Search Engine Optimization
Having put so much time and effort into making your blog look pretty and creating fabulous content, you would want people to find it. The most common way for this to happen is via search engines. For many people, a typical web browsing session begins with a visit to their favorite search engine, so you want to be sure your blog appears high up in the rankings. Unfortunately, having a great-looking blog with lots of interesting posts isn't enough. To get a good place in the rankings takes time, perseverance, and no small amount of knowledge.
The good news is that search engines love blogs. This fact, coupled with the techniques covered in this article, will go a long way to making your blog as findable as possible. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of getting your blog noticed by the search engines and ranked as high as possible. This article outlines the most important SEO strategies and how to apply them. We'll also discuss how to submit your blog to the search engines as well as look at some SEO software and tools, which could save you time and improve your results.
The Principles of SEO
SEO is a huge subject. There are thousands of professionals all over the world who earn their living by providing SEO services to website owners. The good SEO pros spend huge amounts of time and resources learning the skills of effective optimization. This goes to show that you could easily spend your entire life boning up on SEO—there's so much to learn. Obviously, you won't have anything like this amount of time to spend on your own SEO education. However, you can still do a lot to improve your blog's performance with the major search engines. The option to bring in a professional to really rocket through the rankings is there, if your marketing budget allows. If you do decide to hire a professional, make sure you choose a reputable one who does not use unscrupulous tactics, which could harm you more than help you.
The good news is that WordPress has been made with SEO in mind. The software comes with many built-in SEO features. For example, you don't need to worry too much about the validity of the XHTML on your blog. The WordPress developers have ensured their code is valid. This is a big help as search engines will rank sites with valid code higher than those that have been poorly put together. There is plenty of other stuff going on behind the scenes in your WordPress installation that will aid your search engine findability—the WordPress developers have been very thoughtful. We'll be considering the aspects of SEO that are your responsibility. But first, a quick '101' on how search engines work.
How Search Engines Find Stuff
Search engines use special programs called robots that automatically crawl the Web and send back information about the web pages to the search engines' servers. They navigate the Web by following all the links they find. This is how a search engine collects the data for its index. The index is a huge database of entries cross-referenced between keywords and relevant website pages. The search engines use special algorithms to determine the rank of the web pages held in their index. When a web user enters a search query, the engine returns a list of results. The order of the search results depends on the rank of the pages, as determined by the algorithm.
These algorithms are closely guarded secrets and the search engine companies are constantly updating them. The aim of the updates is to improve the relevancy of the search results. Because of the secrecy of the algorithms and the constant changes, it is very difficult for website owners to figure out the exact criteria used to rank pages. This prevents website owners from unfairly influencing the search rankings. However, by subscribing to the blogs or feeds of the major search engines, and using tools such as Google's Webmaster tools (more on this later), you can keep abreast of major changes.
SEO professionals spend their lives trying to second-guess the search algorithms, but the search engine companies usually remain one step ahead. It's a game of cat and mouse, with the odds strongly skewed in favor of the search engines—they make the rules and can change them whenever they want.
Despite the ever-changing algorithms, there are certain principles of SEO that stay constant. These are what we will look at in this article.
For the purposes of this article, we will be concentrating on techniques for the 'traditional' search engines such as Google, MSN, Yahoo, and Ask. We will look at some of the blog-specific search engines, such as Technorati, in the next article.
Keywords are the search terms that people type into a search engine when they are looking for something on the Web. They can be single words or several words that make up a phrase. It's essential to know the keywords being used by people who are looking for the type of content on your blog. You then need to ensure that you're using those keywords correctly. Let's look at a few strategies for finding and using keywords effectively.
Choosing Your Keywords
You should spend some time building up a list of your blog's keywords. The first step is to be clear in your mind about what your blog's content is about. What are the main themes you are writing about?
Once you are clear about the main theme(s) of your blog, try a quick brainstorming exercise. You can do this alone or enlist the help of colleagues and friends. Put yourself in the shoes of someone looking for the kind of information you publish on your blog. What words or phrases are they likely to type into a search engine? We could run this exercise for ChilliGuru.com. People looking for the kind of content on ChilliGuru, may use the following keywords:
- Chilli (UK spelling)
- Chili (US spelling)
- Spicy food
- Growing chilies
- Chili recipe
- Mexican food
- Indian food
- Thai food
- Birds eye chilies
- Scotch bonnet
- Cook chilies
OK, that's just a small handful of the more obvious keywords that took me about 60 seconds to come up with. If I spent longer, I'm sure I could come up with a list of 50 or more words and phrases. The more people you enlist into your keyword brainstorming, the more you are likely to come up with.
Once you have a fairly good list, you can use keyword software to help you find even more. There are literally hundreds of keyword tools out there. Some are free, some are paid for, and they have a range of features. Later in this article, in the section on search engine submissions, we will introduce some software called Web CEO, which includes a good keyword tool. In the meantime, you can start with some of the tools provided by the search engines themselves. For example, Google provides a keyword selector tool for its advertising (Ad Words) customers, but you can use it to research your keywords. Go to https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal and enter a keyword or phrase into the search box. Keep the Use synonyms box checked.
Enter the security code and click Get keyword ideas and you will be presented with a list of related keywords:
OK, so it's a pretty long list; not all of the keywords will be relevant to your blog. For example, for ChilliGuru we could ignore 'red hot chilli peppers lyrics' and any other references to the band, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
The preceding screen shot shows just the first few suggestions for one keyword, 'chilli' (the whole list runs into dozens). So you can see that if you were to use this tool for all the keywords in your original brainstorming list, you could easily end up with a very long list. This might seem like a good idea, but when we discuss using your keywords, shortly, you'll see that you don't actually want too many. When you're working on your list, try to be selective and keep the list manageable. Use your judgment to pick the important keywords and also look at the Avg Search Volume column in the Google list. This tells you how often each keyword is actually being used. Focus on the most popular ones.
There's no point in my giving you a recommended number of keywords for your list, as this will depend on the type of content in your blog. If your blog covers a fairly narrow subject area, then you won't need as many keywords as if your blog covers a wide subject or even a range of subjects. Once you've read the next section on using keywords, you'll also have a better idea of how many you need.
Using Your Keywords
Once you've drawn up your list of keywords you need to make sure you're using them correctly. This basically boils down to the number of times you place keywords in each post. This is known as keyword density. As with many other aspects of SEO, they are no definitive rules. You will see lots of varied advice from different web experts. The fact of the matter is, no one can be certain about the optimum keyword density, because the search algorithms are kept secret. Many SEO experts have used trial and error in an attempt to gauge the best keyword density. Some have arrived at what are probably fairly arbitrary figures. It would be pointless for me to recommend a specific keyword density. Instead, here are a few general tips for using your keywords.
- Be selective with your keywords. You'll never be able to include your entire keyword list in each and every post you publish. Try to focus on two or three keywords or keyword phrases, which seem most relevant for each post you write.
- Whenever possible, try to include at least one keyword in the post title.
- Try to repeat a couple of the most relevant keywords twice in the first two paragraphs of the post. From then on, aim at using a keyword at least once in every paragraph.
- Keywords aren't just for your posts. Try to use a selection of your most relevant keywords in your 'About' pages and any other static pages in your blog.
- If you can, use keywords in your image Alt Tags. The Alt Tag is the Title of your image. Search engines index these Alt Tags; this gives you another way to provide them with more keyword-rich content.
Permalinks are very important for SEO. The default permalink structure in WordPress is http://blog.chilliguru.com/?p=123. This format isn't very search engine friendly. It's far better to have the post title appear in the permalink URL. Again, this is another way of getting more of your keywords into the search engine's index. We suggest changing the permalink structure to something like http://blog.chilliguru.com/recipes/2007/04/01/the-worlds-best-salsa-recipe/. This is better as it includes the post title. However, the optimal permalink structure, in terms of SEO, has the post title as close to your blog's domain name as possible, for example,http://blog.chilliguru.com/the-worlds-best-salsa-recipe/.
This structure is the very best for SEO, but it can sometimes cause problems when you try to access some of the WordPress admin pages. If you're really keen on SEO, and are happy to work around any problems accessing admin pages, then go with this structure. However, I would prefer to use a second-best SEO structure, which includes the post's category: http://blog.chilliguru.com/recipes/the-worlds-best-salsa-recipe/. This is still a good permalink structure for SEO and avoids any possible pitfalls in accessing your admin pages.
Changing your permalink structure can have a detrimental impact on SEO, unless your blog is very new. If you have a well established blog, the search engines will already have indexed your pages using your old permalink URLs. These URLs will remain in the index for quite some time, so until the index is updated all your links on search engine results pages will be broken. This will also be true for any of your links that appear on other websites or as browser bookmarks. Luckily, there is a third-party plugin that solves this problem. It applies what is known as a Permanent Redirection, which will ensure you continue to receive traffic from your old links. We will install it now before changing our permalink structure. The plugin is called Dean's Permalink Migration, and was written by Dean Lee.
Installing Dean's Permalink Migration Plugin
Let's go through the process of installing it on the live ChilliGuru blog, as there is no point installing it on your local development server. Go to http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/permalinks-migration-plugin-for-wordpress/ and download the plugin. Upload it to the plugins folder on your live blog, then go to the admin area and activate it in the usual way. You do not need to do any further configuration as the plugin automatically detects your current permalink structure. You can check it out in your admin area at Settings | PermalinksMigration.
We can now go ahead and change our permalink structure, safe in the knowledge that our old URLs will still work.
Under the main Settings tab, select Permalinks and change to our search engine friendly structure (/%category%/%postname%/) using the Custom structure box, then click Save Changes.
You can test if the plugin is working by entering one of your old URLs into your browser. You should be redirected to the relevant page and the new URL will appear in your browser's address bar.
Many experts claim that <Title> tags are one of the most important aspects of SEO. The <Title> tag is displayed in the browser title bar, but it is also one of the first things a search engine sees when it indexes your blog. The <Title> tag on your home page is particularly important for SEO.
It's worth spending some time considering your <Title> tags and ensuring they are as search engine friendly as possible. Here are a few guidelines to bear in mind about <Title> tags:
- Ensure they include keywords that are relevant to the post.
- Ensure the keyword or keyword phrase is as close to the start of the tag as possible
- Try to keep your home page <Title> tag at around 50-60 characters in length
- Capitalize the first letter in each word of the tag.
- Don't use the keyword phrase more than once in your title.
- Include the blog title in the <Title> tag on each page.
As you may have noticed the default <Title> tags in WordPress are not perfect for SEO—the preceding screen shot shows that the default ChilliGuru title is not using all the guidelines I just outlined. However, there is an excellent plugin we can use to customize our titles (so they are working as hard as possible for SEO). The plugin is All in One SEO Pack. We'll work through installing the plugin for our ChilliGuru case study.
Go to http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/all-in-one-seo-pack/and download the plugin. Start up your local development server. Unzip the plugin and place the entire folder into your plugins directory (C:xampphtdocswordpresswp-contentplugins). Log in to the admin area and activate the plugin.
We'll begin by optimizing the home page title. As you can see, by default, WordPress uses the blog title followed by the blog description in the home page <Title> tag. The blog title and description are great for our blog's branding. The spice in your life is a good tag line for the blog and it looks nice in the blog header. You may have a company slogan or tag line that you want to keep in your header, which is great for your branding but not necessarily so great for SEO. We can fix this using our new plugin.
Under Settings, select All in One SEO. Here, we can make the necessary changes to our page titles. First, we need to come up with a good home page title using the guidelines I outlined earlier. How about:
Chili Recipes Plus Growing And Cooking Tips | ChilliGuru.com
This seems to follow our guidelines: It's the right length (52 characters); each word begins with a capital letter; the keywords are close to the start. So, we can insert this in the Home Title box. I've also added a brief site description (keep it short; I recommend no more than two lines as they appear in the box) and some of my main generic keywords (again, be brief here, no more than 10 of your most popular keywords). Click the Update Options button when you're done.
The Home Description and Home Keywords will be added to your blog's Meta Tags. These appear within the <header></header> tags on the home page of your blog (view the source of the page in your browser and you will see them). They are not visible on the page but they can be read by the search engines. Ten years ago, these were extremely important to search engines and getting your Meta Tags right was the key to a good search engine ranking. Nowadays, it's widely accepted that search engines place very little importance on Meta Tags. In fact, some experts claim they are completely ignored. However, there is no evidence that they harm your rankings, so we may as well include them.
We now have a search engine friendly home page title…
…whilst keeping the blog title and blog description in our header, for branding purposes:
We'll now turn our attention to the titles on our post pages. By default, they look something like this:
Again, this isn't great for SEO, but it's easy to fix with our plugin. You should already be using keywords in your post title, so it's fine to carry on using post titles for our <Title> tags. It may not always be possible to keep within the 50-60 characters length with your post titles, but as long as you are using your keywords wisely, it should be fine. One thing to remember is to use a capital letter at the start of each word in your post title.
Back on the plugin page I've changed the Post Title Format, as shown in the following screen shot (remember to click the Update Options button):
which gives us this for our post page titles:
As for the remaining page titles, I've used the following formats. The main change is that I have replaced %blog_title% with ChilliGuru.com and the Page Title Format is now Chili Recipes Plus Growing And Cooking Tips | %page_title% | ChilliGuru.com (once again, remember to click the Update Options button):
So, the title for our 'About' page now looks like this:
So, with the help of the All in One SEO Pack plugin, you now have search engine friendly titles for all the pages in your blog. We'll now look at another important element of SEO, which is Sitemaps.
A sitemap is an overview of all the posts and pages in your blog laid out on a single page. Not only is it great for improving your blog's usability, it is also good for SEO. When the search engine robots are crawling on your site they will use the sitemap to find all your pages. By providing a sitemap, you are making it easier for them to crawl your blog because there will always be a link pointing to each of your posts. Again, we will use a third-party plugin to create a sitemap for ChilliGuru.
The plugin is called DDSitemapGen. Go to http://www.dagondesign.com/articles/sitemap-generator-plugin-for-wordpress/ and download the latest version. Unzip it and place the entire folder in your plugins directory, then activate the plugin as usual. Under the main Settings tab select DDSitemapGen. The configuration settings are fairly straightforward (the default settings are fine). The only thing you need to add is the Sitemap page slug; I've simply called it 'sitemap' (remember to click Update options):
Now create a new page for the blog (Write | Page). Give it the title Sitemap. Click on the HTML tab and add <!-- ddsitemapgen -->. Publish the page.
Now view the site. The Sitemap page will have been added to the menu and it should look like this:
Adding a Google Sitemap
When you submit your blog to Google, you can include a Google Sitemap. This is a sitemap in a special XML format and it helps Google to crawl your site more efficiently. It is also recognized by other search engines like Yahoo, MSN, and Ask.
Some may say that it's 'overkill' to use a Google Sitemap when we have already created a regular sitemap, but it won't do any harm so I've included it here for completeness.
Again, there's a great plugin that we can use. It's called Google XML Sitemaps by Arne Brachhold. Go to http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/google-sitemap-generator/ and download the plugin. Once you've installed and activated it, select XML-Sitemap under Settings in your admin area. At the top of the page, click the link to generate the sitemap for the first time (you don't need to change any of the settings). You should see a success message. You can view the sitemap you just created at http://localhost/wordpress/sitemap.xml. The Google Sitemap for the live ChilliGuru blog looks like this: http://blog.chilliguru.com/sitemap.xml
You can now go back to the DDSitemapGen plugin and add the URL of your newly created Google Sitemap (under the Miscellaneous section), which adds a View XML Sitemap link at the bottom of your sitemap page:
In the above article, we have covered the principles of SEO, how search engines find stuff, how to choose your keywords, figuring out the procedure to install Dean's Permalink migration plugin, and sitemaps. Don't miss the action, we will look into sitemaps in a little more detailed manner, figure out search engine submissions, and learn about SEO software and tools in the next article of this series.