Optimizing web sites for search engines (SEO and SERP)
What is it all about?
SEO and SERP is Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Results Page respectively. SEO is basically the art of optimizing the content of the web site in regards to search engines, in order to be shown as one of the first sites in searches. SERP is the actual effect of your SEO and a number of other factors. The last part, a lot of people forget, and believe that by working on the SEO, SERP also improves automatically. This is not the case.
What is considered good SEO changes all the time, as search engines becomes more and more intelligent and better at identifying attempts at gaming the system. There is however, a number of SEO techniques that always works, and can be expected always to work:
Correct structuring and marking using tags.
Correct and natural language.
Rich and unique content.
Besides this, there is a number of factors have become relevant, as more and more traffic switches to smartphones and tablets, and the challenges with safety and spying indreases:
Encrypted access to the site, i.e. HTTPS instead of HTTP.
Content requiring less band width, i.e. loads faster.
Adaptive design, so the site adapts to the screen size.
In essence SEO today means writing a cohesive text and remembering to use the correct tags, e.g. H1 for the headline, and filling out things like meta tags, e.g. both TITLE and description. That's really all there is to it. You can be more or less elaborate about it and e.g. improve it by using microtagging (more about this further down), but it really is just that.
As there can be a lot of money in being at the top of the list in searches, SEO is big business, some parts more earnest than others. Often you will encounter expressions like white hat and black hat SEO, which is the acceptable and the dishonest ways of doing SEO, respectively. You ca also encounter grey hat SEO, which is not downright dishonest or forbidden but a bit shady. Today, not a lot of SEO is black hat, as the search engines have become better at weeding out the sites, and the crooks have moved on to other methods.
So, how do you do this in practice?
SEO easily becomes very diffuse, and the details on what to do on your pages quickly becomes very sparse. Parts of it with good reason, as they depend on the circumstances. A big part of it due to a lot of people using buzzword they don't really know what means.
Here is a list of suggestions that I strongly recommend doing as a part of your SEO:
Fill out the TITLE tag using a descriptive title for the page. Preferably with the keywords you want people to find the page with, but only to the extent that is sounds natural. General recommendation: keep it below 65 characters, but it is better to have it sound right than being keeping it short.
Fill out the META tag description with a short description of the page content. Using the keywords for which you want the page to be found is a good idea, but only if it sounds natural. General recommendation: keep it below 250 characters, but it is better to get i right than keeping it short.
If you have a header and a footer on the page (most sites have), mark them with the tags HEADER and FOOTER, even if they are only used to mark where the header and footer begins and ends.
Mark the navigation pane using the NAV tag, even if it is only used for marking where the navigation pane starts and ends.
Make sure you have no dead links on the pages.
For images, fill out the ALT attribute so the search engine has some words to associate with the image. Preferably with the keywords you want people to find the image/page with, but only if it sounds natural. General recommendation: keep it short.
Use header tags for sectioning the content, i.e. H1 for the headline, H2 for the subsections, etc. so the search engines can see the structure of the page.
Use microtagging. On Schema.org you can see how to do it. Be aware that the effect of microtagging varies a lot from site to site.
Make sure all the pages are readable on all screen sizes, e.g. by using adaptive design.
Have a 404 redirect in your .htaccess file, taking the user to the e.g. the front page, if there is a typo in the link leading to the site, or the page with the new name, if you renamed the file. What you want to avoid is the user being met by a blank page without explanation or help, if there is an error in a link.
Search engines favor encrypted pages, so have a redirect in your .htaccess-fil, leading the user to the HTTPS connection, if the user clicks a HTTP link.
Search engines consider YourSite.com and www.YourSite.com two copies of the same page, even if it is the same file on the same server. It is an unfortunate part of the web structure, and apparently not something that can be fixed. As search engines don't like copies of pages, unless marked as such in the META data, you therefore need to have a redirect in the .htaccess file, taking the user the version with or without www, depending on the choice made for the site. It doesn't matter if you choose one or the other version, as long as you are consistent. As it can be seen on the address line, I have chosen to use the version without www, but it is entirely a matter of personal preferences whether you want to use one version or the other.
If you have what is called orphans among your pages, i.e. pages not being linked to from other pages on the site, you need to make a sitemap. A sitemap is a special XML file containing a list of files on the site, and where they are placed. A lot of people recommend always having a sitemap, but based on experience, they are redundant for sites where all pages/files are linked to, internally, only adding to the pile of maintenance work.
Besides this, there is a number of options, that aren't programming as such, but rather a consideration about the content:
Do not use images or other files that are unnecessarily big.
Make sure the pages have some content, preferably text. Pages with only a little content are considered poor content by the search engines, regardless of the quality of the content, and the page will have a low page rank. If there is a lot of pages like that on a site, it will have a negative effect on the evaluation of the remaining pages on the site.
Make sure that text and headline contains the keywords you want people to find the page by, preferably several times, as long as it feels natural in the text.
Avid hidden text. Search engines consider this an attempt at gaming the system.
Don't make gateway pages, i.e. pages with the sole purpose of redirecting visitors to another oage. Search engines consder this an attampt at spam, phishing some other type of cheating people. Create a redirect in the .htaccess file, if you need to redirect traffic on the web site.
How to increase SERP, besides SEO?
Since SEO is not the only thing giving a higher page rank for search engines, it is of some importance what else works. A sesrch engine like Google uses what they call signals. It is a lot of evaluation points, from which they make an overall assessment of the site. It is known that not all signals are of equal value, but what the signals are, and how they are valued, is one of the secrets Google won't tell. You can find some pretty good guesses on what they are, and their significance, on the internet. Two things known to improve page rank::
Links to and from other web sites.
If someone links to your web site, especially specific pages on the site, it is because the page contains something useful. Therefore page rank increases with the number of inbound links. One minor detail here: if the links are irrelevant, e.g. from link farms, it is considered an attempt at cheating the rating system, and has the oposite effect.
One of the types of links considered legal, and is highly recommended, is having profiles on various social media, where you highlight new pages. The oxposure obtained by the various social media, depends on a large number of factors, so the choice of e.g. Facebook does not equal success. Obviously you start with the social media you know and where you have a profile, but you also have to ensure you get out on social media relevant to your web site.
Outbound links have been a subject of some misunderstanding. If you link to another web site, you are a part of increasing the other site's rank, at the expense of your own rank. BUT, because you link to another site, thereby demonstrating that what you do is a part of a bigger picture, you also increase your rank. So, you lose some rank on one signal and gain some, on another signal. The last part is often ignored, which is why you often see what is called a silo effect on knowledge and content. Whether you gain more rank than you lose, depends on the search engine's evaluation of the quality and relevance of the links.
Adds cost money! On the other hand, they work. A search engine like Google makes a living showing adds, so if you pay for adds, your page is also shown. No matter how poor the content may be. Simple as that. It only works as long as you pay for adds, so it can't really be considered a permanent solution.
You can also take the oposite approach and SHOW adds for the search engines. The search engine for which you display adds, makes money when the adds are shown, so they will find the page more relevant than a page containing the same information, only without their adds. This is not the official procedure, but when you start working on your web site's visibility, you quickly realize that this is how it works.
How do you test whether the SEO/SERP work has an effect?
The low tech approach to seeing whether you work on optimizing really works, is to make a search on the various search engines. Can you find yourself? If yes, you are apparently heading in the right direction. If no, you need to do more. Do remember, that from doing the optimization and until it takes effect, a day or two may pass. Sometimes longer.
An important detail when looking for your site: What do you find? If what you find is links directly to your web site, the optimization work itself is OK. But, if that is all you find, it might be because noone is linking to your pages. If noone's linking to your pages, you have a problem. From the time where you upload new pages and until someone links to them, some time will pass, so don't panic when new pages don't appear in searches. Contrary to common belief search engines don't always show your pages, even if the keyword being searched for apears on them. Same thing with pages linking to your site. Therefore: Pages not turning up in searches is not the same as having a problem, but it IS a heads up, that you should look into whether you have a problem or not.
Another low tech approach: Do you get more visitors on the site, and if you run a business: do you get more customers?
Taking a slightly more advanced approach, you can use analytical tools. There is a number of tools e.g. Piwik and Google Analytics, with which you can see things like the visitors' gender, age distribution, geographical location, etc. Here you can start lookin at your visitors. Say you are an alternative healer where the primary customer segment is neurotic women, age 40+, and you can see that gender distribution is 50/50 and mostly young people (i.e. students), you are not hitting the mark. Same thing if you have a small, local shop and the number of visitors from the area isn't relatively high, instead of evenly disitributed across the country. If evenly distributed across the country, you are missing your target.