Most of the on-site optimization elements are about the usage of keywords and phrases. Strategically placing keywords in the right elements of the website will have a positive impact on the rankings of a website. The algorithmic weights of the keywords in different elements vary between search engines.
As search engines do not reveal their algorithms to the public, determining what elements to optimize on a web page is not an easy task. Furthermore, search engine algorithms contain so many variables and they are being tweaked on an on-going basis that it is very difficult to obtain information about the algorithms by conducting optimization tests on web pages. Testing on individual sites and pages is possible, but most likely the results do not represent the whole picture of the algorithm and may not work if implemented on other sites. In addition, optimizers that have discovered parts of the algorithm by doing a series of testing, will not wilfully reveal their findings to the webmaster community. This is due to fierce competition and giving away important discoveries about algorithms is giving away a competitive advantage.
Although there is no way for optimizers to know the entire search engine algorithms, there are some proven advices that will help web sites in the search rankings. These advices are either the result of testing, research and observation by the webmaster community or they are included in the webmaster guidelines of search engines. I will briefly discuss the most important elements of on-site optimization that will have a positive impact on positioning in the SERPs. The elements are not in order of importance.
One of the crucial elements of on-site optimization is the structure of the web site. Structure determines whether the pages can be indexed and has a huge influence on how the pages will rank. As I already discussed in this chapter, several attributes may have a negative impact the ranking of a website. Most of these attributes are related to the structure of the website.
From the optimization standpoint, a good structure is one that has a clear hierarchy and uses text links as a navigation element. Google mentions in its guidelines that “every page should be reachable from at least one static text link” (Google a).
Another very important attribute of a web page is the title-tag. Title-tags represent the title of the web page, which is displayed at the top of a browser window. Title-tags are also shown in the search results as the title of the document. From search engine optimization perspective, title-tags should describe the contents of the page with a few words, preferably including the key term(s) for that particular web page. It is important to note that each page of a web site should have a unique title, instead of using one title for the entire site.
The saying “Content is king” is one of the most used phrases in the SEO community, and rightfully so. Unique and high-quality content has been and will be one of the most important elements of search engine optimization. Text content is important in SEO because search engines bots will “read” the web pages and according to their text content, determine what the pages are about. Furthermore, good content is very helpful in off-site optimization as it attracts inbound links.
Using H-tags or header tags is part of a good page structure. Just like in almost any text document, there are a few different sizes of headings that show the reader the hierarchy and structure of the document. On web pages the tags H1, H2, H3, H4, H5 and H6 are also part of search engine optimization, as search engines value the content in headers higher than elsewhere on the page. Because of this fact, header tags should include some of the keywords that the page is being optimized for.
Supposedly, the optimization value of H1-tags is regarded higher than that of H2, the value of H2 is higher than that of H3 and so on. For example, the term “tennis shoes” in an H1-tag will have a more positive impact on the ranking of the page than “tennis shoes” in H2-tags. Generally, there should only be one H1-tag on a page, as it is the main heading.
As I have already stated in this paper, search engines cannot read the content of images and therefore must use other means of determining what the image represents. ALT-tags or Alternative text is used to create a small description of each image for the visually impaired visitors and search engine bots. ALT-tags are often misused by stuffing them with keywords, which may have a negative impact in the SERPs. ALT-tags can be of advantage in the SERPs if the targeted keywords in them are used with moderation. For example, a picture of a pair of Nike tennis shoes on a page that is being optimized for “tennis shoes” could have an ALT-tag like “Nike tennis shoes”. The improper method would be to fill the ATL-tag with something like “tennis shoes, nike tennis shoes, tennis sneakers, nike”.
Search engines favour web pages that are small in file size. For example, a content page with a few pictures and a size of 30 kilobytes is better than a content page that contains mostly graphics and has a file size of 250 kilobytes. The reason for such preference is that search engines look at the file size issue from the user standpoint. The average Internet user does not want to wait a long time for the page to load.
Search engines also prefer content that can be seen and read by the search engine spider as well as the visitor. The code that generates the pages is not seen by the user, but search engine bots do see it. Therefore, web developers should try to keep the text-to-code ratio as high as possible, meaning that there should be plenty of text content compared to the amount of code on the page. One of the most common methods of reducing “code bloat” is to move some of the elements of the HTML-document to external files. These elements include code like cascading style sheets (CSS) and java script.
Internal links are hyperlinks that point to another web page that is part of the same website. For example, a link from http://www.google.com/ads/ to http://www.google.com/about.html is an internal link, because both pages reside under the same domain name, www.google.com. Smart internal linking can provide a boost in the search rankings. By smart internal linking, I am referring to the usage of key terms in the link text just like in off-site optimization and inbound links. Many web sites use internal links with a link text like “Click here” or “Learn more”. These link texts a.k.a. anchor texts are not optimal from an SEO point-of-view. Instead, the anchor text should briefly describe the contents of the page that it is pointing to. For example, the internal links that are pointing to a page about Wilson tennis rackets should have keyword-rich anchor text like “ Wilson tennis rackets”, “tennis rackets” or “ Wilson rackets”.
Keyword prominence is an important aspect of on-site optimization. The prominence of targeted keywords is about how high those keywords appear on the web page. For the search engines, a keyword that is located high up on a web page is regarded more important than keywords that appear lower in the page, in the footer for example. Remember that search engines do not see the web pages the same way as regular visitors, so even if a keyword appears to be very high on the page, it does not necessarily mean that it has a prominent place on the page for the search engine as well. One way to see web pages the same way as search engines is to use a text based web browser such as Lynx.
One of the most important elements of search engine optimization in the past was the usage of meta-tags. The importance of meta-tags has decreased, but many search engines still make some use of them. For example, some search engines use meta-tags in their algorithms, some for displaying of search results and some for exclusion purposes. “A meta tag is an HTML-tag that gives information about the content of a web page, such as what HTML specifications a web page follows or a description of a web page’s content”. The most common meta-tag attributes are the description, keyword and robots exclusion. (Thurow 2003, 74.)
The keyword meta-tag contains a list of keywords that are related to the web document. This meta-tag attribute is not used at all by most search engines, because it has been used for excessive keyword stuffing in the past. As a result, the benefit gained from the keyword meta-tag is very little. Nevertheless, as some search engines may still make use of this attribute, it may be worth it to include the meta-tag keyword attribute in the HTML-document by writing a short list of targeted keywords for each web document.
From a search engine optimizer’s point of view, the meta-tag description attribute is the most important meta tag for a few reasons. First, some search engines still put weight on the description meta-tag in their algorithm. As a result, having a keyword-rich meta description might improve the search ranking of a website. Second, many search engines display the meta-tag description attribute in the search result under the title-tag. With an enticing description and the use of a call to action in the SERPs, optimizers can encourage searchers to visit the web site. Some search engines will display the meta-tag description on every search query regardless of the relevancy of the description to the search query. Other search engines, like Google will display the meta-tag description only if the terms in the search query exist in the meta-tag description attribute as well. (Whalen 2004.)
The meta tag robots exclusion attribute tells search engines whether the web site owner wants search engines to index the web page or not. In some instances, site owners do not want searchers to find a web page via search engines, and this can be done with the robots exclusion. Robots exclusion is an attribute that will not improve search positioning of a web site. Another more common and recommended method of robots exclusion is the use of a robots.txt file. This file includes all those folders and web pages that the web site owner does not want search engines to visit. With robots.txt, site owners can also regulate, which search engines bots are allowed to visit and which search engine bots are not allowed to visit the web site or sections of it. Even if there are no areas of the site that should not be visited by search engines, it is common practice to have a robots.txt file placed in the root folder of the web site.