One of the most frequent conversations I have with my clients is about their Search Engine Rankings. I have been pleased to see the amount of interest they are taking in their websites organic ranking. By organic, I am referring to “natural” search results as opposed to paid rankings or pay per click / adword campaigns. I have been experimenting with some new techniques and strategies the past few months and I am going to summarize my findings here for those of you that might be interested, I also welcome your findings here as well. Also, I want to make mention that my company Pleth Networks, LLC offers SEO as well as SEP services to our clients on a paid basis, this is freebie info I am just throwing out there.
Beware of Anyone w/ All of the Answers!
One of the first things I want to cover here, (and it’s really a biggie in my opinion), is the vast assortment of so-called search engine experts that are out there. There are so many varying opinions out there today as to what works and what doesn’t work, etc. I was attending a conference last year in Chicago and sat in on two sessions discussing SEO, both were being conducted by folks I believe that are very credible folks in the industry. I couldn’t help but notice that not only did they contrast on a few things but they also disagreed strongly on a few big things. I can’t remember now w/out looking at my notes what exactly these issues were but they weren’t small things. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that there is so much information on the web regarding Search Engine Optimization, it gives us a wealth of things to try out, sometimes at our own expense though.
What about Keywords & Meta-tags?
Back in the day, keywords & meta-tags were all of the rage, they still are with a lot of people today, but my personal testing has shown me something slightly different. Keywords aren’t near as important as they might have once been, in fact I am of the belief right now that if you spend over an hour on your keywords while developing your website you have spent plenty of time on them. I know a developer right now that has completely abandoned keywords altogether. I haven’t gotten to that point quite yet, while they may not matter as much on Google, Yahoo, etc., there may still be some search engines out there that still look at keywords strongly, and who knows, one of those search engines may be the hottest thing a year from now. I don’t see where having keywords could hurt anything so I advise my clients to go ahead and put them in, can’t hurt anything…
I have also been asked by clients how many keywords they need to have on their site. I really don’t know the answer to this, I have seen clients send me huge word docs w/ keywords galore and I have seen clients send over a list with only 5 or 6 keywords on it and they do extremely well. I would recommend using about 10 or so keywords that are strong with what you want to come up under in the engines and just leave it at that. I wouldn’t worry too much about adding keywords down the road as your business grows, and I will explain my foundation for this later on when I discuss the importance of the <title> and <h1> tags below…
What about Page Description in the Meta Information?
This is becoming a popular debate today and I can see both sides of the argument. My partner Greg stumbled upon this one when we recreated our Pleth site and brought it to my attention so I have to credit him w/ this find.
I have found that it’s good to have a different page description in your meta’s for each page in your website. Since a lot of sites today are complicated dynamic content management type applications this can sometimes be difficult to accomplish. Fortunately I have found that Google will look for your meta-description on your website and if it doesn’t find one, it will immediately dive deeper into your page and excerpt your page for a description. Here’s a prime example of our findings to support this.. (Source: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rls=GFRC%2CGFRC%3A2007-05%2CGFRC%3Aen&q=+site%3Awww.pleth.com) These are actual listings in Google for Pleth’s Corporate Website with the description tag removed. Notice the varying descriptions under the title.
Pleth | Web Site Design, Managed Hosting, Email Hosting, Email Service
Pleth | Client Portfolio
Spotlight Sites:. Atlanta Kids Directory is a full-color monthly resource guide that is distributed within the Atlanta, Georgia area. …
www.pleth.com/client_portfolio/ – 90k – Cached – Similar pages – Note this
Pleth | Contact Information
One of the biggest advantages to doing business with a firm like Pleth Networks is that our team is always accessible for your managed web hosting needs. …
www.pleth.com/contact.htm – 26k – Cached – Similar pages – Note this
With this being the case it makes me wonder if we are not better off nowadays to leave off the descriptions altogether? This is something that I think has more or less evolved as of late, it may have always been a trick that others knew but I was brought up under the school of thought that when putting together a site you always needed to have a keyword heavy description list that coincided with your keyword tags, not anymore. This is probably one of the biggest finds for me that I am seeing work. Our traffic to our Corporate website has dramatically improved and I plan on deleting my keywords from this blog in the very near future to see what happens.
One other thing that I want to make mention of about this before I move on is that by trying this I don’t see it as a risky thing to do because as I make mention later in this entry, there is so much emphasis in page titles nowadays. (keep reading)
Alt-tags on Images
This was a tactic that we used quite a bit back in the day that showed a little benefit but I have found that it’s not relevant enough today to really worry about anymore. The one thing that I can see it’s good for might be to help your images come up higher in Google’s Image Search or something like that but honestly, who really uses image search to look for Real Estate or NASCAR t-shirts? My advice, don’t spend the time tagging your images, if you have the time, go for it, I haven’t seen in any cases where it hurt anything.
Black Hat Tricks / Hidden Text, etc.
Another technique that used to be used quite a bit back in the day was the practice of hiding small same colored text in the top or bottom of a page, it was for the most part just a repetition of the same keywords to provide a higher ranking. For as long as I can remember this was considered black hat and there was always the threat that the search engines would punish you for doing this by dropping your rankings, I have heard stories of this but haven’t ever actually seen it happen before, in fact I have a client that I have managed his site for a number of years now and he has had hidden text on his site for as long as I can remember and to the best of my knowledge has always outranked his competitors. I am certainly not saying that the hidden text is helping him because there are other factors as to why his site ranks high but I am simply pointing out that he hasn’t ever been penalized for this.
Age of Domain
One thing that I have found to be valid is that a site’s age has a little bit to do with how well it pulls up in Google. Now, with that being said, I will also say that it’s not always the rule. Let’s say you take a website and put it up on a domain that was purchased this week and then you take that same website and put it up on another domain that is 5 years old, I have found that the older domain does better. (don’t do this though, see duplicate content below) Now, if you own an older domain but are using a newer domain, don’t worry, simply have us do a 301 redirect in Apache to your newer domain and all of the “advantage” from the older domain is then transferred to your newer domain. This is a practice that other SE firms are doing as has proven to do the trick.
If you are starting from scratch don’t get discouraged by the age of domain thing because there are a lot of ways you can still rise above your competitors that have been online for a long time, keep reading…
In talking with other SE folks I have learned that duplicate or identical content can get disregarded by Google if it’s completely word for word identical. I have also found that this isn’t always the rule and sometimes a little bit of variation in the content is ok. This isn’t a big factor for me because most of our clients operate from one domain and just have 401 redirects to the primary domain from any other domains that they might own.
Long Keyword Heavy Content
Again, back in the day, more was better it seemed. I would encourage my clients to send me long wordy pages that were packed with keywords. While I haven’t seen where this has hurt anything for any of my clients I have found that it’s not completely neccessary. If you write good content with decent keyword density throughout you should do just fine. After all, in the grand scheme of things you are writing the long pages to get a higher engine ranking to bring folks to your site and then if they get there and find a long-winded in-coherent rambling they are going to get turned off anyway. My advice is to just write good content that includes your keywords, remember if you do the trick I mentioned above and drop the description from your meta-tags the search engines are going to see your content anyway….
Flash / Shockwave Animation
Flash has been around a while now, and while I will be the first one to tell you that it’s pretty to look at, I have to recommend limiting it’s use. I will occasionally use Flash Animation on a clients website to create an effect, but I use it only in places that are of little value, examples would be a flash montage in the center of the home page with photos tweening in and out or maybe in the banner of the page. In the past we utilized a few flash navigations but today we abstain from doing this at all, even in the rare cases where we used the flash navigations we would use text links in the footer of each page to link all of the pages together. The big problem with flash is that after all of this time it’s still not legible by the search engines, I know that there are those out there that will disagree with this who are extremely pro-flash but I invite them to show me an instance where a shockwave object got crawled by googlebot or another search engine, I have never seen this happen. Again, I want to reiterate that it’s not a crime to use Flash on your website, and I certainly think that it’s got it’s place on the web but I would advise you not to use it for critical components of your site like the navigation.
I would venture to say that having an xml sitemap for your website is critical these days. Google, Yahoo, and even MSN (found out about this one yesterday) all have webmaster tools that allow us to list links to xml sitemaps for websites that we manage. These sitemaps simply list all of the pages that are included in your website so that the search engines can index the entire website. I have seen the benefit when it comes to xml sitemaps. If you want an example of what a sitemap looks like, here’s a link to mine: http://www.cottonrohrscheib.com/blog/sitemap.xml
While researching MSN last night for a client I discovered that somewhere along the way they had added a webmaster tools section as well for recording sitemaps, for a while this was non-existent and I am glad to see them trying to keep up with the pack but let’s face it MSN isn’t anywhere in the league with Google, or even Yahoo for that matter. Keep in mind this is my opinion and I know that there are diehard MSN users out there but they are a minority these days. Google is by far the king in my opinion.
It’s never been hard to figure out how to submit your site to Google or Yahoo but with MSN it has been a task to say the least, here are a few links that I discovered last night that are relatively new I would think. I am assuming they were added once MSN implemented their Live Search.
Submit your Site to MSN (Live Search) – http://beta.search.msn.com/docs/submit.aspx?FORM=WSUT
Record your XML sitemap to MSN (Live Search) – http://login.live.com/login.srf?wa=wsignin1.0&rpsnv=10&ct=1203104699&rver=4.5.2125.0&wp=MBI&wreply=http:%2F%2Fwebmaster.live.com%2FPassport.aspx%3Frequrl%3Dhttp%253a%252f%252fwebmaster.live.com%253a80%252fWebmasterAddSitesPage.aspx&lc=1033&id=252562 (you will also need to have a passport or live login to get into this one, but it’s worth it if you manage a website)
Incoming Links & Reciprocal Links
This is also a topic that has sparked debate. In the past there was the school of thought that the more incoming links you had to your website the better off you were, today part of that is still true, the more incoming links does help but the incoming links that matter the most are the ones that come from websites that have a similar focus. Here’s an example of this…
Let’s say that I have a friend who owns a restaurant and he puts a link to my website (a web design business) and at the same time a web-hosting business puts a link to my business on their website, the link from the hosting business is going to give my site a bigger boost because it is closely related to my business. Not that the link from the restaurant is going to hurt anything, some would argue but I haven’t seen anything to prove it in my research, in fact as a test I put a link to my web development blog on a tourism website that I manage for a client and low and behold my Google PR (pagerank) actually improved… Go figure. My advice is, if someone is willing to link to your website never discourage them from doing so, I would advise you though to pursue websites that are closely aligned with your business when looking for reciprocal links.
Reciprocal links used to be a big thing, it was always recommended that if someone links to you that you provide a link back to them but I haven’t found that to be as relevant today as it once was. In the past I would never think of having my corporate website not linked to all of the associations I belong to in the footer but in our last release of our Pleth Corporate website we left this off of the footer and have actually seen a lot of success with it not there. I guess you don’t really know unless you try these things, that’s part of the reason I am publishing this entry because I have actually tested these things and am only reporting what I know from my tests.
Banner Ads on High Traffic Websites
I have a lot of clients who see purchasing banner ads on high traffic websites as a way to increase their search engine rankings but for the most part the goal in doing this is to attract more traffic to your website. A small text link will do just as much good as a huge gawky banner if you are just out to get a higher ranking in the search engines. If you are looking for more traffic to your website, then the banner might be the best approach.
Tips for Text Links
This is a little complicated to explain and it has taken me a little while to analyze this and get my mind around it but here’s something that I have found that might be relevant. I am going to use Pleth as an example because this is where I am basing a lot of my information.
If a website is going to link to the pleth website, I would prefer them to link the words “web development” or “web hosting” as opposed to just linking the word “pleth” or spelling out our web address. I can’t explain this exactly but I think that there might be something to this. If you go to Google and type in Managed Web Hosting, we show up on page three! That might not sound like much to some of you but keep in mind that the keywords “managed web hosting” is a highly sought out search term and there are literally hundreds of thousands of websites out there that offer managed hosting, if you don’t believe me take a look at the amount of pad advertisements in Google’s sponsored links, here’s the link: http://www.google.com/search?q=managed+web+hosting&hl=en&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS242&start=20&sa=N
We have been able to achieve this high ranking by using a combination of techniques but I would have to say that our linking the words “managed hosting” in the footer credits of some of our clients websites is partly responsible for our success for this keyword. I have watched this happen right before my eyes.
The <title> and <h1> Tags
Okay, I have saved the best for last. In my opinion the best thing you can do to improve your websites rankings is to have your title and h1 or header tag the same. It is also a good idea to have your keywords or buzzwords used in your title tags. Here are some examples where this has made a dramatic difference for one of my Real Estate Clients, here’s a listing of terms he’s doing well with since we dramatically updated his website (www.greersferryrealestatecenter.com)…
Greers Ferry Lodging Providers (#1 in Google) ???? http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GFRC,GFRC:2007-05,GFRC:en&q=Greers+Ferry+Lodging+Providers
Greers Ferry Mortgage Companies (#1 in Google) ??? http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GFRC,GFRC:2007-05,GFRC:en&q=Greers+Ferry+Mortgage+Companies
Greers Ferry Lake Investment Property (#2 in Google) – http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rls=GFRC%2CGFRC%3A2007-05%2CGFRC%3Aen&q=Greers+Ferry+Lake+Investment+property
Lakefront Lots in Greers Ferry (#6 in Google) – http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS242&q=Lakefront+Lots+in+Greers+Ferry
Launching Ramp on Greers Ferry Lake – (#2 in Google, #4 in Yahoo) – http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GFRC,GFRC:2007-05,GFRC:en&q=Near+Launching+Ramp+on+Greers+Ferry+Lake
Nice Home Near Greers Ferry Lake (#1 in Google) – http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GFRC,GFRC:2007-05,GFRC:en&q=Nice+home+near+Greers+Ferry+Lake
Some of these terms are a little broad but I just wanted to show how having an assortment of page titles can open you up to a lot of success in Google for specific keyword searches. In this case, if someone is looking for lodging providers in Greers Ferry his site will pull up higher than the actual lodging providers, the same goes for a closely related industry like Mortgage Companies which is a nationally sought after keyword, he’s number 1 there also.
Now I want to take a look at how well his unique page titles are doing in Google. For the sake of this test I am going to pick a few unique page titles from his site and see how well they rank:
Lake View of Middle Fork (#1 in Google) – http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GFRC,GFRC:2007-05,GFRC:en&q=Lake+View+of+Middle+Fork
40 Acres Near Greers Ferry Lake (#3 in Google) – http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GFRC,GFRC:2007-05,GFRC:en&q=40+acres+near+Greers+Ferry+Lake
Business located in Greers Ferry (#2 in Google) – http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GFRC,GFRC:2007-05,GFRC:en&q=Business+located+in+Greers+Ferry
Nice Home Near Greers Ferry Lake (#1 in Google) – http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GFRC,GFRC:2007-05,GFRC:en&q=Nice+home+near+Greers+Ferry+Lake
Business building in the heart of Greers Ferry (#1 in Google) – http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GFRC,GFRC:2007-05,GFRC:en&q=Business+building+in+the+heart+of+Greers+Ferry
As you can see, the varying page titles in use on his website has dramatically helped his search engine results. This is all kind of new territory that developers are encountering today when developing dynamic content management solutions that were at one time non search friendly. In all of the applications I develop for Clients I do my best to ensure that whatever content they are going to generate that it’s going to give them a unique page title. From there my work as a consultant / developer is done, they simply have to come up with unique page titles that will help them positioned in the places they want to be positioned.
Again, I can’t stress enough how important page titles and identical header tags are, I think that this is probably one thing that a lot of website owners today have overlooked. I also know that in some cases this is not an attainable goal due to technology or software restrictions but whenever possible I strongly advise this technique above and beyond all others.
As I mentioned at the top of this entry, there are tons of sites out there offering advice on search engine optimization, and while I am not discounting any of those sites, I have learned in my 10 years or so of doing this for a living is that the only way you are going to find out for sure if a tactic or technique is going to work for sure is to try it out for yourself at your own risk.