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What's the hype about HTML?
In newsletter 05, we look at five of the most important HTML tags for news SEO. Why HTML? Writing proper code is the easiest way to ensure your site is optimized for search.
Hello, and welcome back for another issue of WTF is SEO? This week, it’s me, Shelby, sipping some matcha and writing about search engine optimization.
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What is HTML and why is it relevant to SEO?
We’re going to go way back to basics today, so we can understand the connection between what markup is on your site, how that translates to what your reader sees – and what that means for search engines.
HTML stands for hypertext markup language. If a website is a house, think of HTML as the structure (walls, floors, ceilings), before all the pretty design components (CSS) are added. HTML tells the web browser what to display – and tells search engines what to look for.
HTML and SEO can work together. Proper coding – using the correct HTML elements on your site – is the simplest form of optimizing your site for search. Let’s walk through the components you need to know.
🔗 Read more: HTML code & search engine success factors
Five HTML tags that are important for SEO
There are a ton of technical components to a site that can help efforts to rank well in search. We will focus on the five of the most important factors to consider when auditing a site for proper SEO.
1. Title tag
The title tag shows up in the browser tab as well as on search engine results pages (affectionately known SERPs) as the headline of your webpage. It is the first place search engines will check for the headline. The title tag is contained in the <head> tag of the website’s code, which informs crawlers what the site is about. A title tag does not change the visual look of the website.
For example, this is The Globe and Mail’s title tag (fun fact: I wrote this title tag as the Newsroom SEO Specialist for The Globe in 2017. It is my claim to fame). It also helps inform the way that The Globe shows up on search results (see below).
Optimize for the brand. If the page you are optimizing is your homepage, the title tag should focus on the brand. Start with the name of the publication and optimize for what the main focus is.
Give it life. Your title tag should never just say “Brand name: Home”. Tell the audience searching what you’re giving them.
Focus on the page’s purpose. If the page you are optimizing is not your homepage (i.e., an about us page or an article), the focus of the title tag should be the focus of the page, followed by the brand name.
Brand recognition: Keep the brand name at the end of all title tags for consistency (you never know if a page will rank for something based on your brand).
Write for a human. Even if your page ranks, it’s still up to the person on the other side of the computer to click your site. Make those title tags worth their time.
2. Meta description
The meta description can be tricky. It can show up on your page if meta descriptions (also sometimes used directly as the deck or sub-title) are visible, but it is used more generally to give additional information for the SERP.
Google does not actually use the meta description as a ranking factor, however it is important for driving click-through-rating (CTR), which is a ranking factor. It is also one of the only tags that is entirely for the humans.
And sometimes, Google will not even choose your meta description as the snippet it will show to readers (talk about frustrating). It’s not always a bad thing – Google will crawl through your story and choose a line that has the keyword searched and offer it as an alternative.
TL;DR: Google will choose the best option for increasing your chances of click-through, but we can write a good one anyway.
Write for the humans. Meta descriptions ensure you telling more information about your page and what to expect from the page. Write good copy.
Watch for length. Especially since this is more of a “nice-to-have,” don’t put extra effort into it. Google keeps the first 150-160 characters, so write short and sweet and to the point.
The robots tag tells the search engines what to do with the page it is currently on. This is where website owners can outline a set of rules for the spiders (another name for robots, Google, search engines, etc.) to follow while indexing pages.
The robots tag has a few directives it can give the crawlers:
noindex - page should not be indexed
follow - links on this page should be followed, even if the page is not indexed
nofollow - links on the page should not be followed
noimageindex - images on this page should not be indexed
noarchive - search results should not show a cached version of the page
unavailable_after - page should be indexed after a certain date
noodp/noydir - old tags mostly used by Bing and Yahoo! that tell a search crawler not to use metadata from the Open Directory Project
If a story is not showing up on search, even if you directly search the headline, the first thing you should do is check the robots tag. It is possible there is a “noindex” tag telling crawlers to not allow the page to be searched on Google.
If there is no directive, the robots will do whatever they please with the page.
Match the instructions to your intent. If the page shouldn’t be indexed (for example, your login page or a story that may be under contract from a wire service), make sure it says so in the robots tag. Staging pages, duplicates or internal search pages also probably shouldn’t be indexed.
Know the different names. Robots can be used for all crawlers, but if you want something to show up on Google, but not Yahoo!, you can use Googlebot for the name instead.
It doesn’t need to be everywhere. The robots tag is helpful, but it does not need to be on every page. If you don’t care if the page is indexed, don’t overthink it.
The canonical URL is your saving grace when it comes to duplicate content. When multiple versions of your site exist (for example, an http/https split, .com/.ca splits, a wire that is published automatically or any pages that have customized products), you can tell search crawlers which is the main one and which URL should be indexed first.
The canonical URL is also useful when you’re in the midst of a site migration that has multiple versions (beta, staging, https, etc.).
Keep it simple. You know what the URL of your proper version is. Don’t make it overcomplicated.
Pages to use it on: pages available by different URLs (multiple versions of the same story); pages with similar content/stories (republished stories that are published to different URLs); dynamic pages that create their own URL parameters (merch or subscription pages)
5. Heading tags
Heading tags are found on individual webpages; they are how a crawler – and a human! – knows the hierarchy of importance to headings on your page. They run from <h1> to <h6> with H1 being the most important, and H6 being the least.
Heading tags are good for breaking up large chunks of copy. This is important for readers (scanning an explainer or story looking for something very specific), and for Google to understand the different sections of information provided.
DO NOT use more than one H1 per page: The H1 tag is the most important heading tag. It is the title of the page and tells Google the purpose.
Keep the structure simple. Try not to go below H3 unless absolutely necessary. H1 is the title. H2 is your section headings. H3 is your subsection.
Keep headings optimized. Each heading has the opportunity to rank if you’re answering a reader’s query. Keep this in mind while creating headings – what is the purpose or the heading? It is very useful (and in fact, encouraged!) to use commonly searched questions or keyphrases as your subheadings.
✔️ Action item: If you are using Google Chrome, right click on your page and go to “view page source.” From there, search for an HTML tag. Can you optimize any to better fit the needs of your readers?
The bottom line: HTML is an important technical component of SEO. Understanding the basic tags and how they work will help you better reach your search audience.
FUN + GAMES
OK, Google: What per cent of the online population is using voice search on mobile? 1
7 per cent
17 per cent
27 per cent
77 per cent
NEXT WEEK: Writing great, SEO-friendly headlines
Have something you want us to explore? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.