Search Engine Optimization: Advice for York Researchers

(Also available as a PDF, specially formatted for printing and reading: SEO Advice for York Researchers PDF icon)

Search engine optimization is the process of fine-tuning your web site so that it appears higher in results at Google and other search sites. (Not the paid-for advertisements, which anyone can buy, but the natural or “organic” search results.) SEO helps search engines understand your site’s content and structure, which helps your site rank higher in results. That means more people will see links to your site, and that will probably mean more visitors.

(If you’ve written an article and want to make it easier to find online, see Academic Search Engine Optimization. If you have any questions about either kind of SEO, get in touch with William Denton, web librarian.)

Of course, the most important thing of all is to have good content. With that, you’re off to a great start. After that, a little SEO work will still help. This doesn’t mean your site is designed for computer algorithms and and not people! On the contrary, search engines highly value sites that work well for people. They give points for fresh content, valid HTML, content-based markup, fast-loading pages, friendly URLs and informative link anchor text—the things you like in a site.

SEO isn’t just for businesses. It’ll help make any web site easier to find, and some businesses completely depend on that. However,non-profits, educational institutions, and governments do SEO too.

Universities have a huge SEO advantage over businesses: they’re authoritative and reliable and search engines know that. Being part of York gives you a huge boost right from the beginning.

Basic SEO for web sites

Read Google’s advice

Update regularly

  • If you make regular updates to your site, search engines will notice and crawl your site more often to keep up.
  • Of course, it’s also good to make regular updates to your site because that means fresh news for your readers. They may visit your site or they may follow it through the RSS feed.
  • If your site is entirely, or mostly, a blog, then you’re off to a great start.
  • Are you using WordPress? Great! It’s very reader- and search-engine-friendly on its own, without you having to do anything special. You could install the WordPress SEO plugin to do more if you want to, but there’s no real need.

Use good link text and friendly, readable URLs

  • Make URLs short, informative, and understandable to human readers. Use real words in them that tell the reader what the page is about. /humanrights/sudan/ is far better than /index.php?id=432.
  • Make URLs that work when part of the end is removed. For example, someone looking at /climate/effects/toronto/ might remove “toronto” from the end, and would expect to see something more general about climate effects.
  • Anchor text (the clickable words in hyperlinks) is important. Use good, informative words as anchor text in links, both internal and outbound.
  • “Click here” is bad. Use real words in links.
  • Internal links help users find relevant material, and help reinforce what search engines think about what is on the site. Use them.
  • Don’t be afraid that links to other sites are bad. Use them. They help your readers, and after all you want other sites to link to you.

Have readable, informative page titles and descriptions

  • Page titles are important. Use short, unique, accurate, informative titles that tell people at a glance what the page is about.
  • Use a good description meta tag with a short, engaging summary, one or two sentences, using key words. Example: <meta name="description" content="IRIS is an interdisciplinary university-wide research institute and focal point for sustainability related activities of all faculties at York University." /> Search engines may show it on their results page, though they might show a snippet of your web page highlighting words in context. Your content management system should let you set this easily.
  • Use good alt text for images, to be displayed when images can’t be seen.

Make it readable and accessible

  • Use content-based markup. That means using heading tags such as <h1> and <h2> to indicate headings, sections, and subsections of a page, instead of changing font sizes and using bold. This helps people and search engines understand the structure of the page. Put important words into the headings.
  • Bullet points work well for both people and search engines. Consider recasting a block of text into a list, if appropriate.
  • All York web sites need to follow the AODA Accessibility Standard for Information and Communications. An accessible web site is also search-engine friendly. See the York Accessibility Hub for more.

For Site Administrators

  • All HTML should validate. Use the W3C’s Markup Validation Service to check.
  • Pages should load quickly and should not be too long.
  • If you’re using WordPress, have it generate nice URLs for you by using the “Day and name” or “Month and name” options under Settings | Permalinks.
  • Avoid unnecessary Flash.
  • Dont duplicate content on the site.
  • Have each page at a unique URL. Don’t let the same page be known by several different URLs.
  • Have a site map (for people) and an XML Sitemap (for search engines).
  • Store articles, presentations, data, etc. in YorkSpace, for longevity and search engine weight.
  • Look at Google Webmaster Central and see what’s there, including Google Webmaster Tools. See also the Official Google Webmaster Central Blog.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is a free web analytics tool. It lets you see how many people have visited your sites, which pages are most popular, where people come from, and much more. It’s simple to get it working and will tell you everything you need to know about how popular your site is. York has no privacy concerns about using Google Analytics.

Further Reading

Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide is the best thing to read first. You don’t really need to read anything more after that, but of the many SEO sites out there, Search Engine Watch is the best. The Periodical Table of SEO Ranking Factors will appeal to the science-minded.

The library has a number of e-books, such as Search Engine Optimization All-In-One for Dummies, by Bruce Clay and Susan Esparza (2009) and Search Engine Optimization Bible (2e), by Jerri L. Ledford (2008).

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