This post deals with the term “SEO” (Search Engine Optimization). First I’ll explain what SEO is, then how to do it. With a relatively short introduction. In a separate post I explained what are domain authority and backlinks (and how they affect SEO and search engine ranking). But I suggest you read this post first, it explains the basics of on-site SEO.
I also wrote an article explaining: How to make a good website. SEO, explained in this article, is only one of the parts that make a good website complete.
2. What is SEO?
3. How to do a “good SEO”
…3.1. Page titles
…3.2. Meta tags
…3.3. Text (contents) of a page
…3.4. Links (hyperlinks)
…3.5. Images (pictures)
…3.6. Website design (organization)
…3.7. Page load speed
…3.8. Sitemaps and robots.txt
Bike Gremlin website is about bicycles and cycling. This summer I noticed that when “googling” some cycling related terms, my website is shown on the first page, or among the top few search results. When I mentioned this to a friend, she replied “Yes, I saw that, you did SEO very well!” Since, at the same period, due to increased webiste traffic, I had problems with page load speed (and an occasional “500 error” from time to time), I had experimented and googled a lot about website optimization. Among the articles explaining it, many were aimed ad SE optimization and I read a few of those.
Since the primary function of this website is to serve to me, personally, as a reminder/reference, followed by a useful option of answering frequently asked questions by just giving people a link from my site (instead of answering the same question for a 1,000 times), in a way that is available to everyone, on-line, and so I can also get corrections, and additions from other people – I have decided to write a post explaining all I know about SEO and publish it here. If it helps you – great! If you find something missing, or some errors, use the comment section at the bottom, so the post can be improved for future readers.
2. What is SEO?
Short, correct answer is: optimizing a website so search engines (like Google, Yahoo, Bing, DuckDuckGo etc.) can easily see what it is about. If you expected a bit different, or longer answer, it is worth reading the next chapter below:
Update: I gave a slightly more detailed explanation of SEO in the post about The SEO Framework vs Yoast SEO (in the first chapter, the rest of the post explains the differences between the popular WordPress SEO plugins).
3. How to do a “good SEO”
There are many articles that explain this in a lot of detail and, in my opinion, complicate it without any need. Some claim that using their tips & tricks you can get your page to rank “on the top with Google” (in the remainder of this text I’ll be using “Google” as a synonym for all the search engines). Reading articles on this topic, you will come across terms such as “keywords“, “meta-tags” etc, with explanations of how to cleverly use these in order to “make Google” rank your site on top of others. Does this last sentence seem convincing? What happens when million people read such a text and do the recommended “tricks”? 🙂 You will also come across the terms “Google Penguin” and “Google Panda“, which are two of the more (in)famous algorithms Google has implemented in order to prevent the use of “tricks” for higher ranking to be effective.
The bottom line is – Google does all it can (and it has a lot of smart people and powerful computers at disposal) to make its search such that when you type, for example: “how to set up road bike handlebars?”, what you get in search results are pages that really answer that question. If you have a website that sells road bike handlebars, you might be able to, using tricks, convince Google to show your site first when the search from the example is performed. However, as people think up new tricks, Google thinks of ways of preventing such manipulation. To put it simply: Google ranks pages for what they are.
So: try to make pages that are good for the topic they are about and Google will recognize it. I’ll now give a more detailed explanation, with examples. For now it is important to stress and remember this:
Everything that is good and useful to a visitor will be well ranked with Google. What visitor’s don’t like, Google won’t either.
3.1. Page titles
Title does affect Google rankings. That is correct. What affects it even more, negatively, is if Google realizes that the title doesn’t match the page’s content. So, instead of worrying about “keywords”, answer the following questions:
- What kind of title describes this page best? This page explains website search engine optimization, often referred to as “SEO”. That is the title as well.
- When I read the title, do I expect to see/find the contents that are in fact on the page? Examples from this site are: “The best bicycle bearing grease” and “Bicycle bearing greases – explained“. Behind those titles is exactly what they “promise”.
- Finally, when I see a long list of titles, and I’m looking for, say: “How to help rank my site better with Google?”, which title would be the most appealing? The title of this post is OK, but not great in those terms.
– If the post contained some of the modern “tricks”, a good title would be “How to get your site on top with Google”. However, cheating Google is not the topic of this post, so that is not in the title. The topic is, as the name says, search engine optimization. People who are looking to learn about that should read the post. To them, the topic would be most appealing/appropriate.
– A title “How to get your site on top with Google” would grab the attention of those wanting to trick Google, but they’d quickly realize they’ve been tricked and have wasted their time opening this page. And so too will Google, sooner, or later, no matter which other tricks I tried to get the page ranked high for something it doesn’t really contain.
The same goes for chapter names (headings) within a page.
3.2. Meta tags
Meta tags are a short descriptive text that you can enter, so it is shown in a list of search results. Picture 1 explains it better:
Here you can enter a short description of the text, version, author etc. First 150 characters are usually the ones that get shown, with a maximum of 300 characters. The rest is often cut out (picture 1). Write a short text explaining what the page is about, so that when people are reading a list of search results, they can get an idea, before opening the link.
Any kind of cheating is easily spotted – both by visitors and by Google. If you write the meta description full of keywords, it will look strange/ugly/wrong to people in the search result list; and even worse to Google’s “robot”.
Use meta-tag description for what it’s meant for: a short description of what the page is about – and you’ll get good results.
Meta descriptions are not shown once a page is visited, only in search result list. If using WordPress, Yoast SEO plugin allows simple entering of meta data descriptions (in the meantime I have switched to using The SEO Framework plugin for this). On a page, meta description code looks like this (invisible to visitors unless viewing the page source code):
<meta name=”description” content=”Meta-tag description example.” />
3.3. Text (contents) of a page
This (content) has the most effect on Google ranking. Content must be good. It is advisory to write shortly and clearly. Explaining the page’s topic nicely. How to be able to write good texts?
- Read a lot of books, or at least other good texts, so you can easily tell good texts from bad ones and “soak in” some knowledge.
- Write a lot, practise.
- Get a good understanding of the topic you are writing about.
- Have a friend review your texts. Are they clear enough, not too long etc.
This is important, especially in the beginning, until you get the hang of it. I won’t further explain good writing techniques, that’s not the topic here – there are many good books, texts and courses on writing. See what I did just now? Stick to the topic. The rest you can write in separate articles, linking to them from the page.
It is generally a good idea to start the first paragraph explaining what the page is about, what it contains. That makes it easier for visitors to tell whether it is worth reading further, so you don’t waste anyone’s time.
Don’t fill the text with keywords. It looks bad to the reader and the Google too. For example, this text is about SEO, but instead of trying to fill the text with that word, I’m making a conscious effort to use it as little as possible (23 times so far!). The topic itself is such that the keyword just has to be used, no worrying about that, my goal is to make this as easy to read and understand as possible. Repeating the title (keywords) a hundred times makes the content bad and also harms Google ranking. Literally every sentence of this paragraph could have included a (key)word from the title, but what would that be like to read?
3.4. Links (hyperlinks)
Beauty of Internet is the availability of information at just one click. Use it to help visitors. It’s done through clickable text links, also called “hyperlinks“. Don’t force it, but when there’s something that could use more explaining and it is beyond the scope of the text you are writing, use a hyperlink to a page that provides the needed info, whether on your, or some other website (make sure that it is a reputable website, without viruses and with good quality content).
Apart from content the link points to, it is important how the link itself is “designed”. For example, previous post in this IT section is about image optimization for websites. Possible ways of linking that are (imagine bold text for links):
- Previous post in this section is about image optimization for websites. The post is here.
– this makes needlessly long text, without clear info where a link leads included in the hyperlink.
- Previous post in this section is about image optimization for websites.
– shorter, but hyperlinked text doesn’t explain the hyperlink.
- Previous post in this section is about image optimization for websites.
– just right. Text of the hyperlinks also explains where the hyperlinks lead.
When (paid) adverts are linked, it’s the same, with two notes:
- Clearly state that it is a paid advert link. For example: Amazon affiliate link for buying HyperX Alloy Elite mechanical keyboard (as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases).
- Place “nofollow” tag within the link, so that Google knows that it’s not some quality content, but an advert. The tag is invisible to website visitors, only Google sees it. For WordPress, there are plugins, or you can just open the text view and insert it:
<a href=”https://www.link-to-the-paid-advert” rel=”nofollow”>Paid advert</a>
Adverts are the only exception to the rule that everything you think the visitors should see, Google should see as well. It is still important, even for ads, that you show only relevant and valuable things.
3.5. Images (pictures)
Apart from optimizing images for size, in terms of SEO, the following is important:
- Images should be of good quality, nicely blended with the web-page design.
- Image file name should describe the image – so both you and Google can tell what it is about. For example, picture 1 could be named: “meta-tag_example.jpg”. Log-in button at the top right corner of each page on this website “log-in.png” and so on.
- Alt-tag should briefly explain what the image shows. Here you can use a bit more words than in file names. For picture 1 it could be “A meta-tag description example.”
If an image is not downloaded/shown, for any reason, or if a visitor is visually impaired, all that’s left is the alt-tag. So don’t neglect it, write good, sensible alt-tags.
3.6. Website design (organization)
By this I mean content and menu organization, not aesthetic/visual design (that is a separate topic). Organize the website and link structure so that it is logical. This takes some planning and thinking in advance.
First you need to consider what kind of content will be served on the website. BikeGremlin website has 8 main categories, each having several sub-categories. All the current and future content can logically fit the designated categories. That is how the site was designed from the start and it is reflected in the main menu on top (picture 2).
It is ideal if there aren’t more than 7 categories at one level. Also, each category should have no more than 7 sub-categories. Number of nested in sub-category levels shouldn’t be over 4.
This website counts 7 main categories (plus eighth Home category and blue search button). It would have been better if there were fewer.
You are now reading a post that is in “IT section” sub-category of the “Gremlin’s corner” main category. If I were planning to write more about electronics in general, it would make more sense to have an “Electronics” main category, with Internet, computers, smartphones etc. sub-categories. EDIT March 2019: all the IT stuff has been moved here, to io.bikegremlin.com.
This is ideally transferred to the link structure as well. So this post’s URL could be:
bike.bikegremlin.com/it-corner/se-optimization/ – or, even better:
bike.bikegremlin.com/seo-optimization/ – including the pleonasm. 🙂
This is unfortunately not the case with this website. When starting, I opted for date sorting of posts, didn’t know better. Since posts here are not for some news site, date is not relevant, nearly as much as post category. Changing this takes some time and setting up permanent 301 redirections. Don’t make the same mistake, plan on time. 🙂 The only upside is that in case of some future category reorganization I can’t spoil anything – it is bad already. 🙂
Note – if using WordPress (like I am), post ID makes a shorter URL, with a very fast way of searching the database, not puting much load on the server and not taking a long time – from what I could learn, in spite of not having “SEO value”, for WordPress sites, the optimal choice for “directory structure” is website/post_ID/post_name. In those terms, using date was not as bad a choice (it is also a numeric data, easier for search), but post ID is shorter, even quicker and hence preferable.
EDIT: From November of 2018, bikegremlin.com uses website/post_ID/post_name URL structure – post about the implementation is here: WordPress permalink change.
Make important things larger, more noticeable – headings, sub-headings etc. Google recognizes this structure on a page. It also recognizes any “abuse” (making too many large headings with keywords etc.).
NOTE: if you submit a website site-map, then URL structure needn’t contain categories – Google will figure them out from the site-maps. In that case, shorter URLs containing only page (post) name are usually better. Unique ID (like post ID in WordPress) before the name helps speed things up with dynamic pages.
3.7. Page load speed
Viewing a website with pages that take ages to load can be frustrating. As I’ve tried to explain in this post, Google does all it can to serve good quality, relevant content to visitors using its search. That is why it will “penalize” websites that are too slow. I wrote a series of posts on website speed optimization.
3.8. Sitemaps and robots.txt
File robots.txt is placed in the website root directory and it tells search engine robots what to view and index (and what not to) on the website. Sitemaps are xml files that contain a list of website pages sorted by category, date, or whichever way xml sitemaps you’ve created. For WordPress, The SEO Framework plugin does this job quite well. A typical robots.txt file is shown in picture 3.
You can see .xml files with sitemaps, including lists of posts (pages) sorted by various criteria. Picture 4 shows the contents of the category-sitemap.xml.
These sitemaps should be submitted to Google Search Console (GSC). Separate posts explain how to connect a website with Google Search Console and how to connect Google Analytics with a website.
Many people spend a lot of time, effort and money on all sorts of SEO tools & tricks. It seems to me that if that much resources were aimed simply towards making good quality content, results would be just as good, probably even better in the long run.
I mean: Google apparently puts a lot of effort (and they have the experts, software, hardware) to make the relevant content rank higher. Backlinks, for example, that are “worked on” are just a way to “artificially simulate” relevance, to put it that way. So using that Google is most probably actively figuring out ways to “work against you”. Good quality content will get you “natural”, spontaneous backlinks in time, that Google will recognise as such.
So, in my opinion, the “longer way” is faster and better than “a SEO shortcut”, using all sorts of current tricks. Make good content. Mark it all properly: meta tags, titles, relevant internal and external links to relevant sources, even competitors if they have some very good relevant content – anything needed to make the content help visitors as good as possible, for whatever topic it is. Update and put out new content on a regular basis. It does wonders.
This concludes SE optimization topic. Don’t worry about SEO much, worry about visitors, Google will take care of the rest. SEM (Search Engine Marketing) optimization is an often related, but different topic that I will not go into. I’ll just say that there are many good articles on the topic, as well as many not so good ones that, when explaining SEM, also talk about (ab)using various “clever” “SEO tricks” in order to “help Google ranking”. I believe that reading this post will help you tell good from bad SEM and SEO advice.
Addition: how NOT to do website SEO.
Any corrections, additions, praises are more than welcome. 🙂
Relja Google Novović
- Website optimization  Measuring “performance”
- Website optimization  DNS and redirects
- Website optimization  Caching and compressing
- Website optimization  WordPress plugins – speed and stability
- Website optimization  Images – pictures
- Website optimization  SEO
- Website optimization  Permalink change
- Caching a WordPress website