Search Engine Optimization
Wed, 6 Jul 2011
An in-depth look at some of the technical aspects of SEO
"So can you make sure that my new website appears in Google's search results, on the first page?" It's what clients tend to ask. They seem to think that one picks up the phone to have a little chat with Google to see if they can be persuaded to bump the site's classification up a bit. No can do.
Nevertheless, there are ways and means to help Google classify your site properly - and higher. In the old days, it was commonplace to add a bunch of keywords in the META tags of a site in order for search engines to believe that the site was relevant to a lot of searches (the inclusion of porn-related keyword being a much-practised solution). Nowadays, however, Google all but complete ignores keywords. It's better to leave out the META keywords altogether, since including irrelevant keywords will damage your reputation with Google rather than improve it.
In lieu of keywords, Google checks the actual content of your site (we'll get to that in depth in a moment). It also checks the number of sites that link to yours (so-called backlinks). This number isn't something you can improve overnight. Some social engineering is necessary to get other webmasters to link to your site. Link trading is commonplace: you link to my site, I link to yours. This is the most powerful way to get your site noticed by Google.
In order to find whether or not Google has actually included your site in its index (and which pages are actually included), you can have Google do the following search:
This performs a search within the domain of your site. It'll show you the total of pages indexed, and links to these pages. Note that for a new site, Google may take a while to get around to indexing it. You may need to be patient for a week or two. If your site still isn't indexed, you may have been banned from Google for violation of policy. Also, you'll have to Google know that your site actually exists. This is something you can do through Google Webmaster Tools.
If your site actually appears in Google, that's a good start. But more specifically, you'll want your site to be included on the first page of search results (preferable position 1-3) when people search for your brand name. To check this, simply feed your company's name in Google search. Unless your brand is a common name, you should actually be in a top position. If not, Google may have penalized you for violating Google's policy (check the Google Webmaster Guidelines!)
One important part of your site that must absolutely be accessible to Google is its top navigation menu. If your menu is built with Flash, Google won't follow any of the links it contains. The use of Ajax and frames is also not recommended for the same reason. If you must have a Flash menu, be sure to offer a secundary navigation menu with plain text links (maybe at the bottom of the page). If you using images for your links, make sure that they have alt-tags. Even with images with proper alt-tags, a secundary menu is recommended.
In order for Google's crawler to properly read all content of your site, static HTML is best. Nevertheless, you'll probably want to use some spiffy techniques to spice up the visitors' experience when visiting your site. There's probably a part where Ajax is used to speed up navigation. If so, it's no problem - as long as you provide a non-Ajax way that gets users (and crawlers) to the same page. This can be harder than it sounds and may require some heavy recoding...
All search engines will check for the existence of the file robots.txt on your web server. Although not required for your site to function, it is good practice to include this file as it contains an overview of the site's contents, and specifically, which pages the search engine (or robot) should index and which pages should be skipped. The robots.txt file is a plaintext file. Typically, its contents are:
This means: all user agents (browsers) are allowed to visit my site (including crawlers). No pages of my site are forbidden to index. In addition, a sitemap (an overview of the structure of the site - see below) may be found in sitemap.xml. There's a lovely site named robotstxt.org that explains all the ins and out of the file, with a bunch of examples.
The road ahead
Now that your site is properly found and index by the search engines, the next step would be to improve its content so that the site classification goes up. That will be the subject for a future article.