Web Design

Insider Tips On Writing For Findability

Last updated Sep 29, 2006.

By Dave Taylor

Do you ever wonder why some Web pages get terrific results with search engines while others are doomed to obscurity—even though it seems like the more obscure pages actually have better information? While there are all sorts of tricks for boosting your search engine results placement (SERP); I’m going to focus on just one of them—how to write to maximize findability.

Wait, I can hear you asking, "What's findability?" In a nutshell, it's the techniques that you need to use to ensure that your Web pages are both search engine friendly and designed to gain maximal relevance for the keyword or keywords you target.

Let me give you an example to clarify. Let's say that you wanted to promote your car wash through blogging. Now, imagine that after a day of work you're inspired to write an article about smart approaches to avoid leaks on convertible cars. It's relevant, interesting, and valuable information.

The majority of bloggers would title this article something like "stop leaks!" or "that darn drip" or "avoiding drip damage" or similar. For that matter, most bloggers would probably title the car wash blog something like "shiny clean blog" or "wax and polish blog" too. Cute, amusing, but ...

What's wrong with that approach? People who are searching for information about avoiding leaks when taking their convertible through a car wash aren't going to be searching for "wax and polish" or "that darn drip." By choosing your titles poorly, you’re hurting your findability, which means that you’re destined to have less traffic, even if your content is splendid.

By contrast, imagine if you had the "Beverly Hills Car Wash and Wax Blog" (for extra credit, give it a subtitle like "The celebrity car wash with all the hot gossip!"). I bet you're already interested in reading it, aren't you? It’s going to catch someone's eye if they bump into it on a blogroll or search results page. Next, title the new article, "How to avoid leaks when running your convertible through our car wash." It’s a bit less sexy, but it's a whole lot more findable, isn't it?

At its most basic, then, findability dictates that you should try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is searching the Web for the information you plan on publishing. If not, it's like building a beautiful restaurant many miles from the closest road. Nice, but no traffic!

Taking Findability To The Next Level

If you really want to get serious about this topic, however, I find it invaluable to do some rudimentary keyword research. A quick demonstration: Do people search for "cellphone" or "cell phone" more often?

If one is used in searches 10x more often, wouldn't it just be smart to use that more frequently in your writing, even if you personally prefer the other form of the word?

In fact, "cell phone" is used in searches seven times as often as "cellphone." When I learned that, I actually changed one of the category names in my AskDaveTaylor Tech Support blog!

So, how do you do this sort of research? It's surprisingly easy with some of the slick new tools available online. One way is to simply sign up for a Google AdWords account, which has some internal tools that let you get rough data. I find AdWords extraordinarily complex in the back-end, however, so I recommend a few different sites.

To get started with keyword research, try Nichebot.com. Sticking with our example, what do you think is more commonly used in a search: "car wash" or "carwash"? Nichebot gives "carwash" a frequency score of just over 20,000 and "car wash" as two words a frequency score of over 200,000. Conclusion: "car wash" is going to be 10x more useful to increase findability than "carwash," even if the big sign in front says "Beverly Hills Carwash."

For more sophisticated searches that include related keyword suggestions, Yahoo!'s Overture service is particularly good. You can start with its Keyword Selector Tool, which suggests the following searches related to "carwash": "car wash Chicago," "car wash los angeles," and, my favorite, "bikini car wash." No kidding, that last one was a Yahoo search over 4,000 times in the month of August alone. What a world, eh?

Switch to "car wash" and it reveals that that phrase was included in Yahoo searches over 182,000 times just in the month of August. There are a lot of people looking for car wash information online. Who knew?

I have an illustrated article that can help you learn how to use and interpret the Overture results if you want a bit more help: How much are keywords really worth?

Avoid Keyword Spamming

Having espoused the benefits of being keyword savvy when writing your content to maximize your findability, let me hasten to add that having too many keywords is a very bad thing.

In the fuzzy world of search engine optimization, adding too many keywords to a Web page is known as "keyword spamming." Although the name might be vaguely cute, the result is that you can easily be penalized by search engines or even kicked out entirely.

What would keyword spamming look like? Like this:

"We're based in Beverly Hills, but future plans include us having a car wash chicago, car wash los angeles, car wash washington dc, car wash philadelphia and car wash st louis. When we do, we'll also have an online store with car wash girls selling car wash equipment and, in Malibu, a bikini car wash. Yeah baby!"

I hope you can see that this is rather nauseating and certainly something we, as humans, would read with great skepticism. Thankfully, the search engines would also catch this as a serious problem and potentially cause trouble for the business. (Oh, and don't worry about us at InformIT: Most keyword spam has the same keyword repeated again and again and again, far more than what I'm demonstrating here).

And, In The End, Just Do Right

I realize that I'm not giving you any exact figures here, any quantified specifics that detail what keyword density is too much, what ratio of keywords to non-keywords is best for titles or the content of a blog or Web page, but that's because there is no definitive answer.

Instead, I suggest that you use what I call the "read aloud test." Write your article or blog entry, then simply read it out loud to yourself. Does it sound horribly stilted, like some slimy salesman hyper-aggressively pitching a product? Does it sound like someone with a full-word stutter? Does it sound just plain daft? Then you've gone too far!

But don't be afraid to experiment with synonyms, common misspellings, and related. It can yield surprising results. In fact, here's an example of this research as it applies to a blog entry:

Add MySpace Background Pictures to your Profile.

As you read it, be alert to synonymous uses of phrases like "background style," "background code," and "background picture." Nothing too unpleasant, nothing overt, but I did spend a bit of time ensuring that the article will be maximally findable so that it can help the most people possible.

Well, that's it for this month. I hope this helps you think about one important facet of your online writing style and improves your findability.