Editor’s note: This post continues our weekly primer in SEO, touching on all of the foundational aspects. In the end, you’ll be able to practice SEO more confidently and converse about its challenges and opportunities.
The best keyword research will have zero impact on your site’s search engine rankings unless you actually use the research, to optimize. But where do the keywords go? What are the search engine optimization elements on a page that matter and how do you modify them in ways that will improve your natural search performance?
This is the sixth installment in my “SEO How-to” series. Previous installments are:
- “Part 1: Why Do You Need It?”;
- “Part 2: Understanding Search Engines”;
- “Part 3: Staffing and Planning for SEO”;
- “Part 4: Keyword Research Concepts”;
- “Part 5: Keyword Research in Action.”
The whole point of using content to improve rankings is to align the words used in the textual elements of the page with the words and context that real people use when they search. It’s not about tricking search engines into ranking pages higher. It’s about actually providing consumers with the content and products for which they are searching.
How are they searching? They’re querying a search engine with the words that they use every day. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those words will not be from your marketing campaign. They’ll be the words from your keyword research.
Content optimization only works when you optimize all the elements for a common keyword theme, and when that theme is relevant to the rest of the page.
Body copy, the words used in the main body of a page, are important. But interestingly, the title tag is still the single most important element on a page. To be sure, it’s not enough to simply optimize just the title tag and not the body copy. However, title tags are individually the most influential.
Important to varying degrees are meta descriptions, heading tags, keywords in the URL, and alternative attributes on image tags.
It’s helpful to know what each of these elements looks like both in the code of a web page and on the page itself. The image below shows at left a page of very simple HTML content containing all the elements covered in this article.
To the right is the visual output of that code in the browser. Notice that some of the elements are visible in the browser and some are not.
In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll go over each of the elements, how they display to shoppers, and guidelines for their optimization.
Optimizing On-page Elements
Title tags. Though not visible in the page to shoppers, title tags remain the most important on-page factor. With the search engines’ focus on understanding the intricacies of context and language, I suspect this won’t be true for long, but it is an important element.
Title tags should be about 70 characters and begin with the most relevant keywords. Why 70 characters? In Google’s search results, which drive the bulk of U.S. traffic, title tags are truncated after that. You won’t be penalized for longer title tags, unless you stuff them full of keywords. The back end of the title tag simply won’t show if it’s longer. Because it won’t show, the words at the end also likely increasingly devalued the longer it gets.
Note that title tags are visible in other places. The title tag is shown as the label in the tab at the very top of a browser. In the image above that shows the simple web page at the right, look at the tab in the very top where it says, “This is your title tag.” Additionally, search engines display the title tag or some version of it to searchers in the results page as the blue underlined link. It’s the first thing searchers see when they come across your page in the search results.
Meta descriptions. Even though they have no impact on rankings, meta descriptions are important because they can be the black descriptive text shown on a search results page below the blue underlined link. Ecommerce-related searches tend to be truncated after two lines, which equates to 160 characters in Google. Informational searches, can merit a third or even fourth line, especially if the description answers a question directly or ranks near the top of the search results.
The meta description is there solely to convince the searcher to click on your page instead of others. Don’t bother using text from the page itself — the search engines are perfectly capable of doing that themselves. When optimizing, provide a unique description that describes the value proposition (why yours is better) and ends in a call to action.
Meta keywords. Don’t optimize this field for SEO. Leave it blank. Meta keywords only have SEO value if you’re optimizing the tag in simplified Chinese for Baidu. The last major U.S. search engine to use meta keywords in its ranking algorithm stopped in 2009. Populating meta keywords just gives your competitors an easy way to identify the keywords for which you’re trying hardest to rank.
Keyword URLs. If your content management system and product management application allow you to control the keywords in URLs, do so wisely. Set the keyword once, choosing the most relevant and popular keyword for that page, and do not change it again unless the content on the page changes so radically that you’re forced to change the keyword.
Do not change the URL keywords every time you optimize the page. URLs are like street addresses and search engines are like the post office. Every time you change your street address, some of your mail — your search performance — goes missing. It may find you again eventually if you have 301 redirects in place. But then again, it may not. Don’t risk your natural search performance by changing your URLs, unless required.
Heading tags. Headings are both a creative display element and an SEO element. At times, it’s hard to make the two functions coexist. For optimal search optimization, the H1 heading should use the same keyword theme as the other elements. It will likely be much shorter, with room only for the primary keyword or a two- or three-word phrase.
Body content. Text tends to be much shorter on an ecommerce site than, say, a blog. Try to include a line on the home page, a couple of lines on each category page, and a field on product pages. Content pages should be as long as needed to meet the need. On each page, use the keyword at least once, as close to the start as you can without feeling forced. If the copy is long enough to use the keyword again, or a supporting keyword, do it often, so long as it works naturally into the flow of the text.
The priority is well written copy that shoppers find interesting or useful. No one wants to read “SEO copy” — content that has been over-optimized. It’s painful and turns shoppers off. However, since content optimization is about using the language that real people use every day, it should be relatively easy to work the right keywords into the right copy. Some easy opportunities can be replacing pronouns with keywords selectively and looking for marketing phrases to convert to real-language keywords.
If your platform supports it, insert a couple of links into your copy as well. Links in body content have two important SEO benefits: they contribute to the keyword theme on the page where the link occurs, and they pass link authority and keyword context to the page being linked to. The platform aspect is important, though, because you’ll want to be sure that as URLs change your links are updated or redirected automatically so that the links you put in your text don’t break.
Alternative attributes to image tags. Also called “alt tags,” alt attributes are more important to visually impaired shoppers than to SEO. Screen readers vocalize the text in the alt attributes to help these shoppers navigate a site and understand what they’d like to purchase.
However, alt attributes can add a very small keyword relevance boost, and they are especially important to optimizing for image search. Keep them short and descriptive. For product images, simply use the name of the product. If the name is not descriptive, include a keyword or two. For images that include words, put the entire text from the image into the alt attribute. Don’t include any alt text in decorating (pictures of smiling people or pretty dividing lines) or formatting images (spacing images) that do not serve any navigational or informational purpose.
Do not stuff alt attributes with keywords. There’s not enough SEO benefit to warrant a poor user experience. If you wouldn’t want a screen reader to vocalize all the words you just dumped into an alt attribute, your visually impaired customers won’t want to hear them either.
Remember, none of these elements are purely for SEO benefit. They were part of the HTML specification that underlies every page on the web before modern search engines exist. Thus, don’t think of content optimization as a search engine tactic. Think of it, instead, as another tool for communicating your messages within your digital experience.
Read the next installment of our “SEO How-to” series: “SEO How-to, Part 7: Mapping Keywords to Content.”