done. The one caveat is that the access is binary (either you have it or you don’t). Unlike Google Analytics you can’t just give “read only” access.

If you need to set up both Google Analytics and Webmasters Tools for a WordPress site, this post will walk you through it.

Firefox SEO plug-ins – two to choose from

Do you know what Alexa rank and Google PR (page rank) your website has? How about your competitors? And what is an Alexa rank anyway?

An Alexa rank is a calculated measure of unique visitors and pageviews on a given web site. This may be counter intuitive but the lower your Alexa rank the better. Currently google.com has an Alexa rank of 1,and Facebook 4. Now you will find all sorts of debate online on how accurate the rank is, but everyone agrees it is useful as a rough measure of a website’s traffic. If you haven’t already you should compare your Alexa rank to your competitor’s website. Is yours higher? Then you have some work to do.

Google page rank, which ranges from 1 – 10, 10 being the highest measure, indicates how important and relevant Google thinks your site is. yahoo.com is a PR 9. cnn.com has a PR 10.

There are a number of ways to find out Alexa and Google page ranks. For Alexa, you can go directly to alexa.com and look a particular site up. There are also a number of plugins you can install directly into your Firefox browser (if you needed a reason to switch from using Internet Explorer, these tools might just convince you). If you like simple and unobtrusive check out searchstatus. For a more full featured tool you’ll want to download the SEO toolbar from seobook.com.

Check out searchstatus’s icon for options next to the PageRank and Alexa measures. It will, among other things, give you a list of meta tags for a site. SeoBook’s tool bar installs underneath your toolbar bookmarks and presents backlink information at a glance.

Google is a Popularity Contest

Remember voting for the prom queen? The candidates campaigned for your vote and if she got the most votes, she wore the crown at the dance. The google SERPs (search engine results, the listings that appear when you search on a particular keyword phrase) work in the same way. Google organizes it’s search listings on a number of factors, but one very important one is based on the number of “votes” for your site. But what are these votes? And how does google count them? Votes in the google world are links to your site.

Called “backlinks” in SEO (search engine optimization) terminology, these links occur whenever another site has a link back to yours. While I am oversimplifying matters, you could do worse than encourage other sites to link to your website.

Part of a chamber of commerce? Have you spoken at an event? Make sure that any online presence these events have identify you and your business and most importantly: have a link to your web site. You will be on your way to participating in one of the largest popularity contests there is in the business world.

Do you participate in social networking? Do you comment on other blogs? Participate in online groups such as google groups? In all these activities, make sure that your signature in your post includes a link to your website.

Of course you do not want to just post your business name and website without adding some value. While yes any backlink helps, you also want your link to invite people to click on it. That can be even more valuable than just improving your position in the SERPs, especially if you are in a competitive niche. Also many bloggers moderate (review) comments to their blog and will not post your comment unless it provides some value to the conversation.

Many blogging sites tag backlinks as “no follow”. This tells google not to “follow” the link and not count it. However there is some debate on whether google truly ignores it. Yes, it is not as valuable as a “followed” link but some SEOs believe that it still counts in google’s algorithms. And if you want to find blogs that allow “follows” just search in google for “dofollow blogs”.

How do you find out how many backlinks your site has?  In a post I will showcase some tools you install into your Firefox browser (sorry IE users) that will give you this and other SEO information, but for now you can follow the below:  Ready?

  1. Go to http://search.yahoo.com
  2. Type in the following, replacing “yoursite.com” with your website URL: linkdomain:http://www.yoursite.com -site:www.yoursite.com
  3. On the page that appears, look at the upper right for the number of results this query returns
  4. This is the number of backlinks your site has … take some time and see who has linked to you. Can you encourage more of them?

The reason for the “-site:www.yoursite.com” part of the query is to remove all internal linking (pages within your site that link to other pages).

As an SEO practitioner I have looked at a number of backlink profiles, some of very large companies. Backlinks can come from interesting places. Google looks very kindly on backlinks that come from educational institutions (.edu) and to a lesser extent the .orgs. I’ve seen very good quality backlinks that come from sponsoring charitable events. One company got quite a bit of mileage from a “cartoon character” shown on TV that the animation industry created many variants of. Viral food for thought.

Here’s another tip. The “anchor text” (the text comprises the clickable link) is important too. Help the folks linking to your site avoid the dreaded “click here” and ask them to use descriptive language (such as “wellness doctor focusing on back injuries”) in the anchor text.

Finally, if your site has no backlinks and no traffic, consider adding a listing in one of the directories. This is a topic worthy of an article on it’s own, but it might be worth paying for a listing in yahoo business directory or best of web. Some directories are free. Look for topical directories that are related to your business. Just keep in mind the tip about focusing on websites that are well regarded by google and stay away from the many “spammy” directories that google ignores. You may also consider approaching a complementary business and asking them to link to you. If you have an interesting blog or articles that might be of interest to their audience, this often occurs naturally, however sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Link building can be a time consuming activity and many business outsource this work, however it is just another tool in an business’s tool belt and if you keep your eyes open you can opportunistically capitalize on a “backlinking” opportunity as they arise.

Title Tag is top SEO ranking factor

According to a seomoz.org article, page title, or the title tag, is one of the top five SEO ranking factors. After experiencing several phone conversations having to explain what a page title was, and more importantly, helping them locate it (… no higher, above the URL box … at the very top … see it?). I thought I would upload a hastily thrown together image as a reference for future conversations.

Location of Title Tag encircled in red

Title Tag encircled in red above

But before I did that, I realized I should eat my own dogfood and install the All in One SEO Pack in this wordpress blog. This allows the title tag to be set to something other than the blog post title as well as setting the meta keyword and description tags, eliminating the conflict over choosing a catchy blog post title that is devoid of keywords in favor of a well optimized one.  An action long overdue, especially given that I had installed it on quite a few other blogs already.

However to be honest I have spent very little time on SEO of this blog, the subject matter is frightfully competitive and my SEO efforts are better spent elsewhere.  But it’s just one of those wordpress plug-ins you should just install.

web site speed does matter

If you are into SEO (search engine optimization), you probably know who Matt Cutts is. Matt Cutts is a top software engineer at Google, and has a well followed blog. Recently he commented that google may start taking into account site load time in its rankings.

While likely not a factor in the rankings until 2010, and the impact maybe small, it’s something to start thinking about. After all if your site is slow, page rank might be the least of your problems. Owing to the notorious fickleness of users, if you don’t grab their attention in 2 or 3 seconds, they are on to the next thing.

Google webmaster tools has a new feature for you to quickly assess your site’s performance. Under the labs section you will find a “site performance” link that will tell you the average page load time and how you rank against all the other web sites on the internet. If you are slower than 85% of the other web sites on the web, you have some work to do.

Check out the google webmaster central blog post on the topic.

Google Local Business Center

I am always amazed at the number of small businesses centers that do not know about Google Local Business Center. The word is getting out there but slowly.

If you search on a keyword phrase that includes a geographic term, especially a city name, you will likely get a list of several results (often 10) that click into a map results. These are local businesses that have a physical presence and relevance for the term you typed in.

The idea was to give local brick and mortar businesses visibility in the SERPS. Usually these businesses have no or an inadequate web presence and can certainly use the help.

Registering with Google Local Business Center is free. You can add pictures and video to your entry. Make sure you have your physical address on your web site and participate in the verification that google will do when you add a listing into the LBC. Check out the below video for more:

When search engine traffic is not wanted

Everyone wants their site to be found by google, right? Who wouldn’t want more free traffic delivered to their site? The goal of getting onto page 1 of the SERPs (search engine result pages) is such a holy grail, that a whole service industry called search engine optimization has come into it’s own.

But traffic doesn’t always come from the search engines. And some online businesses are not at all interested in marketing to just anyone, but rather just to a targeted clientele that comes to them virally rather via search.

Meet invitation only sites such as Rue La La a luxury e-tailer that seeks to promote an air of exclusivity. To become a member, you have to be invited, and only then can you have access to its discounted designer goods.

Putting your site behind an authentication prompt, which Rue La La has done, is one way to hide your pages from the search engines. Another is through directives in a file, robots.txt, you place on your site. Sites such as Gilt Groupe, another invite only site have excluded many of their site’s directories from the spiders.

So if you are searching for a killer deal on that Gucci bag online, be aware there are certain sites that are completely hidden from you unless you are “in the know”.