The first step of Inbound Marketing Methodology is to attract people to the website or to content they are looking for. How are people going to try to find content that they are looking for? If I ask this question to someone today, most people will say , ‘I will google it’.
Here is some data from my own blog. For the month of September 2016, there were 1024 visits to my blog site. Out of those 1024 visits, 645 came from Search Engines, that is 63% of the total visits. It’s also noticeable that most people searched in Google; so if I keep our SEO best practices discussion around Google, we should be able to cover most important topics.
Not to brag about my blog but, this gives us some idea about how important it is to use SEO properly. Currently search engines reach 67% of the US population and 98% of the US browsing population. Any website with good attention to SEO will show advantages as far as Inbound Marketing is concerned.
In this blog article, I will discuss implementation of SEO for websites built on Sitecore. There will be lots of discussion about SEO best practices. Sitecore will be discussed at the end. I will discuss the Sitecore information architecture and Sitecore tools that can help us to apply the SEO best practices in a Sitecore implementation project.
We should keep in mind that, Google is always changing the search engine algorithms, something relevant today, may not be entirely relevant tomorrow. My focus in this article is to provide the information that will help someone to understand SEO in the context of Inbound Marketing and how to implement those SEO best practices in Sitecore.
What happens when we search in Google? Google algorithms search through the indexed documents and try to find the best possible match for the search criteria. How does it work? Here is a short video, by Matt Cutts, on how Google search works.
In addition to finding the best content, Google also tries to present the search data in many interesting ways to intrigue users. As much as it is important to understand how search works, it also important to understand how Google present search results. Each search result Google shows is called a snippet. Understanding snippets will help us to understand where Google finds the snippet information and hence we will be using that to intrigue our buyer personas to attract them to our website. Here is another video, by Matt Cutts, where he explains result snippets:
The video is a little old but it is still relevant. Since the creation of this video, Google has added many more interesting features to its search presentation. For best SEO results for Inbound Marketing, there are two things that are most important, 1) achieving a high search ranking and 2) achieving a high click through rate by proper use of Google’s presentation features.
A good strategy for SEO starts from very beginning of the project. What is the domain name of the site going to be? It is important to put some thought on that, because domain trust is important for SEO. When it comes to choosing a domain name, consider the following:
It’s a cliche but I will say it, Content is the King. It is a misconception that content is the only thing that Google considers for the ranking. Google aims to find out how trustworthy the content is and in order to do that it needs to also look at the engagement. We will talk more about this later. But the quality of the content is really important. How do we create quality content?
There is a myth that keyword research for SEO is useless. It was proven by many case studies that finding good keywords helps with the search ranking. Google will eventually crawl the content but with so much content out there, choice of right keyword will help stay ahead of the competition.
Search Engine’s ultimate goal is to provide content that people would like to see. How does the search engine know if people would like specific content? The answer is, by monitoring the conversation. It’s like real life. When we like a book, we talk about it with our friends and spread the word. Similarly when content reaches more people, via different channels like, blogs, social media, email etc., it indicates more people liking it and more conversation. Quality content is not the only thing that matters for search ranking. How people are engaging with the content and how the content is getting distributed is something that search engine looks at today.
If the content is good and it becomes popular, more people will link to the content. Google search ranking consider this as a factor for search ranking. The dark side of ranking based on links from other sites is that people try to game the system. Tell a bunch of people to write some content and link to their site with the sole purpose to trick the Google search algorithm. Google doesn’t like it and there are many incidents where Google penalized websites for trying to trick the system. You will find some examples here .
Whether you are linking to some source content or someone is linking to your content, it is important that those links have a high trust value. A good place to check the trust of a link is to use Majestic SEO website as we discussed earlier.
Listing the site in the directories can improve the search ranking but you need to be careful about the quality of the directory service and you need to have the right strategy to implement this for your website. Here is a nice article about directory listing.
One thing to consider about link building is that the link building should naturally grow. It’s not natural that we write content today and hundreds of sites immediately start linking to that content. If that happens, Google will consider that as suspicious.
Guest Blogging can help with search ranking but, you need to be careful because guest blogging is only effective if it helps building the trust. First of all, the content written by a guest blogger should be relevant and quality content. You should use guest bloggers who have acquired some authoritative trust from Google. If you have a circle of quality bloggers writing on the common interest, it will help with engagement for the community, which helps adding popularity for the content. When it comes to distributing the content, it can be distributed through different medium like, infographics, ebook, audio, video, etc.
Since search ranking is influenced by the engagement towards the content. Distributing content through social media is important. Always use a social sharing icon in the article. Have social networking accounts for the business and make sure the sites are publicly viewable.
Search result presentation is as important as search result ranking. It often happens that a user clicks on the third ranked search result because its snippet is showing some text that is relevant to the search.
What we add in the "title" tag of the page shows up as the title in the search result.
Adding text in the meta tag description gives you a chance to show the user what you want to convey about the content. If the text is relevant to what the user is searching, there is a fair chance that Google will use that. If there is no meta tag description, Google will look at the content and construct the snippet. Google may also look at the open directory for the snippet text.
The Structured Data Markup is an effort by the internet community to organize data in a standard structured way to present the data to online visitors. The Structured Data Markup schemas are available in. Every website has some sort of structure data. For example, if the website is a travel site, it can provide Structured Data Markup of the type of ‘Place’. If a website provides Structured Data, Google and other search engines might present that data in an interesting way along with the search result. For example, if I search for Norah Jones, along with the Norah Jones site link in the search result, Google will also show the event information to the right.
“name”: “5D Mark III”,
“description”: “Great SLR Camera”,
In a web page, Structured Data needs to be included in the header section within the script tag as shown in the above example. Structured Data does not help increase the search ranking but definitely helps with the click through rate. To find some examples of Structured Data in Google, you may search for some recipes and you will see the Structured Data about recipes presented with images, ratings etc. To see what Structured Data is included in the site, use Google’s Structured Data testing tool. Entering the website URL will show the Structured Data in an easy-to-read, presentable format. If the Structured Data is one of the qualifying content types, Google will show it in rich snippets. You can learn more about Structured Data here .
There are many other aspects of a website that will either help with the ranking or click through rate directly or indirectly. Let’s discuss them.
Use Canonical link element when there is more than one version of the same content. The canonical link tells search engines which link to consider for ranking when even the visitor lands on a different version of the page. The canonical element is declared like: http://example.com/canonical-example/”>;.
Even when there is only one version of the page, we should use canonical element because the same page can be rendered when there different parameters included in the URL. Google also considers self referencing of a URL in the canonical link as the best practice. If there are duplicate pages in the site, instead of using canonical link, you should remove the page and use 301 redirect. You should be careful about the canonical link. If the canonical link is not a valid link the search ranking can be negatively affected severely.
A Sitemap is an XML file that describes the structure of the site. Search engines can use it to find out pages/images/videos to crawl. There are some debates if the Sitemap file is needed for Google to find out the pages of the site. It is true that Google can find out and crawl pages even if the Sitemap file doesn’t exists but, Google highly recommends to have a Sitemap file for several good reasons.
There is a limit for the Sitemap file size. A Sitemap file can be at most 50 MB uncompressed and have less than 50,000 URLs. After that you have to create multiple Sitemap files. There are two different ways you can let Google know about the Sitemap:
Submit it to Google using search console Sitemap tool or add the Sitemap file location in the like, ‘Sitemap: http://example.com/sitemap_location.xml’;.
The following is an example of a Sitemap that contains only one URL.
Sometime you don’t want certain content to show up in the search result. Typically we want to exclude content that contains private information of customers or users. There are several ways to prevent content from the search crawler.
Does having SSL help in search ranking? It’s hard measure if it helps, but Google says so.
There are definitely some advantages besides the search ranking.
The quality of the website suffers in the eyes of search engines if the website crashes or hangs. If pages are moved or deleted, use 301 redirect to appropriate page or use status code 410 to let Google know the page was deleted permanently.
One of the biggest challenges of SEO implementation is to constantly maintain and follow the SEO best practices for the site. A proper Sitecore information architecture can help with this significantly in regard to easing the implementation and enforcing the best practices.
To support and enforce SEO for any Sitecore project, I suggest creating an SEO template and include this SEO template as one of the parent templates of the page template. The SEO template can contain the following fields:
Sitecore allows you to apply validation to the fields of a template through field validation rules. There are many validations available in the base product as shown below. You can also create custom validation rules.
You can select validation rules for the SEO fields to enforce good SEO practices. Here, I selected the required and Max Length 40 for the Title field.
When I create an Item that doesn’t satisfy the validation rule, Sitecore will show the indicator and message that the item has some validation failure. Like below it is showing on the Quick Bar on the left and next to the item field.
Validation rules can also be run from the Review panel in the content editor.
You can create some custom validation rules like, the Title field and URL field cannot contain the same text. This will ensure SEO optimization rules.
In Sitecore the images are saved in Media Library. When images are accessing a web page Sitecore will render images using ASHX handler. In the Media Library item for an image there several fields you can enter values. One of them is Alt in the Image section for Alt Text. This field has validation and shows a red line when no text is entered. Below is an example.
The Sitemap generator mentioned below can be extended to generate Sitemap XML for all images used in the website.
Sitecore Experience Accelerator (SXA) is newly added module in the latest version of Sitecore. SXA has some neat features to improve SEO. You can enter the title and meta description for page items. It does have a field for meta keywords, which has no effect on search ranking. The nicest feature in SXA is, you can enter the Sitemap data in the page item and generate the Sitemap file for the website. Learn more about how to Improve page SEO in SXA.
There are a bunch of tools available in the Sitecore Marketplace that can be useful for SEO implementation.
301 Redirect Module
There two 301 redirect modules available in Sitecore Marketplace. These modules provide varieties of feature for 301 redirect.
Checkout the following Sitemap generator modules.
Sitecore SEO Toolkit
Sitecore has a free SEO toolkit that can be useful to evaluate SEO related problems in the page content. The SEO toolkit can be integrated with third party APIs for keyword suggestion and content analysis functionality. This tool was not updated recently as per the newer version of Sitecore. You might face some issues if you are using Sitecore version 8.0 or up.
In this article I tried to cover most of the important best practices of SEO. Hopefully, this will help marketers and developers to understand SEO in the context of Inbound Marketing and how to use Sitecore efficiently to achieve the SEO goals. As a platform Sitecore is very flexible and extensible. There are opportunities of creating many more tools to help with SEO implementation for Sitecore projects. I have plans to create some tools and I am looking forward to see more effort from the community.