Search Engine Optimization

One of a series of white papers by Elizabeth G. Fagan dba EGF Consulting.


SEO Best Practices

Global navigation text links

Internal linking structure will greatly influence whether a search engine’s spider can find other pages on your site in addition to the home page. From an SEO (search engine optimization) perspective, we prefer that the navigational structure consist of pure text links and with no JavaScript. In addition, the home page should contain links to every other important page within your Web site in the form of keyword rich text links. The use of text links will help push the relevancy of the target page, thereby increasing your presence in the engine’s search results.

Secondary navigation

These links, like the main navigation, should be  keyword-rich text links.

Tertiary navigation

These links, like the main navigation,should be  keyword-rich text links.

Content

The quantity and quality of your content is the foundation of a successful SEO campaign. The primary reason a consumer searches the internet is to find information or solve a problem. Quality content is what allows the user to meet their goals, as well as acting as a vital component within a search engine’s algorithm.

The amount of relevant content and the number of pages a site has are both important factors in determining the value or weight that a search engine’s spider will assign to your site. When a search engine spider “crawls” your pages, it reads the content on the page, categorizes the page within its index, and ranks the page based on the engine’s proprietary relevancy algorithm. Meta tags and ALT tags are not considered visible content, and therefore, are not considered as important as your copy.

Our research has shown that a site is most effective when it contains a minimum of 250 words on each page. It is not advantageous to try to cram all of your content onto one page. This makes it very challenging for a search engine to distinguish between varying subjects, causing it to skip over significant concepts. The greater the quality and quantity of content, the higher the weight allocated to a site by a search engine spider.

Use h tags for headings and subheadings

Using the h tags for headings and subheadings on a page is a key element of SEO. All of the heading and subheading tags should be used according to their relevance. Many search engines give additional relevance to your heading tags, thus, the heading tag is a great place to incorporate keywords. Specific details regarding the language/wording of heading tags will be incorporated into your content review document.

Callouts and sidebar content

Secondary content, defined as “call outs” or secondary blocks of text, are also important to a site’s search engine optimization efforts. Again, secondary content provides spiders additional content to spider.

Closing text links

Closing links are of the utmost importance if you do not have text links within your site’s main navigation. Your text links should contain your main keywords. This practice is key to effective SEO for three reasons:

  • It helps ensure that the search engine spiders have the ability to navigate through your site
  • Reinforces your main keywords within your internal navigation
  • Can also be used as supplemental navigation within the site
Redirects

Redirects are used, as the name states, to redirect one page (URL) to another page. There are two main types of server redirects: temporary (302) and permanent (301). The 301 permanent redirect is the safest way to preserve your search engine rankings.

When redesigning or launching a new site, always point your old pages to corresponding pages on the new site using a 301 permanent redirect. If there is not a page that corresponds directly, use a 301 permanent redirect to send visitors to the home page or sitemap. Do not use 302 temporary redirects.

Sitemap

A sitemap is incorporated into a site to ensure sure that search engine spiders are able to find and index all the pages within your website. To allow the search engine spiders to find all the pages on the site without the interference of graphics and image maps, a sitemap should contain straight text links to every page within your website, broken down by category or section, using your main key phrases. The sitemap should include a heading, which contains a keyword or phrase, and an introductory paragraph that includes important key phrases about your product.

Externalize JavaScript

JavaScript and some server-side scripting can cause problems that may result in pages not being found by an engine’s spider. JavaScript is code that spiders cannot read, and it must be used with caution. JavaScript is not search engine friendly, and in most cases fills up the head of the document that, in turn, pushes the rest of your content down to the bottom of the page. To avoid JavaScript “clutter,” place your scripting code, such as mouse-overs/rollovers, drop down menus, pop-up menus and sliding menus, in a separate file, and create a single line within the head to call upon that external file. This will create far less code for the search engine to wade through in order to get to your main content.

404 Error Codes – “page not found errors”

404 error codes indicate an incorrect URL or a deleted file has been requested. Returning this code to engine requests is optimal to make sure the search engines remove old pages that no longer exist. Not returning this code can result in a site having duplicate content.

Robots.txt files

Many websites utilize a robots.txt file because they may have pages within their website that they would not want a spider to read. Implementation of a robots.txt file specifying which pages within the website should not be spidered will prevent these pages from being indexed or viewed by non-authorized parties. In addition, robot.txt files can be used to prevent potential spamming issues within search engines such as duplicate content. A search engine’s robot (spider) will look in your root domain for a special file named “robots.txt” that tells the robot which files it may not spider.

Linking resources

Link popularity is an important component of your SEO campaign. Link popularity is the number of websites that link to your website. Success with link popularity will result in top search engine rankings and an increase in traffic to your website. Search engines give link popularity greater weight in their algorithms because they believe it indicates quality. Google relies heavily on link popularity to rank sites. Search engines use links as a tool to help them filter out sites that aren’t relevant to their users.

Image ALT attributes

ALT attributes are HTML tags used describe website graphics by displaying a block of text when an image cannot be loaded on a page. As search engines are generally unable to view graphics or distinguish text that might be contained within them, the implementation of an ALT attribute enables search engine spiders to categorize that graphic. Associating the ALT attribute to an image is also a best practice set forth by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and therefore contributes to having a site that is W3C compliant.

Anchor title attributes

Title attributes act in the same fashion as ALT attributes do on images, except they are used for text links and the purpose is slightly different. The title is an attribute of the anchor tag, , and should describe the contents of the following page in which the link is directed. The title attribute will appear, just as ALT attributes appear, when the user moves their mouse over the text link.

Code validation

This is the process of ensuring web pages uphold the proper structure within the intended markup language structure. The W3C or World Wide Web Consortium is the organization that defines the standards for proper markup language code structure. Writing improper code results in the spiders having to work much harder when traversing your pages. It is advisable that all pages within your site are properly coded and hence valid.

Canonicalization

Canonicalization is the process of converting data that has more than one possible representation into a “standard” canonical representation. Read more here. In search engine optimization, we use this to refer to the linking structure of a site. The most common case occurs when there are two different links on a site that lead to the homepage. For example, http://www.domain.com and http://www.domain.com/index.htm usually lead to the homepage. For SEO purposes, we need you to choose one or the other. In this instance however, the only option would be to go with http://www.domain.com, because this is how other sites will be linking to you. So in this example, all links on your website directed to your site’s homepage should be linked using http://www.domain.com.

Externalize cascading style sheets

Similar to JavaScript, an embedded cascading style sheet fills up the head of the HTML code and, in turn, pushes the rest of your content down to the bottom of the page. To avoid this, create an external style sheet for the entire site. This will create far less code for the search engine to wade through in order to get to your main content.

Frames

Many sites use frames for navigation, but most search engines have difficulty indexing framed web sites. Using frames will prevent search engines from finding pages within a website or the search engine sends visitors to an internal page with no connections to the navigation or other areas of the site.

Flash

While spider technology has greatly improved, the search engines do not have the technology to spider flash-based pages, as well as flash-based content. As content within flash movie will not be indexed by the search engines, our optimal recommendation is to remove all flash-based content from all pages of the site and replace with plain HTML.

URL rewrites

URL rewriting, in regards to SEO, is the process of making URLs look like static instead of dynamic via web server URL rewriting program.

Dynamically served content

Dynamic pages are not indexed well by the search engines and in some cases completely ignored by the spiders. The most common problem dynamic content poses is the “?” (or any ASCII symbol, i.e. equal sign, commas, etc) in the URL. Most search engines stop at the “?” symbol within the URL and as a result, try to retrieve an invalid URL. Although there have been some advances made in improving the ability to index dynamic content (specifically by Google), we recommend removing most (if not all) dynamic content. Replace dynamic content with static html pages, and create additional static value pages that are placed before your dynamic content (if any).

Cookies

Cookies are small text files that store user information and preferences. Cookies can cause issues with search engine optimization if they are implemented incorrectly. By using cookies on your site, the search engine spiders are not able to view your site. From an SEO perspective, cookies should not be mandatory in order for users to visit a site. Often sites require cookies to be active, usually directing users without active cookies to a default “cookies not active” warning page, which then tells the user that their cookies must be active to fully experience the site.

Search engine spiders will not be able to visit the pages of your site that make the cookies mandatory, as they are not able to visit pages implemented in this fashion. If your site is making cookies mandatory, you should change the site so the cookies are not mandatory. Under certain circumstances, changing the cookies requirements will limit certain abilities on the administrative end, but if you choose not to change them, your entire site will not be indexed—only the default “no cookie” notice page will be indexed.

Oprah.com Message Boards

Fagan was first a contract front-end web developer, then a full-time employee of Oprah.com, Oprah Winfrey’s official website. She was promoted to manager of web development and worked for Ms. Winfrey for a total of five years.

Oprah.com message board

Oprah.com message board

Background

Oprah Winfrey had a very large active fan base around the world. The Oprah.com message boards were an important part of the fan community. They were in need of a redesign and code update.

Challenge

The message boards were written in a proprietary code. At the time, no one on Oprah.com staff had the skills to work on them. No one knew what could or could not be done with the user interface.

Solution

Fagan learned the code and went on to code, debug, and maintain the message boards. They continued to be a vital part of Oprah.com as well as a fantastic forum for user feedback on Oprah.com interface designs.

Oprah.com Custom Self-Tests

Fagan was first a contract front-end web developer, then a full-time employee of Oprah.com, Oprah Winfrey’s official website. She was promoted to manager of web development and worked for Ms. Winfrey for a total of five years.


Quiz on Oprah.com

Quiz on Oprah.com

Background

User responses to Oprah.com quizzes, polls, surveys, and self-tests were very positive. They were a good way to gauge interest in possible show topics. The Oprah.com team wanted to expand their use on the website.

Challenge

Interactive elements required knowledge of databases, Perl, and GCI. The developer needed to code each element according to the desired result.

Result

Fagan customized all sorts of self-tests, polls, surveys, and quizzes. Their use on Oprah.com proliferated.

Oprah.com O at Home Landing

Fagan was first a contract front-end web developer, then a full-time employee of Oprah.com, Oprah Winfrey’s official website. She was promoted to manager of web development and worked for Ms. Winfrey for a total of five years.


O at Home Landing Page

Background

Fagan worked at Oprah.com during a time of incredible growth. The site grew from a small Web 1.0 static site to a 35,000-page, multifunctional adjunct to The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Challenge

The show producers drove the content of Oprah.com and wanted the freedom to use unique layouts when they wished. For this reason, Oprah.com was not templated and had to be hand-coded.

Solution

Fagan was part of a four-person team that architected the site and wrote front-end code on a daily basis in an extremely fast-paced environment with highly exacting standards.

Oprah.com Videos

Fagan was first a contract front-end web developer, then a full-time employee of Oprah.com, Oprah Winfrey’s official website. She was promoted to manager of web development and worked for Ms. Winfrey for a total of five years.


TOWS video on Oprah.com

TOWS video on Oprah.com

Background

Ms. Winfrey’s show producers wanted to expand the use of video on Oprah.com. Video players had been coded as pop-ups in default Windows Media and Real player skins. The producers wanted embedded videos with custom skins.

Challenge

The Web design team needed to develop the players, which also needed to detect browsers and connection speeds. The team was stretched thin with a very heavy workload.

OATS video on Oprah.com

OATS video on Oprah.com

Result

Fagan architected and developed two sets of embedded Windows Media and Real players—one for The Oprah Winfrey Show (TOWS), one for Oprah After the Show (OATS). The players enabled content that went beyond even Ms. Winfrey’s expectations.

Oprah.com Slideshow

Fagan was first a contract front-end web developer, then a full-time employee of Oprah.com, Oprah Winfrey’s official website. She was promoted to manager of web development and worked for Ms. Winfrey for a total of five years.


Oprah.com slideshow

Background

Following each taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the Oprah.com team put together an accompanying portfolio of pages on Oprah.com. The Web team worked closely with show producers and the legal team.

Challenge

The Oprah.com team created 10, 20, or more pages of new content, images, graphics, videos, and other interactive elements for each show. Turnaround times were sometimes less than 24 hours.

Result

On a daily basis, Fagan architected and coded pages with content, video players, scripts, and other front-end elements.