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White Hat Search Engine Optimization

A few very simple, easy practices can dramatically increase referrals

4:46 am on Jul 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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I have a popular PR5 page that's in the top ten for a couple keywords where all the other top ten pages are PR6 and above. For one keyword it's #8 where #9 is PR6 and #10 is PR7.

The reason I think is that people like to click it in the search results, and (I'm pretty sure) they don't then just hit their Back button. I'm pretty sure all the search engines notice whether someone stays at a page they've clicked on rather than hitting Back and doing more searches.

How? The URL in the search results is often a redirect rather than the actual destination link. For some engines, this is the case for every search result, google just does this for a small sample. Hover your mouse over a search result that turns up one of your pages - does your page's URL show up at the bottom of the browser window, or some funny-looking long URL at the search engine's domain?

This won't happen often at google, but if you check each time you search you'll see it eventually.

What happens when you click the link is that it takes you to a server that records which search result you clicked on, and then sends you on to the destination page. If the search engine notices that a particular page gets clicked on more than others above it, the search engine ranks that page higher. Similarly, pages that don't get clicked on move lower.

This yields my first advice for White Hat Search Engine Optimization:

Use <title> Tag Text That Will Make Searchers Want To Visit Your Page

Look over the most important pages on your site. The text in the title tag appears at the top of the browser window, not in its content area. Don't confuse it with the h1 tag, which appears in the content area of a window. Your page's link text in a SERP will be whatever's in your <title> tag.

There's more that you can do though. Try searching for one of your page's exact URL in google. You'll see a page showing the title, a snippet of sample text, and some links where you can find the number of backlinks and so on. My question for you is, is that sample text what you want people to see?

When I realized that this sample text for many of my pages was simply "[snip]." I got a clue and did the following:

Carefully compose one or two compelling sentences describing the page and place it in the first <p> tag after the <h1> tag. Place the exact same text in a meta description tag in your page's <head> element

When no other sample text seems more suitable, google will use the meta description tag. Some search engines ignore it, and use the first paragraph instead.

Some people don't like to use h1 tags. These people don't like to get search engine referrals. Instead, the prefer to use <p> text that has been made larger either with a <font> tag or CSS. You see, they prefer controlling the appearance of their pages to making money from their website. This leads me to:

Use an <h1> tag on every page on your site. Usually you want its text to be the same as your <title> tag's. If you don't like how h1's look, use CSS to control their appearance.

The sample text can be up to about 160 characters. You don't have to use all the available space, but use most of it. If it's really short, google will fill in the available space with some randomly selected text from your page, and it might not be appealing.

If you're not able to compose appealing page intros, consider hiring a professional ad copywriter. Certainly post improved drafts as you think them up.

Once I realized the importance of all these, I pulled a couple all nighters implementing them all over my site. As a result, my traffic skyrocketed, with my Alexa rank going from 120,000 when I started in early May to the 89,000 it is now.

My last two pieces advice are much harder to achieve, but are the most important:

Have Content That's Worth Your Visitors' While to Visit. Otherwise They Will Just Hit Their Back Button.

Now, I'm sure if we all had the answer to that question, we could all retire. Yet it still seems to be news to many folks. It's worth your while to labor over your content over a long period of time, posting improved versions as you're able to think them up. A corrollary to this is:

Post Each Page's Most Compelling Content "Above The Fold".

That is, capture your visitors' attention and convince them to stay without them having to scroll their browser window. If you use a hi-res monitor, either shrink your browser windows or use a lower resolution to judge the effect of your pages' "above the fold" content.

My site was originally meant to advertise my brick-and-mortar business. Someone gave me this advice years ago and it made a huge difference. One result of it was that I was able to work in my profession throughout the economic downturn, while many of my colleagues either had to sell or even lost their homes and had to move back in with their parents.

I have continuously applied this advice with each redesign of all my pages.

And this leads to, finally:

Do Not Use "Intro" Pages. Give Your Visitor What They Want To See When They First Visit www.example.com. Never, Ever, Make Them Sit Through a Flash Intro.

One sure sign of a website designer who doesn't understand how to make your website earn you money is that they recommend a flash intro for your site. My problem is not with flash, however: some sites have static graphic homepages, perhaps with a great big logo that you click to enter. You will find many of the visitors you might have otherwise retained will just click their Back buttons.

The search engines will see that they did, when the visitor you just lost either performs a new search or clicks a different link in the original SERP. The result will be that your position in the SERPs will get a little worse.

A good reference for what you need to do on your homepage is Jakob Nielsen's [useit.com] book Homepage Usability. In it, he has screenshots of a hundred homepages from prominent websites, with meticulous critiques.

Now, if you try to take all this advice for all the pages on your site all at once, you will quickly go mad. What would be better is to apply it to the top pages on your site first - your homepage, and your most popular content pages - and only apply it to your less significant pages as you get time. After a little while it will become very easy for you to use these practices for any new pages.

Try Googling the URLs of your ten most significant pages. Does google show what you want people to see? Now look at each of the pages. Do they capture your visitors without having to scroll their windows?

Once you can say "yes" for your top ten pages, you will fare much better in the SERPs next time around and your ad revenue will increase significantly.

I know this very well. I Bet the Farm [webmasterworld.com] back in early May by taking a lot of unpaid time off my regular job to work on my site, and as a result of the above and a lot of other things I did, I just Quit My Job For AdSense.

Thank you for your attention.

Now, if you'll pardon me for farting in the elevator, but I realize what I just wrote could be of great value to me later on:

[edited by: pageoneresults at 3:50 am (utc) on July 17, 2005]
[edit reason] Removed Copyright Notices (2) - Please Refer to TOS [/edit]

7:20 am on July 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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I'm using the 'Search engine history' which allows me to see what searches I made. They know exactly what time I searched and what time I clickd a search. So they are tracking every single click (with javascript or something).

I also think they track IF the visitor comes back to the SERP and clicks another page. And, how long he has been on the site.

How do you redirect them to the wanted page? (301, meta, etc.) How do you know, which page they want to go to?

7:25 am on July 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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It's not me who redirects them, but the search engine. That is, for some search engines all the result links look like the following. For google, it's this way just some of the time:


What [x.y.google.com...] does is send you to the page listed in the "url=" parameter. It does this I guess by using a 301 http header as the resulting page.

But first it records the fact that you clicked a link for www.example.com, and I imagine the keywords you used are encoded in the URL somehow.

Most search engines will cookie you unless you prevent it, so even if you don't explicitly request that your history be tracked, chances are that they do track your history anyway.

10:54 am on July 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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this post is great - as well as your bet the farm article.... thanks a lot!

11:37 am on July 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Very useful, and written in a compelling and straight forward style.


3:15 pm on July 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Michael, great post, but a couple of questions. I am concerned with the look of my pages, and have done some testing with H1 tags.

Here we go:
1. To make the H1 tag look better, I have embedded it inside a font tag, which specifies only the color and font face (I chose arial). Do you think this will hinder the SEs? Otherwise, I get clunky looking black Times text, and at that size it really looks awful. Your opinion on this tactic would be helpful.

2. Also, I plan on putting the H1 tag at the very top of the page and centering it. I believe that should be optimal.

Again, thanks.

4:23 pm on July 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Alexa rank going from 120,000 when I started in early May to the 89,000 it is now.

Alexa rank is worthless. By visiting your site every day (as you develop it) with two computers, you can get and maintain an alexa ranking of 10,000 or lower.

This happened to me during a 4 month period on a website that wasn't ready for public consumption.

After that, I deleted the alexa toolbar.

10:41 pm on July 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Alexa rank is worthless.

Possibly so, but I was easily able to see from my server logs that traffic to my site began to skyrocket immediately after posting a few pages of new content. Some improved navigation caused that traffic to explore more of my site. Doing what I said to make my pages more appealing to click in the SERPs has caused many of my pages to rank better with the next update, with the result that I'm able to sustain a higher level of traffic without having to work at it anymore.

I wasn't able to quit my job for adsense because alexa said I could, but because google said I could. Google sent me a check earlier this month that said it was finally time to change careers, and they're promising me an even bigger one in early august.

I've been working on a redesign of my site since february. It is all hand-coded static HTML. I haven't been revising just the design of my pages but its content as I go, updating stale information and fixing dead links.

This is such slow, hard work that I have so far only updated half my site. One of my goals for this month is to get all of my articles revised, and for next month to get the whole rest of my site revised. At that point I think I should be earning enough to finally build some savings again. I've been living from check-to-check for years and I'm sick of it.

I'll have more to say on SEO as time goes on.

10:46 pm on July 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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I'm a little confused here. Is there anyone on this or similar forum(s)
who care or note what Alexa indicates? -Larry
10:55 pm on July 16, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Is there anyone on this or similar forum(s)
who care or note what Alexa indicates?

I doubt it. They mean nothing at all. I have a a couple of sites with ridiculously good Alexa rankings at the moment simply because both I and another person are working on them actively and therefore often at them and we both have the toolbars installed.

It certainly is not due to their traffic which is really low, but it looks amazing in Alexa - less than 20,000 and the sites are not even properly launched and not listed in Google.

1:02 am on July 17, 2005 (gmt 0)

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I've seen my Alexa rankings go up with my traffic and down after te Bourbon update decimated it. I believe it is a gauge, but maybe not very accurate, still something that can give you an idea of where you're at.

I suppose, of course, if you are constantly trafficing the site yourself, that's going to have an impact.

1:54 am on July 17, 2005 (gmt 0)

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Well as I tried to explain, maybe it was a bad choice to use Alexa to illustrate my success. Let me say instead that I can tell the work I've done was helpful because traffic to many pages on my site multiplied by a factor of five to ten, and my adsense check nearly tripled.

I'll be careful not to darken your doorstep with Alexa again ;->

8:36 am on July 20, 2005 (gmt 0)

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if i have a generic side page(which has all of my buttons with links to other pages),

if i have that side page, included with php files,

will this affect it if the title is in the included page, or should it be in the original php page,

hope im making sense

basically, i have php files, that include title scripts, does this work the same, as if i had it hardcoded in im guessing.?

3:31 pm on July 26, 2005 (gmt 0)

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The Alexa rating is very much misunderstood. It is a perfect indicator of how you measure up against the competition, and that is how it must be used.

It is very true the Alexa rating can go up, while your traffic goes down. Why? Because all other traffic to your competitors is also going down, but yours is going down less. Hence, you are better in the rankings. You see this particular result most frequently in the summer. You can prevent that problem from happening, by advertising in the summer, when others are slacking off. This is what we do. Why should you do it? Read the last couple paragraphs of this post.

In the fall/winter season, you will see the reverse. Your traffic may go up considerably, while your Alexa goes down. This is because your competitors' traffic is going up more than yours, compared to everybody else.

Also, the Alexa is based not only on traffic, but page views and reach. If your page views and reach go down, but traffic goes up, your ranking will decline, IF this combination is greater than your competitors.

Anyone who tells you that Alexa is bogus, just doesn't understand it. Alexa uses a cross sector of internet users, as any other 'polling' company does. That cross section, as time goes on, establishes the 'norm' and creates a core from which all things are judged. Unlike other polls, Alexa data, in an ongoing manner, adds to the long term data base of knowns, keeping the 'traffic trends' continually updated and relevant.

This, it appears, is part of the same criteria Google is using, with their toolbar. While it is being used for PR, on a visitor level, it is information gathered, unless the Advance option is chosen, that can then be used within Google, according to the TOS and privacy statement, of both the toolbar and the google.com. If you don't use the toolbar in Advance mode, you don't get to see the PR.

Google has managed to give an option that protects the privacy issue of users who feel they need it, but in doing so, backs them into a corner, and takes away one of the most 'important' features of the toolbar, unless the visitor gives up their privacy.

'Privacy' and 'important' are subjective. Your 'important' may mean absolutely nothing to me, and your 'privacy' requirements may exceed mine. None the less, I dare say a high percentage of those users who download the toolbar, also allow the PR of pages to be shown. The average user searches from where he/she is at the moment, or their homepage. Webmasters had searched from google.com directly, and are more aware of google products, which is why a high percentage of Google toolbar users would be webmasters. Webmasters would be more concerned with the PR of a page, than the average user. Such is also the case with Alexa.

Since the inception of the toolbar, we have seen traffic changes from Google that can only be explained, if the toolbar harvested data is being used as part of the Google algo. What might that data be? See the Alexa site, understand how they rank, and it will enlighten you to the capability Google has, when you combine that information, with your logs.