How to Create a Search Engine Friendly Website

6 steps to making your site search engine ready


How to Create a Search Engine Friendly Website

by Christopher Heng, thesitewizard.com

Over the years of running thesitewizard.com, I have had numerous webmasters write to me asking why their web pages do not appear in the search engine results page even though they directly search for terms that should yield their page. More often than not, a quick visit to their site reveals that they have created a web page that is not search engine friendly.

This article brings together some of the main points on how you can create a website or blog that is search engine friendly.

  1. Add Text to Your Images, Flash and Videos

    The first thing you should note about search engines is that their software can only read text. When I say text, I don't mean text that you embed in an image or text that you place inside a Flash file or those that appear in a video. I mean text like the text you see everywhere on thesitewizard.com's articles - plain, unadulterated, ordinary text.

    While it's true that some search engines have the rudimentary ability to scan a Flash file, you cannot assume that this ability is sophisticated enough to obtain all the information you want them to have. In fact, I suspect that only Google can do this, and even then only to extract straightforward links embedded in the file. And certainly no search engine I know can view an image file or video and determine the text that it contains.

    This is not to say that you cannot create a photo-album site, Flash game site or a video site that ranks in the search engine results page. You can still place your pictures, Flash, videos on your site. However, you should write content for each of these non-text elements to describe them.

    For example, you should describe each picture in the "alt" text for the image. For those who don't know what I'm saying, images are put into a web page using HTML code like the following:

    <img src="name-of-image.jpg" alt="Picture of a search engine ready website">

    Notice the "alt" part in the example HTML code above. Here, I described the image as a picture of a search engine ready website. You should of course replace that text with a brief description of what your image really shows. While search engines cannot actually see your picture, they can read your "alt" text and will include that in their index for your web page.

    Likewise, for sites with video files or Flash file, you should include additional text on that web page describing what your video shows or what the Flash file does.

    To put it another way, when designing your website, make your website more accessible for blind and other visually impaired visitors and you will also reap the side benefit of making your site more search-engine friendly.

  2. Validate Your HTML Code

    I have written elsewhere on the importance of validating your web page. By validating, I mean checking to make sure that your HTML code does not have errors. Note that I'm not talking about spelling or grammar errors here. I'm referring to the underlying HTML code that allows the web browser to format your web page according to how you want it to appear. If you use a WYSIWYG web editor like Dreamweaver, Nvu or KompoZer, such code is usually generated behind the scenes by the editor as you type your text.

    Whether you write your HTML code by hand or use a WYSIWYG web editor, it is a good idea to always run the final code through HTML and CSS validators. You can find details on how you can do this in my article on HTML validation at http://www.thesitewizard.com/webdesign/htmlvalidation.shtml

    While the search engines don't care whether your HTML code is error-free, they rely on the basic correctness of the code to find out which portions of your web page to index. If your HTML code contains errors, it is possible that only portions of your web page are included in the search engine's database. The errors, while undetectable in a web browser, may lead the search engine software to think that some of the text on your page is part of the HTML formatting information rather than your site's content. As a result, the search engine may ignore that text, and your web page will not be shown in its results page.

  3. Create Relevant Title Tags

    Many search engines give additional weightage to the text appearing in the HTML <TITLE> tag for your page. Note that this is not the title that you see in the body of your web page. Rather, it is the non-visible text in the HTML code that the browser uses to display in the title bar of the browser window. The search engines use that tag as part of its algorithm to determine what your page is about.

    A number of new webmasters don't bother to set the title tag to something meaningful. Instead, they just put their site name in the title tag of every page on their website. They should, instead, put the site name only in the title tag of their home page, and place a meaningful title on each individual page of their site. For example, on a page that describes a product "Widget XYZ", the title tag should read "Widget XYZ Product Features" or something like that. If you feel that the name of your website is important to have on every title tag, place it at the end of your title for the sub-pages on your site, for example, "Widget XYZ Features - XYZ Company".

  4. Use Straight HTML Navigation Links on Your Website

    I wrote an article some time back on the importance of a good navigation system for your website and how one website I examined used only JavaScript-generated links to lead to other pages on the site. Since the search engines do not understand JavaScript, they were not able to find the other pages on the website.

    While that article only mentioned JavaScript-created links, this problem also applies to websites that rely only on links embedded in Flash files. Google is said to understand such links, but until search engine robot technology improves so that all search engines can easily figure out the links embedded in Flash files or JavaScript code, any website totally reliant on such links is surely at a disadvantage compared to websites that use straightforward HTML links.

    Again, this is not a call to throw out the baby with the bathwater. You do not have to ditch all JavaScript code or Flash files from your website. Instead, what you need is to provide a way for search engines (and visitors who do not have JavaScript-enabled or Flash players) to visit all the pages of your site. Put simple HTML links on your web page linking to the other pages in addition to your state-of-the-art gadgets.

    You should also add a site map to your website and link to that site map from your main page. That way, search engines and human visitors who don't have JavaScript or Flash facilities can find their way around your site.

  5. Eliminate Apparent Content Duplication

    If you use a blogging service, blogging software or some other content management system (CMS), you will need to watch out for duplicate content on your website.

    By duplicate content, I mean pages on your website that are identical to other pages on your site. If you manually create your website using a web editor, this will probably never happen. However, some of the automated services mentioned earlier create alternate routes to the same article. For example, a content management system or blogging software may duplicate the same article you wrote under two different URLs, such as www.example.com/archive/article-name.html and www.example.com/2007/01/05/article-name.html. Another manifestation of this is when your software adds a session id to the URL. Since every visitor receives a different session ID, he/she will link to your page using a different URL.

    The problem with duplicate content on your own site is link dilution. As I mentioned in my article on How to Improve Your Search Engine Ranking on Google, Google and other search engines take into account the number of links pointing to your page to determine how important your web page is. If you have identical content appearing on two different pages on your website, some sites will link to one page while others will link to the alternate page. The result is that neither of those pages will be regarded as very important in the search engine's index since you have effectively halved the links pointing to your article.

    Find a way to remove that feature in your software or service of allowing your article to be reached under different URLs. In the case of session IDs, see if you can use cookies instead to track individual users. Solutions like blocking out alternative URLs from search engines using a robots.txt file may seem like a possible solution, but they do not solve the problem of link dilution.

    You may also want to read How to Solve Duplicate Content Issues by Specifying a Canonical Web Address (URL) for additional help on this if you face this problem.

  6. Remove Hidden Text

    Nowadays, everyone knows that it is counterproductive to use hidden text on your website. By hidden text, I mean text that is included in the main body of your web page but is not actually displayed on the screen when visitors view your page in a browser. In days of old, some unscrupulous webmasters used such text to add keywords to a web page to influence search engine results. Search engines try to deal with that tactic by not showing pages which they think contain hidden text.

    As mentioned in another article, More Tips on Google Search Engine Results Placement, I inadvertently discovered that sometimes search engines wrongly penalize sites even if the hidden text was innocuous - for example, text that only showed for people using a particular browser to tell them that they may not be able to access certain features of the website due to deficiencies in the browser. If you have not read that article, you might want to take take a look to avoid facing the same problem.

    You should also be aware that if you use a free web host, your site may contain hidden text on its pages without your knowing. In my investigation of some free web hosts for thefreecountry.com's many free web hosting pages, I discovered that a few of the hosts that place advertisements on your websites include hidden text around the advertisements to influence the type of advertisements shown on your web page. This may lead to your website being penalised by the search engines through no fault of your own.

    Unfortunately, you cannot simply look for a free web host that does not impose ads on your website, since such web hosts regularly disappear overnight due to the lack of a viable revenue model to sustain their service. If you can afford it, the best solution is to get a domain name and place your site on a commercial web host.

Creating a search engine friendly website does not necessarily mean that you will get top listing for a particular keyword or keyword phrase. It is however a necessary first step if you want to rank anywhere near the first few pages of the search engine results. A site that is not search engine ready may not even appear in the results for any query. The tips in this article are the pre-requisites for any website aspiring the top positions in Google, Yahoo, and the other engines.

Footnote: if you are running a WordPress blog, you may also want to read the article How to Make Your WordPress Blog Search-Engine-Friendly.

Copyright © 2007-2009 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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