Online publishers – newspapers, for example – depend on visits and pageviews for their livelihood. The biggest source of visits is still unpaid, ‘organic’ search results. So, why do so many publishers do such a poor job of optimizing their sites?
Yes, I know, the pageview is dead. Yet everyone still charges and values everything based on pageviews. So, once all the folks calling time of death come up with a replacement, and the industry adopts it, I’ll change my viewpoint.
I don’t know, either, but I’ve pulled together a list of easy tweaks and changes that can help make any publication improve its rankings, fast:
Forget About Keywords
- If you’re a fairly large publication site, with 500+ or even 10,000+ pages, forget about keywords. Your goal is to make sure the search engines can find every one of those pages, and accurately classify it. That will also lead to more pageviews, because folks searching for specific items like ‘Tour de France News’ will find you, stick around, and remember you for later.
- If you have to focus on a keyphrase, do something like ‘[region or industry] News’. So for cycling, it might be ‘Cycling News’ or ‘Bike Racing News’.
- But really, forget about keywords.
Open Up Your Site
- Don’t require registration. The New York Times has stopped. The Wall Street Journal will soon, too. Registration doesn’t work – folks won’t pay for it when they can find the news elsewhere using, you guessed it, search. With only a few exceptions, search engines can’t get past a registration form. If you have one, you’re cutting off all of the content behind that form. So get rid of it.
- Don’t have a separate archive. It’s tempting to move old articles to a different address, just to keep things tidy. Don’t: Search engines will lose track of the old content, and that old content is doing a lot to help you achieve a high ranking. Keep all articles on your site, no matter how old. You can still keep things neat by moving the links to those articles to a separate page. But keep the articles at the same address, from the day they go live to the day you sell your publication for millions.
- Keep your site at home. If I go to www.seattlepi.com, I’m immediately redirected to seattlepi.nwsource.com. Ideally, stop doing that. Just use the root ‘www.seattlepi.com’ address. Links are votes. Every link you get at one address is potentially a vote lost at the other. So right now the www.seattlepi.com address is Ralph Nader or Ross Perot. You want it to be Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. So eliminate the redirect and use the ‘www’ address. Folks will link to you more consistently and you’ll get more of those votes pointed at a single address.
- Avoid redirects. While redirects are OK, they can complicate things, and in my experience they cause problems. If you’re currently redirecting visitors from ‘www.mysite.com’ to ‘www.mysite.com/html’ or some such, why not just let them stay at ‘www.mysite.com’? That’ll concentrate link votes (see #3 above), reduce the chance that you’ll get slapped by the search engines, and make your site make more sense to boot.
- Look at your site in Lynx. This is a text-only browser that’ll let you see how search engines view your site.
Revamp Your Structure
- Flatten things out a bit. You have to have categories, clearly, or your visitors won’t find a thing. But do you really need a baseball glove subcategory of the baseball section in the summer sports part of the sports page? If you can move some content ‘up’ in the site structure (fewer clicks from the home page), search engines will often award it more importance.
- ‘Silo’ your content. Make sure your site has nice, neat categories with a central category ‘hub’ page.
- Then make sure all articles in those categories link back to that hub page. That increases the relevance of that page for the subjects discussed in the articles.
- You have a search tool on your site. You probably also have a record of searches performed (if you don’t, fire your developer). Look at that record, and make sure the phrases that comprise the top 10% of searches are linked from the home page. It could be something as simple as a text link, or a paragraph with a link. Search engines are structured thinkers, so linking to this content from the home page will boost its relative importance.
- Look at your site traffic report. What keywords generate the most traffic? Repeat #1 in this section, for those keywords, too.
- Use sensible link text. If you’re linking to the Sports section, use a link that reads ‘sports’, for heaven’s sake. If you’re linking to an article about baking bread, then make the link read ‘in this article about baking bread’. Don’t make the search engines, or your visitors, guess.
- Put article and category names in your title tag. The title meta tag is at the top of the semantic hierarchy for most search engines. Make sure that the article title and section are in the title tag. So, if you have a page in the sports section about NASCAR’s increasing popularity, the title tag might be ‘NASCAR More Popular Than Ever – Sports – Ian’s Great Newspaper’. That title tag is descriptive: It lets the search engine immediately see that the page is about NASCAR and sports. And, since the title tag shows up at the top of the search snippet in the search results, it also means searchers will be more likely to click on your listing:
- Put your headings in heading tags (H1, H2, H3, etc.). Use headings that describe the content of the page. The article title is fine. Then put sub-headings into lower level heading tags. This insures that search engines, in their endless search for structure, will see that top level heading that reads ‘The Housing Boom Is Over’ and think “hey, this page is about the housing boom”.
- Put paragraphs of text in paragraph elements. Seems simple, but I’ve seen more sites that use line breaks and tables than use paragraph tags. After a search engine looks at that heading, it’ll see the proceeding paragraph that mentions the same topic, and it’ll think â€œhey, this page is really about the housing boom.â€
Clean Up Your Code
- Remove any inline CSS. See #1.
- Link consistently. Link to each page of your site using the same address, all the time.
- Don’t use query attributes for insite tracking. I see a lot of publications add stuff like ‘?homepage=rightside’ to indicate that a particular click came from the right side of the page. Don’t. Use a tool like ClickTracks or ClickTale to track click locations instead.
Duplication. Search engines see ‘www.mysite.com/article.htm?id=1’ and ‘www.mysite.com/article.htm?id=1&homepage=rightside’ as different, unique pages, even if the content is identical. That creates duplication issues, which won’t help you much with search engines.
- Paginate consistently. If you have a multi-page article, you’ll probably put links at the bottom and top of the page that let folks jump from page 1 to 2 to 3, etc.. When they jump back to page 1, make sure the page URL doesn’t have ‘?p=1’ or ‘p=0’ in it. So make sure pagination doesn’t create duplication issues with the first page of your article. See the Duplication note, above, if you’re wondering why this is an issue.
- Sort with cookies. Don’t use query attributes for sorting, either. Same reason as above. Or dynamnically insert a ROBOTS meta tag set to ‘noindex’ whenever you have a sorting query attribute. Again, ask your developer is this is gibberish.
- Link to sections consistently. If you have a ‘shopping’ section, link to is using ‘www.mysite.com/shopping/’ or ‘www.mysite.com/shopping/index.html’. Just use one of those, all the time. Don’t mix them. Again, that’ll create duplicate content.
- Link back to your home page consistently. Always link back to your home page one way. I recommend ‘www.mysite.com/’, because most folks will use that when they link to you from their sites, too.
- Add an RSS feed. If you don’t have one, create an RSS feed for your latest articles. Put the entirety of each article into the feed. And include at least one link to another article on your site. Why? So that when folks use software to plagiarize your RSS feed and use it to put content on their sites, they create links back to you. It works brilliantly, I assure you.
- Reward others for linking to you. Create a contest, or an offer, or something, that encourages folks to link to you. Remember, links are votes. More votes mean you have a better shot at a high ranking for your various topics.
- Write unique description tags. The description meta tag has little or no effect on your ranking, but search engines often use description tags as the snippet in their results pages. If your writers create good descriptions, folks who read them will be more likely to click through to your site.
- Create a Google site map, and a Google Webmaster Tools account. Verify your site, and then use the data they give you about crawl problems and links to further improve your site.
Overall, focus on accessibility for your site: Make it easy for for visitors to see exactly what each page is about, as quickly as possible, and make it easy for them to get from page to page. If you do that, chances are you’re doing the same for search engines.