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Designing Your Pages For Search Engines

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Ian Gregory

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User since: 27 Oct 2002

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Search engine optimization is rapidly becoming a key part of the web development process. Making your client's sites look good is the easy part of the job - getting them traffic is much more of a challenge. There is lots of conflicting advice floating around, but I'm going to look at some of the techniques that have worked for me.


The time to start thinking about optimizing your pages isn't when you've finished coding your pages and are ready to upload them - search engines need to be considered right from square one. It is infinitely easier to include many of the techniques described below in the page as you write it - and they are much likely to work better this way.

Content, content, content

The one key point to remember is that search engines are there to index content. If your pages don't contain useful content, you'll never attain a good ranking. But if you plan your pages to be content-rich, you're already a step on the way to a good search engine placement.

Think about what keywords you would search for if you were looking for a page like yours. Choosing good keywords is vital - try to include short phrases people might type in when searching. Steer clear of 'stop words' - these are words like 'the', 'or', and 'where' - search engines will ignore them because they are meaningless. And if you are stuck for ideas, have a look at the competition!

Getting your keywords in

Your page title is one of the most important things on the page to get right - include your most important keywords and make it snappy - remember it will be displayed on the search engine's results page and you want people to click it! But be aware of size limits - search engines will display only the first part of long titles, so try to aim for somewhere between 40 and 150 characters.

Don't forget to include your keywords in the META 'keywords' attribute, and write a short (150-400 character) description of the page in the META 'description' attribute. Again, the description is often displayed on results pages so make sure it is accurate and catchy.

Include your keywords throughout the page, but use them wisely. Aim for about 5% of the words on your page to be your top keywords - this is enough for the engines to recognize them, but not so many as to look like spamming! Make good use of the HTML tags in your page - heading tags are an effective way of giving search engines a 'hint' about what is on your page. The alt attribute of <img> tags and the title attribute of <a> are another place you can add keywords, but don't forget that they are there for those who are unable to see the images. Be wary of alienating your audience by filling the tags with lists of keywords!

Something that people often miss is that you can include keywords in the filenames of your images and other external files. In fact, it's a great idea to include all of your CSS and scripting in external files. Many search engine bots will only read the first x lines of your page, and the last thing you want them to see is all your page code! If you have to include scripting or styles inline, try and keep it to the minimum possible.

What to avoid

Try to steer clear of fancy tricks - frames, JavaScript menus, flash etc. Search engines will index frames, but will display them in their listings as individual frames - not what you want your visitors to see when they click your link! Bots (the software that visits your pages and adds them to search engine's indexes) won't follow links that work by using JavaScript tricks - so make sure your pages are linked with standard anchor tags.

Flash movies look great, but don't use them for the main content of your pages - the bots can't read them (and therefore won't be able to add anything from them into their indexes) nor can those without the capability to use flash, including the visually handicapped.


Don't attempt to 'trick' the search engines into thinking your page is something it isn't. Their algorithms will spot it if you have used unsuitable keywords in an attempt to rank your page more highly, and will penalize your site. Another common trick is including 'invisible' text on your page that your visitors can't see - but search engine bots can. Again, if the search engines spot this it's curtains to your position.

Search engines are also starting to identify more advanced tricks such as 'cloaking' (using server side to show a different page to search engines than the one shown to ordinary visitors) and 'doorway pages' (pages specifically designed to be full of keywords, targeted at search engines). Don't take the risk. There is at least one major search engine that will drop you right down its rankings if you attempt to fool it.

Your turn...

So, if you're not already doing these things, why not? They are easy to do, requiring almost no effort on your part, and in my experience have caused increased rankings within the space of 6-8 weeks. You've got nothing to lose!

Ian Gregory has been developing web pages since he was a teenager. He's currently completing his final year of a Software Engineering degree at Manchester University, UK. He spent last year working with a major international company developing web based systems and providing advice and guidance on best practice in web development.

When he's not studying or in the pub, he can probably be found tinkering with something flashy at the local student radio station.

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