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BACK TO BASICS: Site Relevancy and Keyword Usage

by Lynn Gerber, January 15, 2008

Are the keywords you want to rank for actually being used on pages of your site? If not, you are not alone. Failure to use the keywords on pages of your site is a common search engine optimization mistake. Likewise, using keywords you want to rank for in Meta tags but then not using them anywhere in the body content of Web pages is another common misstep on the road to getting ranked.

Including the words that users would type into a search engine within the pages of your Web site is a must for search engine optimization. Google's Webmaster Guidelines offer this often-overlooked piece of Web content advice:

"Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it."

Remember, Google's mission is to provide users with the most relevant sites for every keyword phrase that is queried in their search engine. So it would not be likely that Google would consider your site to be the most relevant for a particular phrase if that phrase is not used on any of your pages. It is also important to understand that the more competitive the keyword is, the more pages you will have to optimize for that keyword.

Incorporating the keywords you want to rank for should be a natural part of the writing process, rather than "forced" or unnatural. Using descriptive words that tell who you are and what you do helps users and search engines understand what your site is about. For example, identify your organization and industry and describe the nature of your business and what distinguishes you from other industry players. You can assume your reader is intelligent, but don't take for granted that your reader is informed about a particular topic or familiar with your organization or Web site.

Good writing, much like a prepared speech, provides an opportunity to use keywords and should include an introduction or simple description of the content to follow. Users appreciate being told what a page is about so they know what to expect before reading through the document. Use a simple summary of your most important points to tell the reader upfront what your document contains, including your solution or results. Consider the beginning of your document your best shot at engaging users, since most readers aren't going to read the whole page anyway. Good writing makes a clear point, then supports that point with specific information before finally presenting a conclusion or solution. Structuring content from broad to narrow in this way is fundamental to high-quality writing. The example below shows a topic that moves from Ford, a broad manufacturing company, to Mustang cars, and then to the specific 2008 model year:

The importance of good writing makes sense when you think about how a search engine figures out what a Web page is about. Search engines judged page relevancy by examining the words and phrases that are used on the page. In fact, the words and phrases used give the search engine a great deal of information about the page, or a group of pages, or a site as a whole.

Some text content cannot be read by spiders (e.g., content written in JavaScript or hidden in DIV tags). Images containing text also cannot be read by a search engine spider. However, there are a number of elements in a Web page that contain text content that a search engine can examine and use to determine relevancy, such as:

  • Title Tag
  • Meta Description
  • Meta Keywords Tag
  • Heading Tag(s) such as h1, h2.
  • Body Content
  • Anchor Text
  • ALT Tags

Using keywords appropriately within each of the HTML elements listed above on a Web page is as fundamental to search engine optimization as a salutation, body, closing and signature is to writing a letter - the finished work is incomplete without these elements in place. The appropriate use of keywords within each of these elements is also important to avoid mistakes that can harm rankings. For example, overusing or repeating keywords so much that the copy becomes unnatural should be avoided. Likewise, avoid using keywords that do not relate to the content of the site. Guidelines from reputable sources for the appropriate use of keywords can be found on the Internet, including free information resources on the Bruce Clay Web site.

Of course, it is also important to choose the best words to describe your product or service in order to drive traffic to your site. Keyword research will tell you the words people use to search the Web and is essential to making the best keyword choices. For example, a digital printing company would benefit more from using "short run color printing" versus "short run printing" as a keyword since "short run color printing" is the more searched phrase:

Keyword Phrase Searches
short run color printing 217
short run printing 33

A good keyword research tool, such as Trellian's Keyword Discovery or WordTracker, will help you identify the best words to use on your pages.

Spiders also examine the words used in link anchor text. Using a keyword phrase in the anchor text of a link solidifies the relationship between documents. Of course, the keyword used in the anchor text pointing to a document should be consistent with the topic of the destination page. This text informs the user, as well as the spider, what topic to expect in the destination page before clicking the link that will bring them there. When used in this way, anchor text can help support ranking of keywords and facilitate building a theme across a site. Evaluating internal link anchor text throughout your Web site is a worthy endeavor for any webmaster or development team. A frequent mistake occurs when anchor text is non-descriptive, or does not incorporate a keyword when it could have. Replace non-descriptive wording, such as "click here", "download" or "more information" with a keyword phrase that accurately describes the destination page.

Finally, there are the finer points of keyword frequency and distribution that a search engine can use in determining relevancy. The frequency a keyword appears on a page has meaning to a search engine, as does the location or placement of keywords on a page. The general frequency of a keyword phrase can help rankings, as long as the phrase is not overused. Keyword density is the ratio of keywords on a page to the rest of the content on the page. It is usually expressed as a percentage and should generally be between 2% and 3% for a given page. However, the algorithmic density differs for individual keyword phrases, so be aware of fluctuating densities that might go above or below the estimated 2%-3%. A keyword density analyzer (KDA) such as Bruce Clay's Single-page Keyword Density Analyzer is a sophisticated software tool that is very useful in evaluating keyword usage. Not only can a good KDA check keyword density, prominence and placement, it can show information about the head section, keyword usage within page elements, anchor text link information, spam violations and much more. The KDA looks at the location of keyword phrases from the first to last byte of a page and then produces detailed information about keyword usage in a report format. Keyword phrases that appear at the top of a page are given more weight by the search engines than phrases that appear at the bottom of a page, although even distribution of a phrase throughout a page is the most advantageous presentation. If your keyword is not evenly distributed, a search engine might not consider that keyword important to your page. Again, the KDA is very useful in determining if a keyword phrase is evenly distributed, too concentrated or too diluted. Following is a linear keyword phrase distribution chart for the two-word phrase "letterhead printing" for a Web page belonging to a digital printing company Web site:

The chart is a component of the report produced using Bruce Clay's Single-page Keyword Density Analyzer and shows a fairly even distribution of the keyword throughout the page, although there is room for improvement. The far right side of the chart is empty (i.e., there are no red bars) indicating no use of the keyword at the end of the page. Working the keyword into the body content once again near the end of the page would improve the distribution.

Be aware that keyword usage patterns differ from industry to industry-understanding what is "normal" use in your industry for a particular keyword (versus overuse or underuse) will allow you to evaluate your page content more accurately. For example, you can use a KDA to see how keyword usage on your page measures up to the top-10 competitor pages for a given keyword phrase; then fine tune your page accordingly.

Since search engines guard their algorithms, we can only make educated guesses about the weight or importance of these factors. However, high-quality writing is valued by the search engines as well as users. And writing that includes the keywords you want to rank for is essential to compete on the Internet.

Think about it. What keywords do you want to rank for? Are those words actually used on your pages? Are your keywords distributed across the entire page? If not, you can make your site more relevant for those phrases in the eyes of the search engines by using the keywords you want to rank for on pages of your site. The overall goal of any search engine optimization project should be to increase relevancy for all of its keywords.

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