How to Improve a Site's Search Ranking

With more than 90% of Internet users searching, it's clear being at the top of Google and other engines is paramount. For a site to be seen, heard and read, it will need to be retrieved during a search query, preferably within the top three positions (approximately 60% of clicks).

Luckily, for webmasters and content owners (you), SEO is available to help us move our websites to the top of Google. Search engine optimization (SEO), according to Wikipedia, is the "process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines' natural, or un-paid (organic or algorithmic), search results."

In this article, we'll review the basic factors that influence search engine search results. We'll also review best practices and SEO strategies that can be used to help increase our sites' ranking.

For this article, we'll focus on the 'King of the Web' - Google.

How Search Engines Work

In order to understand how to apply SEO techniques, we must first understand how search engines work.

When a user enters in a search term into the Google search box, Google scans the world wide web for that search term. Since the term is likely to come up on hundreds and thousands of pages (perhaps more) Google created an algorithm (or 'step-by-step procedure for calculations') to determine which pages should be shown to the user first.

Google's algorithm is two-part. It looks for both 'relevance' and 'importance' when determining a web page's listing rank. Relevance looks to determine how relevant the page is to the user's query while importance is typically interpreted as how popular the page is. Hundreds of ranking factors influence both 'relevance' and 'importance'. Many of these 'ranking factors' remain a mystery, but some, as we'll discuss below, have been found to improve a site's rank when used properly.

SEO: The Basics

Before we can even start to look at ranking factors, we must first consider what Google sees on our site. Google does not have millions of people reviewing websites, but instead sends out automated 'robots' to scan thousands and thousands of pages at once. These robots cannot interpret a site in the same way a human can, so we have to try to 'think like a robot' and consider how they read a website.

Luckily, there are tools available that allow us to view a website from a robot's eye. Using SEO-browser.com, we can view the Department of Medicine site from a robot's point of view.

As you may notice, there are only text and links on this page. A robot cannot read items such as images, flash animations, audio and video files; it can only interpret them based on descriptive text that is provided.

Because they can only read text, it's important to always include descriptive tags with such files. For images, an 'alt' and a 'title' attribute can be used to assign an image with alternative information and a title.

It's also important to make sure that all pages on your website have at least one text link. Robots scan the index.html (or home page) of a site first, using it as a base to continue through the rest of the site. If a page is blocked by something other than a text link, such as a form, the robot cannot pass it.

For a similar reason, it's also best to include a plain-text sitemap in your site directory. A sitemap is used to supplement information that is passed to robots in an index file, allowing robots to pick up all pages listed in the sitemap.

SEO: Best Practices

Once you have a general understanding of what not to do to deter robots from understanding your website, you can work to improve your ranking. Below are just a few examples of things you can do to help Google interpret your site more favorably.

Content and Language: When writing content for your site, you want to keep the reader in mind. The web is a very different medium than a scholastic journal or a magazine advertisement. Web users often scan pages to quickly grasp the information they seek. Because of this, it's best to write your content in a non-formal, simplified way. It might help to think of this type of writing as conversational - write as if you were speaking.

This can be especially tricky when balancing a conversational tone with one that is professional at UCSF. However, once achieved, it will help improve your Google ranking as the words you write will often match the words a user would search, also known as a keyword.

Keywords: Keywords are fundamental to search. They are the words a user types in Google's search box to find your website. For this reason it's imperative you include the most important search terms on your site, otherwise a user has no chance of finding you. Even better, is to use keywords strategically. SEOmoz.org recommends adding your chosen keyword (of a single page) in the:

  • Title tag at least once, preferably twice
  • Header tag at least once
  • Three times in the body text
  • Once in bold
  • Once in an 'alt' image tag

Please note that quality keywords are what counts here. You'll want to choose keywords that already exist within your content, or could exist within your content. If you overuse keywords or use keywords that don't fit well within your content, Google may penalize your site.

Meta Description: Including a meta description tag in the head section of your html page is also important, because Google uses this description as the sub-text to describe your page in its search results. Please note, the meta description is not a ranking factor.

URL Name: You'll also want to include keywords in your web address (or URL) to help optimize your site. Just make sure not to overuse keywords and keep your URL short, simple and descriptive.

Link Building: Another tactic you can use to increase your site's ranking is to help influence it's 'importance' (or popularity) rating through link building. The goal is to have other, 'important' sites link to you. Some of these links will come naturally, by sites and companies that want to reference your site. Others you can try to obtain by reaching out and suggesting they link to you as a resource. You can also include a link to your site on multiple websites across the web, via blog comments, forums, user profiles or guestbook signings.

You're Not Done Yet

Search ranking is mysterious, and SEO is constantly changing. These are two things we know for sure. So, just because you create a website considering all of the above, it doesn't mean your job is done. Google is constantly changing their algorithm to improve the accuracy of results and to improve the human sensibility of their robots. They also change it to help keep spam sites off their rankings. If they told the world their secrets, spammers would have this information, too, and suddenly Google would be known as Goofle, Goofy's internet counterpart.

So, be sure to keep up to date with SEO's shifting landscape by checking out SEO blogs and research groups, such as SEOmoz.

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