Search engines are like translators. With no more than a couple of words entered into the search box, they attempt to translate a word or phrase into the searcher’s meaning or intent and compare it to the millions of potential matches in their indices.
But the less understood and even more arduous translation happens in reverse. Search engines are also translating the trillions of pages they crawl and boiling them down to a series of signals. Understanding the signals – what speaks most loudly and what whispers – is the foundation of search engine optimization. Capitalizing on SEO requires implementing that foundation.
We’re going to zoom past the first critical step of SEO, the structure of a particular website. Assuming the site is structurally crawlable, every content element on every page is sending some sort of signal back to the search engine.
“Loud” SEO Signals
The loudest on-page signals come from the title tags, HTML headings, and anchor text. When all of these signals send the same message, the engines hear it loud and clear. If the search engine translates the searcher’s intent to match the message that your page is signaling, all other SEO factors being equal, your page will be served in the search results.
If the signal that your page is sending differs between the title tag, HTML headings and anchor text, then the potentially loud signal will be garbled noise. Engines will not be able to match that page, all other SEO factors being equal, with the searcher’s query and a competitor will presumably win the click.
For example, O’Reilly Media ranks highly in Google for the phrase open source, which relates to a number of books, conferences and training courses they sell. On its open source landing page, the title tags, HTML headings and anchor text (as well as the body content and other signals) are all sending the same primary message: open source.
If the title were reversed to lead with the brand and the product types they sell, such as “O’Reilly Media Books, Conferences & Courses about Open Source,” the signal would be weaker. If the HTML H1 heading were around the logo instead of the primary keyword phrase for the page, the signal would be nonexistent. If the anchor text linking into the page and linking off the page were about pink poodles, again the signal would be garbled. The consistency of these three loud signals elements is critical to improving rankings through content optimization.
For title tags, start with your most important keyword or phrase that’s uniquely relevant to that individual page. Include secondary, related keywords and end with the site’s brand or name. Only the first 65-70 characters are visible in the search results, so make sure you cover the critical elements up front.
For HTML Headings, target the same keyword or phrase as the title tag. Only placeheadings around text. Design for a single H1 heading. Include H2-H6 headings as needed to highlight useful headings that contain relevant keywords.
Anchor text is like double dipping. Anchor text influences the keyword signal for the page the link is on, and the page being linked to. Make it count by including links to content or products that are relevant to the page you’re on, and use anchor text that complements the page you’re on as well as describing the page being linked to. That means no “click here” anchor text. It also means, for example, that the dress shoe page is not the best place to make a special link to a boxed cereal page.
Write for Humans, Optimize for Search Engines
Body copy sends an important corroborating signal, but isn’t the strongest signal on the page. Always write for humans, and optimize for engines. No one wants to read “SEO copy” that’s written for bots. The engines don’t like to index it either. Write for the human audience, and then review it again for elements that can be optimized. For example, on a shoe site maybe the pronoun “them” could be changed to “dress shoes” without seeming clunky or forced. And maybe, for example, a “dress shoe” page from Shoes.com could be linked to a relevant category page. Swapping out low value words selectively for juicy keyword phrases that match the title tag and other elements is the key to optimizing body copy to increase the strength of the signal it sends.
Secondary “Whispered” SEO Signals
Meta descriptions, meta keywords, alternative attributes in image tags, title attributes in anchor tags all send small SEO signals. Make sure they agree with the theme of the page and don’t stuff them full of repetitions and unrelated garbage, and you’ll be fine.
SEO success requires a strong strategy based on the signals that search engines consider important, but even more so on the degree to which that strong strategy is consistently implemented across the site.