February 06, 2008

Optimizing a blog for search engines - Reader's Question

Last week, I received a heartfelt email from the Chuck Porter who writes "Sarah's Progress in Her Battle with Hemangiomas": a blog about the progress of baby Sarah's condition, which her family hope may also become a resource for other concerned parents researching infant Hemangiomas.

Chuck asked:

How can I make my site Google Searchable for Hemangiomas?
With Chuck's permission, I decided to make a case study of how Sarah's Progress could be optimized for search engines. Although this case study is written with particular regard to the keyword "Hemangiomas", you'll find many of the tips detailed here are appropriate for any niche blog.

First thoughts about optimizing this blog for search engines

For any new blog or website, it does take time and effort to be indexed by all major search engines, and have content feature in search results.

There is the motto among bloggers that "content is king", meaning that great writing above all else is the key to creating a successful and widely respected blog. My belief is this: while great content is vastly important, you won't get visitors to your blog is people are unable to find it!

So in this article, I'll explore methods of ensuring search engines and other referrers are better able to provide links to Chuck's blog, which consequently will result in more visitors, links to the site and a better ranking in search engine results.

Sarah's Progress is a niche blog: this means that the blog focuses on a particular subject, rather than a more general subject. It focuses most specifically on infant Hemangiomas (Sarah's condition) rather than the broader (general) subject of medical conditions.

Niche blogs, especially those writing about a very particular subject matter, are more easily promoted than blogs of a more general subject. They are more likely to feature higher in the rankings of search results too, providing that the blog is optimized for search engine spiders.

About search engine spiders

Search engine spiders are essentially software "robots" which crawl the internet, reading text and following links in web and blog pages to gather information for search engine databases.

Search engine spiders don't read web pages the same way as we do, they only read the code. Imagine what your blog would look like with no color, style or images and you'll get a better idea of what search engine spiders will see.

Optimizing the code of Sarah's Progress for search engines

In my initial reply to Chuck's email, I explained that "keyword density" is one established method of search engine optimization. Keyword density means using words related to the niche subject of a blog in many different areas of the blog and throughout blog posts. Search engine spiders can read textual content, so if the word "Hemangiomas" is referenced at key points in the blog and blog posts, search engine spiders will reference that the blog is related to the keyword's subject.

For Sarah's Progress, I recommended to Chuck that the word "Hemangiomas" should be referenced in:

  • The blog title
  • The description text
  • Frequently in the titles of blog posts
  • At points throughout each blog post

So far, Chuck has done a great job of ensuring "Hemangiomas" is indexed as a keyword in this blog, as you can see in the image below:

I have highlighted where Chuck has used this keyword in high focus areas of the blog, where search engine spiders are most likely to read this text.

It is possible to "spam" search engines by making a post too dense of such keywords, but by referencing "Hemangiomas" in each of the areas highlighted above, Chuck seems to have provided sufficient keyword density for Sarah's Progress without being spammy, and also ensured the blog is reader-friendly!

Related keywords and phrases such as "birthmarks", "blood vessels", "port wine" and "tumor" are also keywords which Chuck should try to use in posts too, as people searching for references to Hemangiomas may also search about these too.

Optimizing images for search engines

A lesser know technique of search engine optimization is to ensure images are SEO friendly. As search engine spiders cannot see the actual images (they can only read code), it would be advisable to use alternative text and titles.

Alternative text ("alt" text) is what would be displayed in place of images if the browser does not display images. Image titles are the title of the image itself.

When using the rich text editor to write posts in Blogger, the "Alt" and "Title" properties of images we upload are not visible. To add these properties to an image, we need to switch to "Edit HTML" mode instead.

Once we have uploaded an image to our blog posts, a section of code like this will be visible in Edit HTML mode:

<a onblur="try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}" href="https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEib2YGeBD6vgM2IBeDwUvf-l5YPIetXeq0oeL1PsIgSRSXlUwk0WvoC2CLC4MF6Od4LdddkSrXGsUITOqlBxxGde3VUqKGvjHEVxqnm_arrllyzkuY5LGZYyVo7z0ffQCL0aFYx7R_s2_E/s1600-h/DSC01520.jpg"><img style="float:right; margin:0 0 10px 10px;cursor:pointer; cursor:hand;" src="https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEib2YGeBD6vgM2IBeDwUvf-l5YPIetXeq0oeL1PsIgSRSXlUwk0WvoC2CLC4MF6Od4LdddkSrXGsUITOqlBxxGde3VUqKGvjHEVxqnm_arrllyzkuY5LGZYyVo7z0ffQCL0aFYx7R_s2_E/s400/DSC01520.jpg" border="0" alt=""id="BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5163994883533892834" /></a>
This code references the image which is displayed in the post, and links this to the original image where it is hosted by Blogger.

In the example above, I have highlighted the "alt" section in red. Currently there is no alternative text for this image, as this would normally display between the speech marks. You can add alternative text by inserting this between the speech marks, like this:

alt="A picture of Sarah"
In addition, I would advise Chuck to add the title of the image, by adding this just after the alternative text, like this:
alt="A picture of Sarah" title="Sarah's Hemangiomas ulcerations"

A picture of Sarah soon after she was bornThe resulting image would then be more useful to search engine spiders, as this would feature code readable information about the image. As an example, hover your cursor over this image, where the the image title will be displayed. If you were to view this page with images turned off in your browser, you would see the alternative text for this image instead.

Optimizing links for search engines

Links too can be optimized to help search engine spiders better understand their relevance and reference to the content.

Firstly, it is important to use descriptive keywords in the link text.

Chuck hopes that the Sarah's Progress blog will help lead other concerned parents to Dr. Waner and his Vascular Birthmark Institute who have helped Sarah and her family understand and treat her condition. When linking to the Vascular Birthmark Institute's website or other sites of interest, it would be much more effective to use link text like this:

Please visit the Vascular Birthmark Institute website for information and support about Hemangiomas
than by linking as
You can visit the Vascular Birthmark Institute website here:http://www.birthmark.org/

The first example will tell search engine spiders much more about the link, as it includes the title and other descriptive keywords in the link text. The second example gives no other information than the link itself.

Search engines look more kindly on sites which offer information about the sites they link to, and such sites rank much higher in search engine results.

Off-blog methods of optimizing the blog for search engines

Now that we have looked at ways of optimizing the code and content for search engine spiders, we need to understand some of the ways to get recognition and authority for this site.

Most search engines will display search results in order of authority. This means that the most authoritative web pages for given searches will be displayed first in the results pages.

A key factor in search engine ranking is how many other pages link to your web page. A link to a website or post page from another source is like a vote of confidence in the content featured on that page.

Sarah's Progress is a relatively new blog, so I was not too surprised to see no incoming links when I searched for links to the site in Google (using this search phrase link:http://porkchopsarah.blogspot.com/).

In order to achieve some authority in search engine rankings, I would advise Chuck to try and get some incoming links pointing to the Sarah's Progress blog.

Chuck has already submitted the site to the parents' directory in the Vascular Birthmark Foundation, but there are many other options the family could use to acquire some more incoming links, such as:

  • Search for relevant blogs, leave comments and offer reciprocal links (or ask for a link back).

    By performing a blog search for Hemangioma, I discovered several other blogs which would be relevant to the Sarah's Progress blog. Leaving comments on similar blogs with a link back to Sarah's Progress will help others find this blog, while reciprocal links in the sidebar will ensure search engine spiders follow the link and receive the "vote of confidence" in this site.
  • Find forums and message boards relevant to your niche subject, and become active in these too. The Vascular Birthmark Foundation discussion forum would be a great place for Chuck to start. He may want to consider adding a link in the forum signature, which could also be indexed by search engines, and provide other readers with a reference site.
  • Submit the blog to DMOZ: this was one of my first suggestions to Chuck, as DMOZ is a highly valued directory of websites (edited by real people) and would certainly help the blog be indexed more quickly.
  • Submit the blog URL to Google, Yahoo! and other search engines for indexing. Blogs and new websites will eventually be indexed by search engine spiders, but submitting links manually can help this happen more quickly.
  • Submit to blog directories too! This can be a very time consuming task, though it is certainly worth the effort. I noticed this blog was indexed more quickly than my other blogs as I had submitted to blog directories soon after creating this site.
I would advise against paying fees for submission to search engines and directories, as all such submissions could be done for free with just a little time and effort. Personally, I think such schemes are a waste of money, and often false in the indexing claims they make.

Miscellaneous advice

I have a few more snippets of advice for Chuck which may well help Sarah's Progress to be a more resourceful blog which ranks higher in search engine results. These ideas are more time consuming than the others discussed above, though if completed over time these could become valuable assets for the blog.

Write some resource posts for other parents

Many visitors to the Sarah's Progress blog will be other parents seeking advice, information and support about Hemangiomas. If Chuck and the family could write some resourceful posts for other parents based on their own experiences, this would add a great deal of value to the site, and would almost certainly result in backlinks from other blogs and sites.

Such post titles could include:

  • What to do when your child is diagnosed with Hemangiomas
  • Useful resources for infant Hemangiomas
  • Methods of treatment for infant Hemangiomas

It would be a pleasant experience for readers to learn of the personal experiences of Sarah's family when reading such articles, especially when so many sites referencing Hemangiomas are clinically based. By writing of their own experiences on the blog, Chuck and his family would be able to develop a stronger readership, as well as providing a useful and informative site.

Rewrite some great posts, include backlinks to the blog and submit these to article banks

There are many article banks which you can submit your own content to. These articles are then used by others for their own blogs and publications (including a link back to the author's website). By including backlinks in such articles (links back to your own blog) you can acquire more authority for your own posts. Rewriting posts, rather than submitting the exact content you have published in your blog, is essential: search engines frown on duplicate content which weakens the authority of your own blog pages.

Here is a great resource list of article banks you can submit to if you choose to use this method.

Promote offline too!

An easy way to attract readers to your blog is to tell others about it in person! Business cards featuring your blog URL are one tried and tested method (you can get 250 business cards for free from Vistaprint or Ooprint, and only pay for postage). Also, never underestimate the power of "word of mouth".

Chuck is obviously very enthusiastic about the blog, and I would imagine that he and his family are already telling others about their online diary of Sarah's progress. For other bloggers though, this is often a promotional technique which is overlooked.

Your thoughts?

I hope I have provided Chuck and his family with a useful guide to the basics of search engine optimization for Sarah's Progress in her Battle with Hemangiomas, though I am sure any other advice offered by readers of Blogger Buster would also be appreciated. So if you have any further ideas which could help this blog feature more highly in search engine results, please pop over to the Sarah's Progress blog or leave your comments below.

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