How to make Google fall in love with your website

by John Stiger

You may have heard a lot of talk lately about web standards, and wonder what it means for your business, Or you may not hang out with nerds. Either way they are more important than you may be aware.

Web standards are practices that ensure your website looks the same on any monitor of any computer, that your site is easy to use and navigate, and that people with special needs can use it. Not to mention one huge benefit—Google loves them.

Web standards were initially developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to provide uniformity among browser manufacturers (like Microsoft, Netscape, Mozilla, etc.), but the effective techniques and their ability to attract Google like a magnet soon caught on with web developers and savvy marketers. Today, no serious web designer, marketer, or organization doing business on the web will ignore W3C web standards.

So if you want a website that users love to visit and which Google and the other search engines love to crawl all over (rewarding you with high rankings when users put in your keywords), then adhering to web standards should be the cornerstone of your website development or overhaul efforts.

The following tips are for webmasters and developers. If this is not you, at least understand the basic ideas below so you can know enough to be dangerous. That way, when you pose the question to your IT guy, “By the way, are we using semantic markup on our site?” you’ll sound like a pro. And depending on their response (be worried if you get a blank stare), you’ll know if you’ve got the right programmer on board.

1. Use semantic markup in major headlines and menus

Just as humans in their attempt to communicate with each other rely on careful meanings of words—semantics—for accuracy, so do machines (computers) and Google web crawlers. They rely on carefully programmed code (semantic markup) that spells everything out for them in detail. When humans miscommunicate, we chalk it up to “semantics.” Same thing with programming code. When we don’t mark tags ‘semantically,’ for example, we risk the search engines misunderstanding their importance—meaning lower rankings (lower optimization). Using semantic markup is one technique in writing code that helps the web crawlers know exactly what you’re trying to communicate and will find you right away.

--Wrap major headlines in "h1" tags, secondary points in "h2" tags, etc. By doing this, you give your tags the proper emphasis, and that is the kind of “semantics” search engines need to compare the importance of your headline to your meta tags in determining the relevance of your page. This in turn gives you those high rankings (search engine optimization) we all pine for.

--Menus should be constructed in the form of unordered lists specified by the use of "ul" tags. They should contain keywords related to the topic(s) covered in the page they link to.

2. Use keyword-driven alt tags on your photos and graphics

Think in terms of keywords every chance you get, even in the alt tags you use to identify your photos and graphics (even your logo). For example, let’s say you have a baking website and you want to attract visitors searching for recipes for pineapple upside down cake. On the pineapple upside down cake recipe page of your site is a photo of your niece baking such a cake. The novice programmer may identify the photo as simply “Jeannie mixing cake,” thinking search engines don’t notice how images are identified or that they’re even identified at all. The skilled programmer, however, will know that alt tag do matter because they attract search engine crawlers. And he or she will identify the alt tag with keywords related to the page’s subject matter. In the case of our recipe website, we want to give Google every reason to choose your site as the best site for pineapple upside down cake recipes. So write the alt tag with a keyword-rich description, "Mixing batter for pineapple upside down cake" or the simpler "Baking pineapple upside down cake".

3. Design for more than one browser

While it's true that most people use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as their browser (where you type in www.websiteaddress.whatever to go onto the Internet), the “Blue E” is considered by serious programmers as outmoded in terms of features and security. Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari and Opera are far better browser choices; they’re becoming more popular every day.

When designing your site, don’t limit yourself to Internet Explorer-specific code. Be sure your site looks great when viewed by all browsers. You can download and test your site in any of the alternative browsers for free. Pc users should also visit http://www.snugtech.com/safaritest/ and test your sites using their application to insure better cross platform compatibility.

4. Use text (CSS) rather than Flash or Java for your navigation bar or buttons

While "mouseovers" are a very effective way of showing a user what is or is not a link, spinning or swooshing buttons are not. Wow effects may have their place but not in the main navigation of your site. The disciplined programmer will resist the urge to use special effects in navigation because he or she knows that Google can’t read them and therefore doesn’t like them. Save the special effects for special occasions.

5. Use "tab Indexing" in all forms

Ok, so this one has less to do with Google and more to do with user experience, but it's worth mentioning anyway. Every time you press the tab key it should advance you to the next field in an HTML form. Don’t make them fill out a form and have to manually place the cursor in the next field.