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Blogging for Search Engine Results

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Dave Taylor

For more answers to your web design and development questions, visit AskDaveTaylor.com.

Hopefully, I won't lose my blogging license for writing this column, but, as many savvy bloggers know, search engines really like Weblogs and if you want to gain more traffic from the search engines—and who doesn't?—using a Weblog as a publishing tool is a very smart strategy.

It doesn't come for free, however, as you still need to create new content every few days (I recommend posting at least 2-3 times per week) and it needs to be focused, on-topic, coherent, and at least a few paragraphs in length (my minimum recommended length is 250 words, or approximately 15-20 sentences). Just remember that "there's no such thing as a free lunch."

In this article, I'll talk about the pitfalls of trying to get better search engine results by hiring a standalone search engine optimization (SEO) company. I’ll also offer the key elements of legitimate SEO that you can easily apply to your own Weblog template design thereby maximizing the value of every page on your site, today and into the future.

But First, The Bad News

Since we're talking about search engine optimization, I think it's important to start out by debunking the offers made by the many consultants and firms that offer "better search engine placement." Not a day goes by that I don't see a half-dozen spam messages offering me top placement, for example, but there's a fundamental danger in this entire industry—one that really highlights why it's far better to avoid these people entirely. The danger? By trying to trick search engines, you could end up being kicked out of a search engine like Google forever.

The real problem isn't the tricks that SEO companies encourage you to do on your site, however, but rather the fact that SEO companies don't have any liability and explicitly disclaim any responsibility if your company gets kicked out of Google or another search engine.

Got that? They encourage you to use all sorts of questionable optimization techniques, then shrug their shoulders if you get in trouble and go to the next client. No problem for them, but a huge corporate crisis for you. Not good.

DUBIOUS SEO TRICKS

Typical tricks that you'll find SEO companies espousing include adding lots of keywords to the bottom of your pages, having a half-dozen TITLE tags, using a text color that almost exactly matches your background color for "hiding" keywords, or using "gateway" pages where you have lots of new pages on your site specifically tuned to emphasize a specific keyword that immediately bounce real users to your regular Web page, since they're just there for the search engine itself.

That's why, instead, it's far smarter to seek good search results by understanding what search engines are looking for when they rank results on their site. And, in a word, Google and its ilk seek content. Good content, informative content, accurate content that's updated with some frequency. The reality is that good content on a poorly designed page will win out over bad content on a perfect page. No kidding.

Tweaking Your Blog For Better Results

One of the very best features of a Weblog as a site management tool is that it's all built around templates, so all you have to do is tune your templates for good search engine results and every page you subsequently create will also be search engine friendly. Much nicer than having to remember everything every time you add a new page to the site!

"Wait a minute," you're thinking, "didn't you just say we shouldn't use any search engine tricks? So what are you encouraging us to do now by tuning our pages for a search engine?"

While search engines are looking for good content that’s updated frequently, they still have the fundamental challenge of programmatically figuring out what a given Web page is actually about. To do that, search engines weigh certain elements of a page as more important than other elements. For example, words that you put in an HTML comment <!-- --> are ignored, while words that you put in an <h1> tag are considered quite important.

Knowing how to tune your template for good results is what I call rudimentary SEO. What most SEO companies offer, however, is far, far more than that, and it's these "advanced" techniques that can get you in trouble. So, let's stick with the basics.

Pay Attention to Your Titles

When search engines are trying to figure out the topic of a page, they look at one of the most important areas of a Web page—the page’s TITLE. You know, it's the words that appear in the browser window frame. On this site, for example, the title of the homepage is "InformIT."

That's a mistake in the site design, quite honestly, because the words in the title are very important for findability and InformIT would be more easily found in search engines if the page was titled something like "InformIT: News and Information for IS, MIS, IT, and Tech Professionals."

With Weblogs, you can go further, because you can—and should—also include the title of your article in the page title. This article on "Blogging for Search Engine Results" should also be the title of the page, along with information about the site: "Blogging for Search Engine Results @ InformIT: News and Information for Technology Professionals." This is a far better title than, say, "InformIT" or even "InformIT Web Design Article Library."

Article Titles Should Be H1 Elements

The growth in popularity of CSS has significantly improved the attractiveness of Web sites, no question, but it's also made it a lot harder for search engines to figure out the most important words or phrases on a given page. That's why another smart blog technique is to use an old-fashioned <h1> element for the title of the article in your template rather than just a <div> tag with some fancy formatting.

You don't lose anything by making this switch since you can use CSS to redefine the presentation characteristics of the header, but you gain a simple way to reinforce with the search engine what you consider most important on the page. That's darn valuable!

Always Use ALT Attributes in Image Tags

Another way that you can help search engines know what your blog articles are about is to use thoughtful and descriptive names for important graphical elements and make sure you also specify these descriptive names as alternate text elements in images. Too many sites use meaningless graphics names and then just repeat the filename in the alt tag. Not a good strategy at all.

Let me show you an example: which of the following two tags do you think will help Google figure out what the page is about?

 <img src="/img434332.jpg" alt="img434332.jpg" />
 <img src="/cellphone-comparison-chart.jpg" 
   alt="Acme Corporation's Cellphone Comparison Chart" />

Again, since you're working with templates on a Weblog, you can set this up once in the master template and know that every page you create subsequent to that will have all the best practices already in place.

Putting It Together

The good news is that many blog tools already do most of what we're talking about here, which means that if you start out with something like SixApart's Typepad program (about $10/month), you don't have to worry too much about editing the template for search engine results. Instead, you can spend the next million hours tweaking your formatting and layout. (Just kidding. Sort of.)

Nonetheless, since they're all template-based, it's a very good idea to go back and view the source of a blog post you've made and ask yourself whether it embodies these three best practices. If not, check with your vendor on how to go into the template and fix things. Remember, fix it once, and it'll work for all your postings forever.

There's more to good results than just having an optimized template, of course, not the least of which is writing good content that's well focused on the interests of your target audience, but that's for another article. Stay tuned.