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April
13

Collection of SEO related documents from the Bing Ecosystem

 

Today's blog post is brought to you by the letters S, E & O.  As in Search Engine Optimization.

We have a lot of SEO related documents scattered around the ecosystem here at Bing and Microsoft, so I thought it would be nice to gather some of them into one location.  This data will change as we update the main site but for now, it should prove helpful for folks looking to understand more about SEO and related topics.

First off, I'll share all the links, then I'll get into some of the basic areas of SEO you'll want to cover, and why.  It's not a detailed look, but will get most folks started in the correct direction.

Helpful SEO-related Links:

Keyword Research Guide

Guide to using Bing Webmaster tools

Current Bing Webmaster FAQs (opens a pdf)

Link Building Overview

SEO Site Reviews:

Performing site reviews is a critical part of determining what work needs to be done to help a website rank better organically.  This five part series walks you through a detailed approach to performing an SEO review for any site.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Optimization for large websites often requires a different approach compared to that needed with smaller sites.  This four part series helps you understand how to approach optimizing a large website.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

SEO Overview:

Executive summary

Search Engine Optimization is a process of improving your website such that both users and search engine crawlers find you more relevant and useful.  The end result is an improved product that gets users exactly what they want, which in turns gets you higher rankings within the engine's results pages.  There are a number of areas which need to be addressed to have an "optimized website", but they fall under five major areas: Crawlability, site structure, content hierarchy, on-page seo factors & content production and link building.

Across each area are a number of important factors to consider, so plan carefully to include SEO from the very beginning of every project.  If you're applying SEO to an existing product, focus in on the areas you can immediately influence (often editorial and content related) and work bigger work items into your longer-term plans.  It often takes a while to successfully and completely become optimized.  Most websites online today have a variety of items which need to be fixed, so stay focused on hitting the bigger items mentioned here and leave the smaller items aside for now.

The bottom line, regardless of where you start, however, is that by building a more optimized product, you increase your relevance and the engines rank you better.  That increase in rankings can significantly boost traffic to your site. 

Intro

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of helping create a better user experience and influencing the search engines to rank your content higher when users search.  The best time to perform SEO is before you build a webpage to ensure all facets are included.  Retro-fitting SEO after a page is published can be more complex and costly.

The main goal when optimizing for search is to ensure the webpage ranks higher.  To do this, you have to increase the relevancy of a webpage, as perceived by both users and search engines.  You should also keep in mind that SEO is a long-term marketing tactic.  It takes time to build content, time to fix things and time for the engines to find, rate and rank your content.

You need to also ensure the user's experience remains top of mind.  None of the SEO Best Practices here have an overt negative impact on the UX, but plan carefully to ensure everything you do is an improvement.  There are plenty of shady tactics out there that can lead you astray.  Now let's get into the details of what you'll want to think about and activate on.  We'll cover these in order of how you should view things when building a new website.  Jump around as needed to fit your actual situation.

Crawlability

Crawlability is the first major area of focus.  If a crawler cannot access your content, the content will not be indexed by the engine, nor will it rank.  To ensure crawlability to not an issue, you should enable XML sitemaps.  The protocol for sitemaps is well established and adhered to by the engines.  In fact, Bing wants you to have very clean sitemaps (less than 1% error rate; an error being links that redirect or return a 404 error).  By publishing and maintaining clean sitemaps, you build trust with the engines.  They want to crawl these sitemaps to find your latest content, so do yourself a favor and sort out your sitemaps.  To be clear, these are not the sitemaps you users would see; these reside at the root of your domain on the server level.

Making sure your Navigational structure is clean and crawler friendly is paramount.  If a crawler cannot find your links because they reside inside Javascript or Flash, the crawler won't be able to see your content.  You can use CSS to develop the look and feel, and functionality, you want in most instances, but for those who may already have Javascript enabled navigation installed, and need a solid fix now, let's talk about the dedicated downlevel experience.

Also known as Graceful Degradation, what we're talking about is what the site renders like when all rich media is turned off.  Crawlers do not have rich media enabled, so seeing what the site looks like to them is important.  Tools such as those found here can help you understand how crawlers see your site.  This makes it easier to understand if your navigational structure is even visible to the crawlers.  If it's not there, you need to fix this.

A further Rich Media caution is to not hold content inside Flash and Silverlight.  By producing your content inside these rich media applications, you make it almost impossible for the crawlers to find and read the content.  It also results in a very poor user experience for those using screen assistive technologies, or who just plain have rich media disabled for some reason.  Holding content inside rich media also ensures it won't render in your down level experience.  Keep the rich media for eye catching graphics, but make sure the content resides outside the rich media elements.

Your URL structure can also play a role in how well your rank, so you should always strive to have a clean, search friendly URL structure.  Clean and search friendly means the URL is keyword rich and avoids session variables, docID's etc.  By adding parameters which can be altered, you produce a situation which can encourage duplicate content tissues to develop.  Your URLs should always contain only lower case letters (never capital letters) and word separation should use hyphens (-) only.  Insert a space with your space bar and a Windows server will insert a %20 into the URL when it renders.  A Linux server will parse it with the space.  Both will render, but the search engines will index both versions of the URL as they are discreet.  Now you have a duplicate content issue and you're two pages are both splitting the value one should have.  Are you appending tracking elements to your URL?  Bad idea.  Look to your analytics packages to give you the data you need and clean up your URL.

The final item we'll look at under the umbrella of Crawlability is the Robots.txt file.  This small file needs to reside at the root of your domain (or at the folder level one level down).  Its job is to instruct the crawlers on how to interact with your website.  Have an area you don't want crawled; stick it in this file to alert the crawlers. Need to slow the crawlers down, let them know via this file.  Want to make sure the crawlers find your sitemap.xml files?  Slip the location of the sitemap file into the robots.txt file.  This file holds a lot of power, so be careful with is.  One character incorrectly placed can block crawlers for entering your entire site.  Used carefully, this file helps the engines understand your site's structure and find your content.  Read more at the robotstxt.org site.

Site Structure

The second major area of focus is Site Structure.  Work items in this area will almost exclusively be the domain of Engineering, Planning or Design groups and are critical to the success of the web pages as they fight for ranking.  Editors need to fill in the content, but this work enables the spaces they need to insert content into.

It's important to enable functionality which encourages the building of Links. Links out to other sources should be encouraged (provided the sources are trusted) and as importantly, links to internal, related content needs to happen.  This linking activity shows a search engines we care about our user getting the best data round their query, and also exposes users to further content in our own ecosystem.

We touched on the URL structure and keyword usage in the section on Crawlability, and it makes a return here.  By including targeted keywords in your URL structure, you reinforce to the search engines what the content on the page is about.  So keeping the URLs clean and search friendly really does make a difference in performance. 

We touched on how XML sitemaps can help with Crawlability, and now we'll touch on HTML sitemaps. While mostly useful for our human users, the value the HTML sitemap plays in ensuring a good user experience cannot be underestimated.  They also function as a back up to enable search engines to discover your content.  Typically they won't be as inclusive as an XML sitemap, but your HTML sitemap can help collect and spread value to internal areas of your site.

Content Hierarchy

As the third focal area, your Content hierarchy planning should take place at this stage.  You should be looking at aligning your content with what users are searching for and building content that matches their needs directly.  This will happen at not only a page level, but also at a section level as well.  Basic keyword research will help you understand the flow of user interactions with the engines, so be sure to use this data when settling on how to organize and group your content.  It's worth repeating the warning around placing navigational links inside rich media at this stage, as your hierarchy will dictate your navigational structure.

On-Page Factors & Content Production

In this fourth area of focus, we'll turn more towards the On-Page needs for SEO work.  These are areas which must be enabled so Editors can make changes to ensure the content held within the items is optimized.  In fact, this is one of the most important areas of SEO to get correct.

The area inside the code of a webpage denoted by the <head> tags contains several very important items that influence SEO success.  The <title> is important.  Each <title> needs to be unique to the page, and should include the keyword you're targeting for that page near the beginning.  Limiting the character count to around 65 or so is also ideal.

Next we look to the <meta description> tag.  This snippet should also contain the keyword or phrase you're targeting for the page, but can be longer.  Closer to around 160 characters is fine.  Feel free to use proper punctuation as well, since it's this copy the search engines use on their search results pages.  It's the text that appears along with your listing, immediately below the link to your site.  The <meta keywords> tag also resides here, though you can choose to leave this empty as most engines find little value in the data it holds.  Your choices should be limited to either leaving it empty or filling it in properly with a few related keywords which match the content of the page.  Be sure not to fill the keywords tag in with too many keywords or keywords which appear on other pages on the website.  In short, don't replicate the keywords entirely, between pages.

Moving on to the Body Copy held on the page, there are some things we need to get straight as well.  These items are typically found in or around the actual text written on the webpage.   The title of the article seen on the page, for example, should be wrapped in an <H1> tag when viewed in the page code.  To a reader, it will likely appear as bold text, though could also have other attributes.  Other tags can also be used on the page (such as <H2> through <H6>) to dictate further styling, but those have no deep relevance to SEO work directly.

When it comes to your images, you should be focused on a couple of factors.  First off, the naming convention.  Try to use keyword rich names for images.  You can add modifiers to make the file names unique, but getting the keywords in the file name can help the images rank in image search, thus driving traffic.  Next up is the <ALT> Tag.  This little tag holds the info you see when you hover over an image - that little box of text that appears.  Make sure you fill this in correctly with keywords which are related to the pages content and describe the image itself in relation to the content.  Just a short sentence is enough, with the targeted keyword near the beginning.  This also shows the search engines you are taking the time to invest in the user experience by filling in a useful tag with relevant information, further boosting your page's SEO performance.

In the body copy itself, the actual text that fills the page, you should be using the targeted keyword several times.  Use it near the beginning of the article, then a few more times through the body.  A good rule of thumb to know when you've used it too often is to read the content out loud.  If it sounds awkward, remove a couple of the keywords.  Also feel free to use synonyms and related phrases throughout the content to get your point across.  It doesn't always have to be the exact same word or phrase.  When it comes to inserting links to related content, try to place them inside the body copy of the page (as opposed to in a nearby table or module) and use keywords focused on the content of the page the link points to as the anchor text (the linked text).  This helps reinforce the focus of the page being linked to as relevant for the keyword in the link.

All Content you produce should be based on keyword research so the content is aligned with exactly what users are searching for.  You want to match their queries as closely as possible not only with the general topics you cover, but also with the actual words and phrases used in the content on a page.  As mentioned earlier, this content should be kept out of rich media applications so that it'll still be visible in your down level experience, which ensures crawlers can find it easily.

A good starting point to building your content pages is to target having at least 250 words on each page.  Yes there will be pages where this is far too much.  In other cases, you'll easily exceed this.  Targeting the 250-word level ensures you can adequately cover any topic to a depth both users and crawlers will find useful.  If you produce content pages which are short of depth, the engines will simply rank another page in your place to ensure the end user sees something of substance when they click through.

Content production should happen frequently and you should produce unique content.  Producing fresh content frequently trains the engines to come back to your site frequently, and does the same for users.  You become seen as a resource which continually delivers fresh content, and users respond to this by sharing links, helping you rank better.  Producing unique content is a requirement, not an option.  Unique content ranks well and content reused from other sources is shuffled to the recycle bin.  The engines only need one copy of content in their index, so you reusing content from another location won't get your page ranked.  The original page will rank and yours will languish.

If you are retiring content or moving it, make sure to use 301 permanent redirects to transfer the value from the old content o to the new content.  Never walk away from this old value as it'll help new pages rank higher, faster.  If you have multiple URLs which will render the same content, then use the <rel canonical> code/protocol to point the engines to the original page and help them assign value in the correct location.  If you absolutely need to have a page removed from the search engine's index and your content is gone for good, make sure the URL, when called on, returns a 404 error code.  This will signal the engines that the content is gone and over time they will remove the URL from their index.  There is little you can do to speed this process, but this is the best step to alert them you want the URL dropped.  Before you do this, though, make sure the opportunity to 301 redirect the URL does not exist.  Is there really nowhere relevant to redirect the value of the URL?

Link Building

The fifth and final area to cover focuses on Links.  It's links that make the Internet a web and help pages to rank higher.  You can think of getting a link pointed to your page as a vote.  Users vote by linking and the engines consider this an important weight in their ranking factors.  It's important that you plan for both generating incoming links and managing outgoing links.

It pays to link out, too, so after you do your due diligence about the site you are about to link to, feel free to drop a link in the text on your page to that useful resource.  Same goes for pointing to internal pages.  Link liberally to ensure your users have the best experience possible.  This also shares a little of your page's value helping to boost the relevancy of the page your link points to.  Imagine what links pointed at you from other sites can contribute.  Linking is critical and should be an actively planned item.

When building links to another page, pay attention to the anchor text used.  That actual linked text is a clue to the engines to the focus of the page it's about to crawl through to, so inserting targeted keywords into the anchor text can boost relevancy on the targeted term for the page targeted.  Be sure to drop links inline in the text so readers see them as they read.  This increases a links perceived value to both users and the engines.  If it's important enough to drop a link to in the middle of a paragraph, it must be important.  You don't need to be perfect with this, but it certainly holds more value than random links posted in a module on the side of the page.  No matter where your links appear, you should only ever link directly from page to page.  Do not pass through services or redirects of any kind as this removes the value the engines apply.

Producing excellent, unique content is the best way to ensure you're site gathers links.  As users find you useful, they will build links to you over time.  You could also hire an agency to actively build links for you, but the engines prefer organic links v. ones purchased.  It's tough for them to tell the difference, for sure, but if you establish a pattern they'll catch it.  And when you stop paying for links, those links disappear; a dead giveaway you're buying links.

A great way to encourage users to build links is to integrate social spaces icons which allow them to easily share the item they were just reading.  While that link itself holds little value, the follow on links built by users who read what their friend just posted can hold a lot of value, so set yourself up for success and enable social media sharing across your entire site.

For networks, you should know the engines are excellent at spotting patterns, so inter-linking between your own various domains can look like a spam tactic to the engines.  If the engines see a suspicious pattern, they'll take action to protect their index from being spammed.  Again, organic links are the best, safest route.

Conclusion

While SEO may seem like a complicated tactic, it's a relatively simple item to master if you can incorporate the basics early in the process.  Worst case, almost everything can be retro-fitted to any website.  The increases in traffic, through improved rankings, that these tactics can deliver are proven and significant.  Almost every web page can be optimized, though you should choose carefully where to apply your efforts.  Content held behind a personal login is unlikely to be accessed by search engine crawlers as they simply won't log in.  Public facing content, though, should always be optimized.

Don't worry about being behind a curve if you're just now starting to think about optimizing your site, either.  Get cracking today to ensure no more time is lost in your quest for more traffic.

Search engine optimization is a process which helps you build a better website.   The efforts you make have appeal to humans and crawlers alike, and a well-executed SEO program always happens with the end user experience in mind.  You just need to remember that a crawler is a user, too.

 

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