On-Site Optimization Processes

  |  May 11, 2009   |  Comments

A look at the key roles that navigation, linking, design, and content play in Web site optimization.

Although on-site optimization is only one part of SEO (define), it's still essential to ensure your site is built in a search-engine "amenable" way.

But is it necessary to adhere to every tenet preached by SEO experts? Are there certain processes or practices that you should definitely follow and others that are nice to have?

Companies should try to adhere to specific practices when building a Web site. There are three key areas to consider when optimizing a Web site: navigation/linking, design, and content.

Navigation/Linking

A site's navigation plays a key role in whether search engine spiders can crawl and index the site's content. Your internal linking structure should be well designed so users and search engines know where to go, how to get from one page to the next, and where they are in the site at any point during their journey.

Because search engines follow text links, sites should avoid image or JavaScript menus wherever possible. However, in the cases that image-based or dynamic menus are utilized, the following practices should be followed:

  • A sitemap is created and a link to it appears on every page.

  • Alternative text (or an alt tag) is included for each menu button.

  • The primary navigation is mirrored in text at the bottom of the page.

  • The text links (or anchor text) utilize the keywords associated with that page.

Ensuring that all links are keyword rich will help the search engines better understand the content on the destination page and increase the likelihood of being associated with those keywords. So instead of linking to another page with the common terms "click here" or "find out more," you should hyperlink the keywords associated with that page.

Design

Your Web site's architecture, layout, and design can significantly impact your search engine potential. Ideally, you have an SEO expert consult at every stage of the Web site design and development to ensure that your Web site is built from the ground up with SEO best practices. Specifically, SEO consulting on design/development should occur during the following stages:

  • Initial Web site planning discussions: The SEO expert should be involved so that the search engine "point of view" can be taken into account when agreeing on Web site goals, key performance indicators, and benchmarks. The extra level of effort and time to undertake SEO best practices should be taken into account at this stage, so that key milestones are accurately reflected in the Web site build timelines and schedules.

  • User experience phase: General keyword research should be undertaken to determine what topics the audience is actually searching for, which will inform the overall site content map/information architecture (which outlines the content to be included in the site). The Web team should ensure your content is organized in a clear hierarchy on the site so search engines can understand how the site is organized, the various content contained within it, and the relationship between these elements. The SEO expert should also provide input into wireframe development, to ensure that they include appropriate textual elements, sufficient space for keyword-rich copy, and appropriate link structure.

  • Creative production: SEO best practices in design and development should be communicated to the creative and development teams, with clear instructions on what they should be doing and what they should avoid. Some of the SEO best practices that should communicated to the dev team include:

    • Avoid splash pages, which lack search engine "viewable" content.

    • Avoid pure-Flash sites; using Flash elements only where they add value.

    • Use cascading style sheets (CSS) for layout to enable the keyword-rich copy to appear at the top of the HTML file, even though it may appear lower on the page.

    • Use header tags (i.e. H1, H2, H3) in the templates to alert the engine to the hierarchy on the page.

    • Comply with W3C guidelines and avoid code clutter to ensure search engines can easily crawl and index all content, without getting bogged down by unnecessary code.

Content

Search engines use the content on your site to determine how it fits into their indexes. Based on the content or copy on site, the search engine will determine which keyword phrases this site should surface for in the results.

For this reason, wherever possible, a site shouldn't attempt to cover a wide variety of topics, but be relatively narrow-focused so that the search engines can categorize it more easily. For the same reason, you should take steps to ensure the on-page copy and behind-the-scenes tagging is well-aligned with appropriate keywords for your product.

Specific keyword research should ideally be undertaken for each important page of the site. Ideally, this takes place in advance of copy development, so that the copywriter can attempt to naturally integrate these terms into the page content. The SEO specialist should then review the draft copy and make any further recommendations for keyword integration, where appropriate.

In the earlier stages of site development, you should have already ensured that the content on each individual page establishes a hierarchy so that you can alert the engines to the most important/relevant content. The SEO specialist then reviews the page content to make sure that these key hierarchical elements include the keywords targeted for that page:

  1. The most important content is also the first content that the search engine reads. This is accomplished by ensuring the main header and first paragraph of content are keyword rich.

  2. Header tags indicate to the search engine the relative importance of each piece of content. Wherever possible, each content block on a Web page should have a header enclosed in header tags. Content enclosed in a H1 header tag is the most important, so make sure this header includes your targeted keywords.

  3. Create pages with an optimal amount of content -- too little and the search engines can't understand what the page is about, but too much and the page becomes cluttered and makes it difficult for the engines to ascertain how to rank the page (250 words is a good rule of thumb). The copy should contain your targeted keywords and synonyms, but it shouldn't be obvious that the page has been "optimized." Although search engines should be taken into account, the needs of the user will come first in terms of making sure the copy flows and accomplishes the end goal of the site.

  4. Ensure each page has search engine friendly meta data, including unique page titles, descriptions, and keywords. Your SEO specialist can also help ensure the file naming conventions utilized allow the inclusion of keywords wherever possible into individual page URLs.

Although not exhaustive in terms of the potential optimization techniques at your disposal, this outline hopefully has given you a few rules to abide by when building or revamping your site. By considering these three key elements -- navigation/linking, design, and content -- you'll be well on your way to creating a search-engine friendly Web site.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Batten

Julie is a member of the senior strategy team at Klick Health, focused on online media and digital. Julie initially established and led the media practice at Klick for several years, relinquishing leadership to expand beyond media into additional digital tactics. She brings a wealth of experience in search marketing, digital media, and all facets of digital strategy to bear, helping Klick's clients develop innovative digital solutions. As her role has evolved, so have her contributions to ClickZ, which she has been writing for since 2007.

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