When I consult with businesses, clients or not, one of the things that I always try to help them understand is the site search engine optimization process and how search engines like Google see their websites, associating their web pages with keyword sets or themes. Since this is a regular discussion I have with clients, I decided to put it in blog format so they can read and solidify what was just discussed. Let’s get started!
How Search Engines Work
Before you can understand how a search engine associates a web page with keywords (or how to get a website to show up on a search engine), it’s important to understand how a search engine works.
Search engines have what they refer to as “web crawlers,” which they deploy to crawl the internet, find web pages, read web pages, determine what they are about, decide how relevant and authoritative the web page is, and then rank it accordingly for relevant keywords on their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). It’s really as simple as that.
Google affectionately refers to their web crawler as “Googlebot.” As Googlebot visits your website, it notes links on each page and adds them to links of pages to crawl. Googlebot will note any changes to your pages or new URLs and make note of them.
How Search Engines See Your Site
Now that you understand how a search engine works, let’s talk about how search engines see your site. When you and I visit the ESPN home page, we see this:
We see some numbers, some pictures, a video, and some text. It is very easy for us to know what the page is about.
However, when a search engine visits this same web page, they see this:
Way different… right?
You see, as of right now, crawlers can only read words and numbers. They can’t look at a picture or video and know what it’s about. As they crawl through the code, they look at certain elements of the page to help them determine what it is about. Strategic placement of keywords in each of those elements helps send signals to the crawler as to what they are looking at. Let’s talk about those elements next.
How To Get Your Website on Search Engines
There are several components that make a solid, SEO-optimized webpage. Here are a few.
One of the first things a crawler sees when they crawl a web page is the title tag, enclosed by <title> in your page’s HTML code. This is one of the strongest on page signals you can send to a crawler. That is why any SEO will tell you to use your most important keyword in your title tag so they know what the content that follows is about.
Google can read your entire title tag, but only the first 65 characters of your title will appear on the SERPs. Definitely try to keep your keyword-optimized title tags at or around 65 characters.
You’ll also want to make sure that every title on your website is unique. Don’t give any pages the same name.
Heading tags, AKA <h2> or <h3> tags, are also used to tell the search engines what the following content is about.
Think of heading tags as chapter headings that preface what you are about to read. When building out your web page, make sure to use variations of your keywords in your heading tags. Don’t stuff the keywords unnecessarily into your headings. Googlebot is getting smarter and smarter, and punishes content that feels unnatural.
Content — your blog body text, your product descriptions, your website copy — is a key element of a web page that a crawler looks at to determine what the page is about. Googlebot reads every word of content on your page. The more (quality) content you have, the more Google’s algorithm can determine if your page is relevant to certain keywords… and the higher you will rank for them!
Regularly publishing high-quality, relevant content that with strategic (but never overstuffed!) keyword placement is is critical to telling the crawler what the page is about, improving your rankings and organic traffic.
Image/Alt Attribute Usage:
When you choose to incorporate images into your content, make sure to use keywords to describe the image in the “img alt tag” attribute. Google can’t see images, so they rely on these tags to determine what the visual content is about. If your img alt tag isn’t relevant to the keywords you want to rank for — or worse, if it isn’t there at all! — you’re not doing your website any SEO-related favors.
Make sure all the images on your site contain relevant image alt tags with variations of relevant keywords.
This element tells the crawlers what the image is and how it related to the surrounding content.
Now that you understand why keywords are so important and how Google searches for them, you need to figure out what specific keywords you should be going after for your website. You can figure out what keywords are relevant for your niche, what keywords you’re currently ranking for, and how to improve your keyword rankings through a process called keyword research.
Keyword research is critical because it can help you form a robust, effective SEO strategy. Rather than flying blind and hoping you start to pull in organic traffic, you can choose specific keywords to target and create more content surrounding those keywords.
If you’re wondering how to get started with keyword research, Wordstream has a free keyword tool that can help you tailor keywords to your niche, industry, and location. You can also use the Google Keyword Planner (if you have a Google Analytics account) or more advanced tools like SEMRush.
Unless you include keyword-rich copy on your site that is relevant to your product or services — and relevant to the words people search to find those products or services — there’s little to no chance people will find your content organically. Sure, this might sound like common sense after you’ve read this far into the article, but you’d be surprised how often businesses fall into this trap.
For example, let’s say you’re a cooking school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Chances are, people looking for services like yours will search “cooking class” or a variation of that keyword, plus “Salt Lake City,” or “Utah.”
If you’ve branded your cooking classes as “Culinary Experiences” or the like, people searching for “cooking classes” simply aren’t going to find you. That’s why keyword research is so important: You can see what relevant keywords in your niche are actually being searched.
Remember, over-usage of keywords in your title, headings, content, or image alt attributes is considered spammy and could bring a penalty to your site.
Use your keywords strategically but sparingly and use variations to help associate all of the keywords in your set with the page.
Sticking with the cooking class idea, you might have a page that looks like this:
Authentic Italian Cooking Classes in Salt Lake City
Utah’s premiere cooking school for unbeatable culinary experiences
The copy on your web pages would, no doubt, explain the nature of your offerings, naturally working related keywords into the text. I like to believe that if you know your business and write naturally, you will naturally use a lot of them in your content creation.
External & Internal Links
Links from external web pages in addition to other pages on your website will also tell a search engine what the linking page is about. Remember when we wrote about the different types of anchor text? Building links externally and internally with the keywords related to the linking page will help a search engine anticipate what the page they are going to is about.
We call these valuable external links “backlinks,” and backlink building is a critical part of search engine optimization. The more authoritative and relevant websites linking back to yours, the better.
There are many ways you can obtain backlinks in 2018 and beyond. One, focus on ensuring that all the content you create, from blog posts to videos to downloadables, are highly helpful and shareable. People will share useful content and link to it on their own pages, earning you backlinks for free.
You can also reach out to other blogs and websites and offer to contribute guest posts that link back to your website. Asking influencers and bloggers to review products will also earn you links.
What is a “Social Signal?”
Well, it’s SEO speak for the play any given page is getting on social media. If people are sharing a certain URL on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any other social platform, Googlebot takes that as a cue that it is more valuable and will rank it accordingly.
Very similar to links, social signals can also help a search engine associate keywords with a web page. When you are sharing a link on twitter and use the title of the post (remember, use your keywords in the title) in your description, the engines will assume that is what the content is about.
When it’s all said and done, the search engines will have a pretty good idea of what a web page is about after they look at each of the components that we discussed. I hope that this has been a help to you in understanding how the search engines associate your web pages with keyword sets and themes.
If you have any questions, please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below.