How search engines rank websites
Before any Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) work takes place, we need to understand how search engines work. A widely-held misconception is that search engines rank websites; they don’t!
Search engines rank web pages – a common mistake is to assume that if your website is optimised for a number of keywords, all the traffic will go to your homepage. While the homepage is usually the most prominent page within a site, the search engines will also look at your web pages individually and determine which ones are most relevant for the keyword search for.
This concept is something you should always have in mind when undertaking any optimisation work, since collectively the ‘other’ pages on your site can easily attract considerably more traffic than your homepage. This is particularly true for any sites with regularly updated content e.g. sites with user-generated content, blogs etc.
Getting your new site noticed
While most search engines will sooner or later find your new website, this can take some time. Luckily, you can speed up the process by getting inbound links from trusted, popular sites. When Google and other search engines crawl these sites they will follow the links to your site and add the content from your site in their database.
You can also submit your site to the most popular search engines (Google and Yahoo offer this facility); this will place your site in a queue of sites to be crawled but as this approach can sometimes take months it is recommended to focus on placing relevant links on high-traffic sites instead.
Classifieds sites like Craigslist or Gumtree can be particularly good for this as they are crawled very often by the search engines due to their popularity and changing content and can often result in your website getting crawled within a couple of days. Just remember make sure that your listing contains a proper hyperlink to your site (writing the full URL of your website will usually automatically make them into a hyperlink e.g. http://www.PeoplePerHour.com).
Basic Optimisation of your web pages
This is usually referred to as ‘onsite’ optimisation work, as it involves working on structuring your web pages (or the information on your web pages) in the most effective way to ensure that they achieve the best possible ranking in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). Unless you have technical skills, you will most probably need the help of a webmaster or SEO expert to implement some of these changes.
This is by no means an exhaustive list since search engines will take a lot of factors into account when ranking web pages, but should get you off to a good start:
- Page Title: The page title is the text that appears in the top blue bar of your browser. This is one of the key parameters used by search engines to determine the relevance of a page, so make that an appropriate page title is placed on each of your pages. Ideally, you would like the page title to be as relevant as possible to the content of the web page and contain keywords or key phrases that you would like to appear for in the SERPs. The Page Title also appears in the SERPs, so having a good, relevant page title will increase the chances of your link in the SERPs being clicked.
- URL: The URL is simply the web address of a web page – having relevant keywords in the URL can help your rankings. To achieve this, you will need to work with your web designer/developer to insert these keywords in each page. A word of caution; avoid excessively long URLs as they can have a negative impact.
- Text: An SEO saying states that ‘content is king’, meaning that no other SEO technique can beat good, relevant content. While SEO is a combination of many factors it is true that if you do not have the relevant content on your website, it will be very difficult to appear in the SERPs. A lot of people place emphasis on the ‘keyword density’ of the pages but search engine algorithms change constantly so you are better off creating the text with your users in mind while trying to include any keywords you consider important for your site.
- Metadata: Meta tags are not as important as they used to be but it is still worth ensuring that the right keywords are entered on each page of your site. Again, you will need to work with your webmaster to insert this content on each page and ensure that each page has metadata which is specific to it (as opposed to generic for the site).
Building relevant Inbound Links
Inbound links are links from other web sites to your site. It is important to try and obtain relevant links to your site, meaning that the sites linking to yours have a related ‘theme’ to your site. If you are selling books online for example, an inbound link from a website with book reviews will be very relevant while a link from a mobile phone web site will not.
Broadly speaking, the more relevant inbound links you have the higher your page rankings will be so you should be aiming to get as many of these links as possible. Strictly speaking, different links carry different ‘weights’ (depending on how ‘important’ the page the links are placed on is considered by the search engines) but for the purpose of this article let’s assume that they all carry the same ‘weight’.
However, it is worth noting that links from irrelevant site or sites that are just there to facilitate link building (as opposed to being genuine sites ‘with a real purpose’) will not help your rankings so they are best to be avoided as you can even get penalised for having these inbound links.
There are many strategies for increasing your inbound links; common ways of doing so including contacting other sites to ‘exchange’ links or simply pay them to place a link on their site, finding relevant blogs and contacting the person in charge to see if you can get a relevant link to your site (you might be asked to submit an article on a particular topic etc) and placing links in directories (e.g. Yahoo directory) and classifieds sites (e.g. Gumtree).
Link building is considered to be very important in SEO and apart from improving your search engine rankings, will also drive relevant traffic to your site.
Leveraging Internal Links
While inbound links are key, the importance of internal links should not be underestimated. Internal links are links from pages on your web site to other pages on your site. Your search engine rankings can be improved by creating these internal links by using keywords in your site as the link text.
You will notice that many sites (e.g. Wikipedia) use internal links extensively; every time a word appears and a relevant article exists on Wikipedia, the word is linked to the relevant article. Apart from increasing internal links, this also makes it easier for users to find their way to relevant content on your site.
Analysing Competitor strategies
A useful exercise to conduct is the following: search for the key terms you are interested and note down which pages rank highly in the SERPs. You can then analyse these pages to see how many times are the keywords mentioned in the text, what page title has been used and what keywords have been included in the URL.
Additionally, you can also check to see how many links these websites/web pages have and what sites are linking to them. Each search engine uses different notation but, for example, to achieve this on Google enter the text ‘link:www.peopleperhour.com’ (of course replacing ‘www.peopleperhour.com’ with the URL of the site you are interested in)
If your site has hundreds or thousands of pages, it is unlikely that the search engines will store all the pages in their database. Search engines will try to determine which pages have unique, different content and include those in their database. The way your site is structured and the internal links (or absence of them) will also determine how easy it is for a search engine to find all your web pages/content and stored them.
You can check how many of your pages Google is storing by entering ‘site:www.(nameofyoursite.com)’ on Google. If most of your pages are not stored by Google it’s time to get some help on making the right changes on your site to ensure that more of your pages are indexed by the search engines.
Also, the size of your site and frequency of change of your content will determine how often your site is visited (‘crawled’) by the search engines; this can be important, particularly if you have content that changes frequently on your site (e.g. daily news on a particular subject) that you would like people to find on the search engines.
Do not forget your visitors
A lot of effort can go into SEO and into trying to make web pages more ‘search-engine friendly’ but at the end of the day, you should not forget to design your pages with real users primarily in mind.
Google and the other search engines are constantly changing their algorithms so SEO should be viewed as an ongoing process. This also means that it is not worth trying to ‘trick’ search engines as they will quickly catch up and possibly penalise your site.
Instead, focus on creating good, relevant content for your visitors, laid out and structured in a way that makes sense. Search engines want people to find what they are looking for so create your content with ‘human users’ in mind and your search engine rankings will improve over time.