There is a war of words being waged around the concept of Search Engine Optimization with one side claiming that SEO is dead, and the other claiming SEO is everything. The reality lies somewhere between these two extremes (as reality often does) so it’s important to understand both the history and the rationale behind the way search engines work.
Regardless of what anyone else says, I’m here to tell you that search engine optimization still matters, and it matters more than most people realize (…it always has).
Today we call it SEO, but in the early days of the Web we called it “accessibility”. Back when HTML was in it’s infancy, before CSS even existed, a fierce debate raged between designers trying to turn the Web into a giant digital brochure (like David Siegel), and “purists” who insisted that Web design conform to certain standards (notably HTMLHelp.com).
The issue centered entirely around the amount of “bling” a Web site required to be popular, with people like Dave Siegel publicly stating that they were willing to have large numbers of visitors not be able to access content in order that the people who could see it be given an attractive and memorable experience. (I would argue that Dave’s book Creating Killer Web Sites did more to harm the Web than any other book in history.)
Meanwhile the “purists”, who were often ridiculed as cavemen that simply preferred plain text Web sites, argued that standard practices in Web authoring were essential to both human and machine accessibility. (Remember, this was before Google existed.) They argued that “design” and “content” should be separate but equal, and then went about creating CSS to handle the aesthetics without harming accessibility.
It seems in the long run that the standards compliance argument retired the Siegels of the world because there was good sound rationale behind it.
You see, Web accessibility and SEO have always gone hand in hand. The concept is, if you build a Web page that everyone can visit, it will also be easily index-able by search engines. And the logic is circular… if a search engine can easily navigate your site, it can be assumed that it will be highly accessible to all Web browsers, on all platforms, with all screen resolutions – even people with disabilities (like the blind using screen readers).
From a search results perspective it only makes sense to send people to sites that are most likely to display correctly – because even great content is useless if you can’t read it. And search engines want to provide the best user experience possible to keep their visitors coming back. For this reason search engines such as Google give greater weight to sites that are quick, accessible and standards compliant.
SEO Key Components
In a nutshell, anything you can do that will increase a site’s accessibility will also provide Search Engine benefits. All of the following guidelines apply whether you are designing a site by hand, or using a CMS or Blogging system. The good news is that most CMS platforms take many of these items into consideration, however all have room for improvement.
- Offer a site map (example) with links that point to important parts of the site. If the site map is larger than 100 or so links, break it into separate pages. These help search engines locate all of the content on a site.
- Make sure each page is reachable by at least one static link. If a search engine cannot find your document, it will never show up in a user inquiry.
- Keep the site hierarchy fairly flat. That is, each page should only be one to three clicks away from the home page. This aids both humans and machines in navigating the site.
- Minimize the use of Macromedia flash as well as Java applets. Although they can add useful demonstrations and animations to a site, they are not indexed by search engines and they slow down pages.
- Organize content by topic and divide the site into logical sections, each focusing on a given topic. With blogs this is accomplished via Categories or tags. This allows search engines to better target specific information relevant to keyword searches.
- Use Headings (H2, H3, H4, etc.) for long content. Search engines understand headings and it helps with search results.
- Use text instead of images to display important names, content or links. Search engines can’t read images, and neither can people with visual disabilities.
- Exercise “Conservation of Words”. Once you’ve gotten the message across, stop writing. Verbosity for the sake of increasing “keywords” will only drive real visitors away. And that’s not good for traffic building!
- Proof-read, spell check and get peer reviewed. Every site can benefit from multiple opinions and multiple content edits, and misspellings will hurt your keyword search results.
- Make sure the TITLE element for your document is concise and accurate. The page TITLE is used by search engines to display link text as the result of a search.
- Ensure that each IMG element includes an accurate ALT attribute. Keywords found in alternate text are considered by search engines.
- Always reference citations and sources. This indicates to search engines that the content is of research quality.
This article was guest written by John Pozadzides, who is incidentally happy to be Lorelle’s friend. :-)