Search Engine Optimisation, strictly speaking, is the process of making websites more visible to search engines like Google so that they can be indexed better and have more chance of appearing in relevant searches. That, in the strict sense, is its definition. However, the term has come to be used as a shorthand for "getting to the top of Google", which is a somewhat more involved process. Improving your ranking in search engine results depends on a number of factors, including the "authority” attributed to your web site/page, which can be dictated by the authority of sites that link to you.
So what we have is actually two different kinds of SEO, on-page and off-page. On-page SEO deals with making sure a search engine notices that your page holds answers to certain search terms, and off-page SEO deals with making the search engine believe you are more important than the other sites it has found for the same terms and should therefore be higher up the list of results.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll only be looking at on-page SEO, as that is what can be influenced with a good website design. And although what we talk about will have a bearing on ranking within search results, the key focus is just making sure that a site’s pages are as useful to Google as possible (and all the other search engines, of course). There will also be some mention of code, since HTML is what Google reads, but don’t worry - we won’t dwell on it.
On a side note, we’ll stop saying “search engine” and start using "Google". It may be true that there are other search engines, but they are dwarfed by Google which is considered the de facto search engine at the moment. According to Statcounter GlobalStats, by the end of last year in the UK pretty much nine out of every 10 searches were performed on Google. Even Bing, the next bggest player which also handles all searches performed by Yahoo and Alexa, still only averages around 1 in 20 of all internet searches performed.
Your page's content
The page content is, as far as a search engine is concerned, the substance of the page. The text and images that make up your page are what it will be indexing and filing away for future reference. There are a few things that you can do with the content of your page to ensure it’s given better consideration.
The first is to write well.
It may be a computer looking at it, but don’t assume it to be stupid and just stuff as many keywords in as possible - this will immediately put you on Google’s naughty list and your page will suffer. Well, to be fair, the term Google uses is ‘penalised’ but it amounts to the same thing - your page is tagged as being of low quality and so all the other good work you’ve done with your on-page SEO is undone, down the rankings you go. Either way, the days of writing your web page about “Kitten Mittens being great because everyone loves Kitten Mittens, the gloves for cats that give cats great glove because cats need gloves and Kitten Mittens are the best gloves for cats” are very much behind us by a number of years. Your text is now read by artificial intelligence which will assess how natural the language is and, among other things, if you’re trying to game the system, Google’s core algorithm (basically, how Google works) contains a component called RankBrain which uses machine learning (the ability of machines to teach themselves) to read text and determine concepts from context. If this sounds a bit of a mouthful, what it means is that it will look at how you wrote to determine what you mean. So your best bet is to write like you would for a human audience, which is what you should be doing anyway since the ultimate aim of a web page is to communicate something to a person viewing it. If you need to refer to the same thing many times, use synonyms rather than repetition.
The second thing is to organise your text.
Use header tags for this. If you imagine you were writing an essay or a report, in all likelihood it would be broken up into sections and subsections, all of which would have a heading indicating what it was covering. The same functionality has been built into HTML since caveman days (i.e. the 90s) with heading tags. They are defined with the H1 to H6 tags, with H1 being the most important item on the page, and increasing values denoting lower importance. Search engines will look at the tags and take them into account in indexing the page, and the higher the value of the tag, the more importance the text is given. Use the tags wisely, as you would with a paper you were expecting a grade for, and they will benefit the indexing of the page. Overuse them, and you may as well not use them at all. Not only will it dilute the importance of each individual heading, but it’s likely to get you put on Google’s naughty step again. And certainly, definitely, without exception ONLY USE ONE H1.
Tag, you're it.
The third thing, and this is sometimes overlooked by even the best of us, tag your images. Each image on a web page carries a potential ‘ALT’ tag, which can contain text to describe the image. The original purpose of this tag was as an ALTernative to showing the image if it could not load (back in the days of HTML 2 this was far from uncommon) but now it serves many more purposes - web browsers specifically for the visually impaired that speak the text of web pages will speak the content of the ALT tag if it is present, they can provide a caption that appears when the user hovers the mouse over the image, and if you search by image then it is invariably the ALT tag which has been indexed to provide your search results.
Populate your ALT tags wherever you can, remembering how they are used. Although they provide a good opportunity to push your keywords, don't just stuff them with keywords. Actually make them useful. Imagine if you could not see the image for whatever reason, would your ALT text provides a useful alternative? It's also worth noting that since Google looks very favourably on sites that take accessibility into account, providing all tags for all your images puts you in their good books.
Links, links, links
Everything needs to be linked, or the spiders won’t find it. Yes, spiders. No, not real ones but pieces of software that crawl the web (geddit?) collecting information in order to improve the indexes of search engines. Contrary to what many might believe, when you put a search into Google (or one of the other guys) it does not then search the web for you, it searches its own index of the web which it strives to keep as accurate and up to date as technology allows. This is why a brand new site or page on the web won’t appear on Google searches immediately; it’s because the spiders haven’t found it and reported home yet.
Anyway, back to links - when one of these web crawlers gets to your site via a link from somewhere else, let’s say it enters through the front door, as it were - the home page. It looks around, gathers all the information it can and then tries all other doors available to it, namely whatever links it can find to other pages on the site. It will keep trying doors and exploring as many different parts of the site until it can’t find anything new, then it goes off somewhere else.
Now there will be internet scholars out there who’ll say this is a very clumsy metaphor and not really representative of all the nuances of web crawling and indexing (which I’m sure it’s not), but I'm going to stick with it because it helps in explaining a couple of things:
1 - Spiders cannot explore and index any part of a site there is no link to. You could have a hundred pages of the most impressive content, but if there are no links to them from somewhere else then they are effectively invisible to search engines.
2- Spiders take note of signs on the doors. That is to say that many links within sites are pieces of text that have a link address attached to them. Like our local university for example. Since the sign appears to describe what is behind the door, it is taken into account for indexing that address. This is true for links to other sites as well as other pages within the same site.
So be nice to the spiders. Make their job easy and they’ll put in a good word for you with their bosses.
This might be one of those things that is so obvious, it could actually be easy to miss, but what is the title of the page? You might think it would be impossible to miss this, but to be fair it is probably the most important thing about your page that you do not see on the page itself. It will appear on the tab for the page in your browser, it will appear anywhere the page is shared if there is a preview of the link (especially in social networking), and most importantly it will be the most prominent part of your entry in any set of search results it appears in.
Remember, this is a descriptive title, not the title of a literary masterpiece - the one thing you don’t want is ambiguity or mystery. If your page is a bottle on a spice rack then the page title is the label on it that lets the user find what they want quickly and easily. You have approximately 60 characters to label your page with a concise description of its contents.
And, crucially, as far as Google is concerned when adding your page to its index, this is what the page is about.
Also known as the meta description, if you’re speaking HTML. This is the short snippet of text you will see under each entry in your search results. If we were talking about ranking in the results, then I’d have to tell you that opinion is split over whether or not the meta description makes any difference to it. And the difference of opinion is along these lines:
Google : Page descriptions have no direct bearing on ranking, but they are an important part of SEO as they may determine whether the user is persuaded to visit your page or not.
Nearly every SEO professional : we don’t believe you.
But since we're not dealing with ranking, it doesn't actually matter right now who you believe. What matters is that you want your page to not only appear in search results, but to actually be visited. The page description can make a big difference here, so much so that a well written page description can be a more compelling reason to visit a page than being at the top of the search results. Google will also highlight whatever terms were searched for if they appear in your description, further validating it as a reason to visit your page.
If you don't provide a page description, then Google will do its best to create one from the content of your page. Now although this is better than nothing, it is nowhere near as good as something you could write. Creating your own page descriptions is your way of selling your pages to potential visitors. Make them compelling, make sure they contain the keywords you want your page to be found for, and above all keep them under 155 characters or they will end in…
The time it takes for your page to load in a browser (particularly on mobile devices) has a bearing on your appearance in search results. Google likes to promote sites it believes provide a good user experience, and having to wait too long for a page to load is considered bad. And bad pages are penalised (see above).
Video can be a bit trickier, but putting the work in can pay dividends. Use an open source tool like HandBrake and play around with the settings, compress your video and watch the result to check the quality, noting the file size. Then go back and do it again. And even again. Obviously, if you’re a video pro it’s not going to take you long, but for the rest of us a little trial and error will result in eventually finding the lowest file size without any noticeable drop in quality.
Also, ask yourself if it really needs to be 4K, or even full HD? Downsizing can be one of the biggest factors in file size.
One last word on video; consider if it needs to be hosted on your site at all. YouTube and Vimeo both offer excellent embedding capabilities. In other words, the video file is not actually part of the web page, but is streamed from elsewhere. If you can live with YouTube branding on the interface, then that could be a good and cost-effective way to go, if you prefer a more ‘white label’ offering then perhaps consider a Vimeo pro account.
Now there's a loaded question. There's actually so much else to talk about on the subject of SEO, with a wealth of differing opinions on the subject. The truth is that it is not an exact science because only Google knows exactly how it indexes pages and what importance it gives to various factors, and they're not talking. But we do know basics like making sure your page has a good title and a compelling description, your content is structured so that it can be navigated well, that the use of links is fundamental, and loading a page with media might do your creative ego good but could backfire if it’s not really necessary or you don’t manage it properly. Much of the talk about SEO centres around where in the search results you end up, and this is very important to site owners as higher rankings tend to translate into more visits and hopefully more business. But it all starts with making sure that the search engines see you properly in the first place.