Search engines are one of the sets of rulers of the world wide web. I think that’s a fair statement, but happy to hear any counter-arguments. Ever since the dawn of the web, content producers have been trying to get content consumers to visit their sites. We seem to have passed the heyday of directories and categorisation (RIP GeoCities) and are firmly rooted now in an era where “Google” is almost synonymous with “the internet” for many people. Do you want to find a picture of a kitten? Ask Google (or ask Bing, or ask Jeeves or Lycos (yes, it is still around!) or DuckDuckGo…). That is unless your friends on your social media platform of choice have already directed you there, but I’ll ignore that, as the focus of this blog post is on search engines and SEO (search engine optimisation). You want to find a local plumber? I’m guessing that asking a search engine might be one of the options you consider.
Let’s look at this from the other side now. You are the provider of a service; maybe you’re a plumber, maybe you’re running maths workshops. You are aware that people are looking for plumbers and maths workshops via search engines; how do you make sure that your details feature as one of the top results? Before I go any further, I should say that I am not an SEO expert and therefore you should critically evaluate my musings on the subject before taking any action based on what I’ve written here. Back to the matter in hand; you’re running maths workshops and you want people to know about them.
It’s no surprise that I’ve picked maths workshops as an example here; we’ve recently been working with Nicky Bishop to develop a website for her to publicise the maths workshops she runs in East Sussex. Unsurprisingly, she would like visitors to her site and in addition to social media exposure, Nicky is aware that people will be using search engines. I disclosed fully that I’m no SEO expert and started reading up on SEO techniques. But actually, a conversation with a good friend was more helpful than anything I read, bringing me back to earth. To paraphrase Tim Wakeling:
Search engines are trying to find relevant websites that the searchers will want to read
A ground-breaking statement? Hardly. It’s common sense. But it was a good reminder that the bottom line is the person doing the search. They aren’t going to care about a list of keywords on your site, or hidden text; they’re going to care about the content. Has it answered their question? Relevant, up to date content is king. And search engines recognise this; it’s no use having a list of keywords on your site if the visitor hasn’t had their question answered. Whilst no-one knows the exact algorithms that Messrs Google and Bing (Yahoo! has been powered by the Bing engine since 2009) use for ranking websites, there are a few common sense things I (and others more qualified than me) suspect they are focussed on:
- If my site has been linked to from another site with a high ranking, that probably indicates content of interest on my site
- If my site has been updated recently, that probably indicates relevance
- Do my page URLs correspond to the content within the pages? It’s much easier to see that a URL ending “/contact” is a contact page than a URL ending in “/page=132”
- Are there words that crop up frequently in a certain page? If I’m writing an article about SEO, then it makes sense to mention the word “SEO” frequently in the text
- Is it clear where links take visitors in the site? “Click here” tells you nothing about where that link is going to take you, whereas you might get a clue from something like “My mate bob who is a builder”
In essence, I want my website to be full of content that attracts and then holds the interest of your audience. By all means I might include certain words in the text of your site that I think my visitors might type into a search engine, but I write content for a human, not a search engine to consume.
All that considered though, there are some things that I can do to help search engines. I can include a sitemap, listing the various pages on my website that I think a search engine might want to index. I can include HTML5 semantic tags (I only really use “nav”, but I should probably use more) and I can go even further than that to include other semantic markup. Anyone human viewing the maths workshops diary will recognise that it lists events there. To ensure that a search engine would also recognise that as an event, why not mark it up as such:
<div itemscope itemtype='http://schema.org/Event'class='diaryworkshop'>
<div class='event_date' itemprop='startDate' content='2015-09-12T09:30:00+0100'>Saturday 12 September 2015, 9:30am</div>
<div class='workshop_name' itemprop='name'>N1 Decimals, Rounding and Factors</div>
<div class='workshop_location' itemprop='location' itemscope itemtype='http://schema.org/Place'>
<span itemprop='name'>Ashburnham Pavilion</span>
<div class='event_price'>£36 introductory offer</div>
That’s not putting in extra content for the search engines; it’s helping them to understand what’s on the page, by saying that it’s an event, then tagging the date, title, place and price.
And when I’ve done all of the things listed above, the search engines are there to give me a helping hand by telling me what they know about my website:
Will any of this work? Who knows! People write whole books about SEO… and these are just a few musings that make sense to me.