Search engines such as Google are one of the primary ways people find our websites and the content they seek. As such, it’s very important to be mindful of search engine optimization (SEO) best practices so that we enable search engines — and the people using them — to find and discover our web content.
People often consider SEO to be a content editing task — something you hand-off to a specialist. The reality is that SEO is an important part of content planning and needs to be addressed before and during content creation, not just after.
Trying to optimize content for search after it has been published is like trying to figure out what you want to communicate after you publish a webpage. It just doesn’t work.
SEO needs to be part of content creation and the editorial process. For this reason, try including SEO guidelines for content contributors as part of your editorial style guide, including web writing guidelines.
Here are some recommendations to get you started.
1. Publish relevant content.
Understand what your web users are looking for and cater to that by providing useful, relevant content that meets their needs.
Publishing relevant content is the primary task for SEO. You can use every SEO tactic in the book, but if content isn’t relevant for your readers, they won’t find your website. And if they do, they won’t care.
As Brian Clark of Copyblogger says, "If your content isn’t good enough to attract good, natural links, it doesn’t matter how ‘optimized’ that content is" (source: How to Create Compelling Content that Ranks Well in Search Engines [PDF]).
2. Make every page on your website unique.
Don’t duplicate pages or repeat the same content on multiple pages.
In an effort to make content more findable, some content owners create duplicate pages or publish the same content in multiple locations. While duplicate content may increase the likelihood of content being discovered, it decreases usability and comprehension.
If content is the same, how do search engines know which page is most relevant? They don’t. And worse, neither do your readers.
Since Google and other search engines safeguard against listing duplicate pages in search results, you risk negatively affecting your search rankings.
(Note: It can be appropriate to duplicate short pieces of content, including descriptions and quotes, if they enhance web navigation and usability.)
To learn more, check out What is Duplicate Content? by SEOmoz.
3. Make every webpage title on your site unique.
Duplicate webpage titles may appear as duplicate pages in search engine results. This detracts from webpage search engine ranking and web users’ ability to navigate your website.
The webpage title is the most important element of SEO copywriting. It has the single greatest impact on search engine ranking and users’ comprehension of the page content.
According to The Art of SEO, "Since the title tag is a powerful signal, failure to create a distinct title tag can be a negative ranking signal" (167).
4. Use relevant and accurate keywords.
Ensure that keywords used to attract visitors to your website accurately represent the content they relate to.
Quite simply, accurate keywords will attract relevant visitors interested in your content. And relevant visitors are more likely to be happy visitors who want to get to know your institution better. Inaccurate keywords attract irrelevant visitors — and worse, damage your brand authenticity and website search ranking authority.
To effectively support your web strategy, SEO keywords must be both relevant for search and appropriate for your brand. On-brand SEO keywords ensure that audiences not only find your content but find your content meaningful.
5. Link to relevant external websites that provide value to your users.
Encourage other websites to link to yours. This practice of "link sharing" has a positive effect on the ranking of your website in search engine results.
Linking to relevant, valuable external resources helps your users and also encourages links back to your website. Inbound links from external websites positively affect your search engine ranking because Google and other search engines consider it a third-party recommendation, which improves your credibility.
6. Structure content to enhance keyword relevance.
Style important keywords and phrases using headers, boldface text, and lists to inform search engines — as well as readers — that the keywords are important.
Using semantic HTML provides context for related content. For example, keywords associated with a header 1 tag (<h1>) suggest greater relevance than a header 3 tag (<h3>). Be mindful when structuring content so as to reinforce priority and relevance of keywords and phrases.
(Note: Be careful not to use styles excessively. Doing so may hamper SEO efforts, as well as users’ comprehension.)
7. Describe images with alt text.
To enable search engines to "see" photos on your website, use the HTML alt attribute to provide text descriptions.
Images are content. Without an alt description, search engines can’t understand the subject. Use relevant keywords in your alt text, just as you would for titles, headers and captions. Like other SEO tasks, it’s just as important that alt descriptions are unique for each image.
8. Supplement video with searchable text.
For the most part, people find embedded videos through the related text on the page, including the video title. To improve findability, create a video transcript or summary so that the video content is easily searchable. This practice is valuable for accessibility as well.
Additionally, if you host your videos externally — such as through YouTube or Vimeo — be sure to complete all metadata fields.
9. Create web content for people first and search engines second.
Keep SEO guidelines in mind during content creation and the editorial process, but don’t allow these efforts to compromise content quality.
It’s most important that web content is clear and relevant for your users. Search engines aim to deliver useful, relevant search results for people. That should be your goal too.
There are many other elements of SEO, but for those creating content at your institution, these are important considerations. Here are some resources for learning more:
What did I miss? Are there other guidelines you would include in this list?