Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) for SharePoint Sites – Part 1
March 12, 2012 3 Comments
Search Engine Optimisation is a topic that i’ve always had a keen interest in. One of my first if not fleeting jobs fresh out of University was at an SEO company, albiet in a sales-based role. It still gave me an insight into something considered somewhere between an exact science and black magic and immediately peaked my interest. Since then i’ve read numerous articles on the subject, provided advice to friends, worked on projects both as the lead consultant and as the implementer for SEO consulting agencies’ recommendations. Not all have been for SharePoint sites, however the concepts applied are often not SharePoint specific. The information available on the web is extensive – it surprises me how SEO companies even manage to exist when the information is so freely available.
When deciding how to differentiate this article from the masses i’ve leant towards applying the concepts with a SharePoint flavour. I by no means claim to be an expert on the subject – merely a keen follower. I won’t claim that everything on here is correct. I may suggest something that has no positive effect on your search rankings whatsoever. In general though, i’ve noticed that applying the majority of these techniques have had a positive affect to the rankings of the sites, so there must be some truth to them.
Part 1 of this series will focus on what you can do in regards to the content, naming, metadata and structure of your SharePoint site. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) for SharePoint Sites – Part 2 will delve a little deeper into how content can be manipulated to improve search rankings and other factors that can be leveraged from within SharePoint. Finally, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) for SharePoint Sites – Part 3 will take a step outside the SharePoint box into how you can boost rankings and traffic to your SharePoint site using other methods.
Before I get started I just want to clarify one thing. This article series doesn’t touch on perhaps one of the most important factors in regards to search engine optimisation for a site – the initial research required before any of these steps are even considered. One must know the keywords and phrases that are going to be targeted before they actually can be, and this should be carefully deduced via research into the types of natural language searches your target audience are doing and the competition those terms and phrases have to optimise against. It’s something that definitely needs consideration before you start. But for now, on to the implementation.
Content is King
I love this saying. I’ve heard and read it hundreds of times. It’s a great way to describe how content is key to attracting and keeping visitors returning to your site. It’s also spawned a bunch of posts playing devils advocate such as Derek Halpern’s The ‘Content is King’ Myth Debunked. In a purely SEO sense however, the saying rings true. Content is the most critical element to improving site rankings. The more quality content that exists on the site, the more pages that will rank highly for different search terms and phrases. This isn’t exactly tailored towards SharePoint, however it is too critical to leave out. Content should be keyword and phrase rich – especially in the first and last paragraphs. Each page on your site should target something different – it is easier to optimise for one specific phrase rather than multiples which just leaves you with conflicting goals and spreads the optimisation power too thin. Take a look at the Infographic / Why Content for SEO? and read the links by Google engineer Matt Cutts and Bing’s Duane Forrester if you’re left with any doubt.
Page Titles are Important
Not only are page titles valuable from an SEO perspective, but they’re also what’s used when identifying the pages within the search engines and therefore serve a dual purpose. Not only is it important to use keyword-rich titles, but they need to be visually engaging to invite the user to want to click the link. From a strictly SEO perspective, page titles should begin and perhaps end with a key phrase, and be 6-12 words long. From a visual sense they should attract attention and interest and be no more than 67 characters to prevent Google chopping them short. Page titles should be unique and relevant to both the page content and phrase being targetted. SharePoint already contains the Title column for pages – your master page should contain a ContentPlaceHolder for the title and each page layout should render the page’s title via the SharePointWebControls:FieldValue control. It’s important to ensure the titles are set with optimisation in mind.
Set Page Description and Keywords Metadata
The general consensus is that meta keywords no longer play a part in SEO. Whether the meta description does or not seems to be debated – most sources suggest it is important, however Jill Whalen argues they may not affect your page’s ranking in The Meta Description Tag. My opinion on both is that it can’t hurt. Description is also important for other reasons – it is often the call out text used in either search results or other situations including extended site links or social media links such as when you type a link into facebook. It therefore, like the title, not only needs to be keyword or phrase rich but inviting and attracting to the target audience. The strategy i’d use here is to use the Description page column for both the meta description and keywords and use the same technique identified above for the page title (take note that the internal name of the Description column is actually Comments). It appears Office 365 makes this even easier via Add keyword meta tags to pages to improve search and it is believed SharePoint vNext will do the same. A little side note for the metadata specified above – it should be well structured in the head element of the page and appear towards the top of the page – before any other metadata, script or CSS references.
Name your Pages Appropriately
Page names are another way you can add weight to your page for a given search term or phrase. The important take-away from a SharePoint perspective here is to not rely on the default. The page name is generally auto-populated depending on the Title entered and essentially concatenates the words together. Some authors will modify this title, but do so either by using CamelCase or underscores to seperate the individual words. Neither are ideal from an SEO perspective. Search engines read both as one big word, however read hyphens as a sentence, thus it is important to name your pages accordingly. This can either be done manually or by using a feature developed by Waldek Mastykarz highlighted on Optimize Publishing Pages for search engines using the Imtech SharePoint SEO Slugs Feature.
Directory Structure and Naming Deserves Attention
Directory structure can assist as an optimisation tool. Take a look at Stoney deGeyter’s How to Create a Directory Structure Search Engines Rock To. In my opinion, having a solid structure driven by information architecture requirements is more important than the potential SEO benefits that could be gained – however if it’s possible to consider both then it’s worth doing. One thing to keep in mind is that the further down the chain a page is, the less weighting it will have in a search sense and the harder it will be to find. Keeping SharePoint in mind, there are 2 things to consider here. Firstly, it’s too easy to just spawn multiple sub-site chains when trying to seperate content – this may be done for no logical structural reasons, rather to seperate lists or functionality into different sub-sites – this should be avoided. The other issue from a SharePoint perspective is the frustrating ‘Pages’ directory. This obviously serves no SEO benefit, it in fact acts as a hinderance. There are potential ways around this – Waldek’s Semantic URL’s in MOSS 2007 is one of them, others involve virtual directories and redirects, URL-rewriting components or HTTP handlers. Waldek also has a solution for IIS7 in his Friendly URLs for SharePoint post however it is unsupported and only works in particular scenarios. To be honest, I don’t really like any of the options and for now would just cop the hit. I’m hopeful that SharePoint vNext makes this easier to get around, perhaps leveraging off the URL Routing in ASP.NET 4 functionality. It is believed that SharePoint vNext will provide some form of friendly URLs which would be a welcomed addition.
Your Domain Name Counts
Domain names are an essential component of optimising a site. Often these are forgotten due to the desire of a lot of companies or organisations to use their brand name as their domain name. Unfortunately, this isn’t hugely desirable when trying to optimise a site. It’s no coincidence that when you search for a number of search terms, many of the top results will have included it in their domain name. Many would assume that it’s a trade off, either use the brand name or choose a search-optimised domain name, however as Ian McNeice identifies in his book Step by Step SEO: Search Engine Optimisation for SharePoint Internet Sites (a read I highly recommend) this doesn’t need to be the case. This isn’t entirely in my realm of expertise so I won’t try and explain in detail how to achieve it, but SharePoint does provide Alternate Access Mappings to handle that side of multiple addresses so that would play a part in the process. Another little-considered factor in choosing a domain name for SEO purposes is the domain extension. It’s widely believed that the main domain extensions such as .com, .net etc carry more weight. I also believe however that if you are targetting a particular country for your audience then you’re better off using the domain extension for that country, for example .com.au for Australia.
In Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) for SharePoint Sites – Part 2 of this series I’ll delve a little deeper into how content can be manipulated to improve search rankings and other factors that can be leveraged from within SharePoint.