The Basics of SEO Design and Development

Search engines are limited in how they crawl the web and interpret content to retrieve and display in the results. In this section of the guide, we’ll focus on the specific technical aspects of building (or modifying) web pages so they’re optimally structured for search engines and human visitors. This is an excellent part of the guide to share with your programmers, information architects, and designers, so that all parties involved in a site’s construction can plan and develop a search-engine friendly site.

In order to be listed in the search engines, your content – the material available to visitors of your site – must be in HTML text format. Images, Flash files, Java applets, and other non-text content is virtually invisible to search engine spiders, despite advances in crawling technology. The easiest way to ensure that the words and phrases you display to your visitors are visible to search engines is to place it in the HTML text on the page. However, more advanced methods are available for those who demand greater formatting or visual display styles:

  1. Images in gif, jpg, or png format can be assigned “alt attributes” in HTML, providing search engines a text description of the visual content.
  2. Images can also be shown to visitors as replacement for text by using CSS styles.
  1. Flash or Java plug-in contained content can be repeated in text on the page.
  2. Video & audio content should have an accompanying transcript if the words and phrases used are meant to be indexed by the engines.

Now let’s double-check some stuff

Most sites do not have significant problems with indexable content, but double-checking is worthwhile. By using tools like Google’s cache, SEO-browser.com, the MozBar or Yellowpipe you can see what elements of your content are visible and indexable to the engines.

Juggling Pandas Comparison

Whoa! That’s what we look like?

Using the Google cache feature, we’re able to see that to a search engine, JugglingPandas.com’s homepage is simply a link to another page. This is bad because it makes it difficult to interpret relevancy.

I'm totally going to check out my Axe Battling Monkeys blog!Axe Battling Monkeys

That’s a lot of monkeys, and just headline text?

Hey, where did the fun go?

Uh oh… via Google cache, we can see that the page is a barren wasteland. There’s not even text telling us that the page contains the Axe Battling Monkeys. The site is entirely built in Flash, but sadly, this means that search engines cannot index any of the text content, or even the links to the individual games.

If you’re curious about exactly what terms and phrases search engines can see on a webpage, we have a nifty tool called “Term Extractor” that will display words and phrases ordered by frequency. However, it’s wise to not only check for text content but to also use a tool like SEO Browser to double-check that the pages you’re building are visible to the engines. It’s very hard to rank if you don’t even appear in the search engine keyword databases.

Search engines need to see content in order to list pages in their massive keyword-based indices. They also need to have access to a crawlable link structure – one that lets their spiders browse the pathways of a website – in order to find all of the pages on a website. Hundreds of thousands of sites make the critical mistake of hiding or obfuscating their navigation in ways that search engines cannot access, thus impacting their ability to get pages listed in the search engines’ indices. Below, we’ve illustrated how this problem can happen:

Index DiagramIn the example above, Google’s spider has reached page “A” and sees links to pages “B” and “E”. However, even though C and D might be important pages on the site, the spider has no way to reach them (or even know they exist) because no direct, crawlable links point to those pages. As far as Google is concerned, they might as well not exist – great content, good keyword targeting, and smart marketing won’t make any difference at all if the spiders can’t reach those pages in the first place.

shepherd
shepherd

Let’s look at some common reasons why pages may not be reachable.

Links in submission-required forms

Forms can include something as basic as a drop down menu or as complex as a full-blown survey. In either case, search spiders will not attempt to “submit” forms and thus, any content or links that would be accessible via a form are invisible to the engines.

Links in un-parseable Javascript

If you use Javascript for links, you may find that search engines either do not crawl or give very little weight to the links embedded within. Standard HTML links should replace Javascript (or accompany it) on any page where you’d like spiders to crawl.

Links pointing to pages blocked by the meta robots tag or robots.txt

The Meta Robots tag and the Robots.txt file (full description here) both allow a site owner to restrict spider access to a page. Just be warned that many a webmaster has unintentionally used these directives as an attempt to block access by rogue bots, only to discover that search engines cease their crawl.

Links in frames or I-frames

Technically, links in both frames and I-Frames are crawlable, but both present structural issues for the engines in terms of organization and following. Unless you’re an advanced user with a good technical understanding of how search engines index and follow links in frames, it’s best to stay away from them.

Links only accessible through search

Although this relates directly to the above warning on forms, it’s such a common problem that it bears mentioning. Spiders will not attempt to perform searches to find content, and thus, it’s estimated that millions of pages are hidden behind completely inaccessible walls, doomed to anonymity until a spidered page links to it.

Links in flash, java, or other plug-ins

The links embedded inside the Panda site (from our above example) is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. Although dozens of pandas are listed and linked to on the Panda page, no spider can reach them through the site’s link structure, rendering them invisible to the engines (and un-retrievable by searchers performing a query).

Links on pages with many hundreds or thousands of links

Search engines tend to only crawl about 100 links on any given page. This loose restriction is necessary to keep down on spam and conserve rankings.

If you avoid these pitfalls, you’ll have clean, spiderable HTML links that will allow the spiders easy access to your content pages.

rel nofollowRel=”nofollow” can be used with the following syntax:<a href=http://www.seomoz.org rel="nofollow">Lousy Punks!</a>Links can have lots of attributes applied to them, but the engines ignore nearly all of these, with the important exception of the rel=”nofollow” tag. In the example above, by adding the rel=nofollow attribute to the link tag, we’ve told the search engines that we, the site owners, do not want this link to be interpreted as the normal, “editorial vote.” Nofollow came about as a method to help stop automated blog comment, guestbook, and link injection spam (read more about the launch here), but has morphed over time into a way of telling the engines to discount any link value that would ordinarily be passed. Links tagged with nofollow are interpreted slightly differently by each of the engines. You can read more about the affect of this and PageRank sculpting on this blog post.

Google

nofollowed links carry no weight or impact and are interpreted as HTML text (as though the link did not exist). Google’s representatives have said that they will not count those links in their link graph of the web at all.

Yahoo! & Bing

Both of these engines say that nofollowed links do not impact search results or rankings, but may be used by their crawlers as a way to discover new pages. That is to say that while they “may” follow the links, they will not count them as a method for positively impacting rankings.

Ask.com

Ask is unique in its position, claiming that nofollowed links will not be treated any differently than any other kind of link. It is Ask’s public position that their algorithms (based on local, rather than global popularity) are already immune to most of the problems that nofollow is intended to solve.

NoFollow Graph

Keywords are fundamental to the search process – they are the building blocks of language and of search. In fact, the entire science of information retrieval (including web-based search engines like Google) is based on keywords. As the engines crawl and index the contents of pages around the web, they keep track of those pages in keyword-based indices. Thus, rather than storing 25 billion web pages all in one database (which would get pretty big), the engines have millions and millions of smaller databases, each centered on a particular keyword term or phrase. This makes it much faster for the engines to retrieve the data they need in a mere fraction of a second.

Obviously, if you want your page to have a chance of being listed in the search results for “dog,” it’s extremely wise to make sure the word “dog” is part of the indexable content of your document.

Steps Diagram
Keyword Map

Keywords also dominate our search intent and interaction with the engines. For example, a common search query pattern might go something like this:

When a search is performed, the engine knows which pages to retrieve based on the words entered into the search box. Other data, such as the order of the words (“tanks shooting” vs. “shootingtanks”), spelling, punctuation, and capitalization of those terms provide additional information that the engines can use to help retrieve the right pages and rank them.

For obvious reasons, search engines measure the ways keywords are used on pages to help determine the “relevance” of a particular document to a query. One of the best ways to “optimize” a page’s rankings is, therefore, to ensure that keywords are prominently used in titles, text, and meta data.

The map graphic to the left shows the relevance of the broad termbooks to the specific title, Tale of Two Cities. Notice that while there are a lot of results (size of country) for the broad term, there is a lot less results and thus competition for the specific result.

Whenever the topic of keyword usage and search engines come together, a natural tendency is to use the phrase “keyword density”. This is tragic. Keyword density is, without question, NOT a part of modern web search engine ranking algorithms for the simple reason that it provides far worse results than many other, more advanced methods of keyword analysis. Rather than cover this logical fallacy in depth in this guide, we’ll simply reference Dr. Edel Garcia’s seminal work on the topic – The Keyword Density of Non-Sense.

The notion of keyword density value predates all commercial search engines and the Internet and can hardly be considered an information retrieval concept. What is worse, keyword density plays no role on how commercial search engines process text, index documents, or assign weights to terms. Why then do many optimizers still believe in keyword density values? The answer is simple: misinformation.

Dr. Garcia’s background in information retrieval and his mathematical proofs should debunk any notion that keyword density can be used to help “optimize” a page for better rankings. However, this same document illustrates the unfortunate truth about keyword optimization – without access to a global index of web pages (to calculate term weight) and a representative corpus of the Internet’s collected documents (to help build a semantic library), we have little chance to create formulas that would be helpful for true optimization.

On-Page Optimization

That said, keyword usage and targeting are only a small part of the search engines’ ranking algorithms, and we can still leverage some effective “best practices” for keyword usage to help make pages that are very close to “optimized.” Here at SEOmoz, we engage in a lot of testing and get to see a huge number of search results and shifts based on keyword usage tactics. When working with one of your own sites, this is the process we recommend:

  • Use the keyword in the title tag at least once, and possibly twice (or as a variation) if it makes sense and sounds good (this is subjective, but necessary). Try to keep the keyword as close to the beginning of the title tag as possible. More detail on title tags follows later in this section.
  • Once in the H1 header tag of the page.
  • At least 3X in the body copy on the page (sometimes a few more times if there’s a lot of text content). You may find additional value in adding the keyword more than 3X, but in our experience, adding more instances of a term or phrase tends to have little to no impact on rankings.
  • At least once in bold. You can use either the <strong> or <b> tag, as search engines consider them equivalent.
  • At least once in the alt attribute of an image on the page. This not only helps with web search, but also image search, which can occasionally bring valuable traffic.
  • Once in the URL. Additional rules for URLs and keywords are discussed later on in this section.
  • At least once (sometimes 2X when it makes sense) in the meta description tag. Note that the meta description tag does NOT get used by the engines for rankings, but rather helps to attract clicks by searchers from the results page (as it is the “snippet” of text used by the search engines).
  • Generally not in link anchor text on the page itself that points to other pages on your site or different domains (this is a bit complex – see this blog post for details).

Keyword Density Myth Example

If two documents, D1 and D2, consist of 1000 terms (l = 1000) and repeat a term 20 times (tf = 20), then a keyword density analyzer will tell you that for both documents Keyword Density (KD) KD = 20/1000 = 0.020 (or 2%) for that term. Identical values are obtained when tf = 10 and l = 500. Evidently, a keyword density analyzer does not establish which document is more relevant. A density analysis or keyword density ratio tells us nothing about:

  1. The relative distance between keywords in documents (proximity)
  2. Where in a document the terms occur (distribution)
  3. The co-citation frequency between terms (co-occurance)
  4. The main theme, topic, and sub-topics (on-topic issues) of the documents

The Conclusion:

Keyword density is divorced from content, quality, semantics, and relevancy.

What should optimal page density look like then? An optimal page for the phrase “running shoes” would thus look something like:

Running ShoesYou can read more information about On-Page Optimization at this post.

TV FootballThe title tag of any page appears at the top of Internet browsing software, but this location has been noted to receive a relatively small amount of attention from users, making it the least important of the three.Yahoo FootballUsing keywords in the title tag means that search engines will “bold” (or highlight) those terms in the search results when a user has performed a query with those terms. This helps garner a greater visibility and a higher click-through rate.

Digg FootballThe final important reason to create descriptive, keyword-laden title tags is for ranking at the search engines. The above screenshot comes from SEOmoz’s survey of 37 influential thought leaders and practitioners in the SEO industry on the search engine ranking factors. In that survey, 35 of the 37 participants said that keyword use in the title tag was the most important place to use keywords to achieve high rankings.

The title element of a page is meant to be an accurate, concise description of a page’s content. It creates value in three specific areas (covered to the left) and is critical to both user experience and search engine optimization.

As title tags are such an important part of search engine optimization, following best practices for title tag creation makes for terrific low-hanging SEO fruit. The recommendations below cover the critical parts of optimizing title tags for search engine and usability goals:

Be mindful of length

70 characters is the maximum amount that will display in the search results (the engines will show an ellipsis – “…” to indicate when a title tag has been cut off), and sticking to this limit is generally wise. However, if you’re targeting multiple keywords (or an especially long keyword phrase) and having them in the title tag is essential to ranking, it may be advisable to go longer.

Place important keywords close to the front

The closer to the start of the title tag your keywords are, the more helpful they’ll be for ranking and the more likely a user will be to click them in the search results (at least, according to SEOmoz’s testing and experience).

Leverage branding

At SEOmoz, we love to start every title tag with a brand name mention, as these help to increase brand awareness, and create a higher click-through rate for people who like and are familiar with a brand. Many SEO firms recommend using the brand name at the end of a title tag instead, and there are times when this can be a better approach – think about what matters to your site (or your client’s site) and how strong the brand is.

Consider readability and emotional impact

Creating a compelling title tag will pull in more visits from the search results and can help to invest visitors in your site. Thus, it’s important to not only think about optimization and keyword usage, but the entire user experience. The title tag is a new visitor’s first interaction with your brand and should convey the most positive impression possible.

Best Practices for Title Tags

Meta tags were originally intended to provide a proxy for information about a website’s content. Each of the basic meta tags are listed below, along with a description of their use.

The Meta Robots tag can be used to control search engine spider activity (for all of the major engines) on a page level. There are several ways to use meta robots to control how search engines treat a page:

  • Index/NoIndex tells the engines whether the page should be crawled and kept in the engines’ index for retrieval. If you opt to use “noindex”, the page will be excluded from the engines. By default, search engines assume they can index all pages, so using the “index” value is generally unnecessary.
  • Follow/NoFollow tells the engines whether links on the page should be crawled. If you elect to employ “nofollow,” the engines will disregard the links on the page both for discovery and ranking purposes. By default, all pages are assumed to have the “follow” attribute.
  • Noarchive is used to restrict search engines from saving a cached copy of the page. By default, the engines will maintain visible copies of all pages they indexed, accessible to searchers through the “cached” link in the search results.
  • Nosnippet informs the engines that they should refrain from displaying a descriptive block of text next to the page’s title and URL in the search results.
  • NoODP is a specialized tag telling the engines not to grab a descriptive snippet about a page from the Open Directory Project (DMOZ) for display in the search results.
  • NoYDir, like NoODP, is specific to Yahoo!, informing that engine not to use the Yahoo! Directory description of a page/site in the search results.

The meta description tag exists as a short description of a page’s content. Search engines do not use the keywords or phrases in this tag for rankings, but meta descriptions are the primary source for the snippet of text displayed beneath a listing in the results.

The meta description tag serves the function of advertising copy, drawing readers to your site from the results and thus, is an extremely important part of search marketing. Crafting a readable, compelling description using important keywords (notice how Google “bolds” the searched keywords in the description) can draw a much higher click-through rate of searchers to your page.

Meta descriptions can be any length, but search engines generally will cut snippets longer than 160 characters (as in the Balboa Park example to the right), so it’s generally wise to stay in these limits.

Meta Keywords

The meta keywords tag had value at one time, but is no longer valuable or important to search engine optimization. For more on the history and a full account of why meta keywords has fallen in disuse, read Meta Keywords Tag 101 from SearchEngineLand.

Meta refresh, meta revisit-after, meta content type, etc.

Although these tags can have uses for search engine optimization, they are less critical to the process, and so I’ll leave them to John Mueller of Google’s Webmaster Central division to answer in greater detail – Meta Tags & Web Search.

Meta Description

URLs, the web address for a particular document, are of great value from a search perspective. They appear in multiple important locations.

Google URLAbove, the green text shows the url for SEOmoz’s Web 2.0 awards. Since search engines display URLs in the results, they can impact clickthrough and visibility. URLs are also used in ranking documents, and those pages whose names include the queried search terms receive some benefit from proper, descriptive use of keywords.
Browser URLURLs make an appearance in the web browser’s address bar, and while this generally has little impact on search engines, poor URL structure and design can result in negative user experiences.
Blog URLThe URL above is used as the link anchor text pointing to the referenced page in this blog post.

Employ Empathy

Place yourself in the mind of a user and look at your URL. If you can easily and accurately predict the content you’d expect to find on the page, your URLs are appropriately descriptive. You don’t need to spell out every last detail in the URL, but a rough idea is a good starting point.

Shorter is better

While a descriptive URL is important, minimizing length and trailing slashes will make your URLs easier to copy and paste (into emails, blog posts, text messages, etc) and will be fully visible in the search results.

Keyword use is important (but overuse is dangerous)

If your page is targeting a specific term or phrase, make sure to include it in the URL. However, don’t go overboard by trying to stuff in multiple keywords for SEO purposes – overuse will result in less usable URLs and can trip spam filters (from email clients, search engines, and even people!).

Go static

With technologies like mod_rewrite for Apache and ISAPI_rewrite for Microsoft, there’s no excuse not to create simple, static URLs. Even single dynamic parameters in a URL can result in lower overall ranking and indexing (SEOmoz itself switched from dynamic URLs – e.g. http://www.seomoz-.org/blog?id=123, to static URLS – e.g. http://www.seomoz.org/blog/11-best-practices-for-urls, in 2007 and saw a 15% rise in search traffic over the following 6 weeks).

Choose descriptives whenever possible

Rather than selecting numbers or meaningless figures to categorize information, use real words. For example, a URL like http://www.thestore.com/hardware/screwdrivers is far more usable and valuable than http://www.thestore.com/cat33/item4326.

Use hyphens to separate words

Not all of the search engines accurately interpret separators like underscore “_,” plus “+,” or space “%20,” so use the hyphen “-” character to separate words in a URL, as in the SEOmoz 11 Best Practices for URLs example above.

URL.com

Canonicalization can be a challenging concept to understand (and hard to pronounce – “ca-non-ick-cull-eye-zay-shun”), but it’s essential to creating an optimized website. The fundamental problems stem from multiple uses for a single piece of writing – a paragraph or, more often, an entire page of content will appear in multiple locations on a website, or even on multiple websites. For search engines, this presents a conundrum – which version of this content should they show to searchers? In SEO circles, this issue often referred to as duplicate content – described in greater detail here.

Duplicate Gems

The engines are picky about duplicate versions of a single piece of material. To provide the best searcher experience, they will rarely show multiple, duplicate pieces of content and thus, are forced to choose which version is most likely to be the original (or best).

Canonicalization is the practice of organizing your content in such a way that every unique piece has one and only one URL. By following this process, you can ensure that the search engines will find a singular version of your content and assign it the highest achievable rankings based on your domain strength, trust, relevance, and other factors. If you leave multiple versions of content on a website (or websites), you might end up with a scenario like that to the right.

Discount Gems
Single Gems

If, instead, the site owner took those three pages and 301-redirected them, the search engines would have only one, stronger page to show in the listings from that site:

When multiple pages with the potential to rank well are combined into a single page, they not only no longer compete with one another, but create a stronger relevancy and popularity sigan overall. This will positively impact their ability to rank well in the search engines.

You say you want another option though?

A different option from the search engines, called the “Canonical URL Tag” is another way to reduce instances of duplicate content on a single site and canonicalize to an individual URL. (This can also be used from one URL on one domain to a different URL on a different domain.)

The tag is part of the HTML header on a web page, the same section you’d find the Title elementand Meta Description tag. This simply uses a new rel parameter.

The Inner Workings

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.seomoz.org/blog”/>This would tell Yahoo!, Bing & Google that the page in question should be treated as though it were a copy of the URL http://www.seomoz.org/blog and that all of the link & content metrics the engines apply should technically flow back to that URL.

The Canonical URL tag attribute is similar in many ways to a 301 redirect from an SEO perspective. In essence, you’re telling the engines that multiple pages should be considered as one (which a 301 does), without actually redirecting visitors to the new URL (often saving your development staff considerable heartache).

How we do it

SEOmoz has worked on several campaigns where two versions of every content page existed in both a standard, web version and a print-friendly version. In one instance, the publisher’s own site linked to both versions, and many external links pointed to both as well (this is a common phenomenon, as bloggers & social media types like to link to print-friendly versions to avoid advertising). We worked to individually 301 re-direct all of the print-friendly versions of the content back to the originals and created a CSS option to show the page in printer-friendly format (on the same URL). This resulted in a boost of more than 20% in search engine traffic within 60 days. Not bad for a project that only required an hour to identify and a few clever rules in the htaccess file to fix.

The Inner Workings

How scrapers like your rankings

Unfortunately, the web is filled with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of unscrupulous websites whose business and traffic models depend on plucking the content of other sites and re-using them (sometimes in strangely modified ways) on their own domains. This practice of fetching your content and re-publishing is called “scraping,” and the scrapers make remarkably good earnings by outranking sites for their own content and displaying ads (ironically, often Google’s own AdSense program).

When you publish content in any type of feed format – RSS/XML/etc – make sure to ping the major blogging/tracking services (like Google, Technorati, Yahoo!, etc.). You can find instructions for how to ping services like Google and Technorati directly from their sites, or use a service like Pingomatic to automate the process. If your publishing software is custom-built, it’s typically wise for the developer(s) to include auto-pinging upon publishing.

Next, you can use the scrapers’ laziness against them. Most of the scrapers on the web will re-publish content without editing, and thus, by including links back to your site, and the specific post you’ve authored, you can ensure that the search engines see most of the copies linking back to you (indicating that your source is probably the originator). To do this, you’ll need to use absolute, rather that relative links in your internal linking structure. Thus, rather than linking to your home page using:

<a href="../>Home</a>You would instead use:<a href="http://www.seomoz.org">Home</a>

This way, when a scraper picks up and copies the content, the link remains pointing to your site.

There are more advanced ways to protect against scraping, and for WordPress users Joost de Valk has a useful plugin, but none of them are entirely foolproof. You should expect that the more popular and visible your site gets, the more often you’ll find your content scraped and re-published. Many times, you can ignore this problem, but if it gets very severe, and you find the scrapers taking away your rankings and traffic, you may consider using a legal process called a DMCA takedown. Luckily, SEOmoz’s own in-house counsel, Sarah Bird, has authored a brilliant piece to help solve just this problem –Four Ways to Enforce Your Copyright: What to Do When Your Online Content is Being Stolen.

Elephant and Mouse
Keyword research

Keyword research is one of the most important, valuable, and high return activities in the search marketing field. Through the detective work of puzzling out your market’s keyword demand, you not only learn which terms and phrases to target with SEO, but also learn more about your customers as a whole. The usefulness of this intelligence cannot be overstated – with keyword research you can predict shifts in demand, respond to changing market conditions, and produce the products, services, and content that web searchers are already actively seeking. In the history of marketing, there has never been such a low barrier to entry in understanding the motivations of consumers in virtually every niche – not taking advantage is practically criminal.

 

Every search phrase that’s typed into an engine is recorded in one way or another, and keyword research tools like those described below allow us to retrieve this information. However, those tools cannot show us (directly) how valuable or important it might be to rank for and receive traffic from those searches. To understand the value of a keyword, we need to research further, make some hypotheses, test, and iterate – the classic web marketing formula.

The following is a basic, but valuable process for determining a keyword’s value:

Ask yourself

Is the keyword relevant to the content your website offers? Will searchers who find your site through this term find the likely answer to their implied question(s)? And will this traffic result in financial rewards (or other organizational goals) directly or indirectly? If the answer to all of these questions is a clear “Yes!”, proceed…

Search for the term/phrase in the major engines

Are there search advertisements running along the top and right-hand side of the organic results? Typically, many search ads means a high value keyword, and multiple search ads above the organic results often means a highly lucrative and directly conversion-prone keyword.

Buy a sample campaign for the keyword at Google AdWords and/or Bing Adcenter

In Google Adwords, choose “exact match” and point the traffic to the most relevant page on your website. Measure the traffic to your site, and track impressions and conversion rate over the course of at least 2-300 clicks (this may take only a day or two with highly trafficked terms, or several weeks with keywords in lesser demand).

Using the data you’ve collected, make an educated guess about the value of a single visitor to your site with the given search term or phrase.

For example, if, in the past 24 hours, your search ad has generated 5,000 impressions, of which 100 visitors have come to your site and 3 have converted for total profit (not revenue!) of $300, then a single visitor for that keyword is worth approx. $3 to your business. Those 5,000 impressions in 24 hours could probably generate a click-through rate of between 30-40% with a #1 ranking (see theleaked AOL data mining for more on potential click-through-rates), which would mean 1500-2000 visits per day, at $3 each, or ~$1.75 million dollars per year. No wonder businesses love search marketing!

Of course, even the best estimates of value fall flat against the hands-on process of optimizing and calculating ROI. Remember that the time and money you invest in a search marketing campaign must be weighed against any returns, and even though SEO is typically one of the highest return marketing investments, measuring success is still critical to the process.

It’s wonderful to deal with keywords that have 5,000 searches a day, or even 500 searches a day, but in reality, these “popular” search terms actually make up less than 30% of the overall searches performed on the web. The remaining 70% lie in what’s commonly called the “long tail” of search. The long tail contains hundreds of millions of unique searches that might be conducted a few times in any given day (or even only once, ever!), but, when taken together, they comprise the majority of the world’s demand for information through search engines.

Understanding the search demand curve is critical, because it stresses the importance of “long-tail” targeted content – pages with information not directed at any particular single, popular query, but rather simply exposing the myriad of human thought, research, and opinion to the spiders of the search engines. As an example, to the right we’ve included a sample keyword demand curve, illustrating the small number of queries sending larger amounts of traffic alongside the plethora of rarely-searched terms and phrases that bring the bulk of our search referrals.

The Long Tail
Long Tail Illustration Ignore the long tail at your peril - search marketing and web site content strategies must allow for this “impossible to predict” form of visits or risk  losing out on a more expository and prolific competitor.
Google Analytics IllustrationHere’s an example of mining keyword research data from Google’s AdWords Estimator Tool.

Resources

Where do we get all of this knowledge about keyword demand and keyword referrals? From research sources like these listed here:

We can see that Google is predicting both the cost of running campaigns for these terms as well as estimates of the number of clicks a campaign might receive. You can use these latter numbers (under the “estimated clicks/day” column) to get a rough idea of how popular a particular keyword or phrase is in comparison to another. The green, horizontal bar in the “search volume” column can also help to show comparative estimates of demand.

Other, less popular sources for keyword information exist, as do tools with more advanced data, and these are covered excellently in the Professional’s Guide to Keyword Research, which will teach you how to do keyword research.

I’ve got a lock on a bogey!

In order to know which keywords to target now (and which to pursue later), it’s essential to not only understand the demand for a given term or phrase, but the work required to achieve those rankings. If mighty competitors block the top 10 results and you’re just starting out on the web, the uphill battle for rankings can take months or years of effort bearing little to no fruit. This is why it’s essential to understand keyword difficulty.

SEOmoz Keyword DifficultyOf course, if you’d like to save time, SEOmoz’s ownKeyword Difficulty Tool does a good job collecting all of these metrics and providing a comparative score for any given search term or phrase.How Usability, User Experience & Content Affect SEO?

The search engines are in a constant quest to improve their results by providing the “best” possible results. While “best” is subjective, the engines have a very good idea of the kinds of pages and sites that satisfy their searchers. Generally, these sites have several traits in common:

  1.  Easy to use, navigate, and understand
  2.  Provide direct, actionable information relevant to the query
  3.  Professionally designed and accessible to modern browsers
  4.  Deliver high quality, legitimate, credible content

Search engines can’t understand text, view images, or watch video the same way a human being can. Thus, in order to understand content they rely on meta information (not necessarily meta tags) about sites and pages in order to rank content. The engines discovered early on that the link structure of the web could serve as a proxy for votes and popularity – higher quality sites and information earned more links than their less useful, lower quality peers. Today, link analysis algorithms have advanced considerably, but these principles hold true.

Really Cool and Really Lame Site

All of that positive attention and excitement around the content offered by the new site translates into a machine parse-able (and algorithmically valuable) collection of links. The timing, source, anchor text, and number of links to the new site are all factored into its potential performance (i.e., ranking) for relevant queries at the engines.

Now imagine that site wasn’t so great – let’s say it’s just an ordinary site without anything unique or impressive.

On Search Engine Rankings

There are a limited number of variables that search engines can take into account directly, including keyword placement, links, and site structure. However, through linking patterns, the engines make a considerable number of intuitions about a given site. Usability and user experience are “second order” influences on search engine ranking success. They provide an indirect, but measurable benefit to a site’s external popularity, which the engines can then interpret as a signal of higher quality. This is called the “no one likes to link to a crummy site” phenomenon.

Really Slick Site

Crafting a thoughtful, empathetic user experience can ensure that your site is perceived positively by those who visit, encouraging sharing, bookmarking, return visits and links – signals that trickle down to the search engines and contribute to high rankings.

For Search Engine Success

Developing “great content” may be the most repeated suggestion in the SEO world. Yet, despite its clichéd status, appealing, useful content is critical to search engine optimization. Every search performed at the engines comes with an intent – to find, learn, solve, buy, fix, treat, or understand. Search engines place web pages in their results in order to satisfy that intent in the best possible way, and crafting the most fulfilling, thorough content that addresses a searcher’s needs provides an excellent chance to earn top rankings.

Search intent comes in a variety of flavors…

Ice Cream Flavors

Visiting a pre-determined destination and sourcing the “correct” website URL.

Navigational searches are performed with the intent of surfing directly to a specific website. In some cases, the user may not know the exact URL, and the search engine serves as the “White Pages,” passing along the (hopefully) correct location.

Navigational Searches
Informational Searches

Researching non-transactional information, getting quick answers, and ego-searching.

Informational searches involve a huge range of queries from finding out the local weather, getting a map and directions, to finding the name of Tony Starks’ military buddy from the Iron Man movie or checking on just how long that trip to Mars really takes. The common thread here is that the searches are primarily non-commercial and non-transaction-oriented in nature; the information itself is the goal, and no interaction beyond clicking and reading is required.

Researching sources for a story, uncovering potential clients/partners, acquiring competitive intelligence, discovering options for future transactions.

A commercial investigation search straddles the line between pure research and commercial intent. For example, sourcing potential partners for distribution of your new t-shirts in Albuquerque, determining what companies make laptop bags for sale in the United Kingdom, or researching the best brand of digital cameras for an upcoming purchase all qualify. They’re not directly transactional, and may never result in an exchange of goods, services, or monies, but they’re not purely informational either.

Commercial Investigation
Transactional Searches

Identifying a local business, making a purchase online, and completing a task.

Transactional searches don’t necessarily involve a credit card or wire transfer. Signing up for a free trial account at Cook’s Illustrated, creating a Gmail account, or finding the best local Mexican cuisine (in Seattle it’s Carta de Oaxaca) are all transactional queries.

Fulfilling these intents is up to you – Creativity, high quality writing, use of examples, images, and multimedia all help in crafting content that perfectly fits with a searcher’s goals. Your reward is satisfied searchers who find their queries fulfilled and reward that positive experience through activity on your site or with links to it.

3 thoughts on “The Basics of SEO Design and Development

  1. Thank you for some other great article. The place else could anybody get
    that type of information in such an ideal means of writing?
    I have a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such
    info.

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