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PM4Web is about sharing my experiences as an IT project manager and usability specialist. My writing style is pragmatic, offering useful tips and suggestions you can implement almost immediately in your own work.

01 September, 2008

Bare Minimum On-Page SEO

A checklist of basic Search Engine Optimization considerations

In 2004 I was part of a team that developed a shopping website complete with credit card payment facilities. The site allowed people to trade-in their old Xbox or Playstation 2 games as well as buy new ones.

Fast forward to 2007. The client we produced the shopping site for contacts us and says the website has serious SEO issues. Three years had passed since I worked on the site, so I needed to go back and have a look at it again. Sure enough, the site did in fact suffer from a number of SEO short-comings. For example, it didn’t show the product’s name in the browser title.

Because so much time had passed, there was no obligation to go back and fix it (I wasn’t even at that company anymore). The result; the site closed down since it had no chance of challenging its competitors in terms of search engine ranking. The client was not willing to pay to have the site upgraded either.

An unfortunate chain of events, but in the client’s mind, we had 'dropped the ball' on this one. At the time, a SEO checklist would of been handy. Just a basic list of the bare minimum on-page SEO we needed to do in order to call ourselves professionals. In the last few years, I have developed just such a list. I periodically update it to keep current with SEO trends.

I should quickly explain what is meant by On-page Optimisation. Basically, these are things a programmer can do in code to improve a site’s chances of ranking high on search engines. Off-page Optimisation would be strategies like negotiating reciprocal linking with another popular website that is complimentary to what you do (e.g. website A sells posters, website B sells frames, both companies could improve their search engine ranking by promoting each other).

I don’t claim to be an expert in SEO, I have however been lucky enough to work with one, so I know what the real thing looks like. The list I use is quite simple and only takes about 10-15 minutes to run through.

SEO checklist

Obviously there is no shortage of SEO articles on the web, but I’ve found that they are often prescriptive; in that they tell you what you should do, but not why you should do it. So I will attempt to explain the reasoning behind the various SEO safeguards on the checklist.

HTML frames aren’t used - other then being very old school (circa 1997), search engines don’t crawl frame-based sites very well (some like AltaVista ignore the site completely). There are also usability issues with frames (i.e. screen readers may have trouble interpreting them).

There's no significant content contained inside Flash – obviously, if you have text embedded inside a Flash animation, search engines wont be able to get to it.

The navigation mechanism doesn't use JavaScript - search engines have trouble traversing navigation mechanisms which employ JavaScript, the result is most of the site wont be spidered (HTML lists formatted with CSS are commonly used instaed).

A sitemap is available if JavaScript or Flash navigation are present – if you really must use Flash or JavaScript-based navigation, then a hyperlink to a sitemap will help search engines successfully complete their mission.

There is minimal redundant HTML tags - if you want a good example of this, just take a look at what Microsoft FrontPage produces, it does things like encase images in bold tags. Proper use of CSS will also help minimise the amount of HTML tags needed.

If there's a lot of JavaScript, it’s kept in an external include file - this is because search engines give more weight to content appearing towards the top of the page. By moving JavaScript, or CSS for that matter, to external files, you are increasing the prominence of your content.

The amount of text content exceeds the amount of HTML code – if a website is bloated with loads of HTML code, it becomes difficult for a search engine to figure out what a page is all about. In fact, a search engine will actually give up and move on if it finds a page is to difficult to traverse.

Each page has a unique browser page title – this is considered one of the most important factors for high page ranking. There is also a connection between the title and the content of the page (e.g. if the page title is ‘The Simpsons - Season 1 DVD’ then the page should actually focus on that topic).

Page titles aren't longer then 6-10 words - a web page title that is too long is almost as bad as no title at all. Overly long titles don’t help readability. I have also seen material which says search engines truncate long titles. Keyword density also comes into play here (i.e. having keywords amongst lots of other non-keywords results in lower keyword density) .

Page titles are keyword rich - keyword density is a measure of page relevance. Keywords appearing in page titles have a greater weighting then those appearing further down the page (as a rule of thumb, 5-10 keywords should be concentrated on).

Standard HTML heading tags are used (i.e. H1, H2, H3) – using heading elements is a method for giving prominence to keywords. They help make it clear to search engines what the topic of a section is meant to be.

Images have short yet descriptive ALT tags - as a rule of thumb, the ALT tag should describe the image in a way that would make sense to a visitor using a voice-based browser. Sensible ALT tags also help a search engine understand the structure and content of your site (e.g. a search engine can’t ‘see’ a picture of a balloon, you have to tell it what it is).

URLs aren't overly long (i.e. under 100 characters) - some say short URLs have no impact on page ranking, and that it’s more important to have keyword rich URLs. But, according to Matt Cutts of Google, if there are more then 5 words in a URL, “[Google] algorithms typically will just weight those words less and just not give you as much credit.” Short URLs also tend to get about twice as many click-throughs on search result pages.

Hyphens are used in page file names rather then underscores – there is no penalty for using underscores, but Google interprets hyphens as separating words. For example, if you have a page called ‘posters_frames.aspx’ then it can only be found if a person searches for ‘posters_frames’, if you have a page called ‘posters-frames.aspx’, then it can be found by searching for either ‘posters’ or ‘frames’.

The domain name is relevant to the business/website – a website about posters should have the word posters somewhere in the domain name (e.g. www.posters.com). Having a number of major keywords in the URL is even better (e.g. www.poster-framing.com).

Physical page file names are short, descriptive, and keyword rich – search engines often give ranking preference to pages with keyword rich file names (e.g. www.../post-frames-pricing.aspx is much better then www.../article.aspx?id=19).

Metatags are used - the general consensus among SEO experts is that metatags are dead with regard to their role in page ranking (i.e.
Hyperlinks make use of the title tag - the title attribute can inform a search engine about the connection between a link and a relevant phrase (e.g. title="Online frames")

No pages are more then four clicks deep (max. 4 tier-navigation) – as far as search engines are concerned, less clicks means higher importance (i.e. important information is easier to reach). On a related topic, having files deep within the directory structure can also be detrimental.

Page file size does not exceed 150 kilobytes – web pages greater then 150 KB are generally not cached. Search engines do this in an effort to reduce index size, bandwidth requirements and server utilization. Also consider that small file size means faster downloads for visitors.

GoogleBot Cartoon

Are there other significant SEO checks you could do? Definitely. For instance; directory naming, keyword rich hyperlinks, keyword prominence (i.e. the order in which keywords appear), time-stamping content, HTML/CSS validity, and the list goes on. There is nothing to stop you from expanding my list.

If you really want to get deep into the topic, grab yourself a big cup of coffee and take a look at SEOmoz’s article Beginner’s Guide to SEO, its a good place to start.

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