Google Search Engine Optimizations (SEO) using Google's Webmaster Tools
by Rich Deem


Search engine optimization is a popular topic among websites that claim to have the ability to optimize your web pages to obtain a higher ranking in the search engines. The truth is that optimizing web pages for Google is no secret. It all involves attention to detail. However, now Google itself helps webmasters to optimize their pages by removing errors and correcting suboptimal pages.

Basic Google SEO

Those who have ever used the Google search engine learn pretty quickly that most top-ranked pages have almost the same titles as the phrase one uses to search. So, obviously, one needs to have a page title that one would expect search engine users to be looking for. For popular topics, simple search terms work better than technical ones. For example, this website's primary emphasis is Christian apologetics. However, the mission of the organization is to reach skeptics with Christianity. Therefore, the page titles reflect the kind of topics and phrases skeptics would use to find support for their unbelief. Of course, like most other people, they are curious to see arguments that challenge their beliefs. So, the titles of my pages use terms and phrases that skeptics, but not necessarily Christians, would use (other than those that are specifically written for Christians). For instance, the page that addresses arguments against God's existence contains the phrase "God does not exist," which would be something a skeptic, but not a Christian, would search for. So, you must target your audience specifically with the title of your page.

It is important to check your site's statistics to determine what words and phrases your visitors are using to find your pages. Most hosting services offer site statistics, my favorite of which is AWStats. In addition, Google offers an awesome statistics service called Google Analytics. One need only create an account and add some JavaScript code to each page to utilize this service. Google Analytics includes statistics on every aspect of your visitors, including their location, computer and Internet capabilities, how they arrived at each page, and where they came from. Once you have access to statistics, you should examine the terms that visitors used to find your pages. For example, I originally had a page entitled "How the Bible came to us." I soon found that some visitors had landed there using the phrase "history of the Bible." Thinking this would be a better search phrase, I changed the title of the page, and it went from a little visited page to one of the top ten visited pages. So, the right title is paramount in search engine optimization. Those who write clever titles might get a laugh from occasional visitors, but their page will remain in relative obscurity.

RSS Feed

These days an RSS feed is essential to getting your pages spidered by search engines. This is because the search engines check your feed often and scan new pages immediately as they become available. Most blogging software/blogging sites automatically create RSS feeds. Since my site is a custom design, I hand code the RSS feed (which is okay, since I produce only a few pages per month). For the technically challenged, there are a number of free online RSS generators that will create code for you.

Google webmaster tools

Finding errors on your site used to be a difficult procedure. However, Google has now released Google Webmaster Tools. Google has used their vast information database to tell you where you have messed up. Here is Google's list of crawl errors:

Each type of error can be displayed on its own page, and a CSV (MS Excel) file can be downloaded. The great advantage of the CSV file is that it can be sorted in multiple ways to help the webmaster deal with fixing the errors. I found that my site had been poorly linked to hundreds of times by numerous websites. One offending site was some new bot that didn't pay attention to subdirectories, resulting in hundreds of bad urls. So, I banned it using my robots.txt file. I contacted some bad linkers directly to get the links fixed. Others I have redirected using my .htaccess file.

Custom 404 page

One of the frustrating parts of maintaining a large, popular website is that a lot of linkers mess up their links to your site. This site has ~26,000 inbound links, several hundred of which are bad or malformed. Rather than have your visitor land on a page that doesn't go anywhere, your custom 404 error page can now contain a Google JavaScript that "guesses" at the correct URL. Since Google knows every single page on your site, they almost always know what the correct URL is. Click on the randomly messed up the link below to test out this feature:

Randomly Generated Bad Link

Meta Descriptions

Even though Google probably doesn't use the meta description tag to rank websites, they usually present the meta tag on their search results page as the description of the page. Apparently, this tag can be either too long or too short. Anything less than 50 characters is classified as being too short. I am not sure how long is too long, but several pages of mine have descriptions that are two sentences long. Anything in excess of that isn't useful. In addition, Google cuts off your meta description display at 100 characters. So, it is best to design a catchy description that is 50-100 characters in length. Remember, Google's visitors are going to decide to visit your site on the basis of your title and your meta description. Design your description so that visitors are drawn to it and want to read more. These are the kinds of meta description and title tag errors that Google Webmaster Tools lists:

In analyzing my site, I found a few duplicate titles and dozens of duplicate meta descriptions. Since I tend to copy pages as a template to produce new ones, sometimes the meta descriptions never got changed (especially pages created 10 years ago). As a result, almost all the duplicate meta descriptions were bad. These are now fixed. With some attention to detail, you can optimize your site's use of title and meta descriptions.

Conclusion Top of page

Google SEO is neither a secret nor is it difficult. The Title tag is everything. Pick a good one that reflects the content of the page and your visitors' most likely search terms to find your page. Pay attention to the meta description tag and write a moderate length description (50-100 characters) that will entice search visitors to click on your link. Create and maintain an RSS feed. Create new content and post it to your feed on a regular basis. Fix all your bad links with the help of Google Webmaster Tools and create a custom 404 page that incorporates Google's JavaScript that figures out the proper URL on your site. This way, visitors to your site won't become frustrated by a bad link, but will find the correct page and stay on your website.