Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Ranking Criteria
The criteria search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing use in determining their rankings and thus how to go about the process of search engine optimization (SEO): how to pick the right keywords and key phrases; where to put them; and how to multiply their effect through high quality inbound links, and the domain name short cut.
Search engines rank pages based on two primary factors:
Search engines read all the words on your site and attempt to determine what the page is about, and how relevant the page is to any particular search term. Search engines give extra weight to words that appear more frequently (within reason) and words that appear in the following parts of the page:
- The title that appears at the top of the browser window (this is probably the biggest factor)
- The main heading on the page
- Any subheadings
- The first paragraph
- The explicit list of keywords (hidden from users in the page's meta tags but visible to search engines)
- The page description (also hidden from users in the meta tags)
Also potentially relevant are words that appear in the text of links, in bold or italics, and in the "alt" text that appears when you mouseover images or before the image loads.
Search engines keep their formula for determining how relevant your page is for certain words a secret. The formulas also vary among the different search engines. Consequently, it's not possible to say how important it is to have keywords in each of the above areas. Generally, the best policy is 'every bit helps' as long as the page is still easily understandable to real visitors, and adding these keywords doesn't conflict with other more important goals for the content of the site.
Writing Keywords, Descriptions and Headlines for Search Engines
Determining Relevant Keywords
In determining what keywords to include for your site, think of what visitors might type to find sites like yours. If relevant, include geographic keywords (street, neighborhood, city, province, country). Use simple or generic terms rather than fancy or branded terms. Include names (your organization, your name, your product names) if relevant.
The Google Adwords Keyword Tool allows you to enter the words or phrases you think you want to target and it will tell you how often each month those phrases are searched for and how competitive they are. It will also provide more suggestions of related words or phrases you may want to target.
It's also important not to target too many phrases or you won't rank high for any of them. Picking the most popular one or two phrases, plus your organization name will usually yield the best results.
Use Keywords Consistently Throughout the Page
Your description in your meta tags should re-enforce the keywords you've included in your keyword meta tag. Try to string together your most important keywords in a coherent sentence or two.
Similarly, your titles, headlines, links and body content should also use these keywords. Simply having keywords in your meta tags but not on the actual site won't do any good. These meta tags tell search engines which words within the body of the page are most important. Thus, the words need to actually appear on the site.
Uniquely Position Each Page
Links to Your Page
The factor that makes the most difference in your rankings, and is also the hardest to affect, is the number and quality of links from other sites to your site. Search engines try to determine the importance of your page by looking at what other sites are linking to your page. The more other sites that link to your page the better, but it's not just a matter of the number of links.
High quality inbound links will have the following characteristics:
- They are from other pages that are related to the topic of your page
- The other page is itself reasonably highly ranked in the search engines
- The text of the link to your site contains the keywords you want to be found under
Get more links to your site
While links to your site may build up organically over time as other website owners find out about your site and link to it, you can also help this process along. The easiest way to do this is to do a search using keywords you would like to be found under. Then look at the results to see if any of these sites might be the type that will link to your site. Obviously, direct competitors are unlikely to link to you. However, someone who does what you do in a different region may be willing to link to you if you link to them. Similarly, some of the results may be directories of organizations like yours. These directories normally are willing to link to you, sometimes for free, sometimes in exchange for a link back to them, and sometimes you'll have to pay for a listing.
Links have two benefits. First, you'll get direct traffic from people clicking on these links, and second, your ranking in the search engines will increase and you'll get more traffic from them.
Inbound links and page content are the two main factors but search engines use dozens of other criteria for determining the ranking of their results. Some of the known factors are:
- How long the site has existed
- How frequently the site is updated
- The domain name the site uses
- The top level domain name (.ca, .com, etc.)
- The word count of each page, and the number of pages
Thus the key to a high search engine ranking is having a useful, extensive site, updated frequently over time, with keyword-rich content, and lots of inbound links from other high ranking sites in your field.
The Domain Name Short Cut
If there is a particularly highly used phrase related to your website, and the .com domain name of the phrase (with the spaces removed, and no dashes) is available, registering that domain and using it as the main domain name for your website will often be enough in itself to get you ranked high for that search term. The reason is that if you search for a specific product, company or brand (e.g. "Nike") then the likely official site is the one that has that brand as its exact domain name (nike.com), so Google usually gives significant extra weight to that domain name. However, the same holds true for generic phrases like "piano lessons vancouver" and their corresponding domain names (pianolessonsvancouver.com).
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