While search engines use hundreds of signals to determine how any particular web page should rank for a given search phrase query, all of those signals feed into two primary measures: relevance and authority.
Relevance is principally determined by content and other site-wide or on-page factors. For example, on a search for information about a specific breed of dog, a page devoted to that breed would typically be deemed more relevant than a page about dogs in general. And a page on site solely focused on dogs would likely be judged by the search engines to be more relevant than a page on a site about domestic pets, or animals in general.
Authority is predominantly determined by the quantity and quality of external links to a site. One common technique for building links in the past was to submit a website to hundreds of general online directories. The major search engines have now caught on to this tactic, however, and discount links from low-quality directories to the point where they are nearly worthless.
It’s still helpful to be listed in a few of the well-respected, higher-quality online business directories, but the focus of link building is now through social media, content sharing and online PR activities. In short, links can’t be bought (at least not without risk) and they can’t be spammed—they have to be earned by producing great content and exposing it to key influencers in your industry.
On-page search engine optimization (SEO) is a set of techniques for making it clear to the search engines what each page, and your website overall, is about. Think of these signals like the dust jacket of a book; you can discern quite a bit about what a book is about just by the cover, promotional blurbs and table of contents. Similarly, the search engines use meta tags, page headings and other signals to assess the relevancy of your site for given search phrases.
Each page on your site should have one main search phrase assigned to it, though often the page will also rank well for associated phrases (in the example below, the page optimized for records management software may also rank well for phrases such as “records management software system” and “records management software solution”).
Here are eight ways to utilize that key phrase on a page to help search engines understand what your site is about.
1. In the body text. The target search phrase should appear at least twice in the body text of the page, and more than twice for long content pages. There’s no need to overdo this, however, and search engines may actually penalize your site for “keyword stuffing”—using the same phrase with unnatural frequency. The text should always read well to a human visitor. Mix in synonymous phrases as well, such as, in this case, phrases like “records management system” or “RM software.”
2. In page headings and subheads. Not every word on a page has equal value. Putting the main idea (your target key search phrase) in headings and subheads emphasizes its important.
3. In the meta title tag. This is one of the most important single elements for SEO, akin to the title of a book. You have (depending on who you believe) somewhere between 65 and 85 characters to tell the search engines what is most important about this page. Use them carefully, wisely and judiciously. You can find more detailed guidance on writing effective title tags here and here.
4. In the site navigation menus. Too often, websites use generic menu text like “Products” and “Services.” Using specific phrases instead is more meaningful both to site visitors and to search engines.
5. In the page file name (end of the URL). Except for the home page on your site (which has to named either Index, Home or Default), you have complete freedom (within reasonable number-of-character limits) to name pages whatever you like. Using a specific phrase helps with SEO, and also makes your page stand out in the search results.
6. In the page meta tags (description and keywords). The description title tag isn’t specifically used by search engines, but it’s value lies in “selling” your page to searchers. It should give searchers a compelling reason to click on your link. Including the key search phrase in the description tag isn’t strictly required, but can help demonstrate the relevance of your page to searchers.
The keywords meta tag is optional. The major search engines no longer use this tag in formulating their rankings (or at least they say they don’t). On the plus side, the tag may still be used by some of the smaller search engines, and it’s helpful internally for organizing SEO efforts. On the downside, it takes time to craft, and it shows your competitors which search terms you are focused on (not that they couldn’t figure this out using other methods). In short, this tag probably doesn’t help much, but it doesn’t hurt either.
7. In image file names and alt tags. These attributes help with image searches as well as regular search. Instead of naming an image file IMG02134.jpg or something similarly meaningless, use a search-friendly file name like electric-blue-widget.jpg (or whatever is relevant for your product, service or topic). Also include a descriptive image alt tag; this is the text that appears in a browser with images turned off and also used for accessibility (e.g. speech browsers for the visually impaired). But the tag is also used be search engines to categorize your image, since search engines can’t “read” the content of the image itself.
8. In internal text links. Let’s say you have one page on your site completely dedicated to “electric blue widgets,” but you use that phrase in passing on other pages of the site as well. From those pages, link the phrase “electric blue widgets” (or variations of it, such as “blue electric widgets”) to the main page on that topic. Again, these links serve as signals to both human readers and search engines that they can find more detailed information about that topic on the target page.
The most fundamental element for on-site optimization is high-quality original content. Strive to write the “ultimate page” for someone searching on that particular topic. Then use these eight techniques to provide helpful guideposts for both human readers and search engines to draw them to that compelling information.