SEO & Best Practices

“Search Engine Optimization” (SEO) is a common buzzword today, but what does it really mean? While there are many questionable practices designed to achieve first-page search result placement, these techniques are unsustainable over the long term and can degrade the quality of the website experience for users. If used excessively, they can also backfire and result in a site being blacklisted by search engines. Ultimately, a few simple principles will help to ensure your site receives proper placement in the search results of the most popular search engines, like Google and Bing. Because the principles are so basic, and correspond so closely with the principles of simple, clean, well-organized web design in general, Room 34 offers these recommendations, free of charge, as a standard part of all website proposals, and incorporates them as a matter of course in all website projects.

Title Bar

The web browser’s title bar is easy to ignore, but a well-structured page title is one of the most important ways to ensure that your site is listed prominently in search engine results. The title should be clear, relevant, detailed, and specific. Each page of the site should have a title that accurately reflects what is on the page. The page title should begin with this specific information, followed by general information that is the same for every page: your business name, the nature of your business, and if relevant, your city and state. A sample page title might read as follows:

About Us - Acme Widgets, Inc. - Makers of fine widgets and doodads - Minneapolis, Minnesota

Meta Tags

Meta tags do not appear anywhere on the web page, but they are included in the HTML code of the page to assist search engines in identifying certain characteristics of a web page.

Contrary to popular belief, search engines like Google do not use meta keywords at all in their search algorithms. (Don't believe us? Look at what Google has to say about it.) This does not mean meta tags are useless, however. The meta description tag, in particular, may be used to help manage the blurb about your website that appears in search results. And compiling a list of keywords may help you to write more effective content for your pages, even if you don't actually load the keywords into a meta tag.

Semantic HTML

Semantic HTML means HTML that is built to reflect the logical structure of a web page document, with visual presentation separated into CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) rather than embedded within the HTML. Fonts, colors and visual layout elements should be restricted to the CSS. HTML tables should be used for tabular information only, not layout and positioning. The content of the page within the HTML should be organized such that the page is logical and readable with CSS turned off. Pages should be checked against an HTML validator (http://validator.w3.org) to ensure accuracy.

Accessibility

Building web pages with proper accessibility for visually-impaired visitors also helps to ensure a semantic HTML structure that will improve search engine rankings. All images and other visual content should include “alt” text. Content that requires Flash, JavaScript or other browser plug-ins should also include a standard fallback version to allow them to “degrade gracefully” for screen readers, browsers without these add-on features, mobile devices, and search engines. By organizing features like site navigation into standard HTML unordered (“bullet”) lists, instead of elaborate table layouts or Flash elements, pages will be both more widely accessible and more relevant in search engine results. The emerging HTML5 standard includes additional tags and attributes to assist in the development of well-structured, semantic HTML documents.

Social Networking & Relevant Links

With the explosion in popularity of social networking sites — especially Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr — links are being shared much more than in the past, and the impact of these kinds of links on search engine results is significant. Making it easy for users to share your links (including deep links to specific pages/posts within your site) can help drive traffic. Setting up your site with Facebook OpenGraph meta tags will improve the appearance and accuracy of the content blocks (image, title, etc.) that Facebook automatically generates when users share your links.

Most modern search engines like Google use cross-site links as an indication of a site’s popularity and relevance in a particular field. By exchanging meaningful links with relevant sites in a particular field, a site can improve its search engine results. There may be a temptation here to exchange links with sites that are simply aggregators of links. This might provide a temporary boost to search engine placement, but ultimately if the links are not on sites that offer real live users a meaningful web experience, they will not provide long-term benefit. Before exchanging links with another site, consider whether or not it is a site you would visit and trust as a resource. If not, it is probably not worth the effort.

Google Analytics & Google/Bing Webmaster Tools

Google offers a pair of extremely useful tools for website developers and owners: Google Analytics employs a small snippet of JavaScript code, embedded in the footer of each page of a website, to provide the site owner with extensive analysis of site usage: how often various site pages are being visited; how long visitors are staying on the site; users’ geographical location and certain details of their computer configuration (operating system and browser software); etc.

Google Webmaster Tools provides a convenient way for website owners to submit sitemaps to ensure optimal placement in Google’s search results. Both Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools can be helpful in diagnosing “problem areas” of your site that may need further attention to boost their visibility in search results. Behind the scenes, Google and Bing Webmaster Tools (and most search engine crawlers) rely on a few specialized files to find the pages you want them to find, and to exclude them from areas you don't want them to index: sitemap.xml, robots.txt and .htaccess. We can make sure your site has these files properly configured for optimal indexing.

No Magic Bullet

There is no secret weapon to ensure top search engine placement. Many promises of search engine optimization rely on short-term “gaming” of a search engine’s relevance ranking algorithms. But just as the “gamers” evolve their tactics, the search engines are constantly being enhanced to counteract them. Ultimately the best way to ensure long-term relevance within search engine listings is to stick to the principles of well-organized, validated XHTML documents and meaningful content.