The Four Cs of Search Engine Optimization
Guiding Principles to Help Get the Search Engine Traffic your Content Deserves
Many, perhaps most, web sites languish, seldom visited and un- or minimally- indexed, causing little but frustration for authors, webmasters, and e-commerce entrepreneurs. This doesn't have to happen to you. You can design your site to be a search engine juggernaut by following a few simple principles.
I wrote the original version of this little essay several years ago. If one human year counts as eight dog years, the initial version is probably 200 web years old. It was intended to be a timeless guide to universal principles of SEO. Since its creation, SEO fashion trends and buzzwords have come and gone, the search engines’ algorithms have been modified any number of times, and the Four Cs have held up pretty well. The whims of fashion come and go, but foundational principles remain solid. Nonetheless, I have updated it for 2018, removing some outdated bits and adding new stuff.
Let's look at the Four Cs of Search Engine Optimization: content, currentness, coding, and connections.
I frequently talk to frustrated web site owners who lament that their site doesn't show up at all, or doesn't rank highly, for important search terms. I look at their sites to find out what the problem might be, and I often find that their site is very pretty, and it has lots of nice pictures, but it has shockingly little actual text content.
It's probably the oldest cliché in the web world: content is king. Being a cliché doesn't prevent it from being true, and it doesn't prevent an awful lot of people from ignoring it. You'll need a substantial amount of quality, keyword-heavy, logically structured, original text content in order to convince the search engines that your site deserves a high ranking for competitive search terms.
Content copied and pasted from other sites doesn't help; the search engines can detect that. Your un-original content will be ignored, perhaps your site will even be penalized. Strings of keywords don't work as content either; the search engines figured out that trick long ago. You need real, original content which makes sense to human readers and is structured in such a way that the search engine bots can figure out what the page is about.
Even large masses of original content won't get you far if it's not updated regularly. Another major cause of search engine disappointment is infrequent updating. Even if your content is timeless, you'll need to go through it and dust it off and knock down the metaphorical cobwebs from time to time. A few quick edits and additions every few months will help a lot; major additions will help more. You'll need new and fresh links from time to time, also. Websites which have been forgotten and neglected by their owners get little or no respect from the search engines.
One of the good things about having a blog as part of your site, or, better yet, a site that is database-driven and owner-maintainable is that it allows owners without tech skills to update their sites easily and regularly without calling up their web guy and getting a new job scheduled. You can type up a quick news item and have it cross-referenced with other relevant items, edit old content, or add something new, in a jiffy.
Here we have to get a little more technical. Once we have substantive text content, we'll need to put it on the web in such a way that the search engines will recognize it as a legitimate resource. The best way to do this is by learning HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and hand-coding your site. If you must use a website-in-a-box development tool, do a little research before you commit to one and make sure that it’s well-coded for SEO. Some of these tools, such as Wordpress, are pretty decent; others, such as Zen Cart, are irredeemably abysmal.
For search engine optimization, there are real advantages to having a site hand-coded with an eye to which tags are important for search engine rankings and also avoiding code bloat. If you're using Wordpress or whatever, you can still view you pages' source code and see if the tags are being used well.
While a full treatment of HTML and CSS is way beyond the scope of this little essay, we can look at some of the aspects of coding which are especially important for search engine optimization. We'll start by defining some guiding principles, and then list some of the important specific tags.
Coding principles for search engine optimization:
- Eschew gratuitous fru-fru
- Keep the display information in a separate .css file.
- One key to lean, efficient, highly index-friendly web pages is keeping all of the information about how the content is to be displayed (fonts, colors, etc.) in its own file, while the actual .html file has the page's content, its structure, and hardly anything else. Font tags have no place in a 21st Century web site.
- Use the tags for the jobs they were designed to do.
- The title tag should accurately describe the page's contents; headlines and sub-heads should relate to the content under them; alt attributes should describe the image. Sometimes, myopically clever webmasters find ways to cheat the search engines by using tags sneakily; sometimes this works... for a while. The engineers with the search engines are constantly refining their algorithms; rewarding webmasters who have real content and play fair while punishing cheaters. If a particular trick works this week, it might get your site purged from the index entirely next week.
- Make sure your code is standards-compliant.
- There are many reasons for this; I find it nearly impossible to trouble-shoot if the code flunks a syntax-check. Search engine spiders are likely to be confused by poorly formed HTML.
- Use your keywords in a variety of contexts.
- It's hard to discuss this one without an example. If you have a page that is all about "tartan plaid widgets," you might wind up with a page where the whole phrase is in the title tag and an h1 tag; there might be an h2 tag that says "All about Widgets," another which says "Why Acme Widgets are the Best Widgets," and a third which says "The Tartan Plaid Difference;" after each of the subheads, you'd have a couple of paragraphs of regular body text, using your keywords a few more times in them; throw in a list of wonderful characteristics of your widgets; and put the keywords in bold type in the text somewhere. Bingo! you're rocketing to the top of rankings for "tartan plaid widgets." Just don't get carried away. Make sure your scintillating prose is keyword-rich without being ridiculously redundant; it must make sense to your human readers.
Important html tags for search engine optimization
- The title tag.
- It's hard to overstate the importance of title tags. Try this: do a competitive search on any of the major search engines. Look at the results. How many of the highly ranked pages have the search phrase in the title tag? Pretty much all of them, for pretty much any search term. Coincidence, or alien intervention? The title tag is the first thing spiders look at, and it's weighted very heavily in ranking algorithms. Make sure your title tags use likely search terms which accurately reflect the contents of their pages. If you're selling those tartan plaid widgets, their page should have a title tag like "Tartan Plaid Widgets from Acme Widget Company". If you're using one of those template-driven abominations, make sure you fill in the title for each page. A title tag like "Untitled Document" or "insert title here” is search engine death.
- Headline and subhead tags.
- Keywords in h1 and h2 tags, at least, are weighted fairly heavily by ranking algorithms; the lower level subheads don't seem to help as much, but you should still use them as the structure of your document dictates; key search terms should be used in a variety of contexts on the page.
- Meta tags.
- Meta tags are in the head of a web document. They are not seen by casual site visitors, but can be read by the search engines. There are two meta tags we're concerned with here: meta-description, and meta-keywords.
Some people's idea of search engine optimization begins and ends with meta tags. The problem with this is that meta tags really aren't that important; content and other aspects of coding are about a zillion times more important than meta tags. Meta keyword tags are probably not even worth bothering with at all; maybemaybemaybe some of the search engines give the listed keywords a little, itsy-bitsy bump, but keyword meta tags have been abused so brutally by so many traffic-hungry webmasters that those tags are generally ignored. Brainstorming and making lists of keywords and phrases might help you write your content, however; make sure that those important search terms are actually used where people can see them.
Meta description tags are somewhat useful; some search engines use them as the description of the page when it comes up on a list of search results. Without the meta-description, the page will still show up, but the listed description will be a hodgepodge of keywords and sentence fragments. I often use the meta description tag of other sites when I'm manually putting together a links page.
Conclusion: meta tags are worth bothering with, but just barely; don't lose any sleep over them, and don't waste your time and energy making free-association lists of dubiously relevant "keywords" which don't actually appear in your content.
- Alt attributes in image tags
- Search engines cannot "read" your images. The closest they come is the alt attribute in the tag which tells the browser which image to put where. Describe each image briefly. Since the image is related to the page content, you get to use those keywords in another context.
First off, a confession. "Connections" is a little bit of a stretch. I needed a word starting in "C" which means "links pointing in". Connections was the best I could come up with. Anyway, once you've got your content and your coding all beautifully optimized, you'll need one more vitally important element before the masses start visiting your site, reading your informative text, and buying your widgets. You'll need to get other sites to link to your site. Those connections are important to get your site ranked highly, they're generally the way the spiders find your site in the first place, and they'll help get traffic directly, as human users follow the links, too.
While just about any link pointing in to your site is a good thing, some are better than others. Links from high traffic sites count for more than links from a page of Joe and Becky Shmoe's pictures of their cat. The search engines also try to measure the relevance of links, so it's important to have links from other sites which share some topics with yours. There is no such thing as too many links pointing in to your site. Your pages’ rankings will continue to improve as you get more and more connections.
Many SEO professionals focus almost entirely on link-building. Because, basically, that’s what they CAN do. They don’t write the content or the code, but they can get other sites to link to yours. That’s valuable, to a point. But they tend to exaggerate its importance. Your priorities should be: content first, then make sure the coding doesn’t screw things up, then work on link building.
Ways to get other sites to link to yours:
- Exchange links.
- Your site should have a links page. In some cases, you may be able to work outside links into the flow of your regular content; but be careful, you don't want possible customers leaving your site too soon. Find sites that are related to your site, (but probably not in direct competition) link to them, and email their webmasters with a request for a reciprocal link. Make sure you mention something specific that you like about the target site so the webmaster will know you're an actual human who has really visited the site. Check those sites again after a month or so. If they haven't reciprocated, remove the link from your site.
- Submit your site to directories.
- Find directories of sites related to your subject. Try to get your site on as many of them as possible. If you're a member of a relevant professional organization, that group may well have a site listing its members. If your site is regional, make sure you’re listed in as many directories for that region as possible. Many directories require a reciprocal link. Fine. That's a good use for your links page.
- Buy ads on high traffic sites.
- Careful! This can be a money pit which might not even help that much. Theoretically, Google doesn’t consider paid links in its calculation of Page Rank (or whatever they’re calling it this week), but it’s not necessarily easy for them to determine which links are paid. While you can generally measure the traffic an ad drives to your site directly, secondary effects like SEO are difficult to gauge. For most small-scale sites, I prefer to build up traffic and search engine rankings in other ways.
- Keep a high online profile.
- Participate in online forums discussing topics relevant to your site. Don’t spam them with ads for your site; share real information on matters they’re discussing. As long as your name is out there, people will find you and your widgets. Participate in social media. It might get frustrating. Initially, at least, your Youtube videos probably won’t get many views and your Facebook posts won’t get as many likes and shares as they deserve. But persist. The more you and your skills or widgets are out there, the more people will find you, the more site owners will link to you, and the better the chances that that cartoon snowball you pushed down the hill will reach critical mass and keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger…
A Persistent Myth
One final note on SEO: any firm than tries to get you to pay for submitting your site to search engines is scamming you. That’s not the way search engines work. Submitting your site to search engines does nothing. Search engines find new sites by following links from other sites which are already indexed.