Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the process making your site as visible as possible in search engines. SEO is by no means an exact science, as search engines such as Google do not reveal the details of the algorithms they use to calculate the ranking of search results.
There are various things you can do to improve your site’s search engine ranking. These break down into two distinct categories: things you can do to your site and promoting your site in the wider web. First though, you need to decide what search terms you wish to be highly ranked for.
Highly visible for what?
Every search engine result is based on someone searching for a particular term. Any effort to promote your site in search engine results need to target a particular set of key terms for which you wish to be highly ranked. How well you will be ranked will depend on how common that term is. For example, if your name is John smith, you probably don’t stand much chance of being on the first page of results for ‘John Smith’. However, if you are John Smith working in Immunology at University of Oxford, then you would hope that a search for ‘John Smith Immunology Oxford’ would return your site fairly highly.
You need to select a set of terms which are relevant to your site which you would like to find your site when doing searches for these terms. If your site is about you and your academic work, then these terms would include your name (in all common combinations, eg. Joe Bloggs, Joseph Bloggs, etc.).
What you can do to your site
The most important thing to do to your site in terms of SEO is to put the terms you have selected in places where search engines can find them and where they will be given most weight. Here are a few tips for doing this:
- Search engines can only read text, they don’t see images. Search engines judge images based on text attached to the image (e.g. an alt attribute or title attribute) and text near the image (such as a caption). It is therefore very important that any text within images is also provided in text form (most commonly in the alt attribute). If your site consists mostly of images which don’t have any text associated with them, your site will be almost invisible to search engines.
- In terms of judging what a web page is about, search engines generally place highly value in the title tag for the page, headings within the page and content towards the top of the page. Therefore you should make sure that these elements contain key words (note: the contents of the title tag is not visible on the page, but is often displayed at the top of a browser window or tab, when the page is minimised, etc).
- Web pages contain various ‘meta’ tags which tell search engines information about the page. There are various meta tags, the most relevant to SEO being the keyword and description tags. The keywords tag allows you to list keywords you consider relevant to your site. The description tag allows you to provide a short description of your site. This is usually just one or two sentences. Like the title tag, these are not rendered to the page, though the content of the description tag often shows up in search result listing. These metatags are your chance to tell search engines what your site is about.
Consider video content
There is significant anecdotal evidence to suggest that having video content on your site significantly improves your search engine ranking. One reason for this is that some search engines consider length of stay on a page as a significant when ranking pages. Video content tends to encourage users to spend longer on the page by providing content to watch. Another factor is that users are more likely to link to video content. To a large extent this comes back to providing quality content that will engage users. The people have spoken: they want video content. Search engines are also aware that users like video content, therefore the presence of video content on a page boosts ranking in many search engines.
Promoting your site
Although there certainly things you can do to your site technically to improve your search engine ranking, one of the main factors in search engine ranking is out of your control: other sites that link to your site using relevant key words. One of the main ways in which search engines decide what your site is about is what the Web at large thinks of it. In other words, the site that is linked to by the most other sites using the word ‘badger’ in the link text is most likely to be the first result when you search for ‘badger’.
Just because this is out of control doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. There are many ways in which you can encourage other people to link to you. The main way is to have good quality content. People won’t generally link to a site unless they value it in some way. This could be because they like you as a person, but it is more likely that they have found the site useful, either because of it’s functionality or it’s content. It is also good to update your site regularly. if your site has been linked to for the purposes of bookmarking, if your site is not updated then this linked may later be removed.
SEO is really only a piece in the larger jigsaw of discoverability. In the past, Search engines were the main way that most people came to most sites. The growth of social networks has changed that. Links from social networks can be a major source of traffic, even to the point where small sites can be brought down by too much traffic having been mentioned by a high profile Tweeter (for example, Stephen Fry frequently crashes sites that he tweets: http://www.techradar.com/news/internet/how-stephen-fry-takes-down-entire-websites-with-a-single-tweet-674170 ). This is unlikely to be a concern most of the time, but certainly you can get a significant traffic to your site by promoting it through networks such as Facebook and Twitter. This is also likely to have a knock-on effect on SEO, as a small percentage of those who visit your site may then link to it.
It is also worth making some effort to link your offline contacts and profile to your online profile: mention your site to people, put a link in your email footer, on powerpoint slides and biographies for conferences etc. Also, encourage your offline contacts to link up with you online.
Techniques have been developed in order to ‘fool’ search engines into ranking sites higher than they otherwise would. These techniques include things like ‘link loading’ – the practice of putting up pages with multiple links to the same sites using desirable search terms. Search engines take a dim view of any attempt to try and distort their results (as the job of a search engine is to provide an accurate picture of actual content on the Web). Usually search engines take action to minimise or eradicate the effect of such techniques. In some cases search engines will go so far as to block sites from their search results. Using ‘cheat’ techniques that search engines are likely to disapprove of is not recommended, as most techniques of this nature will quickly stop working once search engines get wind of it. At worst, your site may get blocked. If your site gets blocked by major search engines, then the site will become virtually invisible (and you don’t want that…)
To summarise, here are some top tips for SEO:
- Provide high quality, useful content that is worth revisiting and linking to.
- Decide on the keywords by which you wish your site to be found.
- Use your keywords prominently in the site (headers, title tag, meta tags, etc.)
- Consider providing video content as this is highly valued by users and search engines.
- Promote your site through your networks and communities, be responsive to questions and comments.
- Don’t try and beat the system, like Vegas, if you try and cheat the house, you’ll be out on your ear.