Behind the scenes Optimization
As well as optimizing what you can see on your website for Google, there are a few crucial yet simple things you can do behind the scenes to push its ranking up.
The Fastest Way to Improve your Ranking: Writing Killer Page Titles
Word for word, page titles are the most important SEO element of your entire site. They indicate to Google and visitors which phrases you think each page should rank for. This title shows up in the visitor’s browser tab and is shown by Google in the search results as the headline for each page. For these reasons, it’s obviously important that your page titles are descriptive, appealing and include your target keywords.
Every page on your website should have a page title. This is a bit of behind the scenes code which may or may not be the same as your page’s headline (the visible text at the top of the page). Usually, your page title and page headline should not be the same and here we’ll explore why. Before we do, here’s how to set your page title in WordPress:
In this example, we have the Yoast SEO plugin installed. The settings in Yoast will automatically override the default WordPress page title. This is a good thing, because it means that you can set the default title to something that has meaning for you and you can set the public-facing page title to something that is optimised for search and visitors.
In Google search results, a page title longer than about 57 characters will be truncated. So, if possible, try to keep under this in order to control exactly what is shown to searchers.
To explain what makes a good page title, let’s use an example of a site that was sent to us to review, which sells beautiful custom fitted kitchens in Exmouth, UK. Their current homepage title is set as:
That means this is what shows up in search results as:
And in browser tabs:
Whilst this is their brand name, this is a terrible waste of a page title because it says nothing about the business and includes none of their target keywords. A much stronger page title would be:
Custom Fitted Kitchens in Exmouth | Your Kitchen
In this title, we have their main target phrase, location and brand. This template can be used across the site and tweaked to be made relevant for each page. For example, the page targeting natural wood kitchens can use the title:
Fitted Wood Kitchens in Exmouth | Your Kitchen
Searchers that have typed “Wood Kitchens Exmouth” into Google are going to be particularly tuned to that phrase so when they see the top result using those three words, that’s going to lead to a higher click-through rate (CTR), solidifying ranking and bringing the business more traffic.
The best ranking page titles usually use the page’s target keywords at the start, a variation or two (if there is space), location (if relevant) and the business’s brand name at the end. My advice is to go and have a look at the page titles that your top ranking competitors are using.
How you set your page titles will depend on your website platform. You’ve seen how it’s set in WordPress but Shopify, Bigcommerce, Squarespace and other platforms all have their own settings. Magento users, for example, can install an ‘SEO Titles’ plugin, which will allow them to change their page titles without affecting the name of the page in menus or throughout the Magento backend.
You’ll remember the <meta name=”description”… from our competitor analysis section. You might also remember that this is the descriptive text that usually shows up in the Google results so this is our chance to pitch potential website visitors on why they should click on our site rather than the competition.
Google announced in 2009 that meta descriptions did not contribute to rankings so there’s no need to stuff them full of your keywords. However, if your meta descriptions can encourage more people to click on your site than other sites on the search results page, this will be a positive signal to Google that your website is relevant (“Wow, look at all these people clicking on this website in position 7! Perhaps it deserves better ranking!”). For that reason, it’s a good idea to make your meta description as enticing as possible. Even though Google doesn’t analyse keywords used in meta descriptions, you’ll still want to include your target keywords because these are likely to have been the terms that the searcher used to find your site in the first place.
You usually set your meta descriptions around the same place as you set your page titles. They are sometimes labelled “SEO description” or “page description”:
As with any of this stuff, if you are unsure how to change your meta descriptions in your particular website platform, a quick Google search should give you the guidance you need.
One final thing to note before we go into meta descriptions in further detail is that if you don’t specify meta descriptions, Google will simply pull text copy from your page that it deems relevant. Sometimes this works out, sometimes it really doesn’t (as we’ll see in a minute). Either way, you will hopefully be better at writing a short advert for your website than Google would, so it’s a good idea to write your own.
Once you know how to change your meta description, what should you write? Here are my top tips for writing killer meta descriptions:
1. You want it to be enticing to your potential customers. Using boring, generic text is never a good idea so lazy and meaningless company slogans about ‘best prices, best quality’ are best… avoided. Stating your main USP or a specific compelling feature that sets you apart from your competition can work well, for example, “free 24-hour delivery”.
2. Use your keywords by all means but you really don’t need to stuff your meta description full of them, as it won’t help ranking and it’ll make your site look like junk in the search results. It’s definitely worth including keywords to demonstrate relevance and match what your searcher is looking for, but be selective about it.
3. Google will only show up to a range of 155-160 characters so we recommend playing it safe around the 150-155 character mark. It’s not the end of the world if your meta description is shorter than that but the more space you have to play with, the more you can sell the click to the visitor and the more space your website will take up in search results.
4. If you sell directly from your website, it’s a good idea to make this obvious in your meta descriptions. Using phrases like “free delivery available” or “next day delivery on all orders” not only gives you the edge on competitors who don’t offer such services but also immediately communicates that this is an eCommerce website.
5. If you offer a free consultation, assessment, marketing review, or some other initial free widget to entice people to start doing business with you, mention this in your meta descriptions. Like mentioning free or fast delivery, this will attract high ‘commercial intent’ searchers (those who are most ready to buy now) and searchers who are action-oriented. These folk are usually easiest to convert into leads and sales so they’re certainly the sort of peeps we want on the site!
Let’s look at some examples of good and bad meta descriptions now. We’ll also see examples of meta descriptions that have been written versus those that have been automatically generated by Google from text on the page.
In this first example, no meta description has been manually added so Google has used the first paragraph of copy from the page instead. Good or bad? The thing that comes across in this example is that there’s absolutely no focus on the customer, products or services, it’s 100% about the people that work there. As a customer of this business, I don’t care if your dealer is established. I don’t care if you’re ‘innovative’ (what does that mean anyway?). All I care about is; will you service my Range Rover Sport? From this meta description, I have no idea.
This meta description has been written manually and, as a result, it’s a great length. It tells us what the business does, it gives benefits (“free breakdown cover”), gives us location information (“trusted dealers across the UK”) and tells us the goal of the page (“Find the right used Ford…”).
One final example:
This is what happens when there’s no meta description and Google fails to generate anything useful. The combination of shouty capitals, little actual info and wasted space taken up by contact information means the click-through rate on this would be low. I mean, look, they’ve even got a fax number in their meta description! A fax. Perhaps someone will fax them a copy of this book.
One final thought on meta descriptions before we move on; using testimonials inside your meta descriptions can be very useful, particularly if they are descriptive. It’s a great way for you to powerfully emphasise the things that people love about you without having to directly say it. So, if you offer the best products in your market, your service goes way above and beyond, or you’re the undisputed master of your universe but too modest to say it, use a testimonial to get the message across instead.
Often, if you see a box allowing you to insert a meta description and page title for your webpage, you will also see a box for you to input ‘Meta Keywords’. It is a nice idea that we can just type in our target keywords and Google will pop us a bit of extra ranking!
Unfortunately, the internet hasn’t been this easy for over a decade and Google simply ignores the meta keywords tag because it is so easy to manipulate. In the olden days of the internet, meta keywords held more weight. Nowadays, their biggest function is showing SEOs from your competition which keywords you have considered important and would like to rank for, saving them the time it takes to do the research for themselves.
We don’t recommend spending any time adding meta keywords.
When you use images on your website, you’ll have the option to set ‘alt text’. You might have seen alt text on pages where the image hasn’t loaded and software that reads pages to those with sight issues use alt text to ‘read’ the pictures. Google’s own guidelines state that alt text “provides Google with useful information about the subject matter of the image.” So, it’s logical that we want to show Google that the images on our pages are relevant to our target keywords by using them in our images.
Let’s look at examples directly from Google’s own guidelines. We’re looking at the bit inside the quotation marks after alt=:
Not so good:
<img src=”puppy.jpg” alt=””/>
You can see that the bit inside the alt= quotation marks is empty. This is what happens when no alt tag is set.
<img src=”puppy.jpg” alt=”puppy”/>
The bit inside the quotation marks says “puppy”. Aww. It describes approximately what’s in the picture, but not exactly.
<img src=”puppy.jpg” alt=”Dalmatian puppy playing fetch”>
“Dalmatian puppy playing fetch” is a much clearer description.
You’ll also notice that the image file name (puppy.jpg) is also optimised i.e. it’s not img_123093.jpg. This means that before the image was uploaded, it was renamed as something (reasonably) descriptive. Same rules apply here; descriptive is good, keyword stuffed spam is bad.
Schema is a set of tags that you can add to your website’s code to make certain additional things show up in search results. With fewer than a third of websites using it, Schema is a chance for you to immediately pick up an advantage.
For example, notice here how Amazon used to use Schema to mark up the reviews for this book so that when it showed up in search results, the average review stars also showed up:
As well as reviews, you can add various other types of markup:
• Event information
• Contact and location information for local businesses
• TV episode and film details
• Restaurant information
• Product information
In total, there are almost 600 different types of data and it’s beyond the scope of this book to go through each one in detail.
If you’re on WordPress, there are plenty of plugins (just search “Schema plugin”) that can handle the legwork for you without you having to get sticky in code.
Once you’ve added your Schema, you can test it using Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool (https://search.google.com/structured-data/testing-tool/) to make sure that it’s being read properly.
I should also note that adding Schema to your website doesn’t guarantee that Google will show it in search results. As with pretty much everything in this book, all you can do is give Google what it needs to show the Schema. Ultimately, the decision to show or not show depends on whether the algorithm considers the information to be useful to the searcher or not.