With at least 13 updates to its algorithms since April’s Penguin update targeted sites that violate Google’s webmaster guidelines, it’s clear the search engine giant means business when it comes to promoting quality sites while demoting those relying on black hat SEO techniques.
And while those changes have had many webmasters fuming, it’s really a case of Google finally putting its algorithms where its mouth is and enforcing guidelines it has long asked everyone to follow.
Here then is the new old face of SEO, the essentials Google itself says will help it best find, index, and rank your site along with practices to steer clear of. And if you don’t already have an account, set one up at Google’s Webmaster Tools to take advantage of free tools that help you submit your site, track links and traffic, creates site maps and access lots of other useful information.
- Remove any obstacles to search engines
To see your site the way search engine spiders do, Google recommends reviewing it with a text browser like Lynx.
- Take advantage of the robots.txt file on your server
You can use it to tell search engines which pages to index and to prevent crawling pages that add little or no value. Google’s robots.txt analysis tool can help you be sure you’re using the file correctly.
- Optimize page loading
Since user experience counts in determining quality websites, Google recommends regularly monitoring site performance with the Site Performance tool in Webmaster Tools or using tools like Page Speed, WebPagetest and YSlow.
- Make sure your server supports the If-Modified-Since HTTP header
The If-Modified-Since HTTP header lets Google know if the content has changed since it was last crawled.
Design and content guidelines
- Take the time to plan your site
Be sure the site has a clear and logical hierarchy and that all pages can be reached from at least one static text link. Keep links on any given page to a reasonable number.
- Develop a list of keywords and make sure you use them
Think how people would search for the products or services your site promotes. Use Google’s Adwords Keywords Tool to help in your research.
- Optimize title and meta tags
Be accurate and descriptive in creating title tags for your pages as well as the meta description tag (Google ignores meta keyword tags).
- Use heading tags appropriately
There are six sizes of heading tags available beginning with the most important <h1> through <h6>. It is generally recommended that you stick to <h1>, <h2>, <h3> and <h4> as <h5> and <h6> are frequently rendered below default text size, whereas <h4> is normally assumed to match body text size.
Since they make the enclosed text bigger, heading tags give important visual clues to readers to identify important items on a web page. They also help clue search engines into what is most important on the page as well. Use heading tags much the same way you would if creating an outline of a page, with greater or lesser emphasis as warranted on key points.
Use them sparingly and make sure the words you use helps better define the page’s structure.
Search image via Shutterstock.
- Create a site map
Make sure your site map links to the important parts of your site and then submit it using Google Webmaster Tools.
- Create meaningful anchor text
While you can’t necessarily control external anchor text on external pages linking to yours, you can make sure the anchor text within your own site is relevant, descriptive and useful.
- Keep dynamic web pages to a minimum
Not all search engine spiders crawl dynamic web pages (those that have a “?” in their URL), so it’s best to limit their use and keep the URLs short.
- Optimize alt text
While you should avoid embedding text in images and stuffing ALT attributes with keywords, you should provide good, accurate and descriptive titles and captions for images.
- Provide good quality and relevant images
Relevant content around images can help give search engines further information about them.
- Specify a width and height for images
This helps speed up page loading and provides better user experience since browsers can start to render pages before images are downloaded if they know these specifications.
- Create simple and easy to understand URLs
Not only are user friendly URLs better for anyone wanting to link to your content, they can also help search engines crawl your site more efficiently. Long URLS can intimidate users and be hard to remember.
But if a URL is relatively short and contains words relevant to your products or services, it provides users and search engines more information about a page’s content than a long and complex URL It’s good to remember, too, that URLs appear as a part of Google’s search results and the clearer and more descriptive, the better.
More on links
When all is said and done, backlinks to your site are still one of the biggest factors in how it will be ranked. And when it comes to links, it’s still a case of not who you know but who knows you.
- Seek diversity in your links
If there’s one thing Google likes almost as much as quality, it’s variety. So in building an online link strategy, try to build not only quality links from respected online sources, but try to get such links from a variety of sources such as press releases, blog posts and comments, forums, press releases, articles and more.
- Keep links that exactly match keywords or phrases to less than 40%
It used to be easy for black-hatters to essentially game the system by simply creating more and more links for the same keywords. Now, however, it’s a quick way to have your site flagged.
At a 40% rate, that means 3 out of every 5 links should not be an exact match to avoid Google’s ire. Many professionals say 30% or less is even better.
- Get natural
Going hand in hand with Google’s de-emphasis of using keywords as links is its emphasis on natural links — links the way an average person who is not an SEO marketer might set them up.
A marketer selling little red wagons, for instance, would be inclined to use a link such as “Learn more about little red wagons” whereas the average person creating such a link would likely say something like, “To learn more about little red wagons, click here”.
Search image via Shutterstock.
While Google’s quality guidelines are filled with more “don’ts” than “dos,” ignoring them is one of the surest ways to have your site demoted.
- Don’t use hidden links and hidden text
Typical ways of hiding text include text and backgrounds of identical colors, text behind images, and a 0 font size. Links are hidden similarly and by using small characters like hyphens or periods as links.
- Don’t stuff keywords
Keyword stuffing has long been a no-no, but with the latest algorithms, it’s spotted more easily. Google recommends using keywords appropriately and in the context of information-rich content as your best bet for higher ranking.
- Don’t use multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content
In the past, duplicate content wouldn’t help a website’s ranking, but it wouldn’t necessarily hurt. Now, it can. To avoid having your original content mistaken as duplicate when syndicating, Google recommends having the syndicating site provide a backlink to your content or use a noindex meta tag.
Of course, you should strive to minimize duplicate content on your own site, paying attention to boilerplate repetition of information like that found in footers.
- Use 301 redirects
To maintain a URL’s ranking value, use 301 permanent redirects when moving to a new domain or merging two websites to make sure outdated URLs point to the correct pages.
- Don’t create doorway pages or affiliate programs with little original content
Doorway pages are typically of very poor quality and optimized for a single keyword or keyword phrase. And if you participate in an affiliate program, make sure your site adds value and is not just a pay-per-click site.
And while it’s easier to play by the rules in optimizing your website, if you happen to be one of the black hatters whose site has been demoted in Google’s rankings, it’s never too late to clean up your act and submit your site for reconsideration.
What tactics have you found successful in promoting sites on Google? Have you ever resorted to black-hat techniques? Let us know in the comments below.