As announced earlier this morning, Google has published the Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide: a set of good practices which can help you get the most of your website. Having it read with my SharePoint 2007 developer hat on a couple of things took my attention in particular.
Writing meaningful titles
Creating meaningful titles tells both the search engine and the visitor what the page is about. It identifies that particular page in fact. According to Google you should try to create accurate and unique titles for every page on your website.
While the starter guide provides great explanation of do’s and don’t while writing good titles, what they don’t tell us is how to deal with sections? Should we include them in the title or not? And how they should be separated: using a - (dash) or a : (colon)?
Luckily Roger Johansson has wrote a while ago already two articles on how one could deal with this problem. He not only presents his approach to separating different sections of the page title but also points to an interesting research on how the titles are being pronounced when using screen readers.
SharePoint 2007 doesn’t provide out-of-the-box any mechanism for generating hierarchical titles. It’s a pity actually, because most of the sites built on top of SharePoint 2007 are rather large and divided into various sections. To deal with this issue I have provided an example of a control which would automatically generate the hierarchical titles. Making them meaningful however is something you have to do on your own.
Meta description does matter
For quite a while now there has been discussion going on the Internet whether Google does or does not care about the meta tags: keywords and description in particular. The starter guide sheds some light on this issue.
It not only turns out that Google actually does something with the description but in some situations presents it to the users on the search results page. In fact it means that a good description statement can make a difference of visiting or skipping the particular page.
While SharePoint 2007 allows you to provide a unique description for each of your Publishing Pages, there is no standard mechanism to include it as a meta description on your page. Andrew Connell and Spencer Harbar – two SharePoint 2007 MVP’s and great WCM experts have provided a set of WCM utilities among which the MetaTagsGenerator which should help you to deal with this challenge.
Semantic URL’s might help you achieve your goal
The idea of writing clear and meaningful URL’s have been there for a while. Clear URL’s not only help better organize your site but they allow users to actually track that information as well.
A couple of the examples included in the SEO Starter Guide confirm that separating different words with a - (dash) helps Google to look for the particular keywords in the URL which in result increases your position in the search results.
Looking at how Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 deals with URL’s on Web Content Management (WCM) solutions two questions arise.
How bad “/Pages/” prefix is for the ranking?
The longer the URL the lower it will score while looking for a particular keyword. SharePoint’s “/Pages/” prefix neither provides added value nor helps understanding the site’s structure. To deal with this issue I have created a while a proof of concept which might help you use semantic URL’s in MOSS 2007.
SharePoint 2007 letter-soup
Consider a page title like: “This is a test page in SharePoint 2007”. Using the standard SharePoint 2007 functionality it would create a Publishing Page with the URL: “/Pages/Thisisatestpageinsharepoint2007.aspx”. Such URL is difficult to read and impossible to search in. A better title would look like: “/Pages/test-page-sharepoint-2007.aspx”. See the difference? First of all you can actually read all the different words and secondly, all the noise words like this, a and in are gone. As they are meaningless for a search query, why keep them in the URL.
Changing the way SharePoint 2007 generates names for Publishing Pages would mean interfering with its publishing engine and could have serious impact on scalability of your solution. Instead I have provided a simple solution which generates for you Google friendly URL’s.
XML Sitemaps are an easy way to tell Google and other search engines about the structure of your site. As it helps you get your site crawled it is a very important feature: you can gain a lot with a little effort. It really surprises me that SharePoint 2007 lacks support of such an important feature out-of-the-box. To keep you from reinventing the wheel I have created a SharePoint Feature which automatically generates an XML Sitemap for your Publishing Site.
The new thing I learned from the starter guide is that using the XML Sitemap you can let Google know what the preferable URL of the particular page is, for example whether you want to use the www.domain.com or domain.com only. While it’s not the only way to do is, it might be useful in certain situations.
Describe your images
While the SEO Starter Guide includes a section on providing alternate text for images it lacks a solid description on how one should actually do it. Roger Johansson seemed to read the Google’s team mind while writing an article on that exact subject just two days ago!
The SharePoint teams did a good job as for this one: you can provide an alt text using the standard available functionality. As for making the description meaningful: it’s all in your hands. Roger’s article should provide you enough idea on how a good alt text should be like.
About the guide
The started guide is divided into various areas which describe different pieces of the website, like navigation, URLs and headings. Thanks to the included examples the guide is easy to follow, even for someone with not that much experience with search engine optimization. If you’re involved with webdevelopment or are authoring content for the web yourself you should definitely check it out.
It would definitely be great if the team who wrote the starter guide kept it up to date: not only providing new information as Google updates but also tracking numerous discussions going on the Internet and answering some of these questions.
It would be even better if the SharePoint Team took a look at the Starter Guide and provided mechanisms to support the most important functionality in MOSS vNext making it an even-better Content Management System.