An introduction to SEO

Google is a prominent force in the digital landscape: owner of Gmail, YouTube, Chrome web browser and the Android operating system. However, for most of us, the word Google still conjures up images of a single search bar headed by that distinctive logo – Google is far and away the most popular search engine on the internet.

Google web search

Imagine that the internet really is a giant spiderweb. Each website occupies a point on the web, and every link on that website – whether linking to one of it’s own pages, or to a page on a different website – creates a new strand of the web, which links to a new point. Google’s search engine is powered by an algorithm, which sends spiders (tiny snippets of code) across the web via all of these links. The spiders gather data about each website – everything from how long the pages take to load, to how many people go to the site and immediately leave again – and uses this data to decide where in the search engine results to show the website for a range of different search terms.

There are a number of ways that we can improve a website, so it ranks better in the search engines and we attract as much highly engaged and relevant traffic as possible. Changing a website in order to do this is usually called search engine optimisation, or SEO.

Top SEO tips

  1. Firstly, you should understand that SEO is more of an art than a science. Google famously keeps the details of it’s algorithm under wraps, and updates the code several times a year. Things which worked in SEO two years ago may not work today.
  2. Google has long stated that the best way to rank well in it’s search results is to create websites with the user in mind. This covers design, content, security and systems. This is part of the reason that the digital communications team has advocated a user centred approach.
  3. Having responsive websites – which work whether users are on phones or tablet devices – is really important. Google penalises websites which do not work well on mobile devices – so if someone is searching on a phone and your website isn’t optimised to be viewed on mobiles, then Google won’t show it as highly in the search results.
  4. Content is key. The Google spiders pay attention to the words used on websites when deciding whether a webpage should rank highly for a specific search term. If your page is about a postgraduate programme in English, but you don’t have the word “English” written on the page, it’s unlikely that people searching for “masters in English” will find the page. There are a number of tools to find the words that people are using to search with; the digital communications team hopes to organise a training course later this year to show colleagues how to do this themselves.
  5. Understand how links work. As I described above, each link on the internet creates a connection from one webpage to another. Google’s spiders use these links to see which pages are connected to each other. A link to another website is considered by Google to be an endorsement – so be careful who you’re linking to. The University has a links policy which outlines best practise for linking. Also pay attention to the words which you use to embed your links in, as Google also pays attention to this. If you want a page to rank highly for “St Andrews scholarships”, your link text could be something like “scholarships at St Andrews”.
  6. Your domain is valuable. One of the things that Google looks at when deciding how high a page should rank is which domain – or website address – a page is part of. Some domains are highly valuable because Google considers them authorative. These include pages from NHS websites, government websites – and most sites which have a .ac.uk domain. Because of this, be careful when people request that you link to their site – do you really want to endorse them, or could they only be interested in gaining from the powerful st-andrews.ac.uk domain?

There are a number of other ways which we can help colleagues to ensure that webpages are optimised for search engines – look out for more blog posts with SEO tips in the near future.

The digital communications team are working on creating a digital passport in conjunction with CAPOD. Within this passport will be training sessions on optimising web pages for SEO. If you’d like to register your interest for either SEO training, or the digital passport, please email digitalcommunications@st-andrews.ac.uk to receive updates on our training programme.

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