Sometimes the best SEO is executing the fundamentals

It doesn’t surprise me when people want to increase their organic page rankings through the use of search engine optimization. It makes sense. It’s effectively free traffic to your website. What does often amaze me is when there are plenty of talented IT and development individuals behind a website and they neglect, or simply forget, to execute on the fundamentals of SEO.

Percent of traffic from search engines

To those of you who know me, and those who don’t, there’s no hiding that I work for Canada’s preferred airline. One of my “unofficial” responsibilities is executing some SEO tactics to improve rankings and traffic. We hired an external consulting firm to validate a number of my recommendations and offer their professional opinion on others. This wasn’t cheap by any standards so I was happy when we received their report of numerous pages detailing different things to execute on at length. What did come as a shock though was some of the things that were missed along the way – items I’ll consider “SEO fundamentals.”

On page SEO

Title tag: Yes the title tag is still relevant and vitally important. Approximately 87% of all clicks on SERPs are on organic links and of those, the vast majority click on the keyword in the title that’s displayed. Not only does this make sense as a viable tactic, it also boasts well for the argument to ensure your title is well constructed utilizing your keywords appropriately.

Meta tags: These are old-school methods. Seriously 1996 era methods, but they’re still relevant. There are three main ones to look at and target.

Description: In the 90’s this was a great location to stuff more keywords knowing that the spiders were hungry for content. In today’s world, it doesn’t work quite that way, but the description tag is still relevant from a user experience. If you don’t utilize the tag, then on a SERP you will simply see the first 160 characters of content on your site. This may not be the most relevant thing to display to your user and might impede them clicking through to your site. Utilize the description tag to a maximum of 160 characters and provide a concise overview of the content that exists on the page.

Keywords: Honestly one of the least important tags as it’s not indexed by most search engines, however it can be of great use. Yahoo relies on it as part of their algorithm, at least until all of their results are powered by Bing – probably be end of 2010. The keyword tag can be utilize to add common misspellings of your keywords, brand name, etc. While it’s not indexed, it is cached as part of the page (at least in Google) and thus it is still searchable. Seriously, just add them to your page.

NOINDEX tag in a global template preventing indexingRobots: There’s a whole conversation that can be had on utilizing a robots.txt file appropriately and cloaking it based on user versus search engine, but like I said, that’s a whole other discussion. In this case you want to be aware of the NOINDEX and/or NOFOLLOW utilization in the robots meta tag. The low cost airline I work for had it in their global template for testing purposes but it made it through to production. Oops! This would explain the recent drop in indexed pages and in site traffic from search. Make sure that your developers and team understand the importance of this tag and the potential effects it can have on your website and don’t confuse it with the rel=”nofollow” tag as the two are different.

As an example, WestJet has 135 pages indexed in Google when in fact there are over 300 pages submitted via different sitemaps. It looks like Google is in fact obeying the NOINDEX tag.

Google only has 135 pages indexed for WestJet.com

Copy: Yes it’s often said, content is king. It’s true. Well crafted copy, utilizing a good page structure (i.e. p, h1, h2, etc) will help boost rankings. Copy writing for the web is different then copy writing for print or other mediums. Having a solid copy writer as part of your staff and communications team is vital. Spend a little extra, if you need to, to get it written well for the web and make it natural. Utilize associated words and stemming within your copy. If it’s natural for speaking with each other, then it’s natural for writing and should be utilized in your copy.

Close to page SEO

Sitemap.xml: This is super easy to create and should be used and implemented at the root level of the domain if at all possible. Google, Yahoo! and Bing will allow you to manually submit a sitemap.xml to their webmaster tools if you need to host it in a different location. It won’t ensure that your pages get indexed, but definitely can help you provide relevance and ranking to the pages you feel are important as well as allow you to suggest the pages on your site to have indexed. You can create a sitemap in a few simple steps automatically online.

Submitting a sitemap.xml won't necessarily get all items indexed.

URL structure: Even Google’s Matt Cutts has said that “Google will attempt to read words contained within a URL structure.” Honestly, why not make it easier for Google, and those other search engines out there, to read your URL as well? The latest recommendation is to utilize hyphens as word ‘spaces’ – not underscores or camel case. This is true for image names as well. Don’t go crazy, keep it to five or less words. Additionally keep your more important pages closer to the root of the site. Silo, or theme your sections (i.e. directories) and utilize a good IA (information architecture) to pass page rank more appropriately.

Ensure that a page not found sends 404 status not 200Server header response codes: You know them all too well, or you should. 200, 301, 302, 304, 404 – those are the fundamental ones you should know and understand. Ideally every page should end up with a 200 OK status as the end result unless of course the page isn’t actually found. Utilize any number of free tools to check the response code. Personally I use the Live HTTP Headers extension for Firefox to see the status. Make sure that your 404 page always and consistently returns the 404 status; definitely never a 200.

Closing thoughts

There are in fact more fundamentals to look at in optimizing your web page for search engines, but the above is what I truly believe to be the very basics and the sometimes overlooked. I welcome your thoughts and feedback on my SEO fundamentals. What do you have on your list?

Jul
6

About the Author

Marshall Stevenson is a Director at SPRY. He’s been designing websites since 1995 with a focus on usability. Since 1999 he’s focused heavily on ensuring sites are designed for people and are SEO friendly. Lately he's been spending time on one of the best Winnipeg Jets blogs as an editor and co-founder while also co-hosting the Drunk Hockey Show – a show where friends & guests sit around, drink beer and talk hockey.

Find him being social at Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+

One Response to “Sometimes the best SEO is executing the fundamentals”

  1. Hi, excellent blog.I spotted this while using ask with a semi related search. Reguards from Australia

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