With a slight nod to The Cluetrain Manifesto, here is what I believe when it comes to Search Engine Optimization.
1. Write good content.
Why is good content important? Because it turns out that if your story reads well to humans, then it's indexed well by Google. And if it’s indexed well by Google, it will show up in relevant searches for the people you want visiting your site.
There is no silver bullet SEO that will get organic traffic to a poorly-written page. If the content on the page is not well-written and compelling, no amount of optimization will help. There are no keywords in the world that will make that pig fly.
Hire a writer — a professional writer. A writer who understands the nuances of storytelling for a business. Because each page is telling a story about some aspect of your business, a story where your product plays the hero.
2. The "Aboutness" of a page.
Every page needs to be “About” one thing. I call this the page’s Aboutness. The more focused the Aboutness, the better it will be indexed. Presuming there is an audience searching for what that page is about, the more traffic it will receive from search engines.
Many people use the phrase "keyword" instead of Aboutness. But, Aboutness is bigger than a keyword.
You're probably already doing this. Someone probably said, "We need a page about ____________." They just named the Aboutness.
However ideas are sourced, when the page was assigned to a writer, the same message was conveyed: "We need a page about ____________," and they wrote a story where all the article elements — headline, description, sub heads. — are written with this Aboutness in mind.
An SEO-compatible business story
Stories on your site need standard elements for good search engine optimization (SEO) which is compatible with search engine indexing:
- A compelling
Headlinethat mentions the Aboutness (the earlier the better) in 60 to 70 characters
- Repeat the Aboutness in a brief
Description, a 160 to 180 character-paragraph summarizing the story
Subheadsseparate the body of the story into scannable chunks
- One or more
imageswith captions or a video that contribute to the story
- A call to
The Enemy of Aboutness
It’s likely that each page on your site has a main content area which contains the story the page is telling. The page probably also has universal components like a header and a footer and, often, a sidebar that links through to other content.
These universal components are the enemy of the Aboutness of your page. They compete for attention. It's an epic battle. The links in them dilute the Aboutness of your page.
Remember this, because I have some advice for you in item 5, the tags section of this manifesto.
3. SEO turns websites upside-down.
When you built your site, you started with the home page and worked your way down to the story level.
But when someone comes to your site from search, they go right into the stories without seeing the home page at all. For many of them, the story page is their first impression of your site. And this impression is colored by the context of how they got there.
Think about it. They were on a totally different site where there were hundreds of links to hundreds of sites and they chose your site because they were seeking an answer to a question.
To searchers, the home page plays a different role. They go to the home page for credibility and to find out more about this company that attracted their attention. They will judge you — and fast! — on that story page.
4. The more entry points, the better.
The more stories on your site, the more entry points there are for readers, and the more unique URLs there are for Google to index.
I don't mean to suggest that you should trivially add pages to your site. They have to be good, well-written business stories that provide some meaningful information about your product, service, or business category. They must be pages that answer questions.
For ideas of substantive stories to write about, there are plenty of places to go. Does your site have a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list? That's an entire list of stories. Do you have search logs? What are people searching for? Look at your competitors’ pages and how they rank and what those pages are about.
Use a keyword research tool that provides search volume to track competitors blogs so you can see what posts are getting the most attention from search engines. What are the topics being covered at industry events? Research the social media hashtags people are using at industry events.
There is a bit of a movement to roll pages up into a single page. Resist the urge. The more entry points there are to your web site, the better.
Focus on your content. Create a site with lots of engaging stories that answer lots of compelling questions. Google likes content and people like answers.
5. The tags that matter most for SEO.
One of the frustrating things about SEO is that there are thousands of aspects to consider. It seems that no sooner have you whacked one mole than another raises its head.
But, when it comes to meat-and-potatoes SEO, pay special attention to the following tags. If you don't have these working right, you're not building on a solid foundation.
With the following page-level tags, make sure you use only plain text characters to display them. No emojis, quote marks (single or double), and for god's sake definitely no "<" or ">" symbols. If you can't avoid using an apostrophe, make sure it isn't a smart apostrophe.
The title tag is the headline of the page followed by a delimeter and then your company name. For example:
is the title of this page. Google will cut the content of this tag off at approximately 60 characters in the search result display page. The
title tag shows up in 3 visible places:
- As the headline that shows up in Google when your page is in the search results.
- Often, as the headline when a page is shared on social media.
- In the browser tab.
Meta Description Tag
A short, compelling (~160 to 180 characters) elevator pitch that describes the page's Aboutness. This needs to be a complete, standalone paragraph. Think of it as the snippet Google shows when your site shows up in the results. Because sometimes it is. Although, increasingly, Google is looking at the opening paragraph of your story for this information.
I frequently see special characters being used in the
meta description. Even if your developer says something like "It's OK, we've escaped them," the best idea is to not use them in the first place.
canonical link is a little bit of code that tells Google the official URL of the page. It's particularly handy if your site is not set up to automatically show the “www” part of the URL. Google sees
michaelgrover.com as two distinct sites so this manifesto would be considered as posted in two places which has a negative impact on SEO.
After all, Martin Luther didn't nail his theses to two chapel doors.
Open Graph (og) Tags
Sure, these are more for sharing than for SEO, but they give you control of how compelling a page looks when shared. The more shares you have of a page, the more links back to it, and the more traffic it receives. The important og tags are:
image and it would be smart to repurpose the headline and description here.
Main Content Area Tags
Your site likely has a main content area where the stories change from page to page. Reserve all of the following tags for the main content area where they can support the Aboutness of your page. Do not use any of these tags on any content outside the main content area (the header, footer or side-bar).
H1 and H2
The headline of the page should have the
H1 tag around it. Use one
H1 per page. You can have as many
H2 tags as the story needs. The
H2 tags should be used to surround sub-heads within the story. Think of them as an outline where
H1 is the main topic and
H2 are the subjects being covered. Sometimes Google uses this structure to show a list within the search results.
H3 through H6
Don't use them if you don't need them. But only use them in the main content area. Also, think about the hierarchy these tags imply and use them in the order they convey.
Image Alt tags
alt tag (more accurately the
alt description) is possibly the most untapped of SEO elements. So much so that I have a whole section on image alt tags below.
6. Make your URL readable.
The URL itself is possibly the most potent SEO element of your page. It conveys your company name (authority), organization (sub-directories), and the location of the story itself.
Here are some guidelines to making the URL as SEO friendly as possible. You might face some technical limitations, though.
- A human being should be able to look at the url and tell you what the page is about. This will likely involve a version of the headline appearing in the url.
- Separate the words in your URL with hyphens, not underscores. It makes it more readable. Also, don’t contract two words into one. For example, instead of /artificialintelligence/, use hyphens to make it more readable: /artificial-intelligence/.
- Categorize articles in logical buckets and then organize them in a sub-directory. For example, if you have a story on Artificial Intelligence, put it in a sub-directory called /artificial-intelligence/. It helps support the page's Aboutness.
- Your publishing system might allow for a date to appear in the url. Don't do it.
- Once the URL has been published, don’t change it. Ever. For any reason. Think of URLs as permanent.
- Make sure that the URL works when a user cuts and pastes it (such as an email or on social media). To check this, copy the url and paste it into a browser you don’t normally use.
7. Make your images (and videos) readable.
Google doesn’t index actual images. Same goes for videos. Rather, it indexes the context of an image or a video.
So, for each image or video that supports the Aboutness of a page, make sure to give it a good, descriptive name, make use of the image’s alt description, and have a caption to further describe the asset.
Do not include an alt description or a caption for images that appear outside of the main content area (such as in the header, footer, or sidebar).
Special readers exist that use on-page information — including the alt description — to describe the page to vision-impared users. So, adding good alt descriptions to the images that matter helps that, too. Do not stuff the alt descriptions with a list of keywords. This will be penalized.
8. How to apply international SEO.
Help Google find the international pagesIf you have international versions of your web site and they are translated copies of your English pages, it’s critical to understand and include the HREF-LANG tag. It’s a complicated tag which identifies both country and language, but, basically, it points out to Google the URLs of translated content. Google docs on Href-lang.
How to handle international domain names.
There are three ways to host international sites:
- international domain name (ie: michaelgrover.kr)
- subfolders (michaelgrover.com/kr/)
- subdomains (kr.michaelgrover.com)
For a variety of reasons, some of which go beyond SEO issues, subfolders are the best way to host international content. Why? Whatever equity your domain has, the same level of equity is automatically applied to your international sites. If you do own international domain names, use a 301 redirect to the subfolder.
What are some other reasons?
- Costs: Site licenses are often charged per-domain and michaelgrover.kr is a different domain.
- Site management: It's easier to manage one site than many.
- Technical: No need to worry about cross-domain tracking for cookies, etc.
9. Why links are good.
Like it or not, your site is part of a broad array of sites. The linkage between sites is the most rudimentary part of how Google indexes sites. Firstly, it finds content to index by following links.
More importantly, the link text (the part of the link that's visible on the page) acts as a bit of emphasis, helping to get across what the page is about.
When you build links into your page, pay attention to what the link text is and make sure it — you guessed it — supports the Aboutness.
It's good to link to other content on your site as Google will register those for future crawling. Within the main content area of you page, be sure to link to other internal content only if it's related to the Aboutness of the page.
In terms of the link text, a good rule-of-thumb is to use the title of the destination page as the link text. But, only do this if it makes sense in the context what you are writing.
Linking through to external sites will add credibility to your page, both in the eyes of your visitors and in the eyes of Google. Do this only if it supports the story and only do it in the main content area.
Obviously, there are sites you won't want to link to and that will be a judgement call based on your business and your goals. But if you find non-competitive pages to link to, it's a powerful way to get across meaning. If you worry about losing the visitor, have the external links open in a new tab by adding
target=”_blank” to the link.