Wednesday, May 6, 2015

What is Good for SEO is Good for URL

There are a number of important factors that come into play when improving search engine optimization (SEO). Descriptive titles and keywords are very important, but did you know how you type the page or file names can also affect SEO?

What is a URL?


A URL (uniform resource locator) is a web address. It's the name you type out or click on within a page that spells it out that takes you to the location of a page or file on the internet.

Tarleton State University has a very nice, clean web address: www.tarleton.edu

Domain (.edu) and Domain Name

As an educational institution, we have the ability to acquire a domain name ending in .edu. This signifies authority and legitimacy across the internet. Not just anyone will be eligible for a .edu domain, so this increases the value of your content and raises your ranking on search engines the most.

We also made it very simple to find us by sticking to "tarleton" as our domain name. Imagine if we had gone the route of www.tarleton-state-university.edu. First, that is a very long web address. Also note the hyphens separating the words. Now, what I'm about to tell you is based on some research allowing Google robots to scan websites without any links to them and rank them accordingly. If hyphens are in the domain name, Google sees these as less authoritative web addresses and lowers their rankings. If, however, we had used www.tarletonstateuniversity.edu as one word, Google would raise the ranking. But honestly, do you really want to type that much for our web address? Probably not. Neither do your constituents.

Resources


Moving to the right of the domain and domain name we have our resources. Let's look at a very important resource on our website which ranks very high on SEO: www.tarleton.edu/index.html.

Homepage or Index Page


Depending on what your IT professionals decide on the back end, you will often see index.html or default.html as your homepage. At Tarleton, our homepages are index.html. That is, if we wanted someone to go our main homepage or departmental homepage, we wouldn't actually have to type that portion out. A homepage can have the web address form of www.tarleton.edu as opposed to www.tarleton.edu/index.html or www.tarleton.edu/webservices as opposed to www.tarleton.edu/webservices/index.html.

Again, we like shorter web addresses. The less we have to type, the better. They also look much better on brochures and other publications. These "index" or "home" pages are very important for SEO, though. You should always use them in your website structure to denote the main page on a website or within a folder in your website.

Page and File Names


So now down to the nitty-gritty details of other page and file names. There are good characters and bad characters to use when naming your files and pages. A typical name can include upper- and lowercase letters, hyphens, underscores, periods, and that weird squigly line we still have on some of our websites called the tilde. Trouble starts when you go outside that set of characters because other characters are needed for calculations or interactivity with scripts and applications. The following characters should be avoided at all cost in your page and file names: ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) + =[ ] { } | , \ / < > ? `

Syntax Rules


Then come the rules, like you should only use a period when saving a file. It is the punctuation used to separate file name from its extension. It also helps software applications determine which one should open your file. For example, if your file ends with .doc, then your computer is typically going to open up Microsoft Word to see the file.

Spaces vs Hyphens vs Underscores


We often save our files in a way that is readable to us, such as including spaces in the name. That's great for internal use, but it is not helpful for SEO. Spaces are also a bad character to use in page and file names on the internet. We often try to replace them with either underscores or hyphens, but which one is actually better for SEO? Here's what is really going down with those two characters:

If you use a hyphen, you are helping the search engine separate words out to be readable and searchable, so marine-biology comes up as "marine biology" in search engines.

If you use an underscore, you are telling the search engine to combine words, so marine_biology becomes "marinebiology" in search engines.

Is "marinebiology" a word? How high would it land in the page rankings then? Probably not very high, since it makes the assumption that someone is specifically looking for "marinebiology" as opposed to "marine biology" in their search (or we hope they made a spelling error). That means it is better to use hyphens to replace spaces in a page or file name.

This is obviously opposite of the rule for domain names, but it really does work for resources after the domain name:
  • www.tarleton.edu/webservices/web-guidelines.html
  • www.tarleton.edu/webservices/post-apocalyptic-design.pdf
  • www.tarleton.edu/web-services/index.html

Make it All Lower Case


Some search engines and analytics software are case sensitive. Your page can be typed in multiple ways. Each way has its own search rankings or analytic results. That knocks their values down because they aren't all leading to the same page. They do not add together in the final results. To avoid hijacking your own results, use lowercase letters for your page and file names.

Other SEO Practices to Consider

While the web address itself is important to SEO, there are many other things you can do to help your pages rise in the ranks. Some techniques have been called "black hat" due to their inappropriate usage to falsely make claims of authority on topics. Google and other search engines will actually lower your rankings in the search results or ban your site if you use black hat tactics. Here's a list of Do's and Do Not's:

Do provide the appropriate keywords that span the content of your specific page.

For example, if you are talking about chocolate, you can mention dark chocolate and white chocolate if that content is part of your webpage's message. Don't separate chocolate from bunnies, if you are referring to chocolate bunnies. The topics for those two words are entirely different, so combine them.
 
Do Not "keyword stuff" on any portion of your page, including metadata such as title, keywords, teaser, summary, or description. Keyword stuffing is repeating the same keyword multiple times in one or more of metadata or portion of the page, such as hidden text on a page or alternative text on an image.

Using the chocolate example, you don't need to say you sell chocolate in Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Antonio with the keywords Fort Worth chocolate, chocolate Fort Worth, Dallas chocolate, chocolate Dallas, San Antonio chocolate, chocolate San Antonio. Just add the locations to an appropriate section, like the description where you say, "We proudly sell our delicious chocolate in locations across Texas, including Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Antonio."

Do use keywords in the context of your message on your webpage. Remember, your audience is coming to you on this topic specifically. If the page talks about this topic, their keywords would likely be somewhere within the conversation, not just within the metadata. In fact, keywords in message content on a webpage play a larger role in ranking than keywords in metadata.

Do Not use keywords that are unrelated to your content.

Usability

And a final recommendation in regard to page titles. While many web maintainers get concerned about adding keywords into the page title, you really want to keep them quite simple. This is in part due to black hat practices of stuffing, but here's a different perspective:
  • What are you reading on the search results?
  • What are you reading if you are choosing a bookmark in your long list of bookmarks?
If every page title starts out the same, then you can't tell the difference without investigating further. Most users are not that curious.

Here at Tarleton, all our Cascade pages already include that we are Tarleton State University. You don't need to include it in your title. Instead, start with the page topic, then go to the department name. For a fake example, Glorious Dark Chocolate - Department of Chemistry & Biology - Tarleton State University. ("- Tarleton State University" does not need to be entered in Cascade.)

Start specific and go out. Note I didn't mention the College of Science and Technology in the page title. Keep it simple.

Last but definitely not least, make all your page titles unique!

-Karole