Welcome to part four in this search engine positioning series. Last week we discussed the importance of the structure of your website and the best practices for creating an easily spidered and easily read site. In part four we will discuss content optimization.
This is perhaps the single most important aspect of ranking your website highly on the search engines. While all of the factors covered in this series will help get your website into the top positions, it is your content that will sell your product or service and it is your content that the search engines will be reading when they take their “snapshot” of your site and determine where it should be placed in relation to the other billions of pages on the Internet.
Over this series we will cover the ten key aspects to a solid search engine positioning campaign.
The Ten Steps We Will Go Through Are:
- Keyword Selection – October 24, 2004
- Content – October 31, 2004
- Site Structure – November 7, 2004
- Optimization – November 14, 2004
- Internal Linking – November 21, 2004
- Human Testing – November 29, 2004
- Submissions – December 5, 2004
- Link Building – December 12, 2004
- Monitoring – December 19, 2004
- The Extras – December 28, 2004
Step Four – Content Optimization
There are aspects of the optimization process that gain and lose importance. Content optimization is no exception to this. Through the many algorithm changes that take place each year, the weight given to the content on your pages rises and falls. Currently incoming links appear to supply greater advantage than well-written and optimized content. So why are we taking an entire article in this series to focus on the content optimization?
The goal for anyone following this series is to build and optimize a website that will rank well on the major search engines and, more difficult and far more important, hold those rankings through changes in the search engine algorithms. While currently having a bunch of incoming links from high PageRank sites will do well for you on Google you must consider what will happen to your rankings when the weight given to incoming links drops, or how your website fares on search engines other than Google that don’t place the same emphasis on incoming links.
While there are many characteristics of your content that are in the algorithmic calculations, there are a few that consistently hold relatively high priority and thus will be the focus of this article. These are:
- Heading Tags
- Special Text (bold, colored, etc.)
- Inline Text Links
- Keyword Density
The heading tag (for those who don’t already know) is code used to specify to the visitor and to the search engines what the topic is of your page and/or subsections of it. You have 6 predefined heading tags to work with ranging from <H1> to <H6>.
By default these tags appear larger than standard text in a browser and are bold. These aspects can be adjusted using the font tags or by using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).
Due to their abuse by unethical webmasters and SEO’s, the weight given to heading tags is not what it could be however the content between these tags is given increased weight over standard text. There are rules to follow with the use of heading tags that must be adhered to. If you use heading tags irresponsibly you run the risk of having your website penalized for spam even though the abuse may be unintentional.
When using your heading tags try to follow these rules:
- Never use the same tag twice on a single page
- Try to be concise with your wording
- Use heading tags only when appropriate. If bold text will do then go that route
- Don’t use CSS to mask heading tags
Never use the same tag twice on a single page. While the <H1> tags holds the greatest weight of the entire heading tags, its purpose is to act as the primary heading of the page. If you use it twice you are obviously not using it to define the main topic of the page. If you need to use another heading tag use the <H2> tag. After that the <H3> tag and so on. Generally I try never to use more than 2 heading tags on a page.
Try to be concise with your wording. If you have a 2 keyword phrase that you are trying to target and you make a heading that is 10 words long then your keyword phrase only makes up about 20% of the total verbiage. If you have a 4-word heading on the other hand you would then have a 50% density and increased priority given to the keyword phrase you are targeting.
Use heading tags only when appropriate. If bold text will do then go that route. I have seen sites with heading tags all over the place. If overused the weight of the tags themselves are reduced with decreasing content and “priority” being given to different phrases at various points in the content. If you have so much great content that you feel you need to use many heading tags you should consider dividing the content up into multiple pages, each with its own tag and keyword target possibilities. For the most part, rather than using additional heading tags, bolding the content will suffice. The sizing will be kept the same as your usual text and it will stand out to the reader as part of the text but with added importance.
Don’t use CSS to mask heading tags. This one just drives me nuts and is unnecessary. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) serve many great functions. They can be used to define how a site functions, looks and feels however they can also be used to mislead search engines and visitors alike. Each tags has a default look and feel. It is fine to use CSS to adjust this somewhat to fit how you want your site to look. What is not alright is to adjust the look and feel to mislead search engines. It is a simple enough task to define in CSS that your heading should appear as regular text. Some unethical SEO’s will also then place their style sheet in a folder that is hidden from the search engine spiders. This is secure enough until your competitors look at the cached copy of your page (and they undoubtedly will at some point) see that you have hidden heading tags and report you to the search engines as spamming. It’s an unnecessary risk that you don’t need to take. Use your headings properly and you’ll do just fine.
“Special text” (as it is used here) special is any content on your page that is set to stand out from the rest. This includes bold, underlined, colored, highlighted, sizing and italic. This text is given weight higher than standard content and rightfully so. Bold text, for example, is generally used to define sub-headings (see above), or to pull content out on a page to insure the visitor reads it. The same can be said for the other “special text” definitions.
Search engines have thus been programmed to read this as more important than the rest of the content and will give it increased weight. For example, on our homepage we begin the content with “Beanstalk Search Engine Optimization …” and have chosen to bold this text. This serves two purposes. The first is to draw the eye to these words and further reinforce the “brand”. The second purpose (and it should always be the second) is to add weight to the “Search Engine Positioning” portion of the name. It effectively does both.
Reread your content and, if appropriate for BOTH visitors and search engines, use special text when it will help draw the eye to important information and also add weight to your keywords. This does not mean that you should bold every instance of your targeted keywords nor does it mean that you should avoid using special text when it does not involve your keywords. Common sense and a reasonable grasp of sales and marketing techniques should be your guide in establishing what should and should not be drawn out with “special text”.
Inline Text Links
Inline text links are links added right into text in the verbiage of your content. For example, in this article series I may make reference to past articles in the series. Were I to refer to the article on keyword selection, rather than simply making a reference to it as I just have it might be better to write it as, “Were I to refer to the article on keyword selection rather …”
Like special text this serves two purposes. The first is to give the reader a quick and easy way to find the information you are referring to. The second purpose of this technique is to give added weight to this phrase for the page on which the link is located and also to give weight to the target page.
While this point is debatable, there is a relatively commonly held belief that inline text links are given more weight that a text link which stands alone. If we were to think like a search engine this makes sense. If the link occurs within the content area then chances are it is highly relevant to the content itself and the link should be counted with more strength than a link placed in a footer simply to get a spider through the site.
Like “special text” this should only be employed if it helps the visitor navigate your site. An additional benefit to inline text links is that you can help direct your visitors to the pages you want them on. Rather than simply relying on visitors to use your navigation bar as you are hoping they will, with inline text links you can link to the internal pages you are hoping they will get to such as your services page, or product details.
For those of you who have never heard the term “keyword density” before, it is the percentage of your total content that is made up of your targeted keywords. There is much debate in forums, SEO chat rooms and the like as to what the “optimal” keyword density might be. Estimates seem to range from 3% to 10%.
While I would be the first to admit that logic dictates that indeed there is an optimal keyword density. Knowing that search engines operate on mathematical formulas implies that this aspect of your website must have some magic number associated with it that will give your content the greatest chance of success.
With this in mind there are three points that you should consider:
- You do not work for Google or Yahoo! or any of the other major search engines (and if you do you’re not the target audience of this article). You will never know 100% what this “magic number” is.
- Even if you did know what the optimal keyword density was today, would you still know it after the next update? Like other aspects of the search engine algorithm, optimal keyword densities change. You will be chasing smoke if you try to constantly have the optimal density and chances are you will hinder your efforts more than help by constantly changing the densities of your site.
- The optimal keyword density for one search engine is not the same as it is for another. Chasing the density of one may very well ruin your efforts on another.
So what can you do? Your best bet is to simply place your targeted keyword phrase in your content as often as possible while keeping the content easily readable by a live visitor. Your goal here is not to sell to search engines, it is to sell to people. I have seen sites that have gone so overboard in increasing their keyword density that the content itself reads horribly. If you are simply aware of the phrase that you are targeting while you write your content then chances are you will attain a keyword density somewhere between 3 and 5%. Stay in this range and, provided that the other aspects of the optimization process are in place, you will rank well across many of the search engines.
Also remember when you’re looking over your page that when you’re reading it the targeted phrase may seem to stand out as it’s used more than any other phrase on the page and may even seem like it’s a bit too much. Unless you’ve obviously overdone it (approached the 10% rather than 5% end of the spectrum) it’s alright for this phrase to stand out. This is the phrase that the searcher was searching for. When they see it on the page it will be a reminder to them what they are looking for and seeing it a few times will reinforce that you can help them find the information they need to make the right decision.
In an effort to increase keyword densities, unethical webmasters will often use tactics such as hidden text, extremely small font sizes, and other tactics that basically hide text from a live visitor that they are providing to a search engines. Take this advice, write quality content, word it well and pay close attention to your phrasing and you will do well. Use unethical tactics and your website may rank well in the short term but once one of your competitors realizes what you’re doing you will be reported and your website may very well get penalized. Additionally, if a visitor realizes that you’re simply “tricking” the search engines they may very well decide that you are not the type of company they want to deal with; one that isn’t concerned with integrity but rather one that will use any trick to try to get at their money. Is this the message you want to send?
Next week in part five of our “Ten Steps To an Optimized Website” series we will be covering internal linking strategies and best practices. This will cover everything from image links and scripts to inline and basic text links.
SEO news blog post by David Davies @ 3:12 pm on November 16, 2004