The Search Engine Said What?
For anyone touching a website on a regular basis, whether it be blogging, updating a product, or changing a picture on the home page, there eventually comes a time when someone says, “SEO” and you realize that you need to know a thing or two about this popular acronym for Search Engine Optimization. (btw, if you don’t know what Google Trends is, than you should seriously click on that link). Then, you start digging a little bit and realize that the way technology works today is pretty crazy brilliant and you’ve only just discovered the tip of the iceberg. So, before we dig too deep into the nuances of SEO, let’s get a lay of the land.
A good first question is “what is a search engine used for“. Well, to find the answer, I opened up my browser (ie Google) and typed in that exact search phrase. That browser is my search engine and I used it find web documents that answered my query. Get it?
Ok, so now you’ve lifted the log and underneath you’ve found some crawlers, spiders, ants, and robots. Looking around some more, it appears that the robots, with their .txt file, may be in charge of the group. Huh? Yes, we are actually still talking about the internet. Here’s the breakdown: these crawlers are automatic programs that look through a website to see what’s contained in it. Images, copy, files, documents full of code, and anything else they can find on the server is what these little guys are looking for. The good guys use them to index web content and make it available for people searching for information. The bad guys, well I think you can guess what they use it for. Anyway, that’s where the robots.txt file comes in handy. It is one of the many tools used to tell these crawlers what they can and can not access on a website. For SEO purposes, the settings in this file can make or break your efforts. If the allow or disallow functions are set incorrectly, it could stop these crawling programs from seeing the optimization you’ve provided to get your public content seen by the browsers.
Last up, the SERP. No, it doesn’t hang out under the log with the spiders but is another acronym in this technical family. It stands for Search Engine Results Page and it is what shows up in your browser after you hit return when typing in a search query. A main goal of SEO is to get an informative snippet of your webpage showing up on a SERP — the closer to the top of the list the better. This is done by having the crawlers index the public content of your site, which in turn let’s them know that they should present your information as the answer to someone’s query in a search engine like Google.
What the Meta?
Now that you know how the internet works, it’s time to know what to do to make it work for you. First stop, the meta data.
Generally speaking, meta data is short messages that are posted by web masters for the crawlers to see in the publicly available code of a website. It’s like the abstract of a paper and the two main things that the spiders look for are the meta title and the meta description. There are other types of meta that can be used to give more information; however, for the SEO beginner, these two items are the bread and butter.
Why? For starters they tell the robots right off the bat what the web page is about so it doesn’t have to index the whole page. Secondly, these are often what search engines will use to display a snippet of your site on the SERP thus tempting people to click on your site because it looks just like what they were looking for. For these reasons, meta titles and descriptions should be readable and intriguing for a real live person and also contain keywords or key phrases for the robots to index. They also shouldn’t be too long—a little vague, I know. So, here are some resources of best practices for these nuggets of SEO gold:
Best Practices for Meta Descriptions
Best Practices for Meta Titles
X Marks The Spot.
Alrighty then. Now that we’ve got the why, the how, and the what, it’s time for the where. So, where do you put these meta things so that the robots can find them?
The best case scenario is that your site is run through a CMS (Content Management System) like WordPress, Magento, Joomla or the like. All of these come either with default meta sections for every page, post, and product or have free (ahem…or paid) SEO plugins and/or extensions available that can easily add them into your site’s admin. Then all you have to do is go to that section and enter in your optimized meta title and meta description.
Actually, the super best scenario is that you’ve added a plugin to your site that has an option to create a template for the meta, which automatically creates optimized descriptions and titles based on your site’s content. Beware though with templates. If you just set them up and walk away you may be in trouble. Make sure that the templates aren’t creating duplicate versions of the meta, which can actually hurt your overall optimization efforts Additionally, for high traffic or *important* pages on your site it is advisable to manually overwrite the templates to ensure that the snippets appearing in the SERPS are intriguing and super informative for potential visitors.
Worst case scenario? Someone built you a crazy custom site that didn’t come with an admin section and the only way to add the meta data is to put it manually in the code. Boo.
The Keyword Conundrum
Before signing off on this post, it would be irresponsible to not briefly mention the subject of meta keywords.
Remember that link for other types of meta tags I provided earlier? Well, little did you know that the black sheep of the meta world had been left off that list. Yes, that’s right, the meta keyword tag has been brushed to the side like 2 day old pizza. Why? Well, it got abused and used in the early days of the web. For example, a site selling toothbrushes might have wanted to drive traffic to their site. So, they decided to be sneaky and “stuffed” the keyword section of their meta with branded Apple® terms to try and trick people into visiting their site. That’s an extreme example but it got so bad that even relevant stuffing got lumped together with this over usage of the meta keywords section. Eventually, the search engines caught onto this practice and took keywords out of their equations. In fact, websites that still practice this actually get penalized for being jerks. So, as a general rule of thumb: don’t use meta keywords.
For a more detailed background on the subject here’s a forum discussion on it.
Also, here’s an informative video from Matt & Nelson over at Google about meta keywords.
We hope that you’ve found this information helpful as you take a journey into the land of SEO.