Technical SEO: A programmer’s guide to SEO

It is much more efficient and less costly to build a new website on a foundation of search engine optimization (SEO) than to try to retrofit existing websites after they have been launched. 

This guide will help programmers and web developers identify opportunities to incorporate SEO into the process and framework of building a new website.  By starting at the earliest stages of the web development process and following these recommended best practices; new websites will get crawled and indexed faster, deeper and will appear higher on search engine results pages (SERPs).

The top 5 most important technical SEO elements on a website are:

  • URLs (pretty permalinks)
  • Page titles and paragraph headings
  • Link anchor text
  • Image attributes
  • Crawl factors

SEO Best Practices

URLs (pretty permalinks)

The Uniform Resource Locator (URL) or page address is extraordinarily important for several reasons:

  • Search engines include URLs in their index
  • Webmasters often link to other websites by using their URL
  • Pretty permalinks are easier to share and understand
  • A well designed URL reveals the content behind the URL

As you develop or program a new website, particularly if it is a dynamic database driven website, try to engineer it in a way that the URLs are shorter, do not include parameters, avoid https if unnecessary and help web visitors (and search engines) understand the content behind the URL.  Look at the difference between these two URLs, for example:

Other things to consider:

  • Create a 301 redirect from to
  • Name folders and directors using simple plain language
  • Use a dash (-) rather than underscore (_) to separate words
  • Separate words with a dash (-) rather than running them together
  • Prefer long-tail keyword phrases instead of single, short words
    • /crime-security-theft/
    •  /crime/

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Page titles and paragraph headings

Page titles are probably the single most important piece of real estate on a web page vis-à-vis getting indexed and found by search engines. 

Unfortunately, most websites misuse or underuse the page title.  Commonly, organizations will use the page title for branding purposes, i.e., SEO Quotient or inQbation.  However, since your domain name already includes these words in the URL, you would be wasting valuable resources by duplicating the brand in the page title.

Organization will often use Page Titles as sort of a breadcrumb trail to indicate where a web visitor is within the site.  While bread-crumb trails are a great idea, they should be within the body of the website, not in the page title.

The best page titles will consider these factors:

  • Every <title>Page title</title> will be unique.  No two pages will have the same title
  • <title>Page titles</title> will be less than 70 characters (including spaces)
  • Page titles will include long tail keyword phrases instead of single short words
    • International financial economic business data
    • Data
  • <title>Page titles</title> will reflect a web visitor’s Google search query, e.g.,
    • Countries with lowest tax rate
    • Countries with highest unemployment rate
    • How to start a business in Afghanistan

Likewise, Paragraph Headings (H1, H2, H3) will reflect the web visitor language that they would use in a Google search query if they were looking for the type of information provided on that particular page.

Important: every page of a website should be optimized exclusively for the content on that page.  Page titles and headings should be relevant to that particular page.

Also, it is important to adhere to an information taxonomy.  There should be only one H1 heading on a page.  Each subsection within that page should be headed by an <h2> bracketed tag </h2>.  Sub-paragraphs within a subsection should be headed by <h3>bracketed tags</h3>.  Headings, in other words, should be hierarchical and follow an organizational path.

Finally, it is important to not stuff keywords.  Keyword stuffing will earn you negative demerits and possible get you deflated or de-indexed within search rankings.  It is better to say the same thing different ways than to say the same thing over and over again.  One heading, for example, may refer to “gender”.  The next heading may refer to “women in the workforce”.  The next heading may refer to “female participation in the labor market”.  So, mix it up and diversify your language.

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Link anchor text

Hyper links are what make the World Wide Web so valuable.  They enable people to “surf the web”.  Links also add credibility.  It is not surprising that search engines place a lot of value on links and link names (the anchor text between an <a ref=”…> and the closing bracket</a>).

Careful thought should be exercised when creating link names and anchor text.  In general, links should reveal the content behind the link.  Somebody should not have to click on a link to see what is on the next page. 

Typically, there are two types of links:

  • Navigational links (main navigation menu)
  • Referential links (one time links that cite or reference another page)

Main navigation menu

It is important to comply with convention.  Just like with cars intended for right-hand drive, the accelerator pedal is on the right and the brake pedal is on the left.  It is good to follow convention, unless you have a clear and compelling reason to defy conventional expectations.

Most people, for example, expect that if you click on the logo in the top left corner of the page, you will be taken back to the site index page.  Likewise, people expect to see an About link on the left and a Contact link on the right.  The rest of the links in the middle should be consistent. 

Referential links

These are the links that you make during the conversational text within the body of a web page.  It is here that it is very important to remember the long-tail and be as descriptive as possible.  Also, by convention, you probably want to target the same window for internal pages and blank windows for external pages. 

Remember the long-tail

Most importantly, links should be descriptive – remember the long tail.  For example, which link name do you think would be more descriptive of the content on the other end of the link?

  • Read more…
  • Full economic survey data comparing various countries tax reform efforts

Certainly, it is easier, faster and in some cases prettier to simply write “read more…” but you will get a lot more web traffic is you express precisely what the page topic is about that you are referencing.

It is probably better to name a navigational link “Business Data” rather than “data”.  “Survey methodology” is probably better than “Methodology”.  “Research papers” is probably better than “Research”.  Top

Image attributes

Images are probably the most underutilized and least exploited SEO opportunity at our disposal.  Because we have development platforms and click-and-drag content management systems (CMS), it is easy to simply Insert > Brown > Image and be done with it.  Often, our software will grab the file name by default and throw it into the alt tag or simply leave an empty alt tag alt=“ ” in it’s place.

Slowing down a few moments to take the extra step in optimizing images goes a long way towards both SEO and Section 508 Compliance (accessibility).  In general, the more accessible (Section 508 compliant) a website, the better search engine optimized it is.  Think about it for a moment…

While a picture can be worth 1,000 words, that can only be true if you have eyes to see the photo.  Otherwise, you must rely on the image metadata.  People with visual disabilities will often use text screen readers to translate into audible signals what is written on a web page.  People with hearing disabilities will use closed caption to know what was said on videos and in audio clips.  Since search engines do not have eyes or ears, they rely on the same methods and technology to understand images, audio and movies.

What is important to know about optimizing images is that if you do it right from the beginning, all of the metadata stays with the image.  So, if you use an image within a document and convert that document into a PDF, for example, all of the metadata gets included within the .pdf.  The same thing applies to Word documents (.doc) and in Rich Text Format (.rtf).

Best practices for optimizing images

  • Rename the image file name after the meaning of the picture or graphic, e.g.,
    • IMG-0394.jpg
    • Afghan-women-working- in-professional-offices.jpg
  • Go into the meta data (Open > Properties > Details) and fill in the details
    • Title
    • Subject
    • Tags
    • Comments
    • Copyright
  • Include meaningful, keyword-rich ALT (alternate text) tags
  • When there is a call to action, include an compelling title tag
  • Place them in a meaningful directory, i.e., /business-tax-reforms versus /images
  • Copy the image and translate all information for use on different language translations

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Crawl factors

Certain methods and techniques can make a page more or less crawlable.  Search engines need a daisy chain of links to enable it to crawl from page to page in order to index content.  If your site does not have an organized information architecture or site map then it is more difficult for search engines to index all of the pages on your site.

In addition, search engines need static links and navigation in order to crawl.  If your site is engineered in a way that forces people to enter a search parameter or select radio buttons or check boxes or pull down a menu, then you may be creating difficult obstacles for search engines to overcome.  A search engine, for example, is not going to select 2 or more parameters and then click a [submit] button.

Ultimately, every page on the website must have a permanent or static link pointing to that page if you want it to be found, crawled and indexed by a search engine.  If your site has 4,000 potential pages of information or data then there must be 4,000 static links that are all findable, site-mapped or otherwise listed somewhere on that website in order to be found and indexed.

Search engine friendly (not)

In general, search engines are not able to effectively crawl websites that rely on these methods and techniques:

  • Flash intros
  • Flash navigation
  • Framesets
  • Robots nofollow
  • Framesets
  • Images
  • Image headings
  • Javascript menu navigation
  • AJAX
  • Multi-parameter driven navigation
  • Powerpoint Presentations
  • Older version PDF documents

Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule and there are methods and techniques in which you can make Flash more search engine friendly, like using XML files to feed content to a Flash file.  In general, if something is important or crucial then you should not rely on these potentially un-crawlable methods, techniques and file formats.

One final thought is to always keep the user in mind.  Any time you have an opportunity to name something, put yourself in the shoes of the person on the other end of Google trying to find the information we have on our sites.  Even better, if you imagine that user as being blind or deaf (like Google), you will both serve a wider audience and accelerate your SEO efforts. 

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