Website Optimisation (SEO)

Published 21.09.2022Publishing

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Website optimisation (SEO) to make it great for search engines is a long way to go. Over many years, savvy people have come up with advice on how to design web pages so that the search engines will show exactly your web page when a person searches for something.

Introduction to SEO

The subject even has its own name and abbreviation: SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation.

Anyone who ends up on the front page of the search engines, the top ten hits, and in particular on top or among the top five, has struck gold. Few internet users scroll on to page two or three, instead they rewrite their search phrase.

Thus, it becomes a form of cannibalism among writers and developers of websites, and the failure of one is the benefit of the other. Only one in many millions of web pages will end up at the top of the search results. Everyone who publishes something wants readers to go to their particular page and discover the good content they have put so much work into, or the good product they have to sell.

But wait a minute. It is not the search engines which we should satisfy, it is the readers! Yes, but when the vast majority of hits come via the search engines, then it becomes important to create the conditions for your (or my) site to get a good ranking. So read on, whether you run your own site, or are a regular reader and curious about what goes on behind the scenes. Or in the algorithms if you will.

The search engines of the 1990s

In the 1990s the first browsers, such as YahooAltaVista and Netscape, were regular directories with moderated content. The front pages contained catalogues or headlines and the people behind the search engine edited which pages to show.

Google revolutionised this industry. Through bots or automated indexing crawlers, they scanned all the world’s websites at lightning speed and at frequent intervals. They presented the results in the form of lists and short text excerpts that gave the user the opportunity to choose the website they wanted to proceed to.

Google’s competitors either disappeared, or they embarked on the same strategy. For the publicists, it was about making themselves look good for the search engines.

The start of SEO

The basic idea of Google was to show the searcher the hits that were closest to the keywords or even the intention behind the search. Over the years, they added functionality where the matches were adapted to Google’s knowledge of the searcher, based on the searcher’s previous behaviour and interests. The hypothesis was that a good match was a website which many others visited, had good content and a certain authority on the web. The latter was often measured through the number of links from other sites. The quality of the website that linked to you was also important.

Thus began the hunt to take advantage of Google’s algorithms. These again became in the early 2000s more and more hidden so that no one would abuse them. We saw at that time completely lousy websites that did not consist of anything but a lot of potential keywords, but with almost zero content. However, they had a lot of ads, and that was the real purpose behind the website: Advertising revenue. Google responded by punishing such sites.

This was the cat’s play with the mouse, or the eternal dance of creating and offering good websites. Over the past decade or so, Google has been more open about offering great advice and guidance on how websites should or should be designed. There was also a whole industry of consultants who could make good money on companies that wanted to develop their website and promote their products.

What remains as the most important thing is that “content is king”. He who is honest, delivers good content and is a serious player in his field over time, yes he gets good standings at Google. And that is what we want, because in our time Google is behind approximately 80% of all online searches.

Content is king

Sandalsand obviously believes that my own websites offer just this, good content. Both websites, Global and Norway, are aimed at readers who want to learn about a destination and be inspired to do something at the destination.

With annual hits in the range of 150-170,000, it is also clear that readers know how to appreciate the content. It is important to give everyone a good reading experience. But then there is the fact that the reading experience actually consists of several components.

A reader will not just read an informative article from a city walk in Helsinki. He also wants it to be easy to read, with good headlines that provide an overview and flow in the presentation. The article should be flavoured with maps and photos, and it should not take too long to load. In addition, the reader may want Sandalsand to be a safe website that does not spread viruses.

Website safety matters

The Internet is a scary place, and many people are fooled by criminal and unsafe websites. Of course, this is especially true in online shopping, but it basically applies to everyone. Google was issued in the early 2010s a warning that websites which could not offer encryption between the website and the user would get worse scores with them.

For Sandalsand, as for most websites, it was about switching to an encrypted protocol. It is characterised by https in the URL, rather than just http. The extra “s” stands for safe. My website switched to https in the autumn of 2018. The same year, my privacy statement was revised as a result of the European Privacy Directive (GDPR).

Website speed is crucial

Few people have the patience to wait for a website to load, because then they would rather click on to the next match on the search result list. Google and others prefer websites that are fast. Speed is measured in different ways, and the measurement methods are developed over time.

The speed it takes for readers, or potential readers, to get articles on Sandalsand, is by far the greatest development potential for optimising the website. This has almost always been the case. Time may not be money for all readers, but money means quite a lot to the owner of Sandalsand. Therefore, there is a trade-off between how much a web owner would like or could afford to pay for a very fast website, and the benefit. Besides, it has turned out to be a lot you can actually do without spending a lot of money.

We will consider some main steps to increase speed.

The importance of the server for speed

Sandalsand’s start in 2011 was by publishing the content on a free and shared platform service called Travellerspoint. Two years later, I chose to start for myself, so to speak, by establishing Sandalsand on my own domain. I made a deal with a web host, iPage. It was a so-called “shared hosting” service and is the cheapest variant.

This means that Sandalsand shares the web hotel’s servers with a whole lot of other websites. The disadvantage is that the servers have limited capacity. If the load on all web pages exceeds the capacity, then the speed of all those who share the server is restricted. Of course, if I had chosen a different type of subscription, the speed would have gone up. But so would the price, and quite significantly too. As Sandalsand has no significant income, as already mentioned, there is a balance between cost-benefit.

Over the years, I felt that iPage responsiveness became suboptimal, and I chose in 2021 to switch to Dreamhost. Both companies are based in the United States. I pay about the same price, get the same good service, but got clearly better speed results.

A content delivery network may help

An additional technical solution for optimising websites that I have both evaluated and partially tested at a company called Cloudflare, is so-called CDN support. It’s an acronym for Content Delivery Network. It aims to connect with a provider that offers servers worldwide. Those who google something in India will then get copies of my pages located on a server in India or somewhere nearby, instead of waiting for the main server in the US to respond. It may provide a second or more of faster response time. The original will still be on the web hotel, but the content will be mirrored to machines elsewhere in the world.

Software also affects speed

A web page consists of an almost infinite amount of HTML code. Sandalsand uses a publishing system (CMS) called WordPress. So do half of the world’s websites. The users’ encounter with WordPress is only via a user interface called a theme. This means that the theme gives the user the visual impression and functional experience of the website. That is the look of Sandalsand, with pictures and colours, menus and buttons.

Both WordPress, and the theme I use, Divi, takes time to load. Both suppliers are constantly working to streamline and wrap it in ever faster parts. At the same time, the functionality is expanded and it can in itself work in the opposite direction. As a customer, there is little a publicist can do about it.

In the WordPress world, the database and the selected theme provide basic functionality. Additional functionality is provided by installing plugins. Some of these plugins also have an impact on speed.

Sandalsand follows best practices for website optimisation (SEO), and has installed a plugin called W3 Total Cache. This software plugin creates a cache for data on my web page. Furthermore, W3TC compresses and minimises the use of code on the website, and it also offers a service for shrinking photos I upload on Sandalsand. In sum, this means that when users click on a web page, it loads much faster. Users also download less data, which is an advantage for those who are on slow lines or have subscriptions where data traffic costs money. 

Image management

Especially important on a travel site

A website that makes a living by telling about experiences in your own or foreign country, will have some text. Plain text is cheap to transport to someone sitting at home with their computer or on the bus with their mobile phone. Sandalsand also has a burning desire to show my adventures in these countries in videos and not least photographs.

As for videos, I have chosen to post them on YouTube and let this service stream them. This means that whoever plays a video here on the website, in reality, plays it on YouTube. It saves my bandwidth and is best for everyone. With pictures, it is something quite different. I upload photos to Sandalsand‘s WordPress database and deliver them myself from there to my articles. Thousands of images have been uploaded and the user is invited to browse them.

Compression of images

A picture I take with my mobile phone or a proper camera will usually take up at least 4 Mb. If an article is spiced with 10 images of that size, a total of over 40 Mb, it will eat up large chunks of my readers’ payment plans, and also take longer to load. So I have to compress the pictures.

Without explaining this in detail in this article, I will briefly say that I locally resize and compress the original images from 4 Mb to approx. 300 Kb, i.e. over 90% reduction. Only then do I upload jpg files to the online database. One of my plugins, W3TC, converts the featured images (the ones on top of the posts) to a web format (WebP). This halves the remaining size of the file. It will then typically be able to be delivered to the reader in a size of 150 Kb without significant quality loss.

Thumbnails and slow image loading

Photographs would have been a very significant part of the “weight” of my articles. The mentioned solutions reduce this weight significantly. In addition, I post the pictures in thumbnail format. These can be clicked on by users to enlarge, and only then do they load the full (compressed) weight of the images. In addition, images on the website are loaded with lazy load functionality. They are not loaded on the page until the reader has actually scrolled that far down in the text.

To increase readability, one should also give the pictures meaningful names. More on that later.

Improvements to individual posts or pages

Apart from adding a good workflow around image optimisation, the above methods are not very labour intensive. The activities that I will now describe do not have to be demanding when you do it right from the start.

However, my website is over ten years old, and with extensive content. Then the job of optimising the content has become very labour intensive. Working inside the individual posts is clearly the most demanding activity for the person who runs a website. Even for professionals, there is a lot to be aware of and work with. A website must be constantly committed to improving.

Fortunately, there are aids or tools that help us along the way, and I will point out some.

Introduction to website optimisation (SEO) tools

There are a number of tools online which can analyse web pages. At the top level, Sandalsand uses the Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. Both are free, provide analyses of entire web pages and flag various problems with the website and individual articles. In the past, I have also used online services from Pingdom and GTmetrix. If you add the link to a website with them, you can after a few seconds of automated analysis get valuable information about optimising websites.

For my part, there are two other tools which have given both a great benefit, but also a lot of extra work. I will therefore go through both of them in some detail. The first is Lighthouse and the other is Yoast.

Using Lighthouse in website optimisation (SEO)

How Lighthouse works

Almost any browser, such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome, offer free access to a developer tool called Lighthouse. You can find it in the browser’s kebab menu (the three dots in the top right corner).

Lighthouse analyses a specific website in a few seconds, and provides detailed improvement options for optimising websites in four areas: Performance, accessibility, best practices and SEO.

For each analysis area, Lighthouse reviews 10-30 elements and shows deviations from the optimal. It goes too far to list every parameter here. I will just state that we end up with detailed suggestions for improvement. Lighthouse analyses, for example, how fast a particular website loads, either for mobile or desktop.

Each of the four areas gives a summarised score, where 100 points is the highest. In addition, they use colour codes (green, yellow, red).

Below you will see how Lighthouse scores this post on a desktop device. Sandalsand is not a fast site, as indicated by the moderate “Performance” score. On mobile devices “Performance” scores even less. >90 is green, by the way.

Website optimisation (SEO): This is how Lighthouse scores this post.

Examples of improvements with the use of Lighthouse

Here are some examples of improvement suggestions that Sandalsand has spent a lot of time correcting afterwards. They are not all equally important, but they are feasible.

Maps: Lighthouse flags that maps (and other html snippets) in posts should include the title of the map. Sandalsand has a lot of maps, and in most articles. This has meant that I have more or less systematically gone through my articles and entered a title in the HTML code for the maps.

Headline levels: For several years I was most concerned with appearance. In the past, I often let Headline 2 be followed by Headline 4. At that time, in the layout I then used, it looked prettiest. But Lighthouse, and thus Google, flagged it as a problem. I have thus had, I felt, to go through my articles and change the order. It should now gradually become logical, and not contain any jumps in the order. Headline level 2 is now followed by Headline level 3.

Using Yoast in website optimisation (SEO)

What is Yoast?

Tools such as Lighthouse and Bing Webmaster Tools are both very precise in pointing out specific improvement opportunities when working with website optimisation (SEO). Many of them are also identified by a WordPress plugin. This extension is called Yoast and Sandalsand uses it not only for analysis, but to make specific improvements in individual posts on the go.

Yoast comes in a free version and a paid version, and I’m happy with the former. The plugin first analyses a number of parameters related to the readability of a text. Second, Yoast performs an SEO analysis. For both readability and SEO, the article or post gets an overall score with colour indication green, yellow or red. We prefer a green colour, but yellow is also acceptable on some indicators. Without going into detail, here are the key words that Yoast analyses within the two areas.

Yoast’s readability analysis

It can be challenging to get through Yoast’s readability analysis with a green score. The reason is that they almost demand that we write to fourth graders. If the topic is of a professional nature, then Yoast will protest. On the other hand, the analysis stimulates you to write concisely, precisely and thus to create increased readability. Here are their benchmarks for achieving a green score:

  • Passive voice (maximum 10% of the text)
  • Consecutive sentences (do not start three consecutive sentences with the same word)
  • Subheading distribution (not more than 300 words before the next heading)
  • Paragraph length (not more than 150 words)
  • Sentence length (not more than 20 words)
  • Transition words (use more than 30% in the text)

Note that the final score may turn green even if some of the points score weaker than the optimal. This post receives a green score on all points.

Yoast’s SEO analysis

Secondly, Yoast offers an analysis of how friendly the site is to the search engines, and indirectly to you as a reader. For the technically savvy among those engaged in website optimisation (SEO), these are good clues. Yoast’s key concept is “Focus keyphrase”. When people search for a term, in the form of a single word or in combination with three or four others, then your article should rank highest.

We need to use and then repeat the key phrase throughout the text, but not too often. This article’s key phrase is “website optimisation (SEO)”. The points below show how to use it. All but two receive green scores.

  • Key phrase should be in the
    • title
    • subheadings (this article gets a red colour score, because I have used the key phrase too rarely)
    • introduction
    • meta description
    • slug (last part of the URL of a page, the one you see in the address bar. For this article it is «website-optimisation-seo /»)
    • images (yellow score: the article contains only one picture and it does not have an alternative attribute with at least half of the words from the key phrase)
  • Previously used key phrase (it should not be used in other articles because you are then competing with yourself)
  • Key phrase density (repeat the phrase a certain number of times depending on the length of the article)
  • Key phrase length (4-5 words)
  • Photos (use at least one photo)
  • Internal links (a plus if you have)
  • Outbound links (a plus if you link to other websites)
  • Meta description length (a summary of the article displayed by the search engines. The length should be between 140-160 characters)
  • Text length (the longer, the better really – as long as the content makes sense)
  • SEO title width (not too long title, because then your website optimisation fails)

The challenge of Yoast’s recommendations

Website optimisation (SEO), measured through Yoast’s points of readability and SEO, is demanding. Not least when, like Sandalsand, you have 900 articles on both Norway and Global. I also know that if I do, it increases the likelihood that Google will find my website, understand what it’s about, and then show it to searchers, “googlers.”

In the next round, my cleaning job will also interest my readers to read more, or come back another time. I would appreciate that.

Website Optimisation (SEO): Meta description of this post. Yoast's preview of what it looks like on Google.

The illustration shows Yoast’s preview of how Google renders the title and meta description.

Yoast’s perhaps most labour-intensive tasks

Alternative text on all images: Yoast and Lighthouse recommend that all images in the articles have an alternative text so that visually impaired readers can understand what the image shows. The requirement has meant that I have gone through all features images (the ones on top of the posts and pages), over a thousand images on each website, and given them an alternative text.

Passive form: We often write sentences in a passive form, but should make them active. It is demanding when the requirement to get a green colour is less than 10% of all sentences.

Meta Description: I have previously thought that the first paragraph of my articles may be what Google and others cite as excerpts in their search results. It turns out that there is a need to create a separate meta description. It must also contain the key phrase and be of a certain length.

Meta descriptions of categories and tags: The vast majority, if not all articles belong to categories or even tags. These too have received descriptions that will be able to pop up on web searches. It is quite a job to briefly and concisely describe over 100 visited countries and other categories.

Key phrase: Previously I had no key phrase for my articles, but now I have set it as a goal for all my articles. The question is what particularly characterises an article. In addition, the key phrase must be repeated in the article, in the preface, in the meta description, but not too many times. I have discussed this in detail above.

Use more transitions words: This has proven to be very demanding. Either way, it’s about website optimisation (SEO) to increase readability for most people. There is more work to do on this one.

Website optimisation (SEO) advice in summary

Sandalsand’s advice in this article on website optimisation (SEO) is in summary the following points.

  • Security: Go from http to https
  • Create and observe a privacy policy
  • Rethink whether your web host gives you cost-benefit for speed
  • Consider using a CDN service to speed up
  • Use an extension, e.g. W3 Total Cache to cache and compress code
  • Compress images in both import, processing and display.
  • Use Google’s Search Console and Bing’s Webmaster Tools to check out the overall health of your site.
  • Use Lighthouse and Yoast to analyse and improve individual articles in terms of readability and search engine optimisation.

Final reflections on website optimisation (SEO)

Of course, I have dealt a bit with these issues around website optimisation (SEO) also before, and have always emphasised writing neat and good articles. However, I had great difficulty understanding or doing anything with all the technical requirements at GTMetrix, Pingdom and Google.

The task looked very big when in the autumn of 2021 I actively went in and analysed my websites with Lightroom and Yoast. There were warning signs everywhere, but at the same time these two tools were very precise in what I could and should actually do.

By making small changes every now and then, the result got better and better. I can not know for sure that it also works better for Google’s computers or my readers, but I do believe that it works. And then it’s good to have made this basic investment, and let this become part of the workflow when I develop new posts.

It is easier to maintain the right quality if I do it correctly the first time. Everything else I have done since the autumn of 2021 has been costly quality costs, because old sins had accumulated.

What about this text? Yes, it passes the Yoast tests and gets a green score on both readability and SEO analysis. The key phrase is “Website optimisation (SEO)”. Read more articles about Writing and publishing.