Content and the way it's presented is still a major consideration when designing a Web site. While many designers put artistic and visual issues first because of eye appeal, beyond beauty lies the importance of great title text, clear descriptions, and proper linkage to your inner pages. The nitty-gritty of launching a successful Web site is that you need brilliant design, outstanding content, and a little search engine magic.

When the Web was spun, a common mantra was "content is king." Then along came rich media, capturing the hearts and minds of designers as they fashioned glitzy sites with all the bells and whistles. Search engine optimization became a costly afterthought for many newly designed Web sites. I'm here to remind you that content is still king because that's the only kind of food that search engines eat. And search engines help pay the piper. So let's review what's necessary to improve your site content in 2002.

Design Guidelines for Increased Relevancy

Search engines index Web sites based on text -- text containing strategic keywords. The search engine spiders will read the content on your pages and in your title and meta tags, storing that information in their databases. Without crawlable text, your site may not get indexed or ranked well. You also must have good linkage from home page to inner pages so the spiders can follow (crawl) these links to all the content within your site. Text on pages that can't be found through links will not get indexed.

Keyword-rich text: Text at the top of the page (HTML source code) is critical, so place your text as high possible. Use strategic keyword phrases in your text, ensuring that your content reads well; however, do not overuse keywords. Place keyword phrases at the beginning of paragraphs and headings. Write copy for people first, and then for the search engines. It can also help to bold a few of your keywords.

Basic links: Always provide basic links for search engines to follow. Spider software starts by indexing the text on your home page, then attempts to follow these links to your inner pages. Dynamic links with a query string (href="mypage.php?") and links generated by JavaScript are not followed by most search engines, so you must provide basic links.

It's important to note that the text provided in your links is important, too. It should be named and identified as a keyword phrase related to the page to which it is linking. Site maps are an excellent way to provide links for search engines. When linking to different pages on your site, use the Title of the page as the link text. This helps with engines that use certain forms of link popularity for relevance.

Site map: You can create a categorized list of all the pages on your site to serve as a Site Map. This makes it easy for search engine spiders to find all your pages. You must provide one or more links to the site map from your home page:

  • Place the text link to your site map at the bottom of your home page, labeled "Site Map." The file name should be "sitemap.htm."
  • The text in your link should contain appropriate keyword phrases.
  • Make a static list of links to all your pages with a link to this page from the home page and/or the site map.

Page Headers: All your pages should contain a title tag, a description meta-tag, and a keywords meta-tag. These must be unique and relevant to each specific page. Any additional information required in the header (like style sheet links or JavaScript files) go below these four items. The items in the header section appear in HTML in the following order:

1. Title tag: 5-10 words including your company name and keywords

Your document title is critical because it has a direct effect on page rankings, and this text is presented in search results. Make it short and relevant - some engines limit the title tag to 64 characters. Use your strategic key phrases for each page and use words that make your title stand out. Don't use unnecessary words like "welcome to " It's not necessary to provide your company name on every title page. Effective document titles are similar to newspaper headlines.

2. Description meta-tag: a clear, concise description of 20-40 words or longer

This is what users see in the search query on most search engines. Again, be brief. Limiting it to about 150 characters ensures it won't get cut off in search results. Make it compelling. Reiterate the Title, expanding on the search phrase(s) targeted for each page.

3. Keywords meta-tag: a keyword list up to 900 characters

I recommend these even though not all search engines read meta tags. Reiterate the words used in the Title and Description, including synonyms, plurals, regional variations and common misspellings. Use all lower case with commas, and don't repeat words more than a couple times to avoid penalization.

4. Optional meta tags

  • Some engines will read text not visible to users, so type keyword text and descriptions into comment tags for acceptable HTML hidden text on your page.
  • Another optional meta tag is the image ALT tag, which provides text displayed for graphic images if graphics are turned off (not all engines look for keywords in ALT tags).
  • Some engines evaluate keywords within heading tags, assigning more value to headings versus words in body text because headings provide summary information. Repeat your most important keywords in the heading tags, much like the title tag.

5. JavaScript

Developed by Netscape for use as a scripting language, JavaScript is used to enliven web pages with graphics and make navigation more dynamic. A commonly used graphic JavaScript is the mouseover, which is a special effect for Web graphics programmed in JavaScript. It enables users to change an image or switch its color by rolling their cursor over the object. Mouseovers can also be used to trigger navigation changes and pop-up windows. Another trick is to use the SRC attribute of the SCRIPT tag to essentially reduce the size of your JavaScript, thereby keeping your text higher within the page for search engines to crawl.

Content: Your initial text on each page should be a heading containing your Title text. Repeat your Description, then create compelling copy that describes the main theme of each page. It goes without saying that the use of relevant text is essential. When writing your topic-specific pages, use your strategic keyword phrases frequently but judiciously in the text. It's important to use these terms in the first 200 words. Ensure that navigation links and other text do not appear above your main text in the HTML source of your pages.

Images: Graphics are ignored by search engines (although some recognize ALT tags), so use strategically as appropriate. Images work well for top-level navigation, but don't use them for links to important content pages (like product description pages). Use text for links to all important pages.

What's the Take-Away?

Site and content optimization pays off because search engines are constantly adjusting their relevancy algorithms to bring users a better user experience through content relevance. You can help the search engines bring qualified prospects to your door by providing an optimally optimized, content-rich site that gives users the information they're looking for.
January 21, 2002

Paul J. Bruemmer has provided search engine marketing expertise and consulting services to prominent American businesses since 1995. As Director of Search Marketing at Red Door Interactive, he is responsible for strategizing and implementing search engine marketing activities within Red Door's Internet Presence Management (IPM) services.

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Search Engine Guide > Paul Bruemmer > The Nitty-Gritty of Web Site Design