Search engine optimisation

An overview of search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques. The website and CMS are set up so that our pages are optimised for search engines. However, there are some things that you can do when you create content and build pages which could help them index better.

Why is SEO important?

It is extremely common for people to begin looking for information on any topic on the web by doing a search on a site such as Google or Bing.

Generally, users will follow links that appear higher on search result pages. It is therefore important to be aware of the techniques that can boost your page rankings in these searches and the ones that can potentially damage them.

An example of what the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) for 'The University of Sheffield English'

What are the main factors that affect a site's ranking?

There are many factors that influence the ordering of results for any given search term. There are, however, several which remain continually important.

The quality and volume of links pointing to your site

Historically, links from other websites have, and continue to be, the biggest factor to how well your site will rank for any given search term. Websites that link back to you - sometimes known as backlinks or inbound links - pass value that helps determine your site's credibility and worthiness to rank.

Links from relevant or more prestigious sites such as academic institutions, government and news sites are given more weight in the eyes of the search engines and pass more value than smaller, less popular ones.

The text used to link to your website also influences how much value is passed. The link text (commonly known as anchor text) helps inform the search engines the intent behind the link and again influences how likely a site is to rank higher for a particular term.

Good link text should tell a user exactly what they will get when they visit the link and also work in isolation so that someone doesn't have to read all the content around it. Although it is not always the case, the site with the largest volume of high quality/relevant links for a particular term should rank highest.

Because of the effectiveness of links in influencing rankings, many sites have artificially created or paid for links to improve their positions. Search engines such as Google continue to tweak their algorithms to detect and punish the gaming of their system. This means that anything you do to increase the number of links pointing to your site has an inherent risk if not performed with an understanding of the various webmaster guidelines.

The quality, depth and freshness of your content

Search engines have become very effective at understanding content on a web page in recent years and can now determine its topics, the intent behind the page, the entities within it and how relevant it is to the broader topic.

Google's algorithm places great weight on the expertise, authority and trust it can infer within the content and how recently it has been published or updated.

The architecture and design of your site

While search engines can crawl a large variety of differing site designs, they will typically only commit so much of their resource to crawling and indexing your site.

If your pages are hard to crawl and receive few or no links, they will devalue the worth of those pages and either dismiss them completely or favour other pages elsewhere.

Having a poor structure can impact the effectiveness of links or the quality of your content. Common technical mistakes can remove the ability to rank altogether.

Limitations

Search engines are commercially-driven companies which, alongside their free organic results, run pay per click adverts to generate profit. With Google, for example, these ads account for more than 95% of their total revenue. There is an ongoing trend towards making these adverts more prominent, thus reducing the number of visits generated via non-paid results.

Despite this, on average, organic listings receive ~60% of the available clicks on a SERP page. This makes them an attractive proposition.

Search engines do not disclose how their algorithms work and there is an overwhelming amount of misinformation and outdated advice online.

What you can do to improve your website's ability to rank?

It is very difficult to directly influence your website's ability to rank for medium to highly competitive search terms in the short term. There are, however, steps you can take to ensure your site has the best possible chance of being indexed and visible for relevant search terms.

Produce compelling content for your intended audience

Writing content for users rather than search engines is the best way to naturally make your website more appealing to search engines. Alongside this, you are less likely to run into issues with Google's quality penalty if you simply focus on creating good content.

  • Provide up-to-date, accurate information that helps your visitor.
  • Use clear, consistent headlines that allow visitors to skim read your content.
  • Include pictures, diagrams and other relevant media to improve the content.
  • Be mindful of the phrases visitors may use to find your content, but don't attempt to crowbar them in - when reading aloud, no phrase should sound overly repetitive.
  • If possible, add supporting documents, quotes and links to other helpful content.
  • Where relevant, include a 'last updated' timestamp.

Build natural connections and links from other relevant websites

Reach out and signpost your content and website to relevant website owners. Avoid websites that simply allow you to list your website or pay to be featured (that don't use a nofollow link). By having helpful, quality content, you have a compelling reason to be linked to.

Review your website's structure and broken elements

Websites have natural attrition where older pages are forgotten or broken by accident. Google's free Search Console service lets you monitor which of your pages have broken. You can also use various tools such as the Screaming Frog SEO Spider to crawl your website in a similar manner that the search engines would to identify broken pages, assets and external links.

If you change a web address, ensure that you redirect the old page to the new version - if it exists to pass the link value from the old location.

Write compelling meta data

The Title and Intro text fields are the two meta fields used for a page that you can edit.

There are various metadata tags you can include on your pages, however, two are of particular importance. For each page, you should create the <title> tag and the meta description tag.

These two tags are used in the results pages to display your website. On Google, the <title> tag appears in blue as the headline of the listing. The meta description appears in black below it.

Title tag

The <title> tag is a very important on-page element that can influence rankings and it should naturally mention the main term you wish your page to rank for. In our CMS, this is generated based on what you have put in the 'Title' field.

For example, the title tag for this page is the following, where 'Search engine optimisation' is the name of this page and the rest of the title is made up from the names of the folders in the structure and appended with the website name.

Search engine optimisation | Web support | The University of Sheffield

Meta description

The meta description does not directly influence rankings like the <title> does, however it should still be crafted to compel visitors to click through. This is best achieved by writing the meta description to indicate your page will help answer the search query in question.

Unlike our old CMS which had a dedicated meta description field, the new CMS automatically populates the meta description from the 'Intro' field. If nothing is added to this field then the CMS will move down the page and include the first text it finds, normally this will be from the 'Body' field.

For example, for our undergraduate course search page, the meta description is well written to indicate this is the page a visitor is looking for: 

Search for a 2017 undergraduate course: We offer over 370 full-time undergraduate degree courses across 100+ subject areas.

There's only a limited amount of space available in the results page so when writing these elements, aim for 60 characters including spaces for the <title> tag and 150 characters including spaces for the meta description to ensure your information isn't truncated.

Actively monitor the links pointing to your website

It's important to monitor the links pointing to your website to ensure:

  1. Relevant good links don't become broken and stop passing value.
  2. Negative links from undesirable websites aren't pointing at your site.

There are companies that crawl the website and keep their own index of which websites link to others. OpenSiteExplorer (from Moz) and Ahrefs are tools which offer a free version that allows you to also see links pointing to your site.

Poor quality or unnatural links can affect your website's ability to rank and may result in a penalty.

What to avoid

  • Any intentional effort to artificially create links for the purpose of ranking – search engines invest a lot of effort in determining which links have been created to help a website rank. Focus on creating helpful content and signposting it to relevant websites. Avoid directories, paid-for links and link networks.
  • Thin or repetitive content on your site - it's better to create one page that covers a topic in depth than having a large number of thin pages.
  • Posting content from other websites on yours (duplicate content) - search engines will only favour one website when multiple versions of the same piece of content exist. If your site's content is predominantly duplicated from elsewhere then they will not see your site as original or an authority.
  • Text content hidden within images or other media files such as flash - important content should always be included as proper HTML and all images should include an alt tag if relevant.
  • Deleting pages without redirecting - pages that have links pointing to them are valuable and if a page needs to change URLs or be deleted then it should be redirected to the new location - pages that are broken.

Summary

In summary, try to consider what someone who comes to your site might be looking for and then present that information in the clearest and most usable way. You can find an overview of how to make improvements to your pages for users in our Writing for the web guide.

Updated with the help of Evoluted – a web and digital agency based in Sheffield and members of the Department of Computer Science Industrial Advisory Board.

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If you have CMS questions or are stuck then get in touch and we'll do our best to help.