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Improving your site's findability

There are many ways to help you improve your site's findability, both in the wider world of search engines and within VCU's search as well. While many companies and guides claim to know the tricks to getting good search engine ranking, most of the foolproof techniques are simple and often benefit your users. We'll cover some of the basic techniques as well as point you to some useful tools below.

Content is king

The most important thing for improving your site's findability is writing good content. Your content should be clear, concise, and consistent. Choose a style guide and edit your content to create a consistent style for your readers. Make sure that your content makes sense even to users from outside your field of expertise. Actively choose to use simpler words for better clarity. Edit ruthlessly to remove unnecessary fluff.

Use logical phrases and words when you link to other sites or documents within your content. Write your content so that the text of a link explains what it is linking; wherever you see links titled "click here" (or similar such phrases) rephrase the links to explain their purpose. Links carry great weight for search engines and if the text of your links is accurate, it will improve the performance of keywords related to those links.

Use simple, semantic HTML for a cleaner, leaner site

One of the most important "techniques" to help improve your site's findability (and usability) is coding your site with simple, semantic HTML (or XHTML) and using cascading stylesheets (CSS) to enhance the layout and styles. This has numerous benefits including decreasing the file size of your pages, improving their overall accessibility, and simplifying the crawling process for search crawlers. What does semantically simple HTML look like? Here are some dos and don'ts to guide you.

For semantically simple websites, do:

  • Use h1, h2, etc. headings to outline your document's hierarchy,
  • Use HTML elements for their designated purposes (i.e. tables for tabular data, lists for lists of related elements, etc.),
  • Use CSS to style your site's text, design your layout, and provide extraneous graphic styles (You can use CSS image replacement techniques to provide attractive page headings as images while your code simply has the page title as text in an h1 tag.),
  • And create classes and ids for elements that explain the content of those elements instead of the visual styles they may possess (i.e. instead of giving your current blue sidebar an id of "bluebar", name it "sidebar").

Semantically simple websites do not:

  • Use tables for layout (This creates unnecessarily complex and semantically meaningless code.),
  • Use elements for purposes other than those they were intended for (using h# tags to create larger text instead of headings, using blockquotes to indent text, etc.),
  • Abuse images to emulate otherwise simple graphical styles (such as using images for rollover states on navigation links, spacer images to achieve specific layouts),
  • Use images for content without providing meaningful alternate text.

Leaner, simpler code also directly benefits your users in many ways:

  • Your website is much more likely to be accessible without extra work. (You'll be using less extraneous images, after all.)
  • Your site's file size may be drastically reduced, meaning that it will load faster. (While desktop computers are much more likely to have high-speed internet these days, mobile devices are much more frequently used to access websites over slower cell data signals.)
  • Your website is more likely to work consistently across browsers and platforms without hacks and tweaks.

Another reason to code a simpler, leaner site? Google's Page Rank algorithm is now directly evaluating your site's page speed as part of its formula for determining your site's rank in search results.

Use semantic metadata, but don't abuse it

Search crawlers may or may not make use of the meta keywords and descriptions you place in your documents. These elements can be helpful if they accurately describe the information portrayed on the site; if you abuse them, however, the consequences can result in your site being delisted from some search engines. So use metadata appropriately and sparingly, rather than overusing it.

Useful tools for improving your site's findability

This article was updated: 08/1/2017