In this part of our on-going series on the Fundamentals of Search Engine Marketing we cover text content, page heading, and keyword usage and see why these are important when developing a website that is receptive to search engine indexing.
As we saw in the first article in our Fundamentals of Search Engine Marketing series, page title is the most important characteristic search engines assess in order to determine whether a web page is relevant to a user’s keyword search. However, page title is only one of many, many characteristics search engines utilize within their processing algorithm to determine sites that are most relevant to a search query.
In this part of our series we continue to look at basic website design criteria by examining three additional page characteristics that may make a web page more acceptable to search engine activity. Our focus in this part of the series is on the issues related to the content that appears within a site.
Importance of Text Content
By now most people have heard the oft-repeated mantra that “content is king” to building a successful web presence. But this raises an important question: What qualifies as content? Clearly content is anything that is of interest to site visitors including downloadable music, video clips, electronic books, online games, etc. However for websites looking to take advantage of free traffic generated through search engines, the mantra should be refined to state that “plain-old text content is king”. While search engines have added many new features and capabilities for searching different types of content (e.g., searching video files, audio files, pdf files, etc.), web searching is still dominated by the basic text search, and more importantly, results of a search are still dominated by text content that matches the user’s search query. One of the main reasons for this is that search engine robots that crawl the Internet locating information do so by examining the underlying code of a site. Presently, these crawlers perform much better when the code is associated with plain text compared to other forms of content.
For website marketers this means sites should still be principally text-based if search engines are to easily understand what the site is about. Site’s should keep non-text content, such as multimedia (e.g., Flash), to a minimum so as not to be the major content portion of the site or, if it is the major content item, non-text content should be supported with plain text material.
Additionally, important wording should use text and not graphics. For instance, look below at our own KnowThis.com logo:
Like most site logos this appears to be text but in actuality it is a graphic. While stylistically a text in graphics may appear attractive to a human visitor, search engines are generally unable to read text contained within a graphic. Until search engines improve their ability to interpret graphics it is generally good site optimization practice to use text over graphics for important words, especially if these words are likely to be used within a user’s keyword search. If graphics must be used it is recommended that a special ALT tag be included within the coding of the site. The ALT tag essentially allows the website marketer to describe the graphic using text. While useful it still is not a replacement for plain text content.
While the page title is the single, most important characteristic to consider when designing web pages, it has one major disadvantage: it does not appear on the web page. Rather the title appears in the title bar at the very top of the browser. Because of its location and because few people actually look at the title bar, it is not very useful as a way to introduce visitors to the topic of a web page. Also, as we noted when we discussed Page Title, while the wording in the page title should make some sense when read, its main purpose is to include the important keywords that relate to a page and, consequently, should not be held to high grammatical or sentence structure standard in same the way information would be held if it appears on a page.
A better option for letting visitors know the topic of a particular web page is to use a descriptive summary in the form of a page heading that is strategically placed on the page and preferably above the page content. But in addition to helping visitors know what the page is about, the page heading serves as a key consideration for search engines as they index websites.
A good heading should clearly describe the content of the page, such as describing a website area (e.g., Company History, Corporate Press Releases, etc.), or reflects the title of a content item (e.g., name of article). When developing headings, it is imperative for the heading to capture the keywords that users are most likely to enter to reach the page and, in this way, it should follow what is in the page title. (Actually, in practice, this should be the other way around as the page title often is written after the page heading is created). In this way the page heading serves as additional reinforcement to search engines that a page really is about what the page title says it is about.
Advice for Constructing Page Heading
There are four additional considerations when constructing page headings:
- Use Text Headings – Many site marketers believe they have headings on their page, and by looking at the page it does appear to be the case since words appear within a graphic. But, as we noted earlier, inserted text in a graphic will not be read by search engines and, consequently, while it projects as a heading to site visitors who clearly see it as text, it does not project well to search engines that index the site.
- Use of HTML Heading Tags – HTML, the underlying code of the web, has special markers for identifying important text through so-called heading tags. These tags, indicated with HTML coding such as H1, H2, H3, etc., are also recognized by search engines as carrying greater weight than other text within a web page. It is good search engine marketing practice to surround the main page heading in the H1 tag and use other tags for sub-headings (see next bullet). Additionally, it is wise to limit the H1 tag to a single heading per page and when possible place the H1 heading above the content that it describes. Normally this means placing the H1 tag so it appears near the top of the page.
- Use Sub-Headings – Pages often are written to address sub-topics within an overall topic. In cases where a page is of a length that is realistically represented on a single page (more on longer pages in next bullet) but where topics can be separated out, the use of sub-headings is recommended. Additionally, sub-headings should be enclosed in higher number heading tags (e.g., H2, H3). Unlike the H1 tag that should only be used once per page, higher number tags can be used more frequently on a single page. However, the use of these tags should not be overdone. It is very likely that heading tags used too frequently may signal to a search engine that a site is attempting to trick the search engine into believing it is more important than it really is (i.e., spamming the search engine). The best rule-of-thumb is to use heading tags for real headings, that is, text that is descriptive or clearly separate from other text.
- Break Headings Into Multiple Pages – Since the H1 tag represents important content to a search engine, it is often beneficial to divide slightly different content into multiple pages each with its own H1 header. For instance, if a product serves more than one market then headings on different pages may include: “Our Custom Products for Hospitals”, “Our Custom Products for Colleges and Universities”, “Our Custom Products for Local Governments”, etc.
Keyword Usage in Content
While the use of keywords in the page title and page heading are critical, keyword usage should not stop there. Keywords should be included as part of the regular content found on a page since it helps to reinforce to search engines that a site truly is relevant to the terms found in the page title and page headings. Anyone tasked with content writing or editing responsibilities must understand which keywords are valuable and work to include these in the main content.
However, using keywords in content can get tricky from a search engine’s perspective. Many experts in search engine marketing believe search engines follow certain “keyword sensitive” rules when determining the relevancy of a page to a keyword search. Keyword sensitivity may be affected by one or all of the factors listed below.
- Frequency – Refers to how often keywords appear within a web page. In general, a major keyword should appear a few times within the course of moderate size content (i.e., 500 words or more) but should not appear an overwhelming number of times (see Density below). We distinguish major keywords as those that are likely, within a natural language approach, to be understood to be repeatable without being considered unusual. Some words, especially those that are infrequently searched may not seem right within natural language to be repeated. In this case, repeating these too often may trigger a red flag to the search engine which could result in a site being penalized with lower search engine rankings.
- Density – Refers to the percentage a particular keyword represents out of all words found on a page. That is, keyword frequency divided by the total words. Once again search engines may penalize a page if the percentage is considered too high.
- Proximity – Refers to how close a keyword is to another keyword that appears in a multi-word search. For instance, a cleaning services company located in Orlando may see better search ranking results when a user enters the keywords Orlando office building cleaning services if the content on the cleaning service’s web page reads “we are an Orlando area cleaning services company for commercial offices and buildings” than if the content read “we provide cleaning services for many types of buildings including commercial buildings such as offices, factories and others in and around the Orlando area.”
- Location – Refers to the location a keyword appears on a page, such as how close to the top of page, close to a heading, within the first paragraph, etc. In general, the earlier the keyword is mentioned in the content the more relevant the content may be to a search that uses the keyword.
- Consistency – Refers to whether words on a page actually make sense within the scope of what the page is purported to be about. Thus, a search engine would consider it suspicious if a page title and headings suggest the site is about boating but the wording within the main content of the page is about vitamin products.
Best Approach for Using Keywords
So with all this what is the best approach? First of all, caution should be exercised in reading too much into these factors since their actual effect is often only an “educated guess” of supposed search engine marketing experts. This is due to the highly secretive nature of search engine indexing and their understandable reluctance to disclose the workings of the ranking algorithms. For example, while many search engine marketing experts agree that high keyword Density is a potential problem, no one knows for sure what this level is and the search engines are providing little guidance on the issue.
Also, not much of what is discussed matters if few sites actually use a particular keyword. For instance, a branded name may only appear on the company website in which case if this is entered into a search engine it may only produce results from the company’s site no matter what kind of search engine optimization takes place.
But for any website operator looking to be recognized by search engines the best advice is to: 1) write content that is first and foremost of interest to your site visitors, and 2) make sure to strategically include keywords that are directly related to the content and have a high likelihood of being entered as search terms. But when it comes to using keywords the best rule-of-thumb is to error on the side of caution. Usage should not overwhelm the reader because if it does it is almost guaranteed to raise a red flag with search engines.