Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dashes Are Better Than Underscores for Separating Keywords in the URL

So, you already know that including your keywords in your URL is an SEO best-practice and a very strong driver of good search engine rankings. But what if you have more than one keyword in your URL? How do you separate them? Should you push them together, use dashes, underscores, or other delimiters?

The short answer is to use dashes to separate keywords. Matt Cutts, Google's head of web spam and SEO king, has come out and said this explicitly so I'll leave it at that. Plus, I agree that it's more readable from a user perspective as well.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Roll Out Big Changes Slowly to Avoid the Sandbox

It pays to think about SEO when first building your site so as to avoid the pain of having to fix things later. However, none of us ever get things 100% right from the get-go and optimization changes are always in the cards. What's important to keep in mind is that if you're going to be changing a large number of pages or changing important elements of pages (e.g., title tags or URLs), is to roll out the changes slowly if possible. Search engines will often notice large-scale changes, and raise red flags if they think you're over-optimizing. As a rule of thumb, if you're changing more than 10,000 pages, try to roll things out in smaller chunks (perhaps 10-20% chunks) and give the engines time to digest things and adjust rankings. That way you can see what the expected outcome might be and continue with the changes if things look ok.

Some time ago I changed around 100,000 pages at once - both the title tags and meta descriptions only to see a fairly rapid drop in the search traffic they drew. The changes were all for the better, but the magnitude of pages changed at once probably drew attention from the search engines. After 6 weeks the traffic bounced back (and higher than before as we had hoped), most likely as the engines noticed that the pages had stabilized and indexed them properly again. In all likelihood had I changed the pages in 10k page chunks, that would have avoided the temporary search engine penalty / sandboxing (and a whole lot of grief and nervousness hoping that the traffic would bounce back!).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Using Images for SEO: Leverage the Image URL

We recently covered SEO for Images so I figured I'd write a follow-up post about another tactic you can use to help search engines "understand" what particular images are of. The alt tag is still your most powerful ally in this battle, but don't forget the image URL. The search engines most certainly look at the name of the image file for additional clues as to what that image is of. For example, an image file called chocolate.jpg is much more descriptive than IMG003482.jpg.

So, when naming your image files, first make sure that you use names for the files that are descriptive, and second, ensure that those descriptions are mindful of the keywords you are targeting. Every bit counts when helping search engines properly interpret your pages, especially when it comes to images.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Finding Links to Your Web Page and Those of Your Competitors

We've talked all about the importance of link-building and how fostering many, high-quality, and diverse inbound links is probably the singlemost powerful thing you can do to improve your page's search engine rankings. But how do you track who is linking to your page? Also, what if you want to find out who is linking to your competitors? Here are two quick-and-easy tips:

The first and simplest way to get a read on links is by using Google's "link:" operator. Search for "" and Google will return pages that are linking to the page you include. Even though this is not a complete list you can use it as a good representative sample.

Second, if you're using Google Webmaster Tools (more on that in a later post) it'll give you a fairly comprehensive analysis of the links your site is receiving. Drawback here is that you can only do this for sites you have control over, and not those of your competitors.

A lot of SEO sites out there have their own backlink analysis tools but at the end of the day I find that many of them are based on the Google link: operator and it's equivalents in Yahoo and MSN and just using one of those is good enough for 90% of use cases.

Heading Tags and SEO - H1 Tag FTW!

I can't believe we haven't included Heading Tags H1, H2, H3, etc. in our daily SEO tips yet! I'll make sure to rectify that right now.

Heading tags are one of the most important things you can do to tell search engines what a web page is about. Putting text inside an H1 tag (the most important of heading tags) is almost as important/effective for SEO as including that text and keywords in the title tag or URL. So, ensure that your keywords are included within the H1 tag of the page. You can always use CSS to over-ride any styling that the H1 tag imposes on your page, so don't let that stop you.

Also, note that including keywords inside an H1 tag is much more relevant/important than within an H2 tag (which is more important than an H3 tag, and so on...)

Thus, include your primary keywords in the H1 tag and any secondary keywords within "lower-level" heading tags.

As with everything - make sure you're not using heading tags to stuff keywords, especially ones that are nonsensical for a user. Simply think about how to best craft the content within an H1 tag so that it has SEO in mind.

Finally, if you have pages that have headings but don't use any heading tags -- change that! Make sure that your headings (h1) and sub-headings (h2) are properly denoted using the correct HTML tags and this best practice of web design will also benefit your search rankings.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

SEO for Images: The Alt Tag and Image Search

We've talked a good deal about how to ensure your content is properly indexed by search engines and ranks well for keywords that are important to you.

However, what about when your content is not "readable" as in an image on a page? How do you ensure that the search engine is able to understand what the contents of the image are and in turn drives relevant search traffic to that image and the page that contains it.

The answer to this question is fairly straightforward yet one that is often overlooked: Use the "alternative" or ALT tag to provide attributes to describe the image. Not only is this a good thing to do from an accessibility and usability standpoint but also for SEO.

The syntax is as follows: img src="image.jpg" alt="alternative description here"

As you decide what to include in the alt attribute, make sure that the attribute accurately describes the image and also that the way it is described is such that it optimizes for the keywords that are important to you.

Finally, search engines like Google have image-focused search options (e.g., Google Image Search) which can actually drive quite a good deal of traffic by itself. Make sure to keep that in mind as you create appropriate and relevant alt tags for your images.

SEOBook's Rank Checker - A Great SEO Tool

If you're wondering how to quickly track how your website ranks for multiple keywords across multiple search engines, look no further than SEOBook's Rank Checker tool.

This Firefox plugin allows you to input various keywords you want to track and then automatically checks in what place you rank for those words. Here's a video that shows you how it works:

Hopefully this saves you time and allows you to track your performance over time (the export to .csv functionality helps you store this data over time).

Monday, November 30, 2009

External Links for SEO: Link Quantity vs Quality vs Diversity

Now that you've learned how building up inbound links to your web page from external websites is probably the single-most important element in SEO, you're embarking on a campaign to foster inbound links to your site. But how do you decide what links to go after and how to prioritize across various opportunities?

As a general rule of thumb, you want to have as many links from a diverse set of the most reputable sites possible.

First let's take quantity versus quality. You can think of the PageRank algorithm as a summation of all the links you receive, weighted by their authority. So, for example, if you receive 5 different links from 5 different sites with "authorities" 2, 3, 7, 7, and 9, you could say that the total "authority" gained by your site is 2+3+6+7+7, or 25. On the other hand, if you received 3 different links from 3 different sites with authorities 9, 9, and 9, you would have received 9+9+9, or 27 "authority points." In our example, you would have been better off with fewer, but higher quality, links.

That tradeoff between link quantity and link quality should be fairly clear. Of course, keep in mind that obtaining a link from a more authoritative site is oftentimes more difficult, and thus may require more time and effort on your part to obtain.

The third variable I'll throw in here is the issue of link diversity. Let's take the example above with the 3 links. In a situation where all 3 links are from the same single site (from different pages or from different parts of the same page) versus where each of the 3 links comes from a different site, the option where the links come from more diverse sites is better and thus likely to rank your site higher.

It's even said that search engines may grade sites as being more or less diverse from each other based on past link patterns and other factors. Thus, there are also varying grades of "diversity." Make sure to keep in mind link diversity when building your inbound link profile as it's yet another factor that engines look at which you should take into account!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Which URL Shortener to Use for SEO

The explosion of Twitter in 2009 has led to a surge in the use of URL shorteners as well as as a surge in the number of different URL shorteners out there.

There are a few things, from the SEO perspective, you need to know when selecting which URL shortener to use.

First, you want to pick a URL shortener that is going to exist into the future. If shortened links to your site are being posted throughout the web, those are all links that could be in jeopardy in the event that the URL shortener used to shorten them becomes defunct. This happened most recently with and a lot of controversy followed. Some efforts (most notably 301works) have arisen to remedy this risk, but regardless, I'd suggest picking the most robust URL shortener when shortening your own URLs (if others are shortening your URLs there's little you can do there).

The other thing you need to make sure you do is that you use a shortening service that uses a 301 redirect to your URL (we covered when to use a 301 redirect previously). Search Engine Land had a good post on this topic and a chart that goes over the main shorteners and which ones use proper redirects (as well as other factors you may want to consider).

In short, to make your decision easier, I'd say go with the biggest shortener. They're likely to be using the redirects correctly (or else not so many people would use them) and they're also likely to be a robust solution that will be around into the future.

Use Google Toolbar to View PageRank - SEO Tools

We've talked about the concept of PageRank before - the numerical measure that Google assigns for how important a given page is in the context of the overall web. PageRank is a critical determining factor in how search results are ranked by Google, and therefore a critical component of SEO.

We know how important PageRank is, but how do we know what PageRank is assigned to a given web page? There are a number of tools out there, but one that I find to be useful and convenient is the Google search toolbar. Not only can you easily search from the toolbar, but, among other things, it also shows you what the PageRank is for the page you're currently on.

This is a great way to quickly estimate how valuable a link is that you're receiving by knowing how reputable Google thinks a given page is. That said, pagerank in the toolbar is not always the most up-to-date, and it also doesn't speak to how relevant a specific page might be for a given topic (a page might have a lot of authority but only for a single topic and that might be understated in the single measure of PageRank).

Hope you can add Google Toolbar to your SEO toolbox as yet another valuable SEO tool that makes your analysis quick and effective.