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Creating search friendly sites
Now that you've created your website, you need to make sure people are looking at it. Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the process of ensuring that your webpages are accessible to search engines and are built in a way that improves their chances of being found.
The best way to get people to your website is through a search engine such as Google. Search engines enable people to find what they are looking for on the internet by typing a key word or phrase into a search field. The search engine will compare the keyword to the websites listed in its index and return a list of websites that are most relevant.
Search engines work in various ways, and each has a different logic. The world's most popular search engine, Google, is a crawler-based search engine, which means that it 'crawls' the internet collecting keywords and references, and presents the searcher with what it finds. Google then uses a complicated set of criteria to decide the order in which sites are listed. The most significant of these criteria is whether your site is linked to by other sites. Other criteria are whether the search term/s appear:
- in your domain name
- in your title and description tags
- in your headings
- elsewhere in the text of your page
While Google is the most popular search engine, it is worth remembering that there are lots of other search engines, such as Yahoo and Altavista, and that these use different logics. For example, search engines such as the Open Directory project are'human powered' and take submissions from individuals; they also have entries created by editors.
This section covers ways in which you can improve the chances of your content being found through search engines. As different search engines have different logics for how they prioritise webpages, it's useful to know how they work and what to focus on. Although there are ways of buying placement on search engines like Google, formost NGOs it's better to try and optimise your website so that it's higher in the rankings without having to do this.
If your organisation's website is being built by an outside contractor they may attempt to charge you extra for search engine optimisation. However it won't take you long to submit your site to the main search engines. Building your organisation's linking strategy requires specialist knowledge of your field, so as an insider you are probably best placed to do this.
Who is looking at your site?
The most accurate way to measure the success of your website is to look at your website's statistics and study the behaviour of its visitors. This is a really helpful way of working out what you are already doing right, and what you could do better. The tools you use to do this are called web analysis tools. There are various free tools available for doing this, including Google Analytics and Woopra.
The most important information to examine is the number of visitors or unique visitors, since this figure gives the most accurate impression of a site's audience.
The site analysis will also show you the number of hits your website receives, but this number can overestimate the popularity of a site because it counts the loading of every item on a page, not the viewing of a page overall.
Other information which your website statistics will offer:
- Referring search engines – details of which search engines delivered traffic to the website.
- Referring keywords – details of which key word phrases were used to find your site. If people are using keywords to search for your site that you aren't using in your site content or metadata (the keywords you use to describe your webpage), then you could use this information to identify new keywords to include in future.
- Unique monthly visits – it's good practice to monitor this on a monthly basis and measure it against the number of search engine referrals, so you know if your traffic is coming from people who knew your site already or from people using a search engine.
- Site paths (entry & exits) – this shows how many users entered a site per page and how many left per page. This is useful to check the effectiveness of high-ranking webpages. For example if a particular page on your website, such as your homepage, is used 100 times as an entry page for your site and only 10 users clicked beyond that page, 90% of the possible visitors were lost.
Metadata is a set of tags used to describe a webpage. It provides information such as page author, creation date, what the page is about and which keywords represent the page's content. An internet browser, such as Firefox or Internet Explorer, does not display metadata but the computers accessing the page can read and efficiently record it. Many search engines use metadata for the creation of their indexes.
Make sure each page of your site contains the following metadata:
- Title tag – text that appears on webpage title bars and search engine results pages. This should be about 60-80 characters.
- Description – the short line of text that is displayed in the search results of most search engines. This should be 100-200 characters.
- Key words & phrases – these need to be relevant to the content and separated by commas. Avoid repeating a keyword more than three times.
- Alt tags – including keywords in alt tags can help your search results.
Keywords – some words are better than others
Keywords are words that users enter into search engines to describe what they are looking for. Make sure that you find keywords for your site that are relevant to your organisation and to the field you are working in. Look through the online and offline content produced by your organisation to find inspiration for this.
Don't choose terms that are vague or generic, as there may be many websites already using these terms,and this will make your content harder to find. Ensure that you include words that are being used by your target audiences in search engines. You can use website statistics to find this information.
There are some free tools to help you choose keywords:
Whether you create your organisation's site yourself or work with outside contractors, try to stick to the following guidelines:
- Relevant, easily accessible content is the key to attracting and retaining your audience. Use simple language. The content of your site should be as easy to read as possible and shouldn't use jargon from the sector your organisation works in.
- If your site is created using a Content Management System such as Drupal, ensure that pages can be indexed by search engines by giving them URLs (web addresses) that use a directory structure rather than URLs that contain 'query strings' or characters such as question marks which will not be indexed. So for example a URL that ends /news/document/latest.html is more likely to show up in search results than one that ends /news/document/?23950.html.
- Important pages should have permanent URLs.
- Avoid using Flash as search engines are unable to properly index Flash-based content.
- Search engines have trouble indexing pages from sites with frames so try and avoid using frames in your site design.
- Content quality is especially important for entry pages such as the homepage, which are linked to from other sites. Ensure that entry pages contain lots of the keywords that you wish your site to be known for.
- Community-created content is very popular with search engines, so consider including comments, blogs and wikis, which are created by site visitors.
- If you are working with an outside contractor to create your website make sure they are prioritising search engine optimisation.
- 'Semantic mark-up', such as heading tags that can be made using HTML or functions in your Content Management System, tell the search engine that some pieces of content are more important than others, so try and use them.
Making your site accessible to a broad range of users, including those with disabilities, is not only good practice, but can also improve your search engine listings and make your internet content more accessible in general.
The accessibility guidelines to follow are those created by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
There are many resources available online to help improve the accessibility of your site such as WAVE
As well as optimising the way your website is programmed you should also ensure that your site is being linked to from other sites, as this will boost your search rankings. In particular, search engines are looking for links from reputable, high quality sites. If you want to find out how many sites are linking to your site just type your website's URL into Google. This will bring you back a page of details on who is linking to your site. You can use this to help identify more organisations that you could ask for links.
You can also try:
- Offering to exchange links with partner organisations, or finding organisations to exchange links with by searching for keywords that describe your area of work.
- Encouraging your supporters to link to your site from social networking sites and blogs.
- Commenting on other people's blog entries and including links to your site in your comments.
The following websites will help build your understanding of search engine optimisation:
An article from Idealware, a leader in the NGO technology support field, which shows how the content and structure of your website can have a dramatic effect on how easily people can find you via search engines. It covers ten steps that can help search engines find and prioritise your website content.
More information from Idealware on how to make sure the content management system used by your organisation to maintain your site is helping with your search engine optimisation.
Good Keywords is free Windows software for finding the perfect set of keywords for your webpages.
An in-depth guide to search engine optimisation from one ofthe leading websites in this field
This website introduces tactics that can enhance and increase traffic to your site and connect you with your visitors.