SEO 101: Best Practices

[ Image: Abstracted Documents ] After studying Peter Kent’s excellent book, Search Engine Optimization for Dummies, several key methods emerged for optimizing websites for the search engines. Although the book is written for people who are new to the world of search engine optimization (SEO), many of the principles presented throughout the book remain important, fundamental practices even for the most advanced SEO-wizards. This article divulges these very useful SEO practices and organizes them into manageable chunks 1.

Text Essentials

The golden rule for developing a popular website is to create a useful site and share it with as many people as possible. When designing a site for search engine popularity, use clear, readable text. Replace non-standard text characters with standard equivalents. By all means, check the spelling, grammar, and syntax of your text manually, or at the very least, using an automatic spell-checker. If you are targeting the giant Google search engines, your design mantra should be, “black text on white background” — that is, keep it simple, straightforward, and focus on quality content. And finally, never use image-based text in place of searchable, text-based content.

Document Basics

While there are certain situations where frames may prove beneficial, it is generally a good idea to avoid the use of frames like the plague. Frames have been associated with search engine problems, user difficulties, stolen content, and worse. As for iframes, use them intelligently, employing the proper element attributes, accessibility considerations, and alternate content.

Next, if you do an online search for the word, “welcome”, you will see why it has become a meaningless term that wastes prime SEO real estate. Search engines generally place significant emphasis on the first word in the title (<title>) element of a website. So, rather than waste that opportunity with "welcome", why not take advantage by throwing down a tough site-related keyword instead?

Search engines also place emphasis on page headings, such as <h1>, <h2>, and <h3>. Thus it is in your site’s best interest to employ concise, keyword-rich page headings.

Finally, avoid using the meta-refresh tag. This tag is used within the document’s head element, and is designed to trigger an “auto-refresh” of the web page after a specified time interval. It has been reported that search engines dislike such tags, as they have been associated with deceptive SEO methods.

Media Wisdom

As much as possible, or unless you have good reason for doing otherwise, limit the inclusion of multimedia content such as Flash, QuickTime, and JavaScript, or even image maps. Search engines currently have no method for crawling and indexing the contents of such media content. Although JavaScript has progressed considerably, search engines still choke on large sprawls of JavaScript, which executed in the user’s browser. Because of this, search engines, as they try to follow links throughout your site, are unable to follow links created via JavaScript or Flash. This is a reason why complex JavaScript/Flash menus should not be used. Or, if your site requires some fancy JavaScript/Flash menu or other complex script, include it via an external file or by using the document.write() function.

Another beneficial tactic involves the inclusion of an “all-text” version of any JavaScript or Flash menu used by the site. Many sites include such a menu in the footer of every page, thereby enabling search engines to follow all menu links. Even better, include a map of your site that includes links to everything. Sitemaps have become increasingly popular, and there are available free online tools that will examine your site and automatically create a sitemap for you 2.

Structural Basics

First of all, before diving into site design, decide whether or not the site domain name will include the World-Wide-Web prefix, www, or not 3. Although the www-prefix is entirely optional, it is important to be consistent when referring to the site domain name in links, code, and elsewhere. If you are careless and use both www and non-www versions, the search engines will most likely index your site in duplicate and split its search rank accordingly. After this happens, it may take a significant amount of time and effort to reverse the situation and consolidate the indexed duplicity.

As you develop your site, implement a “flat” directory structure. Search engines are known to crawl only so “deep” into a site before leaving. For example, you would want to create something similar to this..

(site root)/
images/
scripts/
code/
css/
index.php
file.html
etc.ico

..in which the entirety of site content exists either in the root directory or within a folder that is itself in the root directory. Such a directory structure will result in search-engine-friendly URL’s such as http://domain.com/images/image.png and http://domain.com/file.html. Such URL’s are generally favored to more complex URL’s such as http://domain.com/deep/directory/structure/that/finally/points/to/a/file/image.png, etc.

Along this same line of reasoning, remember that, currently, search engines will not index dynamically created web pages. For example, many site blogs produce pages that are created on the fly, via a database and some measure of PHP scripting. Dynamically produced pages typically present with URL’s similar to http://domain.com/blog/index.php?tag=links&paged=2. It is in your best SEO interests to change dynamic URL’s into static URL’s. There are several methods for accomplishing this, including Apache rewrite rules 4, htaccess tricks 5, and even free plugins for certain publishing platforms such as WordPress.

Other beneficial directory practices involve employing a straightforward navigational system and consistent site structure and presentation. Don’t make change after change to your site’s overall structure. Search engines love consistency, and emphasize sites that consistent, frequently updated with content, and easy to navigate. Always keep your site intact. If you have to perform maintenance on your site, it is critical to minimize downtime and restore content expediently. Hint: examine your site access logs and look for patterns of search engine indexing. With any luck, you will observe a regular pattern concerning the frequency and time frame with which the search engine bots visit your site. Armed with this information, it may be possible to schedule any necessary site maintenance during periods of time when the major bots are not expected to arrive.

Finally, keep links intact and make a habit out of routinely searching for dead or redirected links. There are excellent online tools 6 available for precisely this purpose, and you should definitely take advantage of them. And, as far as links go, it is of the utmost importance to ensure that all of your internal links — links to elsewhere within your site — are always correct and well-established. Provide at least one link into and out of every page associated with your site — no dead-end pages!

SEO Resources

Footnotes

  • 1 Note/Disclaimer: This article was written almost a year ago (July 2006). I was not going to publish it then (due to sheer laziness), and I hesitate to do so now, for several reasons. First, the world of SEO changes at almost breakneck speed – concepts from a year ago may not be as optimal in the current SEO economy. Second, my writing skills have improved over the course of the last year – rereading this article a year after its production, I really can’t stand it. And third, there is simply waay too much of this kind of information already online – do we really need another article covering basic SEO practices? Nonetheless, I did spend a good deal of time researching and writing the article, and I really hate wasting effort and deleting written material. So, I have decided to publish the article for the sake of prosperity, but also have chosen to include this disclaimer to keep me out of hot water with the critics (not that I have any). Having said that, I hope you enjoy the article!
  • 2 Online Sitemap Generator
  • 3 www. is deprecated (404 link removed 2013/07/12)
  • 4 URL Rewriting Guide
  • 5 Stupid htaccess Tricks
  • 6 Free Broken Link Checker (404 link removed 2013/07/03)