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Optimizing Web Site Themes for Search Engines
By Andrew Gerhart and Eric Lander - February 22, 2002

I admit it: I love themes -- you might even say I have a themes addiction. Ever since I read a great thread at Webmaster World a while back, I've been intrigued by them. I've experimented with using them and explored the benefits of a successfully themed site. Within an ever-changing industry such as search engine optimization, a constant such as a theme is a diamond in the rough. Let's discuss the benefits you can enjoy when you theme your Website successfully, and optimize it properly.

Get Organized!
One of the best aspects of themes is that they'll keep your Website organized and on-topic, something that can become quite difficult as your online presence evolves and grows. A correct theming structure will help you maintain a clear delineation between the different areas of your site, and allow you to target specific keywords and keyword variations to particular sections. A themed Website should follow a structure similar to this:

  • Index: Football Teams
  • Second level: National League Teams
  • Third Level: Different National League Team pages
  • Fourth Level: Team Stats and Player pages for each team
...which brings us to the next benefit of themes:

Strong Keywords
Using a structure and layout similar to the one above can have a positive impact on the selection, strength and ranking of your keywords. In the article Successful Keyword Targeting I explained the Theme Pyramid from Search Engine World. Referring to this layout, the main keyword will be used on the index page, and all the levels under the main page will contain variations of this keyword.

In the example given above, we used the main topic of "football teams" -- a very general term. Then as we moved deeper into the site, the keywords became increasignly specific as the content became more focused. Armed with this "pyramid" of keywords, the Website's impact within the search engines' rankings will grow stronger. The reason for this is that the pages will reinforce, strengthen, and support one another.

If you target cars on one page of your site, and football teams on another, chances are that a competing Website that targets football teams throughout all its pages will appear above yours in the search engine results.

Themes based Search Engines

Themes Last
Another strong effect that themes have on the optimization and overall positioning of your Website within the search engine results is that a properly themed site will set you up for the future. Do you think the search engines would suddenly say "Sorry, we're no longer allowing clean, organized, relevant, content Websites in our database"? I donít think so.

Creating a Website with a themed structure will save you time in the future. With a themed Website that targets one main keyword, and different variations of this keyword in the levels below, the most work you're going to have to do in future is to update the content and make sure the keyword levels are at the right percentage. You won't need to go back and remove the themes from the Website -- instead you'll only have to add new tricks or helpful hints that you've learned.

A few of the search engines even use themes in their ranking algorithms right now...

Theme Based Search Engines
Brett Tabke was the first to discuss themes, and has described the indexing process of theme-based search engines in this article at Search Engine World.

The indexing process of theme-based search engines is that they arrive at your Website, spider the Web pages, and index them all as one. A regular search engine will come to the site, spider the pages, and index each of them separately. The reason that a theme-based algorithm gives more relevant results is that it examines and weighs the Website as a whole, instead of each page individually. When this type of indexing is performed, it's harder for one page that targets a keyword to beat a whole site that targets that same word.

So who uses theme-based algorithms? According to Mr. Tabke, there are currently 8 search engines that use themes in their ranking algorithm -- check out his article for a list of them.

Whatís the Point?
The problem with the search engine optimization industry is that site owners sometimes butt heads with the search engines. We have an obligation to our clients to provide them with top rankings and targeted traffic, while the search engines have an obligation to their users to provide relevant results.

The search engines have taken a stand against doorway pages, cloaking, and other things, as they can negate the provision of relevant results. Themes are a highly efficient way for the SEO Company to get great results for their clients, and for the search engines to provide relevant results to their users. It's a win-win situation: themes eraditcate the site owner's need or desire to use unethical or offbeat SEO methods.

Keyword Themes and Categories

As I said before, to make the most of a themed Website, you will need to get organized. If your information and content is not properly organized within categories of interest to the user, the application of themes to the site structure will be near impossible.

Categorize Your Way To Success
To begin, break your content into its main categories. From those main categories, you'll want to refine the information to a more specific level, but don't make it too specific. These secondary layers will be your sub-categories. One level of refinement beyond these, and you will have created specific topics. From there, the only need to extend into another level should be for statistical information, help, or another method of user-assistance.

On our generic football league Website, a category might take on the folowing structure:

  1. Football League Homepage
  2. League's Eastern Conference Teams Listing
  3. Specific Eastern Conference Team Profile
  4. Team Statistics, Rosters, Player Profiles, etc.

Why Categories Work for the Search Engines
As you can see, this method of theming your content not only helps establish a more usable Website, but it actually helps your position within the search engines too! Why does it work so well?

The primary reason a themed approach helps you obtain high ranks is because it breaks the Website down into more refined content areas. This allows spiders, bots and crawlers that look into your Website to follow an obvious pathway from the homepage on to your more specific information. Most importantly, your homepage or index sets a theme that the spiders can follow, resulting in very high placements.

As your Website's structure directs the way your visitors use your content, so do the links, and information within those links. This, in turn, often increases the value the search engines place on the linked content, and again helps improve your ranks.

Develop the Site Themes
While the ideas and implementation of themes seems easy enough, it is very important to remember the rules that help you attract attention from the search engine's bots. As you establish a working layout and approach to your page design, make sure you employ text links to deeper, more specific information, as well as to other resources that may exist outside your domain. And always be sure to link back to more general pages too.

Choose Keywords
In most cases, your target keywords will already have been decided for you. If you can't tell what your keywords are for each page, use this tool. The keywords that you use should be variations of your main theme, and you should ensure a certain density of those keywords depending on which search engine you're targeting. A safe keyword density can range between 5% and 20%.

Apply the Keywords
Once you have developed your Website using a themed structure, the next step is to optimize it. The great thing with themes is that the Website has already optimized itself to a certain extent. A good starting point is to run through each category, and name everything according to the keyword being targeted on each page, or within each category. This includes page names, image names, HTML tags, and folder names etc.

To fully incorporate the theme into your Website, it's essential to make the main keywords prominent and obvious not only to the spiders, but also to the user. To make sure that the spiders know your theme and which keywords you're targeting, you should include your keywords in certain HTML tags. For starters, make sure that your target keywords for each page appear at the top of the page in an <H1> or <H2> tag. Also place your keywords in other prominent places on the page, and inside bold tags. This allows the spiders to pick up the target keyword as the main topic of the page, and will also let the user know what the page focuses on.

Internal Linking and Submissions

Internal Linking
Use mostly vertical, and very little horizontal linking. For example, if you have the index page, 2 categories, 4 sub-categories, and 4 pages for each sub category, link as follows:

  • Link the index page to the 2 category pages,
  • then link the 2 category pages to the 4 sub-category pages
  • The sub-category pages should link to the category pages and to the pages within their particular sub-category, but not to each other.
  • Then link the 4 pages within each sub-category to each other and back out to the sub-category pages, but not to pages contained in other sub-categories.

This linking will strengthen your keyword value and reinforce the main keywords. If you use too much horizontal linking, you can dilute the impact of your keywords and theme. A great representation of themed linking can be found here.

Submit the Site
Once you've finished optimizing the site, you must submit it to the search engines and directories. Submit the site to all the search engines, and then to the major directories. Then go back and submit all your deep level pages to the search engines, as well as to those directories that permit multiple submissions. The next task is to find all the secondary, tertiary, and niche directories on the Internet and submit your Website within their themed topics.

External Linking
As we all know, what comes after the optimization and submission of a Website is the implementation of an ongoing link popularity campaign that seems to never end. However, with a themed site, things are a bit different when it comes to building link popularity. The main thing to remember is that the sites that you link to, and that link to you, must be relevant to your theme. If not, these links will dilute the strength of your theme, and the strength of your site for that particular keyword. Not only is this important for the strength of your theme, but for your ranking in some key search engines like Google, which is a theme-based search engine.

Good luck with theming your site!