TIP – Search Engines Only Read Text

October 29th, 2006 by Will Scott

A big part of the way a search engine decides how to give you a good response is by looking at how closely what you type in to their search box matches the words they have in their database of web sites.

For this reason, it’s critically important you use enough text on the page to assure your web site is seen as a reasonable match to those phrases people really type. And of course, it’s not just as simple as creating compelling copy on the page, you have to also be sure that when you describe items in the code of your pages such as links to other pages and images that they too have text versions for the search engines to adequately understand what they mean.

Finally, order matters. You may have noticed that many web sites have their navigation (inter-site links) either across the top of the page or down the left hand navigation. In early usability testing it was found that users responded better given our predilection to reading from top to bottom, left to right. Interestingly, this is what the search engines do too.

This is one of many places where human usability and search engine read-ability don’t usually coincide.

The problem for the search engines is this: if you have your left and top navigation loaded with non-descriptive navigational elements, this is what they will think you’re about. So instead of thinking you’re about “better ingredients, better pizza” a search engine might misunderstand and think you’re about “corporate guidelines” or “job search”.

It’s a challenge, but whenever you can, make sure that your navigational elements reinforce your key phrase focus. If they don’t, put them on the far side of the text either right or bottom.