Put your keywords where the emphasis is (SEM 101)

In my previous post on developing your keyword list, we discussed techniques and considerations for developing a list of relevant keywords and key phrases for the pages on your website that are highly specific and (hopefully) not overly competitive. All of this is effort is geared toward making your website stand out from the competition in search engine results pages (SERPs).

But developing a list of great keywords is just the start. You now need to use them strategically in your web pages (especially the home page). The manner in which you implement your keywords can make the difference between mediocre success and optimal success. And I am all for optimal!

Not all words are equal

When search engine web crawlers (aka robots, or more simply, bots) index your site’s content, the words you use help the search engine identify the theme of your site on a per-page basis. But not all words are equal. There are ways to prioritize the importance of some words over others. And by knowing what a search engine does to identify that priority, you can “speak” to it so that the search engine reflects your priorities as its own.

First and foremost, keep in mind that the bot crawls your site in an effort to help classify its content from an end user perspective. After all, our efforts are aimed toward helping end users get highly relevant and comprehensive search results. If the content on your home page is written in an awkward, choppy, keyword-stuffed manner that would not read well for a human visitor, the bot will pick up on that and your efforts will not achieve what you intend. It’s like the difference between a beginner cook and a master chef. Your keywords are the spices of your content, not your main ingredient. A good beef barley soup has black pepper in it, but no one wants to eat black pepper soup!

So the goal for you, the webmaster, is to flavor the natural content you have in your site with the keywords and key phrases you developed earlier. Keep your site’s content readable, ensuring the use of language on the page sounds natural, and use the keywords and phrases when it makes sense naturally. That said, if rewriting some passages of text so that you can use more of your keywords in a natural sounding form in strategic areas of your pages is doable, then it is usually worthwhile to do so.

Keyword placement priority

Here’s the key to using keywords:

Search engines look for keywords and key phrases to be in spots where writers use them to emphasize key points. Put another way, words used in certain places automatically carry a higher prioritized value. For example, words used in page titles are considered definitive for assessing the contents of that page. So because the title defines the page content, those words carry more weight than do words found in body text. In fact, body text is the least definitive use of keywords, because it is the most common text. Words that describe the body text as a whole or even other pages as a whole naturally carry the weight of those entire pages. Writers of technical books know the power of words that define entire passages (such as page titles, chapter, and section headings), and that assumption is used by search engine bots as well.

So in a nutshell, written in the form of naturally spoken language, use your keywords in the following areas for the greatest impact:

  1. Page title (inside the <title> tags)
  2. Body text headers (as used within tags such as <h1> </h1>, <h2> </h2>, and so on)
  3. Links to other pages (the link text between the <a> </a> tags)
  4. Meta tags (specifically when used with the name=”description” and the name=”keyword” parameters)

Lastly, don’t mistakenly think using keywords in body text is a waste of time. Your body text content is indexed just like everything else, and in the effort to determine the site’s theme and the relevance of your content to keywords, your body text is definitely considered within that process. Including your keywords and key phrases in your body text simply reinforces your use of those terms used in the higher priority parts of the page. But without their use in those aforementioned areas, they won’t stand out as easily as definitive keywords for your site’s pages.

Too much of a good thing is not good

Remember the reference earlier to the black pepper soup? Well, like spices to a novice chef, keywords can definitely be overused by a webmaster. You need to use them strategically, not exclusively, for the most desirable effect. Some search engine optimization (SEO) practitioners have in the past, mistakenly thinking more of a good thing is always better, have tried keyword stuffing techniques, where keywords are repeated constantly, which is detrimental to the normal flow of the language. They have added very long meta tags with super long descriptions and laden with way, way too many keywords. Some have even resorted to adding hidden text and links (using fonts formatted with the same color as the background or using the smallest possible font size so as to render them ostensibly invisible to browsers, but still there for the bots to read in the code). That’s just not right.

Way back in the day when search engine technologies were just emerging, this might have been considered a viable, albeit simplistic, strategy. Today, however, such techniques are detected for what they are – attempts to fraudulently load up pages with keywords in an effort to artificially gain higher ranking in the SERPs. Just as black pepper soup would be unpalatable to a diner, so is keyword stuffing to a modern search engine. When the search engine index algorithms detect the use of these techniques, they will typically impose penalties on those sites to artificially lower their organic rank status in the SERPs or, if the fraudulent effort is egregious enough, purge the site from the search engine index altogether. And that unfortunate result is totally counter to the reason the effort was attempted, isn’t it?

As search engines work hard to serve up the most relevant listings in their organic SERPs, they look for legitimacy in the sites they rank most highly. The legitimate use of great keywords will go a very long way in getting where you want your site to be.

This is just the start of SEO techniques we’ll discuss in this column. All of the techniques we’ll discuss can be used on a site to optimize its organic rank position in the SERPs or to attempt to fraudulently increase its rank beyond what its content and design deserve. SEO often walks a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not. We’ll talk about penalties in more detail in later SEM 101 columns, but for those curious today, check out a past column called Getting out of the penalty box.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to post them in our SEM forum. Later…

— Rick DeJarnette, Live Search Webmaster Center