Search Engine Optimization

A lot of factors play into how your webpage ranks on any given search engine. The most well-known search engine is from Google, and no one knows the exact algorithm they are using to rank webpages other than they update it regularly. However, content strategists have tested a number of items to determine how those elements help or deter webpages from receiving a good ranking.

Provide here are

  • best practices for improving your SEO ranking,
  • bad (black hat) practices that may lower your ranking or remove you entirely,
  • instructions on how to structure your web addresses,
  • recommendations on how to write your metadata and
  • how Marketing and Communications is already working towards improving your SEO ranking on the back end.

Best Practices

User-Centered Content

  • Give your constituents content they expect to find on your webpage.
  • Focus on your constituents' needs, not your organizational structure.
  • Avoid unique University jargon, and do keyword research on the service and/or products you provide or inform about. Your constituents don't know your specific name or acronyms. They use common name keywords in their search queries.
  • Place information-rich content on your webpage. Keep it fresh. The more current and interesting, the better.
  • Avoid duplicating content from someone else's website, including a University website. Let the content expert own and maintain that information, and link to their content to improve both webpages' rankings.
  • Use metadata (i.e. titles, descriptions and keywords) appropriately.

Popularity, Link Sharing and Social Sharing

  • The more your webpage is accessed, the higher your authority on the topic.
  • The more legitimate, related webpages and social media posts that link to your webpage, the higher your authority on the topic. Avoid resource link pages (or "link neighborhoods") as these are typically filled with blacklisted webpages that will lower your SEO ranking.
  • Encourage relevant linking to your webpages, including social media, but do not spam social media platforms just for link visibility (a black hat practice).
  • Avoid hosting resource link pages. Verify that the content you link to is legitimate and the owner is the authority on the topic to avoid your webpage becoming blacklisted as well and lowering your SEO ranking.

Links and Navigation

  • Textual links are better than graphical links for indexing keywords to improve your SEO ranking.
  • Write link text in an active voice using unique but informative verbiage.
  • Organize your information on your website strategically, including well-written folder, webpage, and file names, so the web addresses are marketable and searchable. This also helps when including your content on print publications.
  • Informative text must be used on links instead of the actual web address on electronic media, especially the web, to inform your constituents of the content they will expect. Some exceptions include paid advertising on search engine result listings and social media posts.
  • Contact Web Services about creating marketable "Vanity URLs" for use on any print or electronic media (i.e. paid advertising on search engines) that may need to visibly include a web address that redirects to a much longer and unfriendly web address.

Images

  • Provide appropriate alternative text on images, including topic relevant content.
  • Do not include phone numbers, addresses, or other contact information in images, as some search engine robots do not index that content off alternative text.

Bad SEO Practices (Black Hat)

Some strategies are considered "black hat" due to their ability to lead your constituents to the wrong content under false claims of authority and legitimacy. This includes providing keywords or descriptions of content that are not actually presented on your website as well as "keyword stuffing," which is the act of trying to use the same topic words repeatedly across areas of a webpage to claim authority on the topic. Other black hat techniques are included on Google's Quality Guidelines.

Those practices lower your ranking, but recent changes in Google's search results policy also include removing your webpages entirely from their search results for major offenses. Major offenses are typically based on a lack of authority on the topics contained on those webpages (see Google's policy on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act). For example, if your website contains someone else's copyrighted content, you are not the authority on that content. If you do not have permission to use it, complainants can file for copyright infringement, and during the legal process, the webpage containing the content is removed from the search results, and you may be ordered to remove your webpage or offending content from the website.

Web URLs (Web Addresses)

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.

It typically starts with a protocol (e.g. ftp://, http://, https://, tel:, mailto:) and is followed by a resource name, which includes the domain name and/or folders and files that are on that domain name.

Midwestern State University has a very nice, clean web address (for publications, the protocol is removed): www.msutexas.edu

Domain (.edu) and Domain Name

As an educational institution, Midwestern State University has the ability to acquire one (1) domain name ending in .edu. This signifies authority and legitimacy across the Internet. Commercial (.com) and organizational (.org) domains do not rank as high on search engines as educational (.edu) domains. 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.

We also made it very simple to find us by sticking to "msutexas" as our domain name. Imagine if we had gone the route of www.midwestern-state-university.edu. First, that is a very long web address. Also note the hyphens separating the words.

The following 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 there are no hyphens in the domain name (e.g. www.midwesternstateuniversity.edu), Google would raise the ranking.

However, your constituents would prefer not to type out long web addresses.

Index Pages (or Homepages)

At MSU, our homepages are index.php. That is, if you wanted your constituents to go our main homepage or your departmental homepage, they wouldn't actually have to type that portion out.

A homepage can have the web address form of "www.msutexas.edu" as opposed to "www.msutexas.edu/index.php" or "www.msutexas.edu/webservice" as opposed to "www.msutexas.edu/webservice/index.php".

For print publications, you want to use these shorter web addresses to reduce the amount of typing your constituents would need to do.

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, and periods. Special characters outside that set are needed for calculations or interactivity with scripts and applications, so using them in your file and page names will actually do harm to your content.

The following characters should be avoided at all cost in your page and file names: ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) + =[ ] { } | , \ / < > ? `

Syntax Rules

Rules on syntax are very important, and not just for aesthetic reasons. For example, you should only use a period when saving a file (between the file name and the file extension). It 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. Without the extension properly define. your constituents will hit errors on their browsers or devices.

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 your constituents looking for your content on search engines. Spaces are also a bad character to use in page and file names on the Internet. We used to replace them with either underscores or hyphens, but hyphens are actually better than underscores for SEO:

  • 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.

In this example, unless "marinebiology" is a word, it is very unlikely to push your webpage up in the rankings if your constituents search for "marine biology". Search engines are assuming you mean "marinebiology" as an entire word.

This is obviously opposite of the rule for domain names, but it really does work for file and page names after the domain name:

  • www.msutexas.edu/webstrategy/web-guidelines.html
  • www.msutexas.edu/webstrategy/post-apocalyptic-design.pdf
  • www.msutexas.edu/web-strategy/index.html
Make it All Lower Case

Some search engines and analytics software are case sensitive. Since your page can be typed or displayed 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.

Metadata

As mentioned in the Naming Conventions, metadata is still important, but not all aspects are as important as they used to be or even the way we used to implement them.

Title

These are still used in ranking webpages for display on search results, but they are also useful in terms of usability of your website. By using appropriate naming conventions for page titles, you present your information in a usable manner for your constituents when scanning the search results as well as scanning their own browser's bookmarks, if they've saved your content for later reading. Some research suggests keeping your titles under a 75 character limit. Keep in mind the fact that your constituents have to read through the title to understand what to expect on the page, so keep it concise.

Description

Reports claim that description meta tags are no longer being used directly with SEO rankings, however, when your constituents scan through the search results list, they may want a better idea of what to expect on your page beyond your page title. The description still displays underneath the title in the results. If you don't use one, it tries to find relevant information based on your constituent's keyword search.

Keyword

MSUTexas uses keywords throughout various parts of our website for internal search engine. however, external search engines (e.g. Google) stopped using keywords in SEO rankings to counter keyword stuffing back in 2009.

In truth, the keywords should be covered throughout your content on your webpage. After all, if you are discussing a particular topic, related words to your topic should appear in some manner visible to your constituents in the form of alternative text for graphics, headings, paragraphs, lists, tables and other media. There are exceptions to this list, though. Keyword content cannot be gathered by search engine robots from videos, iframes, and widgets built in Silverlight or other rich media formats (excluding Flash media, but Flash cannot be implemented in the new design due to its accessibility issues).

On the Back End: What Marketing and Communications is Doing for You

Marketing and Communications already implements many other SEO practices not mentioned above due to their technical nature including:

  • Sitemaps maintained by Web Services
  • Directions for search engine robots to avoid websites or webpages maintained by Web Services
  • Webmaster tools to control and track SEO strengths and weaknesses maintained by Web Services
  • Paid advertising in collaboration with Web Services and Creative Services and budgetary assistance with the requesting institutional units
  • Social media promotion and advertising in collaboration with Web Services, Creative Services and Video Services.