Writing for Search Engines

Introduction

Getting good results out of search engines takes a lot of careful thinking about every word you write into your page content and other regions of the HTML files that make up your page. In order to successfully place in search engines, it's critically important that the people writing content for your website are always mindful of best practices and thinking about how the information they are writing about will be sought after by potential visitors.

Content Writing

It's important to remember that search engines are programmed to perform a reasonable amount of inference based on user intent, but ultimately the best way to get placement for search keywords and terms is to ensure that they occur in your page contents and that the frequency of occurrence is good relative to other words. Also try to work into your content other words that may be synonyms or more basic language for the same thing that your site talks about. Consider the perspective of a potential visitor who doesn't know anything about your business and attempt to engineer your content to discuss the subject you're presenting in general as well as specific terms.

For example, if you were operating a web hosting company, in addition to stating  that you provide reliable web hosting services, you may also want to include copy targeting the likely action, intent, and request of your audience, e.g. "We can help you put up a website in minutes. Whether you're looking to get a personal website or get a professional website online, we're here to help. Our hosting services are the best in the industry."

Non-body Content

In addition to page content, you should focus on other key areas that search engines are attentive to:

  • The title of the page
  • The URL of the page
  • The meta regions

Title

The title of the page is weighted heavily against keyword searches. The title of the page is what appears (usually) at the top of your browser window. The title is controlled in HTML code by what exists between the <title></title> tags in the document. Depending on how you write your content into your pages, a Content Management System administrator may be able to advise you on how to set page titles, or, if you are using Dreamweaver or some other editor, you will either have a text box for specifying the title or you will be able to write text right between these two tags in the document. Keep your titles concise, but put your most important keywords there in natural language.

The URL

Search engines concern themselves with the words they can identify in the URL of a page. Each word that can be identified by the search engine will be compared against the keywords searched for, so it's important to use good wording when naming pages and folders.

A good word separator is the hyphen. Failing that, you may use the underscore. If your page is attempting to market a graduate degree in psychology counseling, you might for example have a URL like www.northwestern.edu/programs/psychology-counseling-graduate-degree.html. The keywords in the page name are very slightly more important than folder name keywords. Don't go overboard and bend over backwards to make elaborately long URLs just to pack your keywords in, but the above URL is a pretty good example for what to shoot for. The "slug" as it's often called, which is a one word description of a piece of content, should be avoided. The same page would not rank as well for searches on all these keywords if its name was simply "degree.html"

The META regions

META regions are bits of information about every page that are embedded into the code of the page and read by search engine crawlers, but are otherwise invisible to someone reading your page in a browser. Again, consult with your CMS manager or content administrator on how to incorporate them and edit them in your pages.

Below, find additional information about the PageRank algorithm. That algorithm was designed to defeat people who would game search engines by placing every keyword imaginable into the meta regions of their page simply so their page would be picked up by more engines. This became a very big problem when pages that were selling goods that had nothing to do with the keywords in their meta region were showing up for searches. For example, a page creator attempting to sell a product might use a popular celebrity in their keywords in an attempt to take advantage of people searching for that common term.

As such, keywords are now practically useless to search engine weighting (reference). Description, however, can sometimes still be useful. Most search engines provide a summary of content in searches for pages, just below the page link in the results. If generating an auto-summary based on the keywords is impractical, these engines will simply print the contents of the description region, which can help guide users deciding which link to click to your page above the others.

The World at Large

You'll find that in a broader sense, if you are concerned with and competing for ranking in world-wide search engines like Google and Microsoft's, you'll need to employ several practices to get a good ranking for your keywords. But, before you become concerned with the advice below, first ask yourself if your visitors are an internal, Northwestern audience of an external, public audience. If the answer is the former, you may not need to worry about the following tips. If you are a business unit at the University aimed at serving faculty, staff, or students, it's unlikely you need to compete with another business unit like your own for search rankings.

Links (the PageRank algorithm)

Popular algorithms like PageRank, which have been place since 2003, emphasize most NOT the contents of the page being crawled, but the relative importance and prominence of the page in relation to others on the web.

How it works

This algorithm found that by establishing an implicit ranking for the importance of a page based on how many other, off-site sources link to it, and the same importance of those sources through similar measurements, an accurate weight map of the relative importance of a page could be established. Popular companies, products, research papers, and other information documents that were being heavily discussed and referred to would appear closer to the top. This is a much more reliable measure than the frequency and volume of keywords claiming relevancy to a particular topic, as it relies on a more unbiased measure of page relevancy than the author alone.

Example

As an example, many people read CNN.com for daily news. Whenever CNN.com posts an interesting story links to it from blogs, tweets, and all kinds of other internet mediums begin to appear everywhere. Google's algorithm begins to understand that because of the numerous links to this story page, as well as by extension to CNN as a whole, that this story is a very pertinent, high quality page to deliver in the results pages for keywords that appear in the story. Suddenly, the story will begin to bubble up in search results for those keywords. When more links to this story and other stories on CNN.com continue to be identified by Google's page crawler, Google gives this source (anything at cnn.com) a higher prominence in results.

To continue then, if CNN writes a story about a new business that makes custom shovels, linking to its website in one of its stories, shovel company's web site receives additional prominence. Google's innovation of the early 2000s was their "trust" model where the not only the number of links, but the quality of the referral became an important factor in search result rankings.

What you can do

Getting Google to assign a higher quality value to your web site is a difficult and almost never-ending maintenance task. As a start, you can list your sites in several online directories (like topical phone books) for websites: dmoz.org for example. Also seek out any connections you may have organizationally or politically to get a highly regarded site to link to yours.

Seek out other forums where you can post links to your site. If your site puts out press releases, submit them to other sites and directories. The appropriate sites will vary depending on the mission of your organization.

Evaluation

You can evaluate this process at any time by running a backlink search. Backlink searches will tell you what pages on the internet link to another page. Usually you will want to run this query using your homepage. The syntax varies between search engines, but forms for this kind of search can usually be found on the search engine's "advanced search" screen. Google's shortcut is link:url where URL is your page. For example, link:http://www.northwestern.edu/ will tell me what pages (and also importantly, how many) link to the Northwestern home page.

Content and Language

You'll need to aggressively write your content for good keyword density and quality and write captivating language that will keep users who are looking to perform a task online on your page once they arrive. The most successful online marketers pack their web pages with key action words and leave others out.