Articles, tips, and resources for webmasters

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SEO 101:
Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Myths & Facts
  • Submission and Spidering
    • Submission
    • The spider keeps on comin'
    • Removing barriers to spidering
  • Keywords
    • Avoid single-word terms
    • Avoid terms that are too broad
    • Avoid terms that are too specific
    • Avoid terms that are unpopular
    • Avoid highly-competitive terms
    • Mine your server reports
    • Target word variants and word order
  • Ranking Factors
    • Content is King
    • One-page factors
    • Page Weight
    • Dead Links
    • META tags
    • Unknown Factors
  • NON-Ranking Factors
    • META Keywords
    • ALT text
    • Title attribute
    • Web Standards
    • Dedicated IP address
    • Changing hosts or IP's
    • Adsense
    • Resubmitting a site
  • Penalties
    • Over-Optimization penalties
    • Non-WWW penalties
    • Black Hat SEO penalties
    • Paid Links penalty
    • Duplicate Content penalty
    • Why did my site disappear?!
  • Black Hat SEO
    • Invisible text
    • Cloaking
    • Keyword stuffing
    • Doorway Pages
    • Orphaned Pages
    • Spam
  • Links
    • Anchor Text
    • Links in the body copy
    • Internal Links
    • PageRank
    • Backlinks
    • Reciprocal Links
    • Link Farms and Directories
    • Buying and Selling Links
    • Pages not passing PR
    • Link Age
    • Relevance and Authority
    • Suspicious Activity
    • Splitting PR (removing or forcing theWWW)
    • Summary of link factors
  • Changing domains, and renaming pages
    • Move a whole site
    • Move a directory to a new domain
    • Move specific pages
    • Advanced Redirecting
  • Hiring professional help
  • Summarized recommendations
  • Further Resources

How to get good search engine rankings

« Part 4: Choosing good keywords

Part 5: Ranking Factors

Part 6: NON-Ranking Factors »

Content is king

There's a saying in the SEO community, "content is king". That means that what's most important to the search engines is what you have on your page. The substance of your page, the paragraphs that make up an article or the descriptions of products, is the content. As far as the engines are concerned, the more content text the better, because the more words on a page the better job they can do of figuring out what a page is about.

But that's not the only reason content is king. When you have high-quality content your page is useful to the world. And as we know, the engines want to show high-quality pages. Further, when your page has useful content you're much more likely to get inbound links from other sites. Let's say you were putting together a list of websites to recommend to your visitors. Would you be more likely to list a page that was nothing but a bunch of ads, or would you be more likely to list a helpful article that demystified some topic (like this one) or showed readers how to do something interesting or useful?

It's easy to focus on content when your site is an information site. But what if your site is commercial in nature and you're trying to sell products? Maybe most of your "content" right now is pictures, which doesn't help you very much with search rankings?

The answer is to make your site an information site. Start out by adding better descriptions about your products. I've rarely purchased something online where the description answered every question I had about a product. Think of every question a customer has ever asked about a product (or reason they've returned it because it wasn't what they expected), and add that to the description. You can go one step further and actively ask customers what they'd like to know by putting a little email form at the bottom of every product page that says, "Have a question about this product? Let us know!" Yes, you may already list your email address on your site, but you'd be amazed at how many more people will fill out the form because it's right there in front of them and is more convenient. Finally, if you're worried about your product descriptions being too long, keep them as they are, and then at the end have a link that says "more info..." which goes to a page that has more details.

Adding to your existing product descriptions is the first step in turning your site into an information site. The second is to write articles about your industry. Have a pet salon? Write articles about pet care, tips for dealing with problem pets, things to look for that could indicate health problems, information about specific breeds, etc. Selling a technical product or service? Write a buyer's guide that explains the differences between the different offerings that are available, and the pros and cons of certain models vs. certain other models. Don't give customers the hard sell in any of these articles.

How much content is enough? Go for at least 1000 words on a page. Jill Whalen famously advises at least 250 words, but I believe 250 should be considered an absolute bare minimum. You can't communicate much value with only 250 words.

Call-out box -- A box of text and/or graphics separate from the main content which draws attention to a particular point (like the one you're reading now)

Make sure your product or service is mentioned and linked to, and even include a call-out box (like the definitions you see on this page) with a link, but don't hit customers over the head with it. People hate being advertised to. They'll be more receptive if they feel that you're trying to help them make a good choice than if they feel you're just trying to sell them something.

The companion to content is links, but that's such a big topic we'll cover it in a separate section later.

On-page factors

On-page factors -- Things on your page itself that affects your ranking, as opposed to inbound links into your site.

SEO is basically two parts: putting your keywords on your page, and getting inbound links. The first part is referred to as on-page factors. Note that many people think that there is such a thing as overdoing it, and that "over-optimizing" on-page factors can result in a penalty. We'll cover that after we cover the on-page factors themselves.

I'm a little sad about including this section because I know that many readers will latch onto the items below and forget everything I've said about focusing on creating quality content and ignoring the specifics about how search engines rank pages. Just remember that knowing that keywords work better when placed near the top of the page (for example) does not absolve you from creating the best site possible.

<TITLE> The most important on-page factor is the <TITLE> tag. Most engines place a greater weight on keywords in this tag than keywords anywhere else on the page. Armed with this knowledge, some webmasters try to exploit this feature by stuffing dozens of keywords into their TITLE tags. Not surprisingly, such a crude method usually doesn't work. Google isn't stupid. If there are a gazillion words in the TITLE, Google will probably figure that it's an SEO trick and not rank it well.

The general feeling is that a <TITLE> should contain your most important keywords, shouldn't contain any individual keyword more than twice, should have the most important words as far to the left as possible, and shouldn't be much longer than what shows in the SERPs (~64 characters). In addition, your <TITLE> should also be inviting to searchers, since you're hoping they'll click it when they see it in the SERPs.

<H1, H2, H3> Next in importance are heading tags. Engines generally figure that things in headings tags must be what a page is about, so use the heading tags to identify the different sections of your articles. Don't try to fool the engines by putting your whole page in headings tags and then making it readable with CSS, or sprinkling heading tags gratuitously throughout the page. Instead, use heading tags where they make sense. Try an H1 tag for the main title of the page, and H2 and H3 tags for section headings. A heading tag on its own somewhere, with no real content following it, probably won't count for much.

Adequate body copy. Body copy refers to the prose on your site -- the paragraphs of text, as opposed to the menus, footer, etc. In general, the more body copy the better. Search engines love words, because that's what they analyze. The more words on the page, the better chance the engine has of figuring out what the page is about, the more confident it is that there's actually useful content on the page, and the more chances you have of matching visitors' search terms when they use extra words in their searches. Go for 1000 words or more, but absolutely no fewer than 250.

Many webmasters balk at adding extra words to their page, especially if their design is a beautiful, minimalist effort with its message communicated through images. That's fine, but it means that you're not giving the engines much to go on. Remember that you don't have to have a lot of body copy on your front page (although it helps). Theoretically there is somewhere on your site where more verbiage makes sense. Put it there if it's not already there, and expand upon it if it's already there, if you can. And remember that it's these pages which may ultimately be showing up in the SERPs, so make sure they make sense to visitors who enter the site onto them.

What you should not do is to try to hide the copy from your visitors but show it to the engines, by using invisible text or any other tricks.

Keyword density. Some webmasters claim that you should try for good keyword density, a theoretical desirable ratio of the number of times your keywords appear to the total number of words on the page. Like most SEO topics, this one is hotly debated. The truth is that no one outside of the engines really knows under what circumstances keyword density is evaluated and how it winds up being evaluated when it is. Personally, I ignore keyword density and just try to write good pages for my readers.

Position. The closer your keywords are to the top of the page the better, especially if you can get them into the first full sentence. This might seem to pose a problem for sites with a long left-hand sidebar, since all that content comes first in the HTML, which is how the spider views the page. An easy solution is to make the first cell in the left-hand column blank and put the sidebar in the second cell. Here's how that would work for two- or three-column layouts.

Two-Column Layout

Three-Column Layout

  <td rowspan="2">Main page content</td> 
  <td>Left column</td>
  <td rowspan="2">Main page content</td> 
  <td>Left column</td>
  <td>Right column</td>
(Thanks to MatthewHSE at WebmasterWorld for reminding me about this one.)

And when I say the "top" of the page, I'm talking about where the keywords appear in the code, not where they appear to the human eye as a result of your layout. The search engines can't "see" your page, they just read its code.

Bold, Italics. There is general agreement that having keywords in bold, italics, and both helps to improve rankings for searches using those keywords.

Outbound links. Engines usually like it when your content page links out to related pages on other sites, especially if those pages have a high PR. They may figure that if you're linking to a known winner then perhaps you know what you're talking about. They might also like the idea that you're sharing resources by pointing visitors to other related information rather than trying to hoard all your visitors on your site without giving them a way out.

Page Weight

Since visitors like fast-loading pages, there's reason to believe that the search engines like them too. Try to keep your pages lean and without a lot of extraneous code. Software programs called HTML optimizers can remove unnecessary code to make your pages load faster. Many webmasters also suggest putting Javascript and CSS into external files. This allows visitors' browsers to cache those files so that code doesn't have to be reloaded every time they go to a new page in your site.

Alexa provides stats on how fast websites load.

Dead links

Obviously, the more dead links on a page, the lower its quality. There's every reason to believe that Google penalizes pages that have dead links. Make sure your links work, and if a page links to external sites, then check those links periodically to ensure that they remain good. There are software programs that can check your links automatically, as well as online services such as NetMechanic.

META tags

I list these near the bottom because META tags are largely unimportant, despite the popular misconception to the contrary. I have dozens of high-ranking pages that don't have any META tags at all. How can this be?

The better question is: Why should it be otherwise? Think about it: Would it ever be a good idea for the engines to take the webmasters' word for what a site is about? As soon as META tags were invented in the 90's sleazy webmasters filled their META tags with porn keywords, hoping to rank well for porn queries since porn queries are popular, even if their pages were about something completely different. Apparently they thought visitors would think, "Well, I was looking for sex pictures, but now that I'm here, I think I will refinance my mortgage!"

It's easy for anyone to put anything in those tags, whether it's relevant to their content or not. Most engines haven't looked at META keywords or META description tags in years for that reason.

However, there's one good reason to use a META Description tag that's unrelated to rankings: Many search engine show the contents of the META Description tag as the summary of your site in the SERPs. A well-written META description can make the difference between whether a searcher decides to click your result or not. There's more about this in Jill Whalen's article on getting a good Google description.


Links are an important factor in search rankings but the topic is so large it's covered later in its own section.

Unknown factors

There are many ideas about things that will supposedly improve or worsen your ranking whose validity is questionable. Here are items I don't think have been resolved conclusively, or don't operate consistently across the engines -- and which I never worry about myself.
  • Keywords in the domain name, directory name, or filename
  • Hyphens instead of underscores in directory names or filenames
  • Use of subdomains, e.g.> instead of <>
  • Semi-randomness. There's some speculation that Google's algorithm is semi-random. By not always using the same ranking criteria in all cases and introducing a healthy amount of inconsistency, Google might have made it pretty hard to figure out which things hurt rankings in general and which things help.

    I don't worry about these things and suggest you don't, either. Just make your site as good as you can.


    Now continue this series below...

« Part 4: Choosing good keywords
Part 5: Ranking Factors
Part 6: NON-Ranking Factors »

I was born into a cult.

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation is a small psychological cult in New York city. My grandparents were members, so my mother was born into it, and so was I. Recently I created a website about the cult to get the word out. I hope you'll check it out.


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