Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide

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Google's Search Engine Optimization
Starter Guide
Version 1.1, published 13 November 2008
Welcome to Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. This document first began as an
effort to help teams within Google, but we thought it'd be just as useful to webmasters that are new to
the topic of search engine optimization and wish to improve their sites' interaction with both users and
search engines. Although this guide won't tell you any secrets that'll automatically rank your site first
for queries in Google (sorry!), following the best practices outlined below will make it easier for search
engines to both crawl and index your content.
Search engine optimization is often about making small modifications to parts of your website. When
viewed individually, these changes might seem like incremental improvements, but when combined
with other optimizations, they could have a noticeable impact on your site's user experience and
performance in organic search results. You're likely already familiar with many of the topics in this
guide, because they're essential ingredients for any webpage, but you may not be making the most
out of them.
Search engine optimization affects only organic search results, not paid or "sponsored" results,
such as Google AdWords

Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central

Even though this guide's title contains the words "search engine", we'd like to say that you should
base your optimization decisions first and foremost on what's best for the visitors of your site. They're
the main consumers of your content and are using search engines to find your work. Focusing too
hard on specific tweaks to gain ranking in the organic results of search engines may not deliver the
desired results. Search engine optimization is about putting your site's best foot forward when it
comes to visibility in search engines.
An example may help our explanations, so we've created a fictitious website to follow throughout the
guide. For each topic, we've fleshed out enough information about the site to illustrate the point being
covered. Here's some background information about the site we'll use:
• Website/business name: "Brandon's Baseball Cards"
• Domain name: brandonsbaseballcards.com
• Focus: Online-only baseball card sales, price guides, articles, and news content
• Size: Small, ~250 pages
Your site may be smaller or larger than this and offer vastly different content, but the optimization
topics we discussed below should apply to sites of all sizes and types.
We hope our guide gives you some fresh ideas on how to improve your website, and we'd love to
hear your questions, feedback, and success stories in the Google Webmaster Help Forum.
Create unique, accurate page titles
A title tag tells both users and search engines what the topic of a particular page is. The <title> tag
should be placed within the <head> tag of the HTML document. Ideally, you should create a unique
title for each page on your site.
The title of the homepage for our baseball card site, which lists the business name and three
main focus areas

Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central

If your document appears in a search results page, the contents of the title tag will usually appear in
the first line of the results (If you're unfamiliar with the different parts of a Google search result, you
might want to check out the anatomy of a search result video by Google engineer Matt Cutts, and this
helpful diagram of a Google search results page.) Words in the title are bolded if they appear in the
user's search query. This can help users recognize if the page is likely to be relevant to their search.
The title for your homepage can list the name of your website/business and could include other bits of
important information like the physical location of the business or maybe a few of its main focuses or
offerings.
A user performs the query [baseball cards]
Our homepage shows up as a result, with the title listed on the first line (notice that the query
terms the user searched for appear in bold)

If the user clicks the result and visits the page, the page's title will appear at the top of the
browser

Titles for deeper pages on your site should accurately describe the focus of that particular page and
also might include your site or business name.
A user performs the query [rarest baseball cards]
Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central

A relevant, deeper page (its title is unique to the content of the page) on our site appears as a
result

Good practices for page title tags
Accurately describe the page's content - Choose a title that effectively communicates the
topic of the page's content.
Avoid:
• choosing a title that has no relation to the content on the page
• using default or vague titles like "Untitled" or "New Page 1"
Create unique title tags for each page - Each of your pages should ideally have a unique
title tag, which helps Google know how the page is distinct from the others on your site.
Avoid:
• using a single title tag across all of your site's pages or a large group of pages
Use brief, but descriptive titles - Titles can be both short and informative. If the title is too
long, Google will show only a portion of it in the search result.
Avoid:
• using extremely lengthy titles that are unhelpful to users
• stuffing unneeded keywords in your title tags
Make use of the "description" meta tag
A page's description meta tag gives Google and other search engines a summary of what the page is
about. Whereas a page's title may be a few words or a phrase, a page's description meta tag might
be a sentence or two or a short paragraph. Google Webmaster Tools provides a handy content
analysis section that'll tell you about any description meta tags that are either too short, long, or
duplicated too many times (the same information is also shown for <title> tags). Like the <title> tag,
the description meta tag is placed within the <head> tag of your HTML document.
Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central

The beginning of the description meta tag for our homepage, which gives a brief overview of
the site's offerings

Description meta tags are important because Google might use them as snippets for your pages.
Note that we say "might" because Google may choose to use a relevant section of your page's visible
text if it does a good job of matching up with a user's query. Alternatively, Google might use your site's
description in the Open Directory Project if your site is listed there (learn how to prevent search
engines from displaying ODP data). Adding description meta tags to each of your pages is always a
good practice in case Google cannot find a good selection of text to use in the snippet. The
Webmaster Central Blog has an informative post on improving snippets with better description meta
tags.
Snippets appear under a page's title and above a page's URL in a search result.
A user performs the query [baseball cards]
Our homepage appears as a result, with part of its description meta tag used as the snippet
Words in the snippet are bolded when they appear in the user's query. This gives the user clues about
whether the content on the page matches with what he or she is looking for. Below is another
example, this time showing a snippet from a description meta tag on a deeper page (which ideally has
its own unique description meta tag) containing an article.
Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central

A user performs the query [rarest baseball cards]
One of our deeper pages, with its unique description meta tag used as the snippet, appears as
a result

Good practices for description meta tags
Accurately summarize the page's content - Write a description that would both inform and
interest users if they saw your description meta tag as a snippet in a search result.
Avoid:
• writing a description meta tag that has no relation to the content on the page
• using generic descriptions like "This is a webpage" or "Page about baseball
cards"
• filling the description with only keywords
• copy and pasting the entire content of the document into the description meta
tag
Use unique descriptions for each page - Having a different description meta tag for each
page helps both users and Google, especially in searches where users may bring up
multiple pages on your domain (e.g. searches using the site: operator). If your site has
thousands or even millions of pages, hand-crafting description meta tags probably isn't
feasible. In this case, you could automatically generate description meta tags based on
each page's content.
Avoid:
• using a single description meta tag across all of your site's pages or a large
group of pages
Improve the structure of your URLs
Creating descriptive categories and filenames for the documents on your website can not only help
you keep your site better organized, but it could also lead to better crawling of your documents by
Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central

search engines. Also, it can create easier, "friendlier" URLs for those that want to link to your content.
Visitors may be intimidated by extremely long and cryptic URLs that contain few recognizable words.
A URL to a page on our baseball card site that a user might have a hard time with
URLs like these can be confusing and unfriendly. Users would have a hard time reciting the URL from
memory or creating a link to it. Also, users may believe that a portion of the URL is unnecessary,
especially if the URL shows many unrecognizable parameters. They might leave off a part, breaking
the link.
Some users might link to your page using the URL of that page as the anchor text. If your URL
contains relevant words, this provides users and search engines with more information about the
page than an ID or oddly named parameter would.
The highlighted words above could inform a user or search engine what the target page is
about before following the link

Lastly, remember that the URL to a document is displayed as part of a search result in Google, below
the document's title and snippet. Like the title and snippet, words in the URL on the search result
appear in bold if they appear in the user's query.
A user performs the query [baseball cards]
Our homepage appears as a result, with the URL listed under the title and snippet
Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central

Below is another example showing a URL on our domain for a page containing an article about the
rarest baseball cards. The words in the URL might appeal to a search user more than an ID number
like "www.brandonsbaseballcards.com/article/102125/" would.
A user performs the query [rarest baseball cards]
A deeper page, with a URL that reflects the type of content found on it, appears as a result
Google is good at crawling all types of URL structures, even if they're quite complex, but spending the
time to make your URLs as simple as possible for both users and search engines can help. Some
webmasters try to achieve this by rewriting their dynamic URLs to static ones; while Google is fine
with this, we'd like to note that this is an advanced procedure and if done incorrectly, could cause
crawling issues with your site. To learn even more about good URL structure, we recommend this
Webmaster Help Center page on creating Google-friendly URLs.
Good practices for URL structure
Use words in URLs - URLs with words that are relevant to your site's content and structure
are friendlier for visitors navigating your site. Visitors remember them better and might be
more willing to link to them.
Avoid:
• using lengthy URLs with unnecessary parameters and session IDs
• choosing generic page names like "page1.html"
• using excessive keywords like "baseball-cards-baseball-cards-baseball-
cards.htm"
Create a simple directory structure - Use a directory structure that organizes your content
well and is easy for visitors to know where they're at on your site. Try using your directory
structure to indicate the type of content found at that URL.
Avoid:
• having deep nesting of subdirectories like ".../dir1/dir2/dir3/dir4/dir5/dir6/
page.html"
• using directory names that have no relation to the content in them
Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central

Provide one version of a URL to reach a document - To prevent users from linking to one
version of a URL and others linking to a different version (this could split the reputation of
that content between the URLs), focus on using and referring to one URL in the structure
and internal linking of your pages. If you do find that people are accessing the same content
through multiple URLs, setting up a 301 redirect from non-preferred URLs to the dominant
URL is a good solution for this.
Avoid:
• having pages from subdomains and the root directory (e.g. "domain.com/
page.htm" and "sub.domain.com/page.htm") access the same content
• mixing www. and non-www. versions of URLs in your internal linking structure
• using odd capitalization of URLs (many users expect lower-case URLs and
remember them better)
Make your site easier to navigate
The navigation of a website is important in helping visitors quickly find the content they want. It can
also help search engines understand what content the webmaster thinks is important. Although
Google's search results are provided at a page level, Google also likes to have a sense of what role a
page plays in the bigger picture of the site.
All sites have a home or "root" page, which is usually the most frequented page on the site and the
starting place of navigation for many visitors. Unless your site has only a handful of pages, you should
think about how visitors will go from a general page (your root page) to a page containing more
specific content. Do you have enough pages around a specific topic area that it would make sense to
create a page describing these related pages (e.g. root page -> related topic listing -> specific topic)?
Do you have hundreds of different products that need to be classified under multiple category and
subcategory pages?
The directory structure for our small website on baseball cards
Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central

A sitemap (lower-case) is a simple page on your site that displays the structure of your website, and
usually consists of a hierarchical listing of the pages on your site. Visitors may visit this page if they
are having problems finding pages on your site. While search engines will also visit this page, getting
good crawl coverage of the pages on your site, it's mainly aimed at human visitors.
An XML Sitemap (upper-case) file, which you can submit through Google's Webmaster Tools, makes
it easier for Google to discover the pages on your site. Using a Sitemap file is also one way (though
not guaranteed) to tell Google which version of a URL you'd prefer as the canonical one (e.g.
http://brandonsbaseballcards.com/ or http://www.brandonsbaseballcards.com/; more on what's a
preferred domain). Google helped create the open source Sitemap Generator script to help you
create a Sitemap file for your site. To learn more about Sitemaps, the Webmaster Help Center
provides a useful guide to Sitemap files.
Good practices for site navigation
Create a naturally flowing hierarchy - Make it as easy as possible for users to go from
general content to the more specific content they want on your site. Add navigation pages
when it makes sense and effectively work these into your internal link structure.
Avoid:
• creating complex webs of navigation links, e.g. linking every page on your site
to every other page
• going overboard with slicing and dicing your content (it takes twenty clicks to
get to deep content)
Use mostly text for navigation - Controlling most of the navigation from page to page on
your site through text links makes it easier for search engines to crawl and understand your
site. Many users also prefer this over other approaches, especially on some devices that
might not handle Flash or JavaScript.
Avoid:
• having a navigation based entirely on drop-down menus, images, or
animations (many, but not all, search engines can discover such links on a site,
but if a user can reach all pages on a site via normal text links, this will improve
the accessibility of your site; more on how Google deals with non-text files)
Use "breadcrumb" navigation - A breadcrumb is a row of internal links at the top or bottom
of the page that allows visitors to quickly navigate back to a previous section or the root
page. Many breadcrumbs have the most general page (usually the root page) as the first,
left-most link and list the more specific sections out to the right.
Breadcrumb links appearing on a deeper article page on our site
Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, Version 1.1, 13 Nov 2008, latest version at Google Webmaster Central