SEM: Page Content

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 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.

Page Heading

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.

SEM: Importance of Page Title

Nearly all experts in search engine marketing agree the most important element of an individual webpage is the title given to the page.  This is the information that appears at the very top of the browser window when a webpage loads and within the underlying code (e.g., HTML code) that is enclosed in the element. 

From a search engine’s point of view, page title is the first indication of the contents of the page.  While many factors on and off the page affect how a search engine interprets the page, the page title is the leading indicator.  Additionally, page title is the key information returned when search engines list results to a keyword search.

With this in mind we consider the following key concerns related to page title:

Keywords: Place Keywords in Title

The title should contain keywords relating to the page and, in particular, to keywords most likely entered in search engines by those who are potential visitors to a site.  In most cases keywords should be in the form of a string of words or a phrase rather than single words.  Keyword phrases hold a higher potential for bringing qualified customers to a site since the more detailed a person is in entering a phrase, the more likely they are to be truly interested in the topic of their search.  For example, a search engine user entering the keywords “techniques for branding consumer products” is likely to be more interested in that topic than someone who simply enters the search term “branding.”

When it comes to placing keywords in the page title, a major mistake of many websites is to use terminology that may be familiar to employees of the website (e.g., industry lingo, acronyms) but do not match the search terms users enter when searching.  An example that we learned at proves this point.  When we first launched the site in 1998 we referred to a major Topic Area as “Marketing Research” mainly because this is how most marketing textbooks refer to research in marketing.  However, around 1999, Overture (now owned by Yahoo) released a keyword selector tool that allowed website marketers to see how many times keywords were entered into their search engine during a previous month.  We were surprised to see searchers are much more likely to use the phrase “market research” ” as part of the search string.  In fact, we tried this comparison again recently and found that search engine users are 12 times more likely to enter a keyword search using the phrase “market research” than the phrase “marketing research.”  The point here is that while it may be fine to include industry terminology, the page title should also reflect terms used by the average customer.

One last point, while placing keywords in the page title is necessary, it is wise not to go overboard by using the same keyword phrase multiple times in the same page title.  Instead, include in the page title two or three different phrases that describe what the page is about.  Otherwise search engines may believe the site is attempting to trick the search engine (i.e., spam) which may result in the website being penalized by search engines.

Length: Understand the Length of Page Titles

Many sites appear to believe it is important for the name of the site (or company name) to appear on every page of their website, no matter how long the name may be.  While communication theory would suggest this is a good way for people to learn who you are, since they are repeatedly being exposed to the name, from a search engine perspective using the site name in all page titles is squandering potential opportunity.  The opportunity lies in the search traffic that may not come to your page because the keywords, while appearing in the title, are past the point at which some search engines will index.  To see this, do a Google search and examine the results.  If a site’s title is too long Google will display repeated dots (…) at the end.  Without the keywords visible in the viewable title, search engines may not associate the keywords with the site and if the page is listed users will not see the keywords highlighted in response to their search.  For example, if a site’s title includes the phrase “Techniques for Sales Lead Generation” but only “Techniques for Sales” is viewable the site may not benefit from searches that are directly related to what the page is about, namely techniques for generating sales leads.

While a long page title results in lost opportunity because keywords may not be viewable, opportunity can also be lost when a page title does not take advantage of the full title that search engines will recognize.  To take full advantage of what search engines will see, the marketer should spend time to insure the page title utilizes the full space available and contains important keywords that best reflect the page and user search strings.

This discussion raises an obvious question: How long should the title be?  Well, it depends on the search engine.  With Google the current total characters it will show in the title of a site is about 67 which includes blank spaces.  For titles extending past 67 characters Google will cut the remainder and, in fact, will cut the title at the end of the last full word.  MSN search has a similar size limits, though it gives a few more characters while Yahoo appears to be the most generous by displaying over 100 characters.  The basic rule to follow for a site trying to appeal to all search engines is to make sure the most important keywords are within the first 67 characters.

This brings us back to the point regarding companies placing their name on all page titles.  How much of the valued page title space is the company name consuming?  The longer it is the less opportunity exists for placing important keywords in the page title.  For situations where the company name is long but company execs want the company name on all pages, the website marketer should consider: 1) shortening or abbreviating the name on inside pages, or 2) adding the name to the end of the page title instead of the beginning as in “Keyword Phrase, Keyword Phrase : Company Name”.

By the way, an easy way to figure out the length of a page title is to copy and paste it into a word processor that contains a word count feature.  In fact, a word processor is probably the best place to create page titles since it also provides spell checking ability.

Phrasing: Title Reflects Page Content but Ease Up on Grammar Rules

As we already discussed the page title should give search engines and, of course, site visitors a good idea of the content of the page and be built with a strong leaning toward the most likely search keywords.  (We will see in a later article that the keywords should also appear in the content of the webpage.)  With a limited number of characters available to describe the page, grammar and sentence structure are much less important when it comes to the page title compared to its importance within the content of the page. 

Writing page titles with such grammar-correct words as “the”, “and”, “is” etc., may take up valuable character space that could be filled with more valuable keywords.  In addition using separator such as a dash ” – ” may also be a space waster since it really is taking up three character spaces with blank spaces required on either side, compared to a comma “, ” which takes up only two spaces.  However, with all this said I still argue that titles should “read right” and not be just a collection of keywords.

Individuality: Different Name for Each Page

Many sites fail to recognize that search engines do not always direct customers through a website’s front door (i.e., main page).  Instead visitors may enter the site through a page the search engine believes is the best match for someone’s keyword search.  Consequently, nearly all pages of a website should be considered its own unique place on the web.  This mean basic webpage design characteristics, including what we discussed regarding page title, should apply to every important page on the site.