No less important than PageRank, when it comes to performing well in Google, are the visible and invisible words on a Web page. By visible, I mean the words in a headline on a page, the words in a caption, and the words in the text on a page. By invisible, I mean those words that are hidden in "tags" -- visible to the browser and Google but not to you or a site visitor, unless you know where to look.
When Google sends software called a "spider" out onto the Web, where it sucks up all the new pages it can find, and then deposits them back at Google. Then Google's search algorithm tries to make sense out of what the spider brought home. That's when words count. Poorly chosen words can sideline your pages, and they won't turn up well in search results. So how do I know if Google understand what my site and my pages are all about?
The first is pretty obvious, even if it's often ignored: use words that most people use in normal conversation. Be clear, detailed and literal. Here are three headlines for a fishing report:
- Monstah stripahs stormin the sound
- Nice fish for all last night
- Huge striped bass everywhere in Nantucket Sound and Vineyard Sound
The first two strike out. Why? Because when people are searching for fishing reports, no one thinks silly or cute, they think in clear, literal terms. This is conclusively documented in lots of research. Google doesn't know what a "monstah stripah" is because no one types in that search query, even in Boston, where they actually talk that way.
If the first headline is too obscure, the second is general. "Nice fish" could relate to anything anywhere, from fish markets to pet stores, to Rotarian fish fries. It's nowhere.
The last one is textbook. The details are concrete, specific and clear. And the words are in line with what people actually use when they search for information. So when it comes to the text in your headlines and anything else you write on your site, keep it specific and clear. You'll be rewarded for that.
The second important elementare those words you can't see, which is the information embedded in the tags on your page. Actually, you can see it, but you have do a little footwork: go to your browser's View drop-down menu and select Source. The page you were just looking at in the browser suddenly turns into a tangle of strange computer-speak that looks like this:
Most of this is the "mark-up" language known as HTML that tells a browser what should appear on a page and how it should look. Some of the information contained in "tags" is very important to Google. First and foremost is the title tag, which is a phrase containing, again, very specific words that describe the page's content. For example:
<title>World Record Bass Watch: The Latest on Japans Giant Largemouth <title> (From a Field & Stream article, and a bit abbreviated)
The title tag is one way Google tries to understand the content of a page, and it's also what Google uses in the first line of the search result:
In addition to the title tag, there is the meta description tag, which typically contains a couple of sentences elaborating on the content of the page. Google sometimes uses this text for the "snippet" on the search results page beneath the title tag, so it's important. For more on this, Google has a handy explanation and tool.
In addition to headline and hidden tags, there is the url of the page itself. Older websites are often build on technology that automatically generated urls with long strings of unintelligible characters, like this:
They made sense to the software but no one else. More modern Web publishing systems make use of a page name to help create the url, like this:
http://www.fieldandstream.com/articles/fishing/bass-fishing/where-fish-bass/2009/07/world-record-bass-watch-latest-japans-giant-la (The contender, by the way is a 22-pound, 5-ounce giant. Drop this url into your browser to see a picture at F&S.)
Google likes those more consumer-friendly urls. If your publishing system doesn't generate them, you should consider moving to a new system.
What I've explained in this post are the core basics. They should enable you to analyze your own site, and ask your webmaster some probing questions. If you'd like to read more, Google has a very valuable, free document online called Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, which is a must read if you want to become expert on subjects like title tags and meta description tags. It's very helpful and easy to follow. You can download it from this help page at Google, which is also chock full of useful information.
And, in case you were wondering, GoFishn.com will address most of these issues search related issues automatically -- and we'll even let you choose your own url. Whether you write striped bass or stripahs in the headline of a fishing report, however, will be your call.