How Search Engines Operate
A search engine is a service accessed through a web browser, whose sole intent is to provide you with websites, documents, and media based on certain words you type in the search box. Search engines build huge databases, called indexes, filled to the brim with virtually every piece of content located on the internet. These indexes are compiled by web crawlers, pieces of software that will be discussed in greater detail later on.
With regards to an online business, the goal is to get your website as close to the very first one returned by the search engine as possible, which is called ranking. While searches can return billions of results on millions of different pages of search results, the vast number of users primarily do not advance beyond that first page. If your business is not on that coveted first page, potential buyers may never know you even exist.
Ensuring your online business ranks near or at the top of results for a given keyword or words takes some focus in a few very important areas. While results can be seen if you focus on just a few, you will reap the most benefits if you spend time fine tuning all of them.
Meta Tags- Title and Description
A meta tag is a small piece of code that is used to describe the content on the web page being viewed. These code snippets tell the search engine what your web page is about, and are vital to how well your page ranks in term of SEO. There are two primary types of meta tags, which are title and description.
Meta Title Tag
As its name would indicate, the meta title tag designates the title of your web page. Unlike some other meta tags, the title tag can easily be seen, rather than just tucked into the HTML code that can only be viewed by looking at the web page’s source code. The title tag is the exact wording used in the title of the results in a search engine, which contains the link potential visitors would click in order to visit your website.
There are two primary reasons to construct a good title tag. The first is that it is the first thing about your business people will see, and as such must make a good impression to draw as many people to your site as possible. The title tag also appears in the tab of the web browser if your site is visited, and used to identify each page to keep them organized. A user will continuously see this title, so composing a good one is a must.
The second reason, and just as important, the title tag is used to determine how high your site is ranked in search results. Search engines look for keywords in the title tag, and match them with the words and phrases the search engine user types into the search box.
There are several key things to remember when writing the title tag for your website. These include:
- Have your keywords as close to the beginning as possible. A good format to use is your primary keyword first, followed by your secondary keyword, and rounded out with the name of your brand.
- Write naturally, geared towards human understanding and legibility. While search engines do use them in their ranking algorithims, they should be composed with a human audience in mind.
- Keep things as short as possible. Search engines show 60 characters of a title at most, including spaces. The last thing you want is for viewers to see only part of your title.
- Avoid “keyword stuffing.” This is simply having a title that is filled with keywords, rather than a free-flowing structure. Not only does this impact readability, you can be penalized by search engines.
Meta Description Tag
The meta description tag gives a more detailed description of your website than the title tag. As small as a single sentence, on up to a short paragraph, these descriptions are invaluable in giving potential visitors a better idea of whether or not your site is right for them. Search engines either display the specific meta description tag you have designated right under the title tag in search results, or parts of the text on your home page if they seem more relevant.
While meta descriptions are not actually used in the search algorithm directly responsible for determining page rank, the amount of times people visit your site, called clickthroughs, is. The better you write your meta description, the more people click through, and the higher your page ends up.
There are a few important points to remember when writing your meta description tag. The most helpful are:
- Use an active tone. The description is meant to be an invitation, so keeping things lively piques interest much more.
- Include a call to action. These are invitations, “Try now,” or “Learn more.”
- Match the content of your website. Not only will this give a true idea of what your online business has to offer, search engines penalize for descriptions that try and trick a user into clicking.
- Use your primary and secondary keywords. While they aren’t used for ranking purposes, it makes it more likely that your designated meta description will be used, rather than some random text from your website.
Keywords are one of the most important elements of SEO. Keywords are the exact words or phrases that a search engine user types into the search box. These keywords should be interspersed organically throughout your web pages, so the search engine knows that your site is a good fit. If your website actually speaks the same lingo as a potential visitor, you are much more likely to be recommended by the search engine.
Finding the best keywords for your website is the first step, and is accomplished by doing keyword research. There are a few things to remember when doing this important step.
- Make it an ongoing process. While starting out your SEO efforts with keyword research is advisable, it should not stop there. Constantly reevaluate and fine tune your keyword selections to ensure you are using the best ones.
- Be specific. Some keywords are extremely broad in what they may be associated with, usually ones that are only a word or two in length. Because a lot of people use these words in their search, they are usually much more expensive to use in PPC (pay per click) campaigns. Targeted keywords, also called long-tail keywords, are not only less expensive to bid on, they ensure that the people who visit your site are looking for what you offer exactly.
- Be diverse. Using different keywords than your competition uses gives you an excellent way to stand out from the crowd.
Keyword Research Tools
There are a large number of online tools available, many of which are free, that can go a long way towards streamlining your keyword research efforts, and help make sure you end up with the best results. While there are a multitude that can get the job done, there are a few services that stand out from the rest.
- Google Adwords Keyword Planner: Helpful in coming up with new keywords based on ones you already use. Considered one of the best and most-helpful to use.
- Moz Keyword Explorer: An excellent all-around tool that suggests new keywords, shows how much monthly search volume they have, and how well you can expect to rank in results, to name just a few.
- Google Trends: Helps you compare how much traffic different keywords have received. This can be historical in nature, as well as how it performed around the globe.
Structuring the exact URL, or website address, correctly is another important step in helping you rank high in search results. Each URL starts out with the protocol used to retrieve the information, such as “http” or “https.” Following that is your domain name, which is the actual address for the site. This is proceeded by the top-level domain, such as .com or .net. The final piece is the path to the specific page on the site you want to access.
There are three main considerations to keep in mind when designing the structure for your URLs.
- Enhanced customer experience: Even if a user does not have the title of your page, a proper URL structure can tell them everything they need to know. All they need to do is look at the URL to know exactly what they will be getting.
- Search engine rankings: While your URL structure does not play as large a part in rankings, it is still helpful to use actual keywords in the URLs. Keep it natural, however, since this factor is not as important as readability for your users.
- Shareable Links: If a person likes your online business, and wants to share it with others through different online channels, a properly-structured URL provides enough information to act as an anchor text. Channels like social media, forums, and blogs may not format everything correctly, leaving the URL the only way for those shared with to understand what you are all about.
How fast your site loads is another factor that plays into SEO rankings with some significance. This applies to both how fast all of the content on your page becomes fully visible and available, as well as how long from when the site is requested to the first byte of data is received. Search engines use these times as part of the algorithm that decides who ranks where.
There are some excellent and simple ways to improve the speed of both page loading, and time to that first byte of data.
- Compression: Large files, such as those used with Java and CSS, are usually some of the most common reasons behind a slow-loading page. Compressing any files that are over 150 bytes using an application like Gzip, can result in much faster loading times and higher rankings.
- Use browser caching: Web browsers cache, or store, large amounts of data about websites in case visitors return to the source web page, so the entire page does not have to load again from scratch. Set the amount of time to at least a year for a browser to cache your site’s information.
- Enhance the response time of your server: This is done in several ways, ranging from upgrading your hosting to relieving bottlenecks in performance. The target to hit is about 200ms (milliseconds) from request to the first byte of data.
- Fine tune any images and graphics: Make sure all images are as small as they can be, and are in the proper format. For example, JPEG is recommended for photos, while PNG is the best bet for graphics and images with less than 16 colors.
Crawling and Sitemaps
Web crawlers, also known as web spiders, are the pieces of software that traverse the entire internet to find, record, and store new and updated web pages. Not only does the web crawler record the information on your website, they also follow any links your site contains and repeats the process. This provides a full picture of how everything is put together and interconnected.
A sitemap is one of the best ways to optimize this process, as it contains all of the links in your website in one convenient location. Time is a factor in web crawling, and it can negatively impact your site’s SEO ranking if it takes longer to crawl than it should. A sitemap is a dedicated page that contains different categories for the links your site contains. This can include both individual web pages, files, and media.
One of the unsung heroes of SEO optimization is backlinks. Backlinks are defined as the incoming links to your site that are found on other sites. If another website has a link to your website on one of their pages, be it for whatever reason, this is considered a backlink.
One of the biggest reasons backlinks impact SEO is because they indicate how popular your website is. If a whole host of websites point to yours as a good online business, search engines will decide that you are more likely to be a good match when a user performs a search. In essence, it is like the source website is voting for your site as a likely match.
There are a number of helpful services that can easily check your backlinks to help you develop your backlink strategy along with making sure no backlinks exist that could harm your business. One of the best resources comes from Moz, which has been mentioned as a source for other helpful SEO tools. Called Open Site Explorer, this tool is perfect for ensuring all aspects of your backlinks and associated strategies are in good shape.
No matter what level of expertise you have achieved when it comes to marketing your online business, understanding and utilizing SEO is something that even the most technologically challenged can accomplish with an appropriate amount of time and effort. Given how important it is, you can definitely consider any resources expended as well worth it.