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Google Sites SEO Guide

posted 11 Apr 2009 17:50 by Stephen Hind   [ updated 11 Apr 2014 02:17 by Stephen Hind ]

Google Sites SEO Guide

Want to get your site found easily? This search engine optimization guide helps you concentrate on what your visitors need and want from your site. If you make a page easier to find for a person you make it easier to find for search engines. 

Google Sites SEO Guide


Acknowledgements

Many, many thanks to the Google Webmasters Team for allowing Steegle to adapt their SEO Starter Guide for use with Google Sites.  The reason for the adaptation is some of the advice given in their guide is not possible with Google Sites, due to the security restrictions in place, so we have either changed it or omitted it.  This guide is mainly the Google Webmasters Team's work, so thank them more than us.

Introduction

Even though this is a search engine optimization guide you need to concentrate on what your users (visitors) need and want from your site.  If you make a page easier to find for a user you also make it easier to find for search engines.

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Create unique, accurate page titles

A page title tells both users and search engines what the topic of a particular page is.  Ideally, you should create a unique title for each page on your site.  Google Sites will automatically suffix your Site Name to the page title your web browser uses and search engines see, so may not need to put in as much as you think.  You can edit the page title whilst editing the page: you find it at the top of the page e.g. this page's title is

"Google Sites SEO Guide"

which you see at the top of this page, but in the browser's title bar you see

"Google Sites SEO Guide  - Google Sites & Google Apps Help - steegle.com"

The - Google Sites & Google Apps Help - steegle.com added to the end is my Site Name.

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.  You can see on my site any of the Google Sites how tos start with "Google Sites - " to clearly indicate what the page focuses on.  The only time I have not done this is for this page and my Google Sites FAQ page, so when someone searches for Google Sites FAQ I get in the top 6 results.

Good practices for page title

  • 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 page title for each page - Each of your pages should ideally have a unique page title, which helps Google know how the page is distinct from the others on your site.
    Avoid:
      • using a single title 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 page title

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Make use of the "description" meta tag

Summaries can be defined for each page

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 your Page Title). 

To make use of the meta description tag on your Google Site use the More button and then Page settings.  In the Page description box enter a brief overview of the page's offerings.  For more detailed instruction on how to add a Page Description to a Google Site see Google Sites - Page Description - Meta Description Tag & Snippets

What are the merits of description meta tags?

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.

Best Practices

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 page description that has no relation to the content on the page
  • using generic descriptions like "This is a web page" or "Page about baseball cards"
  • filling the description with only keywords
  • copying 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

Back to the Table of Contents


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 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. 

Google Sites automatically makes the page URLs from the title you enter, but sometimes these can be inappropriate.  I have fallen into this trap with probably one of my most important pages, my Google Sites FAQ - its URL follows:

As you can see it's not good and you're probably asking "how did I let it happen"?  When I created the page I made the title "Google Sites - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)" so Google Sites used this to make the page URL "googlesites-frequentlyaskedquestionsfaq" (it removes the spaces and parenthesis, keeps the hyphens and sets everything to lowercase).  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 so they might leave off a part, breaking the link.  Why haven't I changed it?  I didn't change it as it's been linked to in many places, so changing it will mean the pages with links to it won't work.

So once you save a new page the first thing you want to do is change the URL to something more appropriate, so here's another example from my site:

  1. I created a new Google Sites how to called "Google Sites - Embed a Google Map", so Google Sites made the page URL "googlesites-embedagooglemap"
  2. I immediately changed this by using the More Actions button and Page Settings then entering the page URL as "embed-google-map"
  3. I removed "googlesites" as it will get that from the parent page's URL "google-sites-howtos" and added hyphens where the spaces were to make it more readable
  4. This means that the Google Sites - Embed a Google Map how to can be found at
    http://www.steegle.com/websites/google-sites-howtos/embed-google-map (much more readable I think you will agree)

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.

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"
      • using excessive keywords like "baseball-cards-baseball-cards-baseball-cards
  • 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"
      • using directory names that have no relation to the content in them

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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 landing 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 landing 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? Don't forget to use the Navigation sidebar box that allows you to display links to any of your pages.  If you want to categorise you pages you can add multiple navigation boxes with different titles.  To edit the Navigation box use the Edit Sidebar link and then the edit link on the navigation box.

Google Sites provides a sitemap (lower-case), a simple page on your site that displays the structure of your website and consists of a hierarchical listing of the pages on your site and a list view. 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.  Google Sites automatically creates and updates an XML Sitemap for you: for more information on how to use Google Webmaster Tools with Google Sites see my article - Google Sites - Get Found in Google Search

Also, Consider what happens when a user removes part of your URL - Some users might navigate your site in odd ways, and you should anticipate this. For example, instead of using the breadcrumb links on the page, a user might drop off a part of the URL in the hopes of finding more general content. He or she might be visiting http://www.brandonsbaseballcards.com/news/010/upcoming-baseballcard-shows.htm, but then enter http://www.brandonsbaseballcards.com/news/010/ into the browser's address bar, believing that this will show all news from 010 (). Is your site prepared to show content in this situation or will it give the user a 404 ("page not found" error)? What about moving up a directory level to http://www.brandonsbaseballcards.com/news/?

With Google Sites this is less of a problem, as if a user drops off part of a URL they will always find a page that exists (e.g. going from http://www.steegle.com/websites/google-sites-help to http://www.steegle.com/websites/ will work), however it is tempting to leave pages that will seldom be visited blank. Instead, consider putting a subpage listing gadget in as a standard practice, so that at least users will not get lost.

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 images as links.
    Avoid:
      • having a navigation based entirely on images (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.)

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Offer quality content and services

Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors discussed here.  Users know good content when they see it and will likely want to direct other users to it. This could be through blog posts, social media services, email, forums, or other means.  Organic or word-of-mouth buzz is what helps build your site's reputation with both users and Google, and it rarely comes without quality content.

Good practices for content

  • Write easy-to-read text - Users enjoy content that is well written and easy to follow.
    Avoid:
      • writing sloppy text with many spelling and grammatical mistakes
      • embedding text in images for textual content (users may want to copy and paste the text and search engines can't read it)
  • Stay organized around the topic - It's always beneficial to organize your content so that visitors have a good sense of where one content topic begins and another ends. Breaking your content up into logical chunks or divisions helps users find the content they want faster. 
    Avoid:
      • dumping large amounts of text on varying topics onto a page without paragraph, subheading, or layout separation
  • Use relevant language - Think about the words that a user might search for to find a piece of your content. Users who know a lot about the topic might use different keywords in their search queries than someone who is new to the topic.  Anticipating these differences in search behaviour and accounting for them while writing your content (using a good mix of keyword phrases) could produce positive results. Google AdWords provides a handy Keyword Planner that helps you discover new keyword variations and see the approximate search volume for each keyword. Also, Google Webmaster Tools provides you with the top search queries your site appears for and the ones that led the most users to your site.
  • Create fresh, unique content - New content will not only keep your existing visitor base coming back, but also bring in new visitors.
    Avoid:
      • rehashing (or even copying) existing content that will bring little extra value to users
      • having duplicate or near-duplicate versions of your content across your site (more on duplicate content)
  • Offer exclusive content or services - Consider creating a new, useful service that no other site offers. You could also write an original piece of research, break an exciting news story, or leverage your unique user base. Other sites may lack the resources or expertise to do these things.
  • Create content primarily for your users, not search engines - Designing your site around your visitors' needs while making sure your site is easily accessible to search engines usually produces positive results.
    Avoid:
      • inserting numerous unnecessary keywords aimed at search engines but are annoying or nonsensical to users
      • having blocks of text like "frequent misspellings used to reach this page" that add little value for users
      • deceptively hiding text from users, but displaying it to search engines

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Write better anchor text

Anchor text is the clickable text that users will see as a result of a link.  This text tells users and Google something about the page you're linking to. Links on your page may be internal - pointing to other pages on your site - or external - leading to content on other sites. In either of these cases, the better your anchor text is, the easier it is for users to navigate and for Google to understand what the page you're linking to is about.

Good practices for anchor text

  • Choose descriptive text - The anchor text you use for a link should provide at least a basic idea of what the page linked to is about.
    Avoid:
      • writing generic anchor text like "page", "article", or "click here"
      • using text that is off-topic or has no relation to the content of the page linked to
      • using the page's URL as the anchor text in most cases (although there are certainly legitimate uses of this, such as promoting or referencing a new website's address)
  • Write concise text - Aim for short but descriptive text - usually a few words or a short phrase. 
    Avoid:
      • writing long anchor text, such as a lengthy sentence or short paragraph of text
  • Format links so they're easy to spot - Make it easy for users to distinguish between regular text and the anchor text of your links. Your content becomes less useful if users miss the links or accidentally click them.
    Avoid:
      • using CSS or text styling that make links look just like regular text
  • Think about anchor text for internal links too - You may usually think about linking in terms of pointing to outside websites, but paying more attention to the anchor text used for internal links can help users and Google navigate your site better. 
    Avoid:
      • using excessively keyword-filled or lengthy anchor text just for search engines
      • creating unnecessary links that don't help with the user's navigation of the site

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Use headings appropriately

Headings (found on the Format menu) are used to present structure on the page to users. There are three sizes of headings, beginning with "Heading <h2>", the most important, and ending with "Minor heading <h4>", the least important.

Since headings make text contained in them larger than normal text on the page, this is a visual cue to users that this text is important and could help them understand something about the type of content underneath the heading text. Multiple heading sizes used in order create a hierarchical structure for your content, making it easier for users to navigate through your document.  In Google Sites when you use headings properly you can then use the Table of Contents gadget to generate a list of page navigation links automatically, from the headings on the page.  For more information about Tables of Contents see my how-to: Google Sites - Table of Contents.

Good practices for headings

  • Imagine you're writing an outline - Similar to writing an outline for a large paper, put some thought into what the main points and sub-points of the content on the page will be and decide where to use headings appropriately.
    Avoid:
      • placing text in headings that wouldn't be helpful in defining the structure of the page
      • using headings where other formatting like italics and bold may be more appropriate, or just to enlarge the size of the text
      • erratically moving from one heading size to another
  • Use headings sparingly across the page - Use headings where it makes sense. Too many headings on a page can make it hard for users to scan the content and determine where one topic ends and another begins.
    Avoid:
      • excessively using headings throughout the page
      • putting all of the page's text into a heading
      • using headings only for styling text and not presenting structure

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Optimize your use of images

Images may seem like a straightforward component of your site, but you can optimize your use of them. All images can have a distinct filename and "alt" attribute, both of which you should take advantage of.

The "alt" attribute allows you to specify alternative text for the image if it cannot be displayed for some reason.

Why use this attribute? If a user is viewing your site on a browser that doesn't support images, or is using alternative technologies, such as a screen reader, the contents of the alt attribute provides information about the picture.

When you insert an image into a Google Site you can add the alternative text: under the image selector and browser/choose file button you can see the Alt text (optional) box:

Insert Image Dialogue Bow allows Alt Text
Click for larger image

Unfortunately if you need to change the alt text, or wish to add to an image inserted some time ago, Google Sites does not offer a tool to edit/alter alternative text without editing the HTML (at the time of writing).  To edit the HTML navigate to your Google Sites page, use the Edit Page button and then use the HTML button in the edit bar.  Once the HTML editor opens you need to find your image: the image will always appear in a "img" tag that looks something like this:

<img src="http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/images/sites_35.gif" border="0">

To add the alternative text you want for the image add "alt" attribute, followed by an equals sign, open quotes, the text you want to appear and then close quotes to the "img" tag - see below for an example:

<img src="http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/images/sites_35.gif" border="0" alt="Google Sites">

Another reason is that if you're using an image as a link, the alt text for that image will be treated similarly to the anchor text of a text link. However, we don't recommend using too many images for links in your site's navigation when text links could serve the same purpose. Lastly, optimizing your image filenames and alt text makes it easier for image search projects like Google Image Search to better understand your images.

Good practices for images

  • Use brief, but descriptive filenames and alt text - Like many of the other parts of the page targeted for optimization, filenames and alt text (for ASCII languages) are best when they're short, but descriptive.
    Avoid:
      • using generic filenames like "image1.jpg", "pic.gif", "1.jpg" when possible (Google Sites does not allow you to rename an image file once uploaded, so make sure you get the name right on your computer before upload)
      • writing extremely lengthy filenames
      • stuffing keywords into alt text or copying and pasting entire sentences
  • Supply alt text when using images as links - If you do decide to use an image as a link, filling out its alt text helps Google understand more about the page you're linking to. Imagine that you're writing anchor text for a text link.
    Avoid:
      • writing excessively long alt text that would be considered spammy
      • using only image links for your site's navigation
  • Store images in a directory of their own - Instead of having image files spread out in numerous directories and subdirectories across your domain, consider consolidating your images into a single directory (e.g. brandonsbaseballcards.com/images/). This simplifies the path to your images.
  • Use commonly supported filetypes - Most browsers support JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP image formats. It's also a good idea to have the extension of your filename match with the filetype.

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Use site visibility

You may not want certain pages of your site crawled because they might not be useful to users if found in a search engine's search results. If you do want to prevent search engines from crawling your pages, use the site visibility option to make certain pages either private or not searchable. In this case, go to the page concerned, click 'share'. You can then specify pages to be either publicly available to the web, available to anyone with the link, or private (only specific users can access the page and would need to log in with their Google account).

Note: you will need to enable page-level permissions to customise different pages' visibility.

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Promote your website in the right ways

While most of the links to your site will be gained gradually, as people discover your content through search or other ways and link to it, Google understands that you'd like to let others know about the hard work you've put into your content. Effectively promoting your new content will lead to faster discovery by those who are interested in the same subject. As with most points covered in this document, taking these recommendations to an extreme could actually harm the reputation of your site.

Good practices for promoting your website

  • Blog about new content or services - A blog post on your own site letting your visitor base know that you added something new is a great way to get the word out about new content or services. Google Sites provides a special page type, Announcement Page you can use like a blog.  You can use the Recent Posts gadget to give a list of announcements on another page.  Other webmasters who follow your site or RSS feed could pick the story up as well (to find out how to make an RSS feed for a Google Site see KC Cloud Solution's Google Sites RSS Feed step-by-step guide).
  • Don't forget about offline promotion - Putting effort into the offline promotion of your company or site can also be rewarding. For example, if you have a business site, make sure its URL is listed on your business cards, letterhead, posters, etc. You could also send out recurring newsletters to clients through the mail letting them know about new content on the company's website.
  • Know about social media sites - Sites built around user interaction and sharing have made it easier to match interested groups of people up with relevant content.
    Avoid:
      • attempting to promote each new, small piece of content you create; go for big, interesting items
      • involving your site in schemes where your content is artificially promoted to the top of these services
  • Add your business to Google's Local Business Centre - If you run a local business, adding its information to Google's Local Business Center will help you reach customers on Google Maps and web search. The Webmaster Help Center has more tips on promoting your local business.
  • Reach out to those in your site's related community - Chances are, there are a number of sites that cover topic areas similar to yours. Opening up communication with these sites is usually beneficial. Hot topics in your niche or community could spark additional ideas for content or building a good community resource.
    Avoid:
      • spamming link requests out to all sites related to your topic area
      • purchasing links from another site with the aim of getting PageRank instead of traffic

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Make use of free webmaster tools

Major search engines, including Google, provide free tools for webmasters. Google's Webmaster Tools help webmasters better control how Google interacts with their websites and get useful information from Google about their site. Using Webmaster Tools won't help your site get preferential treatment; however, it can help you identify issues that, if addressed, can help your site perform better in search results. With the service, webmasters can:

Yahoo! (Yahoo! Site Explorer) and Microsoft (Live Search Webmaster Tools) also offer free tools for webmasters.

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Take advantage of Google Analytics

If you've improved the crawling and indexing of your site using Google Webmasters Tools, you're probably curious about the traffic coming to your site. Google Analytics is a valuable source of insight for this. You can use these to:

  • get insight into how users reach and behave on your site
  • discover the most popular content on your site
  • measure the impact of optimizations you make to your site (e.g. did changing those page titles and alternative text attibutes improve traffic from search engines?)

For advanced users, the information Google Analytics provides comprehensive information about how visitors are interacting with your pages (such as additional keywords that searchers might use to find your site).

For instructions on how to add Google Analytics to your Google site see my how-to: Google Sites - Adding Google Analytics.

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Helpful resources for webmasters

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Feedback

Please let us know if this article helped.

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Labels:  l:images l:pictures l:photos

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