Content Guidelines For High Search Engine Rankings

Introduction

This note lists a few guidelines for writing copy that will improve your Web site's rankings in the search engines. You'll get the best results by applying them fairly rigidly, but don't compromise the quality or the impact of your message just to cram in another use of a keyword.

In general, each page of your site should be optimized for a single keyword or phrase. Before you start editing text, assign each page a keyword, preferably one that is already well represented on the page.

We've roughly ordered this list according to the importance of the element, reflecting the current best guess in our continuing efforts to decipher the ranking algorithms used by the search engines.

These guidelines often contradict copy writer's preferred practices; when they do, we suggest a straightforward business approach to deciding whether the increased traffic resulting from search engine optimization offsets a decreased click-through rate (or some other performance measurement) caused by awkward language.

Now our little disclaimer; we spend a lot of time gathering and analyzing the statistics of keyword usage on sites with high search engine rankings, so these guidelines are something more than a WAG. However, since the search engines don't publish their ranking algorithms, we could be wrong. Also, many other factors besides those included in these guidelines effect a Web site's rankings. So, following these guidelines will not assure high rankings; following them will, however, improve your rankings.

NOTE: If you find your word processor inadequate for the painstaking word-counting we seem to be recommending, Fookes Software publishes a dandy little shareware text editor called NoteTab Light with excellent tools for deriving word usage statistics and for stripping html tags, among other things. We receive no compensation for this plug.


Word Count

Nothing particularly sneaky here—this really does just mean the number of words on the page, but the count excludes all words inside html tags. So, meta tags, alt text, comments and any text displayed as a graphical element rather than as html body text does not count. Use a text or an html editor to strip the tags before counting the words.

The average site ranked in the top 5 positions for a range of search terms has around 300 words of body text; we recommend 250-500 words. The many Web sites whose text consists of "re-purposed" brochure copy will typically have less than half that, making this the most often violated guideline, as well as the most important.

Keyword Frequency

This is simply the number of times the search term appears on the page, regardless of the total number of words. If the term is a single word, just count its occurrences. If it is a phrase, count the occurrence of each word in the phrase (excluding stop words like, "and", "the", etc.) and use the lowest number.

High ranking sites fall into a keyword frequency range of 5-11. We suggest a frequency of 8-11, but don't use your keywords over 12 times on a page. We have found that rankings drop precipitously with keyword frequency over 12.

It isn't necessary that each word in a keyword phrase is used exactly the same number of times, but closer is better. Also, the exact phrase need not repeat throughout the copy, as long as the words in the phrase are used in proximity to each other.

Prominence

Keyword prominence has two aspects. The first is the use of the work in Headings and bold or larger text and is addressed simply by employing your keywords whenever you can within these elements. The second is a bit more complicated, but probably more important. This aspect has to do with how near the beginning of the text the keyword (or phrase) appears, and is generally reported numerically.

As an example of sorts, consider the 10 word sequence "Apples blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah." "Apples" has a prominence of 100%. In the sequence "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Apples", its prominence is 0%. If it were to be both the first and the last words of this sequence, its prominence would be 50% (100% plus 0% divided by 2)—if the first and second words, the prominence would be 95% (100% plus 90% divided by 2).

You don't need to calculate your keyword prominence. Just be aware that typical prominence for a high ranking page is around 65%, meaning that although keywords appear throughout the copy, their use is weighted toward the beginning of the body text. If you use your keywords twice as often in the first half of your copy as you do in the second half, you will come close to matching this statistic.

Link Text

These are the words used in your copy as hypertext links, like this: Go to Top of Page. I've used "Top" as link text. Using keywords as hypertext links will improve you rankings, and if the word links to a site other than your own, will really help the recipient of the link.

If you are using text links as navigation features, make sure the text supports your keywords. If you use graphical elements for navigation, try to add text links somewhere on the page, either within the copy or as a separate navigation feature.

Keyword Density

This means the percentage of the total words on the page constituted by the keywords. A typical high-ranking page will have a keyword density of around 3%, but we've found that paying attention to frequency and word count guidelines will generally put you in the ball park for density, which doesn't seem to be that important, anyway.

Alt Text

Alt text is the message that appears when you hover your cursor over an image, when a graphical element is missing or if a browser has graphics disabled. It looks like this:

This is alt text

Some evidence suggests keyword use in alt text can improve rankings slightly. A more important reason to pay attention to this feature, however, is that it provides the only message from your site's graphics that is available to vision-impaired visitors who use software that vocalizes your text.

 

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