WordPress 3 Search Engine Optimization

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  1. Getting Started: SEO Basics

About this book

WordPress is a powerful platform for creating feature-rich and attractive websites and blogs; but with a little extra tweaking and effort your WordPress site can dominate the search engines and bring thousands of new customers to your blog or business.

WordPress3.0 Search Engine Optimization will show you the secrets that professional SEO companies use to take websites to the top of search results and proliferate their business. You'll be able to take your WordPress blog/site to the next level, as well as brush aside even the stiffest competition with this book in hand.

We'll begin with a typical WordPress installation and with a variety of simple techniques, turn it into a powerful website that search engines will reward with high rankings.

We'll go further: with advanced plug-ins we'll connect your WordPress site to popular social media sites and expand the reach of your site to bring more visitors. You'll learn about dozens of free online tools to accomplish everything from keyword research to monitoring your ranking progress.

WordPress is a great start for building search-friendly sites. However, with the tools in this book, you'll get your website/blog noticed by numerous new users/customers or your target audience.

Publication date:
April 2011
Publisher
Packt
Pages
344
ISBN
9781847199003

 

Chapter 1. Getting Started: SEO Basics

Welcome to SEO for WordPress! This title is intended to take you through the steps required to make your blog or website rank in popular search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and many more. If you've selected WordPress as the platform for your site, you have made a good choice; WordPress is both powerful and easy to use, and ideally suited for both large collaborative blogs and small business websites.

Even better, WordPress has innate characteristics that search engines love such as simple navigation, SEO-friendly URL-naming conventions, easy publishing, and many more. With the tools in this book, you can take your WordPress blog or site to the next level. Whether you want to increase the reach and broadcasting power of your blog, or edge out the competition in search results for your small business, you'll find the tools and the guidance to do so within these pages.

So let's get started!

In this first chapter, we will cover the basics of SEO from start to finish. This chapter is not intended as a complete search engine optimization guide; we simply won't have the opportunity to cover any individual topic with the depth that it requires. It's more important, at this stage, just to have a 10,000 foot view.

For some of you, these concepts will be review, and for others, these concepts will represent the foundation upon which your more advanced knowledge of search engine optimization will be built.

 

Introducing SEO


SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the process and discipline of improving the quality and visibility of a website in order to increase its ranking in search engines, thereby increasing the visitor traffic. That's a simple definition, but it captures the essence of SEO.

Webmasters started optimizing websites in the mid-90s, soon after search engines began cataloguing the growing number of websites that were appearing on the Internet. The term "search engine optimization" is believed to have come into use in 1997. Today, search marketing is estimated to be a 15-billion dollar industry in the US alone, with tens of thousands of self-help entrepreneurs succeeding quite effectively as well.

The roots of the modern-day search optimization actually began decades earlier with the original database query technologies of the 1960s. The first search technologies were much simpler than today's. A typical database query in the 1960s might search a few hundred thousand records for a specific term, such as a city name or ZIP code.

SEO can be quite powerful. It can mean the difference between hundreds or thousands of engaged and relevant visitors to your website or nearly no visitors at all. In almost any marketplace for goods and services on the Internet, you can see businesses with top rankings enjoying financial prosperity.

The first ten search results for a query—the first page of search results in nearly all search engines—is now universally seen as a highly desirable target placement. Indeed, statistics generally show that a very small number of search users ever look beyond the first page of search results; most studies reveal that only between 6% and 3% of all the search engine queries result in a visit to the second page of search results—a meager portion.

SEO levels the playing field. Access to media such as newspapers, magazines, and television used to be reserved for those willing to pay for the privilege. Nowadays, a small home-based business can compete—sometimes quite effectively—with the largest Fortune 500 company.

Google doesn't care how big your office is, how many trucks your business uses in its distribution chain, or how many high-definition cameras you employ to produce your blog; Google has no way of knowing, and they probably wouldn't care. What Google can do, however, is apply its sophisticated algorithm to the content of your website's pages and the content of the sites that link to you.

There is a common joke about two campers in a forest that are approached by a bear. One camper reaches immediately for his running shoes. The other camper asks, "Why are you putting on those running shoes? You can't outrun that bear." The other camper replies, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you." That's how search placement works; you simply need to do a little bit more than the next guy. There is no minimum threshold for obtaining a search ranking other than the threshold established by your search competitors. Do a little bit more, be a little bit smarter, and your rankings will rise.

SEO has several close relatives. SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is a broader term that refers to SEO as well as paid-search placement, contextual advertising, and paid-inclusion advertising. It is also important to think of SEO as including "conversion optimization"—the study and practice of improving the conversion of visitors to customers after they visit your web page.

Always remember a search engine's core purpose is to deliver relevant search results to a user entering a query.

Note

Nearly all of us have used the Lycos search engine at one time; but almost no one uses the service any more. Why not? Because the Lycos search engine didn't return very good results for users. Either the results were not relevant, or the results were diluted with ads. For whatever reason, Lycos was not as good as Google at delivering a relevant set of usable results in response to a query.

It's important to keep in mind the role of the search engine. Too often, webmasters think or say Google is "against" them because Google appears to rank lower-value sites in favor of their own. The truth is the exact opposite; Google wants you to rank—as long as your result serves the needs of its user base. You need to give Google what it's looking for (or Yahoo! or Bing, as the case maybe), and Google will rank your site higher.

In this book, we will take an in-depth look into how to apply sound and tested search engine optimization techniques to the success of your WordPress website or blog.

 

Improving your rank on all search engines


While Google is the undisputed leading search engine worldwide, there are, of course, alternative search engines; the fortunes of the various search engines ebb and flow with Google maintaining a commanding lead. Comscore.com is a well-regarded analyst of search engine metric and reports Google's share of US search queries at about 64%, Yahoo! at about 17%, and Bing/Microsoft at about 12%. The remaining field is made up of a handful of third-tier search engines such as Ask.com, Dogpile.com, and hundreds of smaller search engines.

So how does one rank for all search engines? The answer is easy; optimize for Google. Google's search algorithm is the most advanced, and is certainly the best at detecting disfavored optimization techniques such as keywords stuffing, paid link arrangements, and so on. Furthermore, Google's technology is so dominant that the other search engines imitate most of Google's innovations.

And so, if you rank well for Google, you'll certainly be well-positioned to rank well in the other search engines. Keep in mind, however, that Google is also the most responsive search engine: Google crawls (visits) your site more often and indexes websites faster than the other search engines. So, as you work on optimization, you might see positive changes in Google rankings in a few weeks, whereas the other search engines might take months to respond.

 

Exploring the changing nature of search engines


Keep an open mind about what constitutes a search engine. The traditional definition of a search engine—a destination website into which desktop-based users enter typed search queries—is already eroding. For several years, Google has been testing, tweaking, and improving its voice recognition system. It was clear early on that Google had already envisioned a day in the near future where search queries would be voiced rather than typed. Sure enough, the increasingly popular Android mobile device platform has voice recognition technology integrated into its architecture. The near future will bring further progress in the types of devices on which users perform searches as well as the input device into which these searches are made. Near term trending shows that we'll see growth in both mobile-based searches and voice-input searches. Staying ahead of trends in search can help you best your competitors in search rankings.

While the type of input device doesn't necessarily change the fundamental nature of search, the increasing variety of specialized search properties does. In recent years, an increasing number of specialized sites have emerged for special-purpose searches. Yelp.com is a destination site for people seeking highly recommended local businesses and hot spots. KGB.com offers premium, human responses to queries touted as "answers, not links." Goby is a recent search engine specifically designed to help users find activities in a local area. This is a trend; the first search engines were either directories, single search boxes, or both. Now, there are thousands of individual properties employing hundreds of different approaches to search.

 

Understanding a search engine's inner working


One of my favorite academic questions to ask people about search technology is, "When do you think Internet searching was invented?" While the exact date is elusive, the answer is nearly always wrong—by several decades. Routinely, people reflect the common understanding that search technology was invented in the 1990s.

Actually, a search engine merely employs search query and indexing principles that were conceived and implemented decades before in a mainframe environment. Indexing, coupled with search queries, allowed early computer operators to quickly select relevant information from large databases in the infancy of the computer age. The Internet is simply a much larger database and a modern search engine is simply a much more robust and sophisticated search query tool.

Preparing the index

A search engine does not store your web pages; it stores an index of your web pages. For your page to appear in a search engine's index, that search engine first sends a search spider to visit your site and read your web pages' content. The spider returns the information to a document processor that processes your web pages into a format that the query processor understands. The document processor performs several formatting tasks: it might remove stop words, lower-value terms that bear little relation to the page's topic, like "the," "and," "it," and the likes. The document processor will also perform term stemming, where suffixes like -ing, -er, -es, -ed are stripped from search terms. In essence, a document processor trims content to reveal the contextual elements of a web page and prepares the entry for indexing.

The index contains much of the information from your pages, along with the other data that the search engine uses to evaluate and categorize your pages. As a highly-simplified example, Google's index of your page will contain the text of your page on a date in the recent past when its spider last visited along with other data such as:

  • A table of terms in order of the frequency in which they appear on your page (called the inverted file)

  • The page's PageRank

  • A term weight assignment, a numerical value that reflects the frequency of appearance of particular terms on a page

  • The page's meta tags

  • The page's destination URL

That description is grossly simplified, but points out that what the search engine attempts to match is not your page itself, but a processed and analyzed version of your page.

Querying the index

Once the index is prepared, the page is available for querying. The query processor, along with a search and matching engine, performs the nuts and bolts of the search function, thus matching a user's query to store entries in the search engine's index. The final element is a sound methodology for ranking query results. If everything works as planned, the search engine returns a sensibly ordered set of results to each user's query.

Peeking into the mechanics of search gives us a few guidelines to follow. One core principle that emerges is that keywords are the signposts that search engines use to determine the subject and value of web pages—without relevant and contextual words on your pages, the search engines cannot accurately index your pages. The other important idea is that a search engine searches an index—it doesn't search your pages directly. Therefore, if your pages aren't in the index, they aren't going to be found. These concepts will re-emerge as we work through the chapters in this book.

 

Exploring on-page search ranking factors


SEO professionals lump search engine optimization techniques thought out into three categories: on-page optimization, off-page optimization, and conversion. On-page optimization is concerned with all of the text, images, code, words, navigation, structure, and so on within the four corners of your website—all of the factors you control that appear "on-page". Off-page optimization refers to all of the material on the Internet concerning or pointing to your website that does not appear "on-page"; for the most part, off-page optimization refers to inbound links on the third-party websites. Conversion refers to how effective your website is at making users take actions once they appear on your site. A high-performing website needs all three elements working together.

On-page factors include the following:

  • The body content—the main text of the page

  • Title and meta tags

  • Heading tags (h1, h2, h3)

  • The quality and complexity of the HTML and CSS code that generates the webpage

  • The images, their filenames, and alt tags

  • Text attributes such as the use of bold and underline

  • Outbound links; their number and the anchor text used in each

  • The use of either dofollow or nofollow attributes on any of the links

  • The internal navigation and link structure

  • The size of your files and the speed at which your website loads

  • The total number of pages on your website

  • The rate at which you update or add content to your website

But how important are each of these factors? How do we know that one factor is more important than another? The software or programs that Google and the other search engines use to determine rankings are referred to as an "algorithm." While the behavior of the search engines can sometimes appear remarkably intuitive and almost human, the science underlying a search algorithm is ultimately reduced to complex mathematics.

Weighing search factors

Search engines must assign particular importance or weight to various on-page factors. A webpage's title tag, for example, is widely considered to be a strong indicator of the subject matter of a webpage. As such, a title tag has a very strong influence on search rankings. Conversely, the filenames of images on a webpage, such as texas_web_marketing.jpg, would not necessarily be as strong an indicator of the subject matter of a webpage. So, search engines apply much less weight to the image filenames in their ranking algorithms. Search engines value different web page factors differently—this variance is referred to by SEO professionals as "weight". Title tags and heading tags are afforded greater weight, while image filenames, alt tags, and bold text are given less weight. That is not to say that bold text and image filenames are not important. In fact, it's the use of these low-weight attributes that can give a webpage that extra push to higher rankings. When all of the ranking factors are present and utilized effectively and combined with a sound program of developing inbound links, the effect is almost supernatural—the combined effect of all factors working together can develop tremendous ranking power.

Understanding the search algorithm

The details of Google's search algorithm are not disclosed to the public. Google's public statements, Webmaster guidelines, and patent filings give us some general insight into the overall approach of its search algorithm. However, the details are closely-guarded secrets. For example, how does Google's algorithm treat a title tag—how much weight is afforded to this important component of a webpage? Is it 30%? 20%? Even if we did know, Google's search algorithm is subject to constant tweaking and updating. So, we know that a webpage's title tag is important, but the actual numerical importance within the Google algorithm we will never know.

So if the relative importance of different ranking factors isn't publicly disclosed, how do we even know which ranking factors are more important? The answer lies a little bit with the search engines' public statements, a little bit with logic, a little bit with experience, and a little bit by the consensus developed by SEO professionals and hobbyists.

We will examine each of these ranking factors in turn.

Ranking factor: body content

Body content simply means the "words on the page," actual ASCII text readable by a search engine. This important factor is too often ignored by webmasters. Some of the most egregious examples of webmasters that miss this important factor are sites with little or no text, sites which rely on image files to display text and messages, and flash-based sites. Search engines do not read the text in pictures or effectively read the text in the Flash files. So, if you are describing your service in the image file or Flash file, your message will not be read, and you will not rank for those terms.

A search engine needs to be able to find text on a webpage in order to make an evaluation of what your page is about. The text on your pages should meet the following rules:

  • Size: A webpage should have at least 250 words of readable ASCII text

  • Focus: A webpage should be focused on a reasonably narrow set of keywords

  • Keyword Density: A webpage should not have keywords repeated so that the density of the keywords is too high in relation to the total number of words

A webpage should be of a reasonable length, at least 250 words. A page length of 400 or 500 words is better, but one can get by with shorter pages in some cases. In a more competitive search market, 250 words may not be enough and you'll need to increase your page length to rank effectively.

A webpage's body text should be focused; the page should deal with a narrow set of keyword phrases and not try to cover too much ground. If your web pages cover too many separate topics or keyword phrases in one page, you'll dilute the ranking power of each individual phrase and you'll rank for nothing.

You need to stay on-topic. If you are creating a page describing your expert IT services, don't fill the page up with about 60 percent testimonials; those testimonials may have value to your readers—and testimonials certainly have a place and a role in creating websites where your target readers are potential customers—but testimonials will not necessarily contain the keywords for which you want to rank. So, keep your webpages' body text focused on the topic of that page.

Similarly, don't cover too many topics within your body text. For example, say you want to create an Amazon affiliate page on your website and you try to rank for "WordPress books," "Joomla! books," and "Books on Web Design." If you try to rank for all three keywords on one page, you'll have to divide your content among a discussion of these separate topics. You'll dilute your ranking power for the phrase "WordPress books" by repeating the terms "Joomla! books" and "Books on Web Design" within the body text of your page. The better approach is to build three separate pages, each with a focus on one related family of keywords. Conversely, if you wanted to rank for "WordPress books", "Books on WordPress", and "Best WordPress books", you could create a single page to rank for all those terms because you can easily write body text that will include all those phrases. Your focused page will rank quite well.

Serious ranking power: title tags and meta tags

Title tags and meta tags are strings of text that are inserted in the head section of a web page. These tags are inconspicuous to a user, although not entirely hidden. The title tag appears in the top bar of the browser window, but does not appear on the web page itself. The meta tags do not appear to the user, they are intended for search engines to read. The principal meta tags for use in search optimization are meta keyword tags and meta description tags.

Note

Title tags are the most important ranking factor on an individual webpage; they are highly weighted by the search engines.

Often, a simple change to a title tag alone can yield significant changes in rankings. Again, remember the role of a search engine: to determine the topic of a webpage and return relevant results to its users. The title tag, logically, is perhaps the greatest signpost of what a page is actually about.

Title tags serve another important role; when a user enters a search query into a search engine, the first line of each entry on the search engine results pages is taken from each page's title tag. So, now your title tag presents an opportunity to attract searchers to click on your result out of a field of other websites on a search engine results page. Not only that, both Yahoo! and Google bold the words used in the search query within the title tags that they display on the search engine results page. So, if you use keywords effectively in your title tag, Google will highlight your entry in the search engine results page and that can help increase the click-through rate to your website pages.

Tip

Making perfect title tags

Keep in mind, space on a search engine results page is limited, so Yahoo! and Google don't show title tags longer than 70 or 80 characters. Try a search for almost anything and you'll see that if the title tag of the destination webpage is too long, the search engines truncate the title tag. Keep your title tags to 70 characters or less.

Also, keep in mind that search engines measure keyword prominence in title tags. This means that the first word in a title tag is afforded greater weight than the last word in the title tag. Put into practice, this means you should put your company name as the last word in your title tag and save the valuable and more prominent area of your title tag (the first 30 to 40 characters) for keywords related to your business or industry.

Tip

Your business' name is not a high-competition keyword

Don't use your business' name or slogan in valuable on-page positions like the first five words of your title tag—you'll likely rank for your business' name even if that name doesn't appear in your title tag at all because there's little competition for your business' name as a search term. Save those key positions for high-volume, competitive search terms, and user your business' name in less important positions like in the body of your text or at the end of your title tag, after the keywords. For example, an ideal title tag for a pet grooming service would be Pet Grooming & Pet Care | New York | The Pampered Pooch.

Meta keyword tags are the subject of some confusion and remain misused and even abused. Some uninformed webmasters erroneously believe that stuffing keywords into a keyword meta tag will help rank for those terms. That hasn't been true since about 2000 or 2001, yet the myth persists. In fact, Google is on record as saying that their algorithm no longer takes into account meta keyword tags.

If you were to use meta keyword tags, use them for Bing and Yahoo!, but not for Google. And, don't overdo it with meta keyword tags: less is more. Remember, you want to focus your web pages on a fairly narrow topic area so you will never need more than 15 or so meta keyword tags. A truly well-crafted page will use five to seven meta keywords.

Unlike keyword tags, meta description tags are very relevant to search results. Description tags are afforded substantial weight by search engines. Also consider that keyword prominence applies to description tags, so keep your important terms within the beginning of the description tag. Don't repeat your keywords excessively; if a search engine discovers your keyword used repeatedly, it might filter out your results.

Description tags, like title tags, are used by search engines when they display search engine results pages. On a Google search engine results page, the description tag comprises the second and third line of each standard four-line entry. This presents an opportunity for your description tag. Your description tag can serve as a hook to readers to invite them to click on your result in lieu of all the other search results. Again, length is important because search engines only display about 160 characters of a meta description tag on a search engine results page. And, if you are thinking you'll get some extra boost in rankings by creating a longer meta description, don't bother: it is widely believed that the major search engines only index the first 160 characters of the meta description tag. Anything more than 160 characters is ignored.

Tip

"Sell" with your meta description

Meta descriptions are not merely repositories for keywords! Your meta description can "hook" customers and bring them to your site.

Because search engines display the meta tag in search results pages, that text may have quite a lot to do with whether a person clicks on your link, or one of the 20 or so other links on a search results page. Don't use tired, stale descriptions; give your meta tag life and fire. See the image below for an example of an expertly drafted meta tag.

Google will nearly always display some text on the second and third line of each entry on its results page. What does Google display on search engine results pages if no description tag is present? If Google finds no description tag present, its algorithm will select some text from the body of the page and insert it as the description on its search engine results pages. For obvious reasons, this result is not ideal.

The following screenshot of a Google search result demonstrates Internet company Promodo's expert drafting of its meta description tag:

Using heading tags (h1, h2, h3)

The earliest specifications for HTML included provisions for document headings and subheadings, elements known as heading tags. Heading tag elements begin at h1 and progress to h6, and each level is intended to represent an ordered and organized taxonomy. These tags serve multiple roles.

As mark-up tags, these elements conveniently format the text elements to which they are applied. For example, an h1 tag will generate large text, in a bold font, with margins above and below—much like the headline in a newspaper article.

As HTML standards matured and CSS formatting became available in browsers, many web designers abandoned heading tags in search of prettier formatting for their headings. True, you can make text big and bold with CSS mark-up or with HTML formatting; you can make any text look like a heading without utilizing heading tags. However, in the world of search, that is a blunder because you will build almost no search engine ranking power from simply formatting text.

For search engines, heading tags serve a supplemental function beyond formatting. Heading tags serve as signposts that help search engines determine the context and topic of a web page. Heading tags are certainly part of search algorithms, and are given moderate weight in determining search position.

The best methodology for employing heading tags is to do the following. First, your page should only employ an h1 tag once. The text of the h1 tag should describe the main topic of the web page upon which it appears and should include the high-value, high-volume keywords for which you want to rank. Next, at a minimum, you should employ both h1 and h2 tags. Your h2 tags should repeat your important keywords—but with additional terms to give context to the section that the h2 tag covers. For example, if you are writing a page about air conditioning service and repair, you might employ h2 tags with text such as, "Your best choice for air conditioning service," and "Licensed and insured air conditioning service."

h3 tags are optional, but can come in handy for organizing longer pages. The search engine ranking power of heading tags decreases as you progress from h1 down through the lower orders of heading tags. Thus, h1 tags are mandatory, h2 tags are highly recommended, and h3 tags are necessary only in the most competitive markets. Heading tags have a complementary effect when combined with an effective title tag, body text, and meta description—when these elements are in accord, a search engine can more comfortably determine the main context of a web page, and can more confidently reward that web page with higher rankings.

Tip

Remember also that keyword prominence applies to heading tags, so greater weight is given to the words at the beginning of the tag.

Optimizing code quality and load speed

Code quality is an often-overlooked element of search ranking. Because it's overlooked, it represents a great opportunity to edge out less alert or less informed competitors. Code quality refers to the quality, amount, and load speed of the code and image sizes underlying your website. Search engines like quality code and fast loading times; poor quality code and slow loading times means a poor user experience for searchers.

HTML is an open source family of mark-up languages designed with fairly strict specifications set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These standards are updated every few years and result in new versions of HTML, such is the upgrade from HTML 3 to HTML 4. HTML 5 is under revision and will represent the next major redesign of the HTML standard.

When the code quality underlying a website does not meet the specifications of the HTML standard, the website may not display properly in all browsers. If the code is filled with errors or lacks proper elements such as an HTML doctype declaration, then that website may actually perform poorly in search engines. To test your code for validation, visit the W3C's free validator at http://validator.w3.org/.

The amount of code underlying the website can affect its load speed. The proper use of CSS can help a website reduce mindless repetition of attribute statements like font-size and color. Users of WordPress can worry less about code quality. Assuming that the WordPress template employed by a website does not contain coding errors, WordPress generally delivers very lean code that validates perfectly.

Note

Image size can also affect load speed.

Always be sure you are using a compressed image format whenever possible. For example, use JPEG format for photographs with an appropriate amount of compression. The faster the images load, the faster your web pages will load.

Menus, internal navigation, and link structure

Link architecture refers to the way a website's menus and navigation links are constructed. Link architecture can be very powerful and it's also one of the hardest topics in search to truly master.

The anchor text (the blue underlined text) of a website link is a ranking factor whether that link is from a site linking into your site, or is simply a link on your own site. For that reason, you have an opportunity to rank for certain terms by carefully selecting the anchor text that you use in your navigation menus. The most perfect example of the misuse of this principle in practice is the common employment of the term "Home" as the anchor text in navigation menus to point to a website's home page. A website's homepage has more ranking potential than any interior page on a website. For that reason, the anchor text pointing to the home page should be carefully selected. For example, instead of "Home", consider employing keyword-rich phrases such as "Austin's Best Carpet Cleaning" or "VW Repair" as the navigation anchor text.

Another common mistake in site architecture and site structure is the use of image buttons for links. A link comprised solely of an image has no anchor text. It's a missed opportunity to include a keyword in a text link and send a signal to the search engines about what the topic of the destination page is. It's curious to see this practice still employed so often.

Other issues arise in link architecture when the navigation menus are written in JavaScript or Flash—search engines don't read those languages effectively. The safest approach to constructing navigation menus is with HTML. If you require active navigation—drop-down or fly-out sub-menus—make sure they are constructed with search-friendly code such as CSS. Another typical problem in web design is the problem of "shifting navigation," where the navigation menus change as the user moves through a site. A good rule to follow is that if navigation is confusing for users, it's probably confusing for search engine spiders as well.

When securing inbound links from other websites, you would never want high-number/high proportion links that all used the exact anchor text—you'll likely trip a search engine filter if you do. Google wants to see natural linking patterns. A website with hundreds of links that all have the same anchor text (that is, "New York Dentist") does not look natural to a search engine, so a ranking filter would likely be imposed by the search engine to knock that listing down a few pages. The anchor text you choose for your site-wide navigation serves as an opportunity to use anchor text in high numbers and in high proportion that you wouldn't use for external links. The search engines have no anchor text penalty for your internal links; you can point all of your internal links to your front page with any anchor text you like.

Finally, the great opportunity with link architecture is simply to make sure the number and quality of links are pointing in greater numbers to the high-value pages such as your home page and product pages, and are pointing in lower numbers to your low value pages such as your privacy policy, your contact form, and your return policy. An easy way to accomplish this is to simply have your standard navigation either horizontally at the top of your website or on a left or right sidebar; then, to send extra link power to your most important pages, create a footer with links to your home page and a few other high-value pages. In addition, you can always create extra link power by creating text links to your key pages within the body of text throughout your site.

WordPress handles link architecture well. WordPress presents very simple site-wide navigation menus by default. In fact, many have criticized WordPress as not offering users as much control over navigation menus as they would like. With the release of WordPress 3.0, however, WordPress users now have the ability to customize navigation menus with the new menu feature, available under the appearance tab in the WordPress dashboard.

Note

For users less experienced with SEO, we recommend sticking with WordPress' reliable default navigation.

The customizable navigation is flexible and powerful—but that flexibility and power in inexperienced hands can yield poor search ranking results.

Image filenames and alt tags

Image names and image alt tags are an example of a ranking factor that is afforded lower weight in search rankings, that is, wordpress-expert.jpg as a filename in an attempt to rank for "WordPress expert." Certainly, image names alone will never make anyone rank for any term or phrase that is highly competitive. However, image names and alt tags can be effective as supplemental weight for search terms when the more important elements such as title tags and heading tags are highly focused and in accord.

Text attributes: bold, italics, and underline

Emphasizing text with the use of bold and underline has long been known to have some effect on ranking. Search algorithms follow predictable logic; do the elements of a web page serve to reliably indicate the subject of the web page, and if so, to what degree? Text attributes do tend to indicate the subject and context of a page, but rarely to a great degree. Rightfully, text attributes are not given much weight. Again, this technique is best used as a supplement to other stronger ranking factors.

This technique is commonly misused by inexperienced webmasters. While the effect of the technique is slight, overzealous designers often employ the technique on dozens of phrases on a web page. This technique will yield little to no effect, and will almost certainly undercut your user experience.

Note

The best practice is to employ text attributes for a maximum of two phrases per web page—your primary keywords only.

Ranking factor: high page count

There is a general rule that larger sites outrank smaller sites in search engine results. Consider the collective effect of a large website: larger sites cover more topic areas—and therefore more keywords—and garner broader traffic. The broader traffic yields larger numbers of inbound links from broader classes of other websites. In turn, the site earns trust with search engines more quickly. Meanwhile, each individual page within a site generates a small thimble of PageRank that can ultimately contribute to the overall site PageRank. The collective effect of a large website can bring tremendous ranking power.

The power of this simple device is available to everyone; you need not be an expert at SEO—you simply need to start writing.

As a webmaster, you should always aspire to create a site that covers broad topic areas. That does not mean have a blog about soccer, baseball, guitar greats, and web design all jumbled together. It means that if your blog is about web design that you would have a range of topics discussed within that discipline such as sound coding practices, logo design, navigation tools, and web design trends. To a small business owner employing WordPress as a CMS (Content Management System), that means building a page for each city in which you offer services as well as offering free tips and tools within WordPress' blog section.

In my web design and SEO business, I employ WordPress as both a CMS and a blogging platform. I maintain pages for the main areas of interest to potential clients: one page each for my service offerings (the pages are intentionally separated for ranking purposes: SEO, web design, WordPress development, social media marketing, call tracking, PPC management, and more), a page for a design gallery, a page for SEO case studies, a page for testimonials, and some service and contact pages. However, I utilize WordPress' blogging functionality to write (hopefully) helpful and valuable tips on SEO such as "How Does Google Local Order Its Search Results" and "Top Android Apps for SEO." Each month, I take the time to write about three or four such posts. My site ranks highly, but more important to me is the high number of search phrases for which my site ranks.

Anyone can rank for one search phrase. The truly exceptional sites, however, are the sites that have broadness—the sites that rank for wider classes of keywords.

When your site has broadness, other benefits flow. First, you'll garner greater numbers of inbound links—and you'll earn them from a greater variety of sources more quickly than you normally would. Say you are a web designer and you write a blog post about an innovative CSS trick that you invented. Your blog post will be of interest to other web designers and bloggers. With WordPress' innate tagging functionality, your post will be easy for other webmasters to find. Those other bloggers and designers might mention your post on their site with a link back to you. Congratulations! You just earned a link to an interior page (links to interior pages are usually harder to get than links to your front page) from a website within the same niche as you (links from same-niche sites carry more power). You just earned a link that you otherwise would not have had.

Consider also the PageRank effect of that single page. PageRank is part of Google's search algorithm; Google assigns a numerical value to each indexed page on the Web. When an indexed page hyperlinks to another page on the Web (including your own pages), a portion of that numerical value is passed from the linking page to the target page, thereby increasing the target page's PageRank. Inbound links increase your PageRank and, in turn, your search rankings. The amount of PageRank generated by a single page is admittedly slight—but it adds up quickly.

One of WordPress' most singular advantages as a search-friendly platform is that it offers simple and speedy publishing of new content. If you have 15 minutes and a good idea, you can create a decent page of new content. If you have 3 hours and a great idea, you can create a great page of new content.

Fodder for search engines: fresh content

Search engines love fresh and original content. Even more, search engines love a steady stream of fresh, original content.

I am sure we have all heard people talk about the website they are about to launch and say, "I am having a website built and it is almost finished." When I hear that exact phrase—and I hear it a lot—I cringe just a bit and feel like responding, "Really? Well, my website will never be finished." That's because a website should be alive and constantly changing. The old way of thinking about websites is that when a website was finished, it would sit frozen and immovable until the next redesign. Even the word "site" implies something fixed in the ground, not something constantly in motion.

A search engine sees a website for what it is; if a website has static content that never changes, the search engine knows it. Over time, the search engine spiders will come less often. Why send a search spider for content that doesn't change? The site will not be seen by search engines as high-value to its users. On the other hand, publish regular content to your site and the search engines will know it. In fact, search engines are moving toward real-time search results, although this technology isn't yet fully developed. The search engines will send spiders to your site more often looking for both new content and changes to old content. Your site will rise in the rankings. And, if that wasn't enough, new content will get a fresh content bump.

The fresh content bump refers to a supplemental boost in ranking power that search engines assign to fresh content served up from blogging platforms like WordPress for the first few weeks after the publish date.

WordPress began as a pure blogging platform and the search engines see new WordPress posts as timely, topical, and potentially newsworthy items. The search engines reward new posts with a little boost in position. As time passes, the posts will settle down in the rankings. You can use the fresh content bump to cleverly schedule prime rankings for matters of seasonal interest to readers. For example, you could write a post titled "Spring Activities in South Florida, 2010," where you deftly advertise your scuba diving service along with other activities. If you time it right, you'll get a boost in rankings right when the last tourists are having their vacations.

Your fresh content need not be entirely free giveaways with no benefit to you. Your new content can be a post or page about how you now serve a new area; put the name of the new town in the page as a keyword, and you'll rank for searches in which that town name appears. Or, how about a page announcing a summer sale? Google likes new content—but it doesn't have to be completely fantastic content every time.

Another benefit: new content is great when it is new, but new content is also pretty great when it is old. A site with continually fresh content becomes a very large site very quickly. We discussed the benefits of a large site in the previous section.

If you are reading this book, you likely have a WordPress site or are considering a WordPress site. With WordPress, your ease and speed of publishing is unmatched—you'll create new and better content faster than other webmasters, and your site will be alive with regularly fresh content and your site will grow up quickly.

Using the subtle power of outbound links

You can also gain ranking power by making outbound links from your site to other sites. The theory goes something like the following. You have a website for your gardening business and you want to rank for the phrase "Gardening Service San Diego." If you have an outbound link to other sites about gardening services and the anchor text of that outbound link is "Gardening Service," then that link can serve as a signpost to search engines that your site is about gardening services.

This technique has a potential disadvantage (there's disagreement within the SEO community about this point that remains unresolved): by linking to other sites, you are directing valuable PageRank away from your page to the page to which you are linking. So, you lose some PageRank, but gain ranking power for the keyword. You may not want to overdo it—maybe just a few outbound links on a few pages. This is a technique that requires some finesse, so you might employ some testing to see where outbound linking can be most effective.

As you are fine-tuning your outbound linking strategy, you'll want to consider making use of the nofollow attribute on your outbound links. The nofollow attribute is a small snippet of code that you add to links—both internal and external links—that indicates to search engines "do not pass PageRank to this link." We'll cover the implementation of nofollow links in depth in later chapters. The effect of nofollow links is that you can have your cake and eat it too—you can send a link to another website and establish context for your page while retaining PageRank for yourself!

 

Understanding off-page ranking factors


Off-page ranking factors can be summarized with one phrase: inbound links. Inbound links from other websites are the real power that makes sites rank. In competitive search markets, links might comprise 80 to 90 percent of the work that goes into a website.

Links are the power

The best way to think of the relationship between on-page factors and off-page factors is this: on-page factors are like tuning up a car for a race to make sure all the parts run reliably and strongly, off-page factors are the fuel.

So, if your car isn't running right, all the fuel in the world isn't going to make it go. Similarly, if you don't have any fuel, even the most highly-tuned car will go nowhere. In the world of search optimization, you need both.

Creating natural links

Google, more than any other search engine, is a great innovator with respect to measuring inbound linking power and then adjusting search results in favor of sites that enjoy high number of inbound links. The reasoning is sound; sites with a higher number of inbound links are most likely to be superior to those that have a lower number of inbound links. This innovation that links between websites by "votes" for the quality of the destination site, is now employed by all major search engines. And, for the most part, the principle does ensure superior search results when users search for information through a search engine.

What Google wants, ideally, is for inbound links to be natural links, not artificially generated links. If a website owner earns inbound links through paid link-building schemes, then the methodology is skewed—the low-value site that has paid for inbound links now enjoys higher ranking power as a superior site with fewer links. That result is not what is intended by the inbound link component of the search algorithms.

The search engines know that in the real world, not all linking between websites will be natural. They are fully aware that webmasters attempt to game the system through a variety of linking practices that range from relatively innocent reciprocal linking to more sinister practices like automated forum spamming and hidden links. Google forbids "link schemes" in its webmaster guidelines, and penalties are common.

The task for the legitimate webmaster is to secure links naturally. Natural linking will ensure that your site will never suffer a penalty, and links that you obtain naturally will carry much more power than links obtained through any schemes or artificial means. We cover specific link building methods in Chapter 6, Building Links.

Avoiding over-optimization

Over-optimization occurs when a website's elements are present in too high a proportion or too high in power for a given keyword phrase. Over-optimization yields poor search performance. An example of over-optimization would be the incessant use of keywords on your website so that your keywords represent 50 percent of the total density of words on the page. Another example would be a website with 100 inbound links, all with the same exact anchor text. First-time SEO hobbyists tend to be ensnared by over-optimization as they zealously pursue the new elements of SEO that they learn; they stuff keywords into title tags, meta tags, body text, and secure links all with the same anchor text.

Over-optimization is difficult to quantify, and can be difficult to detect and repair. The best way to think about over-optimization is that websites should never be "too perfect." Remember, a search engine ultimately must employ mathematics to its ranking criteria. It's easy for a search engine to mathematically determine that a page with a keyword density—keywords as a percentage of total words on the page—exceeding 8 percent is attempting to game the algorithm and therefore should not be ranked.

Thinking about over-optimization in this way, repetition is often the main culprit. To avoid over-optimization, you'll need to be vigilant to watch for excessive repetition of terms in the main elements of a website and in inbound links.

 

Converting visitors to customers: the third spoke of SEO


Too often, people think of SEO solely in terms of ranking position. They forget that if your website cannot turn that casual visitor into a customer—your ranking did nothing for you except send a visitor to your site for a moment.

Conversion science is the discipline of making sure the visitors to your site take some action to bring them closer to being a customer. Successful websites have specific and effective calls to action . A call to action is a phrase, graphic, or section of your website that urges the visitor to take some tangible step toward becoming a customer or user of your product or website. The call to action can be a box that says "Call Now for Immediate Service," "Shop Now!", or "Subscribe for Free! Get Updates by RSS."

A call to action doesn't necessarily mean that visitors purchase something right there, but that they take steps toward becoming a purchaser.

Your call to action will differ based on the space in which you compete. If you are a blogger and want to expand the reach of your blog, you'll want users to sign up to your RSS feed, or follow you on Twitter. In more traditional business environments like retail and home services, you'll want people to call or e-mail to make an appointment. In a full e-commerce environment, you'll want to immediately drive people to make purchases.

The following screenshot shows a sign-up box employing an aggressive call to action in the home services (replacement windows) niche:

For your calls to action to be effective, you need to keep them prominent, above the fold (on the upper part of your web pages that are visible before scrolling down is required), and persuasive.

Another rule of conversions is to have fall back positions, a second best option. In other words, if your users don't purchase something today, maybe they'll sign up for your Twitter feed that will let you keep them updated about new products. Perhaps later, these new contacts will eventually become customers.

Creating conversion-based websites

Each competitive space is different. However, conversion science does teach a few absolute principles that can help you create highly effective conversion-based websites:

  • Don't hide contact information. About 30 percent of all websites do not display contact information prominently. In a business environment, this mistake is pure suicide. Put that phone number and e-mail up top where users can find it.

  • Put the meat where the eyes are. Use the "above the fold" portions of your header and sidebars for conversion tools and messages. Studies show that user's eyes typically scan the top and sidebar areas for information. Don't expect users to scroll to hunt for your phone number.

  • Mix it up. Some users like to call, others like to e-mail. Give users more than one choice.

  • Don't "dead end" your users. Don't use "Chat now" buttons that lead to dead ends, that is, "Chat is not available right now." If you utilize a call to action, make absolutely sure the action is available; even if it's a voice mail, it is still better than wasting customers' time.

  • Don't broadcast your poor service. Don't say "To reach sales, call between 1 pm and 5 pm." That's just begging your customers to go elsewhere. If you must be out of the office (all of us must leave work sometimes) just send folks to a friendly voicemail and return the call later.

  • Give fewer choices. Don't confuse readers with too many selections. If your viewers get confused or overwhelmed, they might slip into "choice paralysis."

  • Always give the next step. Don't lose your customers along the way. If they don't buy, get them to sign up for your newsletter. If you convince them to watch your video, make the next step an invitation to purchase.

  • Sell benefits, not features. "Your car will run faster!" will convert better than "Our fuel additives are the most powerful in the industry."

  • Use testimonials. Tell your customers what other users say about your services.

  • Guide their eyes and attention. You can literally point users to your desired action with arrows and buttons.

The following screenshot of Adobe's Business Catalyst website shows several elements of expert conversion science at work. The user is guided visually to the call to action with an arrow and a clear and simple button. The placement of the conversion tool is above the fold, front, and center.

Truly effective calls to action are going to differ widely depending on the space in which you participate. You'll want to try different approaches and measure your results. In Chapter 10, Testing Your Site and Monitoring Your Progress, we'll cover how to measure the performance of you website.

 

Summary


We covered a wide range of material in this first chapter. We covered all the major disciplines within on-page optimization: body content, title tags, meta tags, heading tags, and code quality and load speed. We examined lower-weight SEO factors such as image filenames, alt tags, text attributes like bold and underline, outbound links, and discussed the benefits of larger websites with regularly freshened content. Finally, we examined over-optimization and how to avoid it, and delved into the fundamental principles of conversion science.

Now we are ready to put these core concepts into practice as we learn to take WordPress' innate functionality to the next level by learning how to customize WordPress' settings for maximum search benefits.

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