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Ten Things That Matter For Search

October 26, 2010

(Repost of my piece drafted for The Institute of Social Media blog)

The issue: It is common for web content authors to fail to adequately consider two critical requirements: being discovered and clarity of message. Here are ten key items to consider …

Our Sample Page, Ten Things That Matter and Resulting Search Outcome
Here is a page model (below). The inset box with ‘Search’ placed top-right is an example of the Google result that this page would create within a search results page (yes, you create the result that Google ultimately displays). The keyword that we are focused on for this example is Impact and the red-pointers are our ‘ten things that matter’. You may need to keep referring to this image as we progress. The aim is to optimize this page for superior discovery within a search for ‘Impact’. Control the items that you can and at least be aware of the ones you cannot.

Elements of a web page important for driving search results.

Our Ten Things that Matter – Google Search
The advice that follows is primarily targeted at maximizing Google organic search results (non-paid). Something often called ‘Search Engine Optimization’ or SEO. Taking a ‘Google centric’ focus is also good practice for many other search models, web page construction in general (usability) and message crafting. Lets identify each of our ten items and what you can do to improve your search performance.

Item 1 – Web Page Address or URL
Your web page address or URL (Uniform Resource Locater) is what you would type into the web browser to go directly to your page. Every page has its own potential search outcomes and you need to consider (separately and in combination) every page of web content you wish to manage (tip: in a website improvement project, start with the most important pages first). The URL contains the website domain (example: and the page itself (example: /impact/) combined together to form the URL. Sometimes there is other code and text (tip: get rid of it if it is not needed and ask your technical people about a ‘mod re-write’ even if it is).

The website domain has the strongest search power of any piece of content. You will struggle to out perform ( in a search on ‘keyword’ so if you are creating a new website, carefully consider the name of the domain. For the rest of us, it is too late, the domain is set for better or worse. We can, however, usually control the ‘page naming’ section of the URL which also has significant search clout. With brevity in mind, make the name meaningful to the purpose of the page with some consideration of search relevance. Most importantly, remember that all search benefits and inbound links will become connected to this URL, if you change it later, you loose the search results (which take a long-time to build) and you break incoming links. Although there are some methods to redirect and even transfer some of the page search benefits, these are not fully effective, and your search outcomes will decline significantly and take time to rebuild. Don’t change the page address (URL) unless you must, it is the online equivalent of changing your street address. Your page URL is the anchor point for all search, it forms the ‘green’ content element within the Google Search results, and it has a significant role to play in search discovery.

Item 2 – Page Title or Window Title
Your web page title is the most misunderstood and misused piece of digital ‘real-estate’. So often we see Page Titles that simply say ‘Home’ – this is absolute madness. Not only is the Window Title an opportunity for short marketing text, it is one of the most important pieces of content for delivering search outcomes. The Window Title forms the Heading of your Google result. That makes it the most powerful piece of content you have at your disposal, for encouraging someone to actually click through to your web page, when they see the heading in the Google search results. As a bonus, when someone is actually on your web page they barely look at this content, as it normally appears in the browser header (absolute top) and they are already concentrating on the content or navigation. This makes the Window Title an opportunity to ‘sell’ the content of the page without really being part of the content of the page.

You have around 65 characters to fill the Google heading for your result. Use a number of likely and relevant search terms to build a headline that will encourage a new searcher to click through to the site page and read more. Finally, make sure your Window Titles are unique to each page in your website. If you were designing Google, how many duplicate headlines for results would you show on any list of results? So if your ‘home’ page is your most critical website page, why would you call it simply ‘Home’ – make those 65 characters work to bring an audience that matters to your content.

Item 3 – Page Heading
Not to be confused with Item 2 (Page Title or Window Title), it is common practice to have an ‘in-page’ heading as part of the content. This piece of content does NOT form part of the Google search results (the displayed Google search result is usually formed from a combination of Items 1, 2 and 4). Nevertheless, this is one of the first pieces of content consumed by a visitor to the page, so it needs to hold their attention and confirm that they are in the ‘right place’ and prevent them from going back to the search results looking for a better option (something known as a page ‘bounce’). In addition, the words themselves provide Google with something to match against search terms. We call this Context. If I search on the word ‘Impact’, something on the page must match to this search – put simply, the page must contain the word ‘Impact’ or there is no ‘context relevance’ to the search.

Some content locations have more power than others to influence context relevance and where you are likely to appear in search results. The domain and the window title have high contextual power. This opening heading has less but is still stronger than most of the body copy and other page content. Make the heading capture the visitor and then consider including search terms that matter. Also, make sure that the Heading is classed as ‘H1′ in the code (ask for technical help if needed) and only use a single ‘H1′ heading on any individual page.

Item 4 – The OPENING Piece Of Body Text
The first 155 characters or so of ‘normal’ or ‘body’ text on the page is generally used by Google to create the ‘description’ contained within the search results. The search heading uses your page title (up to 65 characters), the search description normally uses your opening body text (up to 155 characters) and the search link uses your URL. Together these items (items 1, 2 and 4 on our list) make up your ‘ad’ for the page as it appears in search results. In essence this opening sentence should describe the content and scope of the page, using a richness of search terms, and also continue to hold a visitor’s attention when they get to the page.

Often web pages do not have opening text or the opening text is a news article, a link or something not really connected to the core purpose of the page. This is a BIG mistake. Not only do you miss creating a ‘search ad’ within the Google results, you have failed to introduce a visitor to the purpose of the page. Include embed animations, pictures, video and widgets by all means, provide lists and news items and links as well, but don’t forget to provide at least 155 characters of introductory text first. Your quantity of web page visitors will grow and their satisfaction with the experience will be enhanced. Don’t even get me started on accessibility and writing styles (website improvement material for another day’s blog post).

Item 5 – The Remainder Of The Text Content
We are now into the deeper content of the page itself. This copy is unlikely to form any part of the displayed Google results (the Google Ad so to speak), it does however provide additional context for search. In less competitive areas, a single word here might be sufficient for someone to find your page. In highly competitive search areas, the context will add to that created by the URL, Page Title and Opening Body Text that we have already covered above.

Some repetition of keywords can also enhance the context, however this ‘key word density’ is often overstated in its importance. Don’t repeat words to the point that they are annoying to the reader or they rob you of a broader message – a chance to include other terms that may be relevant. Don’t let repetition make your message longer or change the structure from concise, well written, active, useful and authentic messaging. In the body of your page the art is about balance. By all means, make a list of key terms that should be included and craft your copy to include them as best as possible (quiet often my engagement with clients is to draft a lexicon – a prioritized list of keywords that should be included as appropriate within site content). Every public web page (in my humble opinion) should contain some text-based content to assist with search discovery, knowledge transfer and the stimulation of further action.

Item 6 – Image and Rich Media Descriptions
In the case of Images, these are called ‘ALT Tags’ and they are a text description of the image or other visual or rich-media element. They don’t normally display on the page, except in some browsers while the image is loading, however you can see them in the HTML code if you choose ‘View Source’ in your browser. Some visually impaired audiences using ‘text readers’ have the descriptions read aloud, in place of seeing the image. As a result, ALT Tags are a key element in making your web page accessible and avoiding discrimination (now mandated in some countries and expected of major Government, corporate and public websites). The ALT-Tag also provides a minor boost to search context. Since it is important for accessibility and completeness, why not avail your web content of a slight additional benefit in search outcomes at the same time. This benefit is much larger when we are talking about ‘image search’ through Google or other image discovery tools and the traffic from people searching for image based content may be an important or additional audience channel for your web page.

Item 7 – Metadata Description
Metadata literally means ‘data about data’ and it is hidden information about your web page. There are a large number of metadata fields defined by W3C, Dublin Core, AGLS and other internet groups and web standards, and your technical staff should consider which are appropriate and ensure they are completed accordingly. For this search piece, we are looking at only two, the first being the Metadata Description. This is simply a description of your web page. On a page where there is no body text (see Item 4), Google may use the Metadata Description in place of body text to construct the search result description. This has encouraged some web authors and site builders (Flash and heavily visual sites especially) to drop body text from the page. Please do not make the same mistake. The Metadata Description is not an effective substitute and is not visible on the page itself, this means there is no cognitive reinforcement of the Google Result (Search Ad) by the content then experienced on a visitor’s arrival to the page, increasing the likelihood of departure (bounce rate).

The simplest way to use the Metadata Description is to copy Item 4 (the opening 155 character body text description) into the Metadata Description field (assuming the text description was well drafted and can stand in as a full page synopsis). This means the opening text and Metadata Description reinforce each other. Google doesn’t put much ‘context’ in store for metadata, preferring to use ‘on-page’ content, however every little bit helps get a better result and there are some search tools that make much greater use of metadata to locate content.

Item 8 – Metadata Keywords
Adding support to Item 7  (Metadata Description), keywords can be added as a list of ‘recommended search’ terms that connect with the context of the page. The same principles apply as they did with Metadata Description (above), Google pays only scant attention to these items but they can reinforce what you already have on the page, and they are useful for other metadata driven tools, portals and search frameworks. The best model is pick the 4 to 10 most important words within the page content that would match likely search behaviour, and then place them in the Metadata Keyword field (they must be comma separated, in priority order, used in the page content itself, and there is no point adding more than 10).

Item 9 – Google PageRank
If you have Items 1 to 8 sorted, you have created a Search Optimized web page, congratulations! Even if you have Items 1, 2 and 4 well managed, you have at least created a well constructed ‘search result ad’ when it appears within a Google results page. Those items will define the context (search relevance) that determines when you turn up within search and the degree of context matching that can help you outperform other web pages with the same Google PageRank. PageRank is however a critical issue, as your ultimate performance in a Google Search depends upon you having equal or superior PageRank to other web pages with similar contextual relevance. I have posted a more detailed ‘Understanding Google PageRank’ as it forms a whole complex conversation in its own right. For this post, let us stay with the basics.

Google scores the importance of your web page with a PageRank score out of 10. The scale is not linear and it is harder to get from 6 to 7 than from 0 to 6 – only the most powerful web pages ever make it to 10 and let us hope that you are not trying to compete with them for your audience. At its most simple, you inherit your PageRank from other web pages that link to you (incoming links) – in other words, the more high quality pages that link to your page, the higher your PageRank ultimately becomes. There is some fine-print here, issues and other detail that is the subject of the more detailed post. If you wish, you can install the Google Toolbar into your browser and use it to tell you the approximate PageRank of any public web page. The key point is, for search effectiveness you need incoming links to your page. Your website itself should be well constructed with quality navigation and suitable cross-links between content so that PageRank inheritance is passed efficiently within your website.

You should encourage partner businesses, friends, lists, portals, directories, industry groups and other relevant websites (related to or benefiting from your content) to link to your web page. Finally, you can use Social Media to talk about your website and web content and as a result create links – these links add to the conversation, bring their own traffic and compound the effect of PageRank inheritance making your search outcomes stronger. You get direct traffic and you also lift search traffic. It is also beneficial to ask your technical support to provide a Sitemap.xml page for your website that details your page priorities and content structure – effectively another set of links specifically provided to explain your website to Google’s search robot. Consider a Google Adwords (pay-per-click) program to boost search as well if it is appropriate to your website and you have a suitable budget.

Item 10 – Social Media
If you have read Item 9 – PageRank, then I have already sold you on the link-based search benefits of Social Media. In addition, most social media is web content in its own right and many of the conversations above apply in part to its optimization, especially where the end result is a piece of content with a URL of its own. Social Media also allows you to build conversations, audiences and network connection points. This all aids the reach of your content and encourages others to take up the conversation, add their voice to its promotion, and expand upon the initiating trigger. Using social media can create a number of beneficial outcomes, two of the most obvious are direct traffic to your content and additional PageRank inheritance. As if you needed any other reason to play in the Social Media space.

Parting Comment
I hope that this post helps you reconsider your online activity and create better outcomes for your content, your organization and your audience. Please subscribe to this blog for further updates and notification of forthcoming posts. You may also wish to consider engaging with the Institute for Social Media. Your comments on this post are most welcome …

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