Content + Links = SEO
More than 200 factors are said to contribute to a page’s ranking in search engines, but we can reduce the complex to the simple by focusing on the important. While St. Louis SEO professionals argue over how much certain factors matter, and whether some even matter at all, all would agree that the two most import aspects of search engine optimization are content and links: “on-page” and “off-page”
What’s in a Page?
Throughout this book you’ll notice greater use of the term “web page” rather than “website”. The concept of “page” needs to be clarified. In regular conversation, people use the two terms more or less interchangeably. For SEO purposes, it’s important to understand that search engines rank individual pages, not sites. Each of the ten results listed within Google’s Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) points to a particular URL (Uniform Resource Locator, or web address). Even when the URL is a site’s home page, only the home page has the ranking shown for that specific search.
Failing to understand the distinction between pages and site can lead to unfortunate results. It’s common, for instance, for people to try to get links from a high-PageRank “site” to boost their own website’s ranking. You’ll frequently hear people refer to certain sites by their assumed PageRank: e.g. “a PageRank 5 site,” or “a PR 6 website”. What’s really happening is that the site’s home page has the high PageRank (we’ll discuss PageRank in the “Understanding Backlinks” chapter), not necessarily the page where the link would reside.
Each page on your site has its own identity, and its own opportunity to rank well for certain keywords. One page on a fitness site might be optimized to rank for “running shoes,” while another has content that Google has indexed for “low carb recipes.” Your home page might have a PageRank of 4, while an old blog post in the site’s archives might have a PageRank of 2, and another post might have a PageRank of 1.
Content—everything that goes into your web pages—needs to be developed with two audiences in mind: humans and search engines. Most people recognize good content when they see it, and issues of quality are easy to appreciate or criticize. What’s far less obvious is the need to write for search engines.
In the “eyes” of a search engine, good content is keyword relevant content. A search engine needs to be able to classify the topic of a web page in its index. Computers are powerful, but dumb. The only way they can determine whether a page is relevant to a particular topic is to scan for keywords. Some of these keywords will be on the page being indexed. Other keywords will be in the text of the links pointing to the page from a different page on the same website. Still others will be in the text of links pointing to the page from a page on a different website. Links from other websites are called backlinks.
Keywords and Tags: The Elements of On-Page SEO
Ranking well in a search engine means ranking well for a particular search term, or keyword, like “running shoes” or “low carb recipes.” Determine your keyword, and on-page optimization becomes a step-by-step process of making sure that keyword and its variations are strategically placed in a few HTML elements of the web page, such as:
1. Title tags. The title of an individual web page, in HTML terms, is called a title tag (or sometimes an HTML title). It not only shows up with a larger font at the top of the article, but also appears as the blue underlined link you click on in search engines. This is the most important on-page factor to manage.
2. Meta descriptions. This is considered an “on-page” element because it’s in the page’s HTML, but it’s not
visible to the person reading the website; it’s metadata that describes the page in summary form. The meta description is usually one or two sentences long. While keywords placed in a meta description tag aren’t indexed like the keywords in the title or article, the text that appears in this description shows up in the SERPs, right after the HTML title.
3. Headers. Keywords in the post title and subheadings are given slightly more weight by search bots than keywords in article paragraphs. It would be hard to write a blog post about a topic without putting a few keywords about that topic in the title and subheadings, so the bots pick up on these elements to determine how the post should be indexed.
4. Alt text. Alternate text is used to embed the text equivalent of an image on a web page for the visually impaired (text-tospeech software can read it aloud) and for search engines. Some webmasters have reported sizeable boosts in their search traffic after making their alt text more specific, such as “Vegetarian low carb recipe” instead of just “Vegetarian dish.”
We’ll cover these and other on-page factors in the “On-Page Optimization” chapter.
Links: The Elements off Off-Page SEO
Optimizing keywords and tags on your web pages is helpful, and it would be foolish not to pay attention to on-page factors. But the real meat and potatoes of SEO (sorry, vegetarians) is in links— particularly backlinks from other sites.
When a modern search bot crawls (or “spiders”) a page on the Web that hasn’t yet been indexed, it
looks for keywords on the page to index it, then looks for any hyperlink pointing to another web page. The bot then follows the URL in the hyperlink to crawl the new page. If that page hasn’t been indexed, the cycle is repeated: it looks for keywords on the page to index it, then looks for hyperlinks pointing to other pages, and follows them.
Some links carry more weight than others. Internal links (links from onepage on a site to another page on the same site) generally have less weight, or “link juice,” than external links (links from a different site). Links with relevant keywords in their text will have more weight than generic text like, “click here.” Links from three different websites will have more weight than three links from the same website. Links from pages with higher PageRank will have more weight than links from pages with lower PageRank.
Keys to an SEO-Friendly Site
A site that complies with the principles in this chapter will be more likely to attract attention from search engines (by getting indexed) than sites that focus on “good” content. When you’re starting a niche site, keep the following in mind:
- Whenever possible, give your site a name that includes words that people would use in a search engine to find your site. For a fitness site, a domain name like FitnessScope.com, which contains the word “fitness”, immediately tells search engines what your site is about.
- The same principle applies to individual web pages. For a blog post reviewing the latest Amazon Kindle, a post title like, “What’s Not to Love about the Amazon Kindle?” contains the search term while looking natural. Each blog post is its own web page, and the blog title is the page title; so putting the keyword in the page title is important.
- Start engaging with bloggers and webmasters in your niche, either through blog comments, social media or email. The more you get on their radar, assuming you take genuine interest in what they produce, the easier it will be for you to get many of the links you need when you create a post of high value.
- Remember to use internal links to help search engines index your pages. If you had a post titled “My 10 Favorite Books of 2012”, for instance, you can incorporate a sentence describing how you read most of your books on the “Amazon Kindle”, linking the keyword to your Amazon Kindle review page.
There’s a lot more to say about good links, mediocre links, and bad links. We’ll get to all of them in due course. Since much of what makes some links better than others are the keywords contained in them, this is probably a good time to examine keywords in greater detail.