SEO primer: How to write search engine friendly web pages
On this page: A beginner's guide to writing web pages that will be found by search engines.
The first and most important tip is this: CONTENT. Write this in big letters on a card and stick it on the wall behind your PC so you don't forget! What brings people to your site and makes them stay, read or purchase is good content that they haven't found elsewhere. The form of good content depends on your site: it might be words and pictures, games, video or audio clips, lively discussion forums, or exactly the product they wanted at a good price.
For example, if you are thinking of launching an affiliate or multi-level marketing site, stop and ponder. Can you actually make it so much better than all the others that users will flock to your site? Remember that the web can effectively be one place:
- If you sell all-electronic services, then every web site selling the same service is a potential competitor.
- If you sell physical products, all the web sites in your country offering mail order of the same thing are competitors.
Think about the real world: do shops selling the same things open up next to each other? - with few exceptions, they don't. Therefore, your site needs a unique selling point (USP) to succeed.
If you are the only person in the world making marzipan cauliflowers, or conducting therapy sessions for pet mice, your USP is easy to define. For less exotic businesses, try to come up with something that sets you apart from all the others, whether this is regional, based on high quality, good prices or quick service.
Update: I tried a search on the phrase "marzipan cauliflowers" in November 2003, over a year after this page was first put up. Google turned up just four pages, of which this is one. Which makes my point about the relative ease of getting listed for obscure things: if you want to buy some real ones, here is the URL at number one on Google: http://www.marzipanworld.com/acatalog/Marzipan_World_Marzipan_Cauliflowers_116.html ;-)
Tips for good content
I'm not going to tell you how to create good content - that's your job (or mine if you pay me to write it). But there are some general rules you may find helpful. They are, incidentally, likely to improve the way your page reads for real people, too:
- Write down all the important words and phrases that you think users will type into Google looking for your product or service. Try to work these into your web pages, the higher up the page and with the more variations, the better. The end result must still be nice to read, and actually tell people what they want to know, of course.
- Use headings to emphasise the important parts of your page (real ones, not just large coloured text - if you don't know about headings in web pages, I suggest now would be a good time to learn. You might start with this page on HTML headings, which I found, surprise surprise, by a Google search.)
- Use the different pages on your site as an opportunity to get a good ranking for different things. Don't have the same standard waffle at the top of every page: start each with a heading and a short paragraph saying exactly what's on the page and why the reader should stay to read more.
Tip: download Lynx, a text-only browser, and look at your pages in that. Lynx simulates what a typical search engine spider will see on your site, and can be a real eye-opener for the inexperienced web designer.
Ah yes - the panacea for a less than optimal web page, if you believe the hype. Not so: some search engines ignore them altogether, and many others only use the ones that relate to the actual content.
A meta tag is hidden information in your web page code, used to classify it in some way. For SEs, the important ones are:
- the description, which summarises the page and often (but not always) appears below the link in an SE results page, and
- the keywords, which pick out the most important words/phrases on the page and can sometimes improve the perceived relevance of a page. (You can add common misspellings of words here to assist the illiterate or careless typist, but as I said, these will mostly be ignored.) Although technically you can have lots of keywords, in practice, only the first few will make any difference.
Links from other sites
Some SEs, including Google, rank pages that are linked to from lots of other sites more highly than similar ones that aren't. So, you can try to get reciprocal links from other sites. Don't bother with those free-for-all directories that just list links for the sake of it; you want real links from real, and relevant, web pages; for example, trade-specific or location-specific directories.
To pay or not?
Once upon a time, most SEs and directories used to be free. Increasingly, you can pay for faster submission, for inclusion, or for placement. If you depend on SE traffic to make sales, you should consider whether payment is worthwhile. It generally isn't for me, but might be for you.
You can also buy subscriptions to services or software to help you do submissions. Personally I don't think most of these are worth it, and some SEs now try to exclude automated or mass submissions as far as possible (see Altavista's basic submission page for example). They think that, this way, they are likely to get a better quality of submission. While you may be annoyed by this, remember that if search becomes useless because nearly everyone is cheating, then people will stop using it altogether.
What not to do
Framed designs can be a hindrance to being listed in certain search engines, though this is by no means such a problem as it used to be. If you do use frames, make sure you have some noframes content. (No idea what I'm talking about? Visit this page for more info on frames and search engines.)
A good way to get your site thrown out is to deliberately try to mislead the search engines into listing your site above better ones. Whatever you think of (hidden or one-point text is a common one), someone else has almost certainly tried before, and the SE programmers have probably found ways to block it. And anyway, what's the point? You could be the number one site for acrylic springboks, but if, when people get to your page, they find that you only sell plastic impalas that are expensive and rather tacky, will they buy? Again, we're back to having the content people want.
Of course, if you are the millionth person to sign up as affiliate to an adult site, you'll have to resort to desperate tactics to be found at all, but this is a commercial matter you should have considered first.
Submitting your site
Once you have the content perfect, it's submission time. You can automate this to an extent, but in my experience, if you have good original content and submit to the big SEs and directories, you'll get listed if you make manual submissions.
Hint: open Notepad, and type in your email address, the title of the site, its URL, and a short 25-word description. You'll find this handy to copy and paste text as you make your submissions. Here's the file I used for this site, many years ago now:
Eye for Information http://lois.co.uk/ firstname.lastname@example.org Lois Wakeman provides web architecture, design and information analysis services, specialising in corporate intranets, and in large and small commercial and public service internet sites
Don't forget that you'll have to wait weeks or months for your site to start showing up, so be patient. And don't expect to start off doing huge volumes of trade; traffic will build up gradually if you are providing something that people want.
That's all for now: I suggest a visit to searchenginewatch.com next, to find out more details of what you need to do.