5 search practices you need to improve, now
I was blown away by a recent blog post by SEOmoz, which describes various correlations between page attributes and ranking in Bing and Google. They tested thousands of existing pages for the top AdWords categories and cranked out one of the most rigorous analyses of actual ranking factors I have ever seen. Two things struck me most about the analysis:
- I’m continually amazed at how hard the search engines work to thwart attempts to rig natural search results.
- Search strategy needs to be cued into the continual changes the engines are making. That doesn’t mean trying to find clever ways of hacking the system. It means finding ways that you don’t unwittingly hurt your own efforts by being out of date in your guidance.
I won’t go over the report in much detail. You can read it. It’s already concise. And the most important factors relate to links, over which you have limited control. But I do want to point out five web publishing practices that are fairly pervasive in the industry, for which you probably could do a better job. If you do nothing else with the SEOmoz post, improve these five web publishing practices.
1. Don’t worry about keywords in the title tags or H1 tags. The study shows a negative correlation with having keywords in title tags and H1 tags for both Bing and Google. That means you actually get knocked down the rankings for doing what most web publishers try to do above all else. This is kind of like what happened when metadata stopped having any impact on the search rankings. In this case, it not only doesn’t have much effect on the rankings, it has a negative effect. The study concludes “Everyone seems to be optimizing their title tags these days (appeared in Google: 11,115 vs. Bing: 11,143). Differentiating here is hard.” So it’s not like you shouldn’t put keywords in the title or H1, but it won’t get you much.
2. Take the time to get the URL right. Google and Bing don’t agree on this one. But Google gives big benefits for having keywords in the URL. The closer the keywords are to the root directory, the more advantages the algorithm gives you. The best possible case is to have the keywords between www and .org or whatever top-level domain you have. Otherwise, try to get the keywords as close to the first / as you can. This is a switch for a lot of web publishers who have legacy environments with clear URL structures. For these folks, it is very difficult to add new URLs and meet this requirement. This puts a lot of pressure on the webmaster team to create and manage new high-level domains. But it is usually worth the effort.
3. Focus on the body copy. A lot of teams do this already, but some think they are done when they get the title, H1 and H2s right. Google weights having keywords in the body copy higher than Bing. For Google anyway, you can’t afford not to have at least a couple of instances of the keyword or a stemmed form of it in the body. The study did qualify this however: It’s not about the number of times a keyword is in the body, it’s about the keyword density. One instance in a short, pithy page is better than two instances in a page that makes users scroll.
4. Focus on alt attributes. Alt attributes are pieces of text embedded in image code that allow screen readers to tell sight-impaired users about the image. Though primarily used for accessibility reasons, both Google and Bing give you a lot of credit for having keywords in alt attributes. This makes sense because they can’t see whether images are relevant to the query or not. All they have to go on are alt attributes.
One note of caution, however. Please don’t spam alt attributes. The alt attribute should be natural language that makes sense when read by a screen reader. If you can’t fit keywords into all your alt attributes without making it sound forced, don’t sweat it. Just don’t shoehorn them in to pump up your ranking artificially. If enough sites start doing that, Google and Bing will change their algorithms to thwart those attempts. So for the sake of SEO practitioners everywhere, please be honest and transparent in your use of alt attributes. We don’t want another situation like we had with metadata, title and H1 tags on our hands.
5. If you have a choice, don’t choose .com domains. In their tests, .org and .gov domains did much better than .com domains, all things considered. So if you’re considering starting a new site, use .org if you can get it. By all means buy .com, but don’t automatically use it as the default.
I wrote a post when we first started this blog about how dumbfounded I was by a particular high profile page in our environment ranking poorly despite our best efforts. Those familiar with that post will see the five recommendations I list above as familiar. In short, I used our best guidance, thinking I was doing all the right things, but four of the five things we did were the wrong things.
- We were not able to get much keyword density in the body copy because it was a speech by IBM Chairman, CEO and President Sam Palmisano, and we weren’t about to change his words. The best we could do was to write a preface before the speech transcript with one instance of the keyword in it. In a half-hour speech, that is not nearly enough keyword density for Google to give us credit for having keywords in the body copy.
- Our URL string was too long to get much benefit from the keywords we built into it.
- SEOmoz is the first study I’ve seen that confirms my hypotheses about competition from .org and .gov domains, which brings a bitter sweet sentiment. If I had known how hard it is to compete with those domains, I would have chosen different keywords.
- And the title and H1 issues shocked me. We worked hard to get the keywords in there, and it only hurt us.
- The only thing we did right was to focus on alt attributes. We worked keywords into them where appropriate and probably got some benefit from it. But it was balanced out by the four things we did wrong.
Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned in all this is never to take your guidance as gospel, but humbly change your sacred guidance when research indicates it no longer works. Also, you can never do enough research. That reminds me, I’ve got work to do to change our guidance, including in our book, where we advise readers to put the keyword in the title and H1 tags. It doesn’t mean our guidance is wrong, it just might not be as important as it seemed before this study.