Search engine optimisation (SEO) is an important part of the marketing mix for any business that uses a website to drive direct or indirect sales.
This article highlights a few fundamentals of website SEO that every website should have.
But before we can fully understand the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of website SEO, we must first understand the ‘why’, and this involves understanding how search engines work.
How do search engines work?
Search engines exist to help web users locate resources on the Internet quickly. The success of a web search is based on the relevance of the results returned.
In order for a search engine to build a ‘library’ of all the websites on the Internet, it uses a bit of code known as a ‘spider’ which ‘crawls’ the Internet using the internal and external(outbound) links it finds on websites.
As the spider crawls and discovers new websites, or new pages on websites it is already aware of, it collects information from the pages and builds out a profile for each website in its ‘Index’, its library. The crawler will also visit pages that are already indexed to check for changes in the content and will update the index if changes are found.
It is the information the search engine index holds that will determine the ranking of a page, and the ranking of the site the page lives on, in the search engine results pages aka SERPs.
Each search engine (Google, Bing, Yandex etc) uses their own, closely-guarded, algorithm to help them sift through all the data they collect and to determine the relevance of a web page against a search term and to rank it accordingly when a search result for the term is returned to the user.
Optimising your business website for better search engine ranking
However, there are some fundamentals of search engine optimisation that we can rely on to set a solid foundation to help websites rank well in search engine results pages:
- Site speed
- Mobile/responsive design
- Search keyword/key-phrase and Focus keyword/key-phrase
- Page search-engine-friendly (SEF) url
- Page meta title
- Page header tags
- Page first paragraph
Website visitors expect a web page to load quickly whether they’re viewing it on a desktop, tablet or mobile device, regardless of the internet speed. Typically, a user makes a decision to stay on a page within 3 seconds of landing on it. That doesn’t leave much time to make an impact especially if the site is so slow that it hasn’t even loaded within those first 3 seconds!
When a site visitor leaves a page without having interacted with any part of the page e.g. following any internal links or filling out a form, it’s known as a ‘bounce’; the visitor arrived, did nothing and left.
Research has shown that the bounce rate increases the longer a web page takes to load. On average if a web page load time goes from 1 to 3 seconds then the bounce rate increases 32%! If a page goes from 1 second to 5 seconds to load the bounce rate increases by a whopping 90%!
So you can see that load times play a big role in the success of a website. From a search engine’s perspective, they want to make sure that their users are not taken to a site that is likely to result in a bounce, which can be taken as user dissatisfaction and can hurt their brand, therefore sites that load within 2 seconds are ranked higher than slower sites.
Website load times can be affected by these issues:
- Website hosting service
- The structure of the website
- Image file sizes
Website hosting service – most website hosting services offer very competitive and attractive pricing, however they can do this because the service they offer is known as shared-hosting. What this means is that the resources of a server, i.e. what determines the speed of a website, are shared between many websites, sometimes in excess of a hundred. If every website is getting even a small number of visitors the available resources for each website are depleted resulting in slower load times for all the sites.
So if your website is critical to your business then be sure to select a suitable hosting package.
Structure of website – Like all things, there are good ways and bad ways to building a website. The code of a website plays a big role in determining how the information on a web page is delivered to a web browser.
A simple example to understand this better is to think of a website with 10 pages, where each page displays a specific splash image; a badly coded website might load up all 10 images on every page and then display the relevant image. This means the overhead of the other 9 images unnecessarily adds to the loading time of the page.
Image file sizes – High-resolution images make a web page infinitely more attractive however longer load times can be the cost if the images are not optimised to reduce their file sizes. Large, high resolution images, especially photos from stock sites, can be many megabytes in size however these can easily be compressed in size by 50-60% by running them through online services like TinyJPG (https://tinyjpg.com) for .jpg and .jpeg format graphics or TinyPNG (https://tinypng.com) for .png graphics. Your web pages will load faster without any discernible loss in quality of the images.
To test the loading speed of your website, use a tool like GTmetrix (https://gtmetrix.com) which provides some very useful information regarding optimisation steps you can take to speed up your website
Website security has become a hot topic of late especially around protecting web site user data. Google, the most widely used search engine by far, made security a ranking signal back in 2014 however uptake had been slow, until last year when Google issued a recommendation, and somewhat of an ultimatum, that websites should be using a security certificate, known as SSL, because as from July 2018 their Chrome browser would display a warning to users when they visited a site that was not secured using SSL.
So what is SSL?
SSL stands for Secure Socket Layer and in simple terms it a layer that sits between a website and the web browser. Denoted by the ‘s’ in ‘https’, this security feature encrypts all data that is passed between a website and its user, making it almost impossible for any third party that is gathering the data to read it. So imagine you are on an e-commerce site and have entered your credit card details and delivery address when making a purchase. If the connection between website and web browser were not encrypted, this data passing between them could be ‘sniffed’ and read in clear text, providing criminal enterprises with an opportunity to use that data.
So we know that Google takes security seriously enough to penalise websites that do not encrypt their connections.
But it’s not just about the search engine ranking. Most websites have jumped on the wagon and now employ SSL certificates, and web users are becoming increasingly aware of security. Therefore it follows that when a user lands on a non-secure website there is a strong chance they’ll leave as soon as they’ve realised the lack of security. If it’s your website, you’ll be lucky to see that user again. So it makes business sense to add this security to your website. Speak to your hosting service about implementing a SSL certificate for your website.
Research from the tail-end of 2017 shows that almost 67% of all web traffic comes from mobile/smart devices. In the middle of 2018 this figure is likely to have increased.
Google knows and understands this trend and has created a ‘mobile index’, an index of sites that are mobile-friendly so that when a user searches on a mobile device, only those relevant sites on the mobile-index will be returned in the results. What this means is that if
you don’t have a mobile-friendly website, and keeping in mind that 67% of all web traffic comes via mobile devices, your business is missing out on a lot of traffic.
Implementing a mobile design to an existing site, especially if it is bespoke, can be difficult, however it’s worth speaking to your current website services supplier to see what the options are. Using a content management system like WordPress makes this issue easier as there are many hundreds of available themes that are mobile-ready and can be easily customised to fit your brand.
Search keyword/key-phrase and Focus keyword/key-phrase
Search engines try to provide their users with the most relevant web page in response to a keyword/key-phrase search.
With so much content out there the search engines need all the help they can get from the websites themselves. The first way in which a search engine can be helped to CLEARLY understand the content of a web page is by ensuring that each page uses a ‘focus’ keyword or key phrase. This focus keyword is an anchor for a number of web page properties that helps to clearly state what the content of that page is about. Done well, it not only provides the search engines with the correct context but human users too! Focus keywords and phrases are typically constructed after some research on the topic of the web page to find the most widely used search term and using it in the focus keyword or phrase.
There are at least 4 areas of a web page that should make use of the focus keyword/phrase:
- Page: search-engine-friendly (SEF) url
- Page: meta title
- Page: header tags
- Page: first paragraph
To clearly illustrate these properties I’ll make use of a search for that beloved topic ‘GDPR’! The General Data Protection Regulation has been in the news for a few months now and as such there are numerous sources online that have written about it. This makes it a perfect example as only the very best articles rise to the top of a very big pile in search engine results pages.
I ran a Google search for “What is gdpr?” and of the 120 million results returned a May 2018 article from The Guardian website came up trumps – https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/21/what-is-gdpr-and-how-will-it-affect-yo u
Using this article as an example, let’s go through each of the 4 web page properties and how the focus key phrase “” is used:
Page: search-engine-friendly (SEF) url
A search-engine-friendly url is the address of a web page that makes use of friendly words rather than esoteric numbers and letters. I like to think of these firstly as human-friendly addresses as if done well a human user could remember the full address of a web page.
In order for a url to be search-engine-friendly it must make use of words that a search engine would find useful and this is where a focus keyword or phrase, inserted into the url, can be of use.
Keeping in mind my search term “What is gdpr?” let’s look at The Guardian’s search-engine-friendly url for their article
I’ve highlighted the focus key-phrase used in the SEF url for this article, which matches my search term exactly, and this fact will have contributed highly in being placed first in the search result.
Page: meta title
The meta title of a page is one of Google’s highest ranking signals and uses this to make a strong determination of the contextual nature of the page. The meta title usually only appears in the browser tab that is displaying the web page. It does not appear on the web page itself. To see the meta title of a web page, right-click on the web page and click on ‘view source’ – this will display the html code for the page. Look for the tags <title> and </title> – the content between these two tags is the meta title.
This article’s meta title looks like this:
<title>What is GDPR and how will it affect you? | Technology | The Guardian</title>
Again, take note of the focus key phrase that matches my search term.
Page: header tags
Web pages are made of a display language called HTML and within HTML there are a number tags collectively known as ‘header’ tags. Header tags are used to give a piece of text prominence and importance over other text.
Going from most important to least, these tags are:
H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, H6
Typically, on most websites, only the first four are used, with H1 used to display the title of the page. You can think of H1 being the headline of a page, clearly indicating what the entire article is about.
Google and the other search engines use this defined HTML structure to help make sense of the content of a website, assuming that the web page being crawled has correctly made use of the tags.
So let’s take a look at the article’s use of the H1 tag:
<h1 class=”content__headline ” itemprop=”headline”>What is GDPR and how will it affect you?</h1>
Again, the focus keyword, matching my search term, appears in the H1 tag for the page.
Page: first paragraph
The first paragraph of any piece of content needs to make it clear to the reader what the following content is about. This is another established convention that search engines use to understand the context of a web page.
Taking a look at the first paragraph of the article, we again note the presence of one of the the key words from my search phrase:
“You could be forgiven for thinking that Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)”
Google recommends that the first paragraph should include the keyword or phrase so that’s one way the SEO of this article could be improved.
If all of this is looking like carefully constructed content then you’re absolutely right. In order to help search engines understand the context of a web page as fully as possible it’s important to structure the content in a way that a search engine understands; you’ll note that humans understand context in much the same way.
To summarise this section on SEO take note that the content of 3 of the 4 elements above, apart from containing my search phrase, are exactly the same! Only their location on a web page differs.
The SEF url: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/21/what-is-gdpr-and-how-will-it-affect- you
The meta title: <title>What is GDPR and how will it affect you? | Technology | The Guardian</title>
The H1 tag: <h1 class=”content__headline ” itemprop=”headline”>What is GDPR and how will it affect you?</h1>
Using the same keyword/phrase in all 4 of the web page properties will help the page, and the site, rank better in the results pages.
So, when next creating content for your website, keep these pointers in mind so your content can be easily indexed by the search engines, driving more traffic to your website.
All websites can benefit from these SEO fundamentals; Although there are areas of SEO that require an expert hand, these few pointers can be implemented quite easily and should be done to set a solid foundation before any detailed SEO work is undertaken.