Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Guest Post: SEO Search Engine Optimization Tips Part 1

A post from engineer, researcher, and technical writer Richard Wheeler:

A family friend has started a web site to sell baseball and softball gloves and mitts, but she's discouraged due to low search engine rankings and even lower sales. I would like to sell stuff through an internet store some day, so I've paid attention enough to know that her site needs search engine optimization (SEO).

First, a bit of background about search engines:

The Internet has computers "out there" that function like the phone book's white pages. They maintain lists of all the addresses on the internet. Computer programs called search engines use these lists to look for web sites and then read the sites' contents. Search engines are smart enough to recognize hyperlinks, so they explore all the linked pages, too.

Search engines use lists of vocabulary words to recognize the contents of web pages. They look in the URL, in the text, in headings, in hyperlinks contained in the pages, in the names of files such as pictures, and in a lot of hidden text that web pages contain. They also collect information about when pages were changed.

The search engines then generate statistics about what words are used in which pages. When somebody searches for something, the search engine compares the search words to the words on the web sites. These matching words are called keywords. The search results supposedly list the best matches first.

The art of creating a web site so it lands high in the list of search results is call search engine optimization (SEO). How high a site lands in the search results is called its rank. Ideally, your page lands at the top of the first page.

A new web site has several strikes against it. Many web site owners pay advertising fees for higher rankings to companies like Google. Many web site owners have already optimized their sites to score higher in the search results. And many web sites, thanks to advertising and connecting to other web sites, have more links pointing back to them from other web sites.

Even with these disadvantages, a new web site owner can move his or her site up in the rankings.

Here are some ten things you can do to improve your site's rank through search engine optimization (SEO).

1. A search engine that sees keywords in the URL of a web page will rank the page higher.

For example, my blog has my name in it. That's fine for people looking for me by name, but somebody looking for a systems engineer will find me lower in the search results.

I'm going to use http://www.softballbaseballgloves.com as an example for the rest of this article. The address contains softball,baseball, and gloves. That should bring it some hits from sports fans in the spring.

As you explore the Softball Baseball Gloves, site, you find that it has more pages. Each page that has an address containing words indicating the page content will rank higher in search engines. For example,


would score higher in Google if it read


I left in AC-MCFB100R because it's an easy way to distinguish the page for this mitt from the pages for other first base baseball mitts.

2. Google Trends lets you determine the best keywords -- that is, the words that people search for the most.

Notice the exact words, baseball-mitt-first-base-youth: Is this the best order, and are they the best words? To determine that, you need to ask,
  • What words get this page the best ranking in search engines?
For example, which do people search for more: mitt, mitts, glove,gloves, baseball mitts, baseball gloves, etc?

To find out, we first write a list of comparisons we'd like to make:
  • glove, gloves, mitt, mitts
  • glove, baseball glove, mitt, baseball mitt
  • first base, firstbase, first baseman, firstbaseman
We might think of more comparisons to make as we go.

We can compare search terms at http://www.google.com/trends.

To see the result for glove, gloves, mitt, mitts, click here or copy-and-paste this into your browser: http://www.google.com/trends?q=glove%2C+gloves%2C+mitt%2C+mitts

I assume you can read the graph and connect the boxed numbers to the notes on the right. You'll see that, by far, the most commonly searched-for term is gloves.

The graph shows that in early 2008, mitt surpassed gloves. The notes show why: People were searching for Mitt Romney! Also note thatgloves spikes before Christmas each year. Perhaps people want to give warm fuzzies during the gift-giving season or want to avoid frostbite during winter. We need to refine the search.

We need to know whether baseball fans search for glove, gloves,mitt, or mitts. This time, copy and paste the following into the search form:
  • baseball glove, baseball gloves, baseball mitt, baseball mitts
The results show that people search for baseball glove and baseball gloves about equally.

(Notice also that they do it after the first of the year. The site owner can use such information for planning.)

Let's do the same for softball to see if the same trend holds up:
  • softball glove, softball gloves, softball mitt, softball mitts
(I assume you can copy-and-paste that into the search form without being told to.)

The graph shows a similar trend. So, while we want to use correct terms such as catcher's mitt, we will get more visitors by includingglove or gloves somewhere on the page.

Does the order make a difference? Let's try another variation:
  • softball glove, glove softball
Apparently, the difference is not significant. It might make a difference in other contexts, such as first base versus base first.
That reminds me: I didn't like one of the vendor's terms, firstbaseman's mitt. We can let Google Trends settle the argument.
  • first base, firstbase, first baseman, firstbaseman
As you can see, only the first term shows a significant number of searches, and I bet baseman applies only to the player, not to the glove. It does not hurt to have less-used terms* on the page, but it does help to have the most common terms, too.

(*In fact, some web masters will hide synonyms and variants of the keywords at the bottom of the page. I doubt this hurts anything. Some pages, however, include irrelevant keywords such as naked and obama just to draw more visitors. This over-the-line practice, calledkeyword stuffing, can actually move you down in the search engine rankings. It also brings more visitors that will not buy, which can jam up your site's Internet Service Provider' servers.)

In such naming, the most important word should come first. Try these terms in Google Trends:
  • baseball, youth, glove, first base
Baseball is searched lot more than youth. Glove barely registers, andfirst base doesn't register at all. So that's the order I would use.

I would not leave out glove or first base just because so few people search for those individual terms, though, because I would want to draw the visitor who might search for first base gloves. That's a judgment call based only on my intuition.

To get the highest search engine ranking for this page, then, I would use this URL:


3. Search engines look throughout web page at the terms used.Since gloves is a home run and mitts strikes out, you must use these lessons in the titles, headings, text, and meta tags of every page.

Meta tags are headings hidden in the code of the page. They give information such as the title of the page, lists of keywords that search engines can use instead of reading the whole page, and the date the page was updated. Blogspot pages put keyword tags out in plain sight. Explaining how to edit the hidden codes lies beyond the scope of this posting.

Update: Google's chief engineer states that Google does not use the keywords meta tag in calculating web search ranking. He does not speak for other search engines.

4. Search engines also look at the names of pictures files. You want to name your picture files using the same naming conventions. You can abbreviate designations such as th for thumbnail and lg forlarge.

For example, one picture on softballbaseballgloves.com was named7.jpg. Google would give the page a higher ranking if the file were named, baseball-glove-your-first-base-AC-MCFB100R-th.jpg. Yes, it seems long, but when you are organizing your files, you will thank me.

While we're talking about pictures, please indulge a pet peeve: Webmasters often use pictures of text instead of using actual text. It might make sense in a graphic design, but search engines don't read pictures. Using, for example, a button where text would work throws away a chance for your page to contain a keyword.

5. More hidden text: The code that makes a picture download provides for Alt text that displays while the picture is loading. Alt text helps visually impaired users browse your website. Use this code. It adds content to a page when somebody has their browser set to skip downloading pictures to speed up access, and search engines like it.

Read tips 6-10 in tomorrow's post: "Guest Post: SEO Search Engine Optimization Tips Part 2."

What tips has Richard missed? Add your own tips in the comment box below.

Engineer and writer Richard Wheeler posts regularly on his blog at http://richwheeler.blogspot.com/

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