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Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

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What is search engine optimization?

Methods of designing your page or site to improve its ranking in search engines so that it appears near the top of the search results list and your target users are more likely to find and visit it.

What is a page ranking?

A number that a search engine assigns to a page to determine the order of search results. A page with a higher ranking generally appears earlier in the search results. If a page is ranked 10th or less for a given keyword, it will appear on the first page of search results.

If you have installed the Google toolbar, every page you visit will display a Page Rank number in the toolbar. 10 is highest. Currently, Google's home page is ranked 10, the CSU Libraries home page is ranked 8, and the LTS tip sheets are ranked 4. This number is actually just one of several factors Google uses, but it's still a useful measure.

How do I optimize my pages for search engines?

Although you could spend a lot of time and money to produce highly optimized pages, or you could simply use paid online ads, a few simple practices can greatly increase your page rankings and user visits.

Design functional, accessible pages.

  • Why: Pages with less code and more real content will rank higher, and clean code is less likely to cause search engines problems in finding the content. Accessible pages will also help your users when they visit your site.
  • How: Use standards such as CSS and XHTML to produce clean, simple, correct code. Check for broken links and incorrect HTML. Avoid formatting using HTML. Avoid using tables for page layout.

Link to your pages.

  • Why: Search engines rank a page higher if many pages are linked to it and many users visit it. More links to a page generally leads to more visits. Search engines cannot find pages to which there are no links.
  • How: Navigation bars and site maps are easy ways to greatly increase the number of links and visits to a page, and they will also help your users to navigate the site. Ask related organizations to link to your pages or site. Important pages should be linked directly from your home page rather than being multiple clicks away.

Optimize your important pages the most.

  • Why: The important pages are most often used, and they can increase the ranking of other pages on the same site.
  • How: Focus on your home page first. Also optimize frequently used pages that are linked directly from your home page.

Choose keywords that describe and uniquely identify your site.

  • Why: Users who type in these exact keywords will more easily find your site.
  • How: Be specific. Keywords that are too general, such as commonly used single words, are overused and probably already taken by a larger company.

Choose keywords that your users might actually search for.

  • Why: Make your site easier to find by your target users. Overly specific keywords are unlikely to be used.
  • How: Keywords should be in the user's language, so you should know your target audience and what words they would use. Avoid technical jargon unless your users are likely to use it. Avoid using too many words; one to three words is generally best. Use likely variations of your keywords. Use an online keyword generator tool to enter a term and get a list of popular related search terms.

Put keywords in prominent places.

  • Why: Search engines look for keywords in certain places in web pages and assign page rankings accordingly.
  • How: Focus on the page title, file and directory names, h1 and h2 headings, hyperlinks, URL, ALT and TITLE attributes, and body text. Important keywords should appear at or near the beginning of these. Although most of today's search engines no longer give much weight to the meta keywords tag, you should also put keywords here for those that do, and this is a convenient place to keep track of keywords that are important for your page. Pages should have high keyword density: Keywords should be a significant percentage of the content.

Focus on the title.

  • Why: The page title appears prominently in the search results, and is generally the most important part of your page for both search engine rankings and user visits.
  • How: Be sure the title clearly, accurately and uniquely describes the page. Focus on your one or two most important keywords, and be sure they appear near the beginning. Keep it brief; search engines typically display only about the first 60 characters of the title. Include your organization's name.

Write a description.

  • Why: The meta description tag appears in the search results, below the page title. If you do not include a meta description tag, the search engine will choose content from the page body to display, and depending on your page design, may choose the wrong content.
  • How: Write a description for your target users that will make them want to click the link. Include your most important keywords. Keep it brief; search engines will display only about the first 160 characters of the description.

Write your content for humans, not search engines.

  • Why: Your users will be turned off by pages so crammed with keywords that the language is repetitive and awkward, and other techniques they perceive as unethical. Also, search engines are very good at detecting common methods of keyword spam and "bait-and-switch" techniques, and punishing them by excluding the offending page or entire site from search results.
  • How: Don't get carried away with optimization techniques. After keyword optimization, double-check that the text sounds natural.

Search Engine Optimization Links

General guidelines

Keyword generators and related tools