The Basics Of Search Engine Optimization

The Basics Of Search Engine Optimization
Posted on 04/20/2017
CivicLive - The Basics Of Search Engine Optimization

If you have ever received an email or taken a phone call from a citizen who simply cannot find what they’re looking for on your site, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) may be the solution. SEO is a marketing concept that aims at enhancing or changing how your web content is found. The goal of SEO isn’t to increase traffic; the goal of SEO is to match the right people to the right content. Optimizing content for search engines helps alleviate some of the frustrations users of your site may experience when looking for particular information.

Search Engine Optimization and Ice Cream

The internet is a vast and expansive library of information, with search engines acting as the head librarians. If you asked the librarian to find you a few books on ice cream, there may be certain sections of the library she would check, or specific keywords to look for. Search Engine Optimization functions in the exact same way. If we want to learn more about the process for making ice cream, you would hope to find information that details ingredients, the freezing process, and perhaps the history of ice cream making. What we definitely won’t want to find is information related to frozen yogurt, cattle farming, and the beef industry.

When searching for specific information, most individuals will start with a content aggregator (search engine, website, database, etc) and work “down” from there. If swimming lesson registration opened earlier this week, most registrants are going to search google for “city of ________ swimming lesson registration” before searching directly on your parks and recreation page. Ultimately by having a clean, and easy to use website you can drive traffic directly to your content so that users bypass search engines; however, SEO helps bridge the gap. Web governance, much like other forms of civic governance, is built on trust. By creating content that is readily searchable, you become the trusted provider of information for your constituents. As open-government principles become ever more important to citizens, an open website demonstrates your municipality’s commitment to that endeavor.

A Delicate Balance

We want to publish content with the principles of SEO in our mind. However we don’t want content written solely for that purpose. Creating content just to appease search engines actually has the opposite effect of what you want to achieve. For starters, your content will be seen as hollow, robotic or boring and citizens will choose other mediums to acquire the information they need, instead of being driven to your site. Secondly, Google and other engines can actually penalize content providers who seem to be manipulating search results by producing low-quality content.

The value of using a government-specific content management system is that it allows both technical and non-technical users to build an engaging website. Communications and technology staff can concern themselves with making sure the site’s “back end” is optimized for search engines, while non-technical users can ensure that fresh, high-quality content is attracting constituents.

What Can I Do Right Now to Optimize Content?

1. Title Tags Target Content

Ensure that the titles you are using for pages within your site are as descriptive as possible. “Town Board of Supervisors” is more descriptive than simply titling the page “Town Board”

2. Meta Tags give Search Engines the “cliff notes” for your website

Bear with us – we’re going to get a bit technical! Meta tags act as the abridged version of your webpage, and they are built directly into the code of your page. Head over to CivicLive, right-click and select “view page source”. What appears is going to make absolutely zero sense, but in essence what you’re viewing is the DNA of your website. Near the top, you should see the following:

meta tag example

What you’re seeing is one example of a meta tag. Type the word “CivicLive” into Google. What do you see? Does it look familiar?

meta tag example

What you’re seeing is an example of a “description tag”. Description tags tell engines how to explain your content to searchers. The more enticing your description, the more likely a searcher is to click through to your website.

Another example is “Keyword Tags.” Keyword Tags are “suggestions” you can give to engines for when to show your content.

As you can see above, our keywords are phrases that relate to the type of content CivicLive represents. If a searcher types some of these into an engine, there is a higher chance of that content being viewed. A word to the wise however, recently, google has cracked down on a practice known as "content stuffing. Website builders would build hundreds of keywords for popular things (unrelated to the specific website content) with the hope of having their content viewed first. Google has devalued the emphasis on keywords over the past few years, but it is still good practice to add a few to your webpage.

3. Sitemaps help “guide” search engines to your content

The sitemap acts as your website’s “blueprint” that search engines will refer to when trying to curate web searches. If roadmaps are broken, outdated, or incorrectly configured it can make it increasingly difficult for users to find relevant content. If a citizen wants to use your website to request a copy of their marriage license, your sitemap should look similar to the following:

County Clerk

Licensing and Requests

Marriage Licenses

Requesting a License

If your roadmap only refers to the page for the County Clerk, users are going to be referred to that site first, instead of being directly referred to the appropriate page.

4. URLs – The ISBN of the internet world

Most books produced in the world will have a unique identifier known as an ISBN. The ISBN and corresponding barcode identify that book by its edition, version or variation. Book standardization first began way back in 1966, and it has been in use since. If a book publisher decided to change the way their books were cataloged by the ISBN, it would be next to impossible for anyone to find what they were looking for.

The same practices can be applied to creating what is known as a “Friendly URL”. Search Engines will struggle with finding appropriate pages if the corresponding URLs are not standardized, clean and easy to interpret. You should avoid structuring URLs that contain special characters or marks. You should also be using dashes instead of underscores if you have strings of words within a URL. Here’s an example:

Bad URL Optimization

Good URL Optimization

Both URLs (if they were real) would return you to the same page, but the second is structured in a way that makes it easily searchable. If users cannot easily understand what your URL “points” towards, search engines may not drive them towards that content.

What This All Means

Search Engine Optimization is a concept that is easy to learn, difficult to master, and infinitely valuable. SEO modifies the ways in which your content is viewed by both search engines and end-users. Employing SEO best practices puts your municipality well on its way to mastering the world of web governance. Responsive, engaging, relevant, and frequently-updated content builds trust with your citizens by transforming your webpages from simple sign-posts into portals for communication.

Learn More about how the CivicLive team incorporates SEO principles in its website development process to build citizen-focused government websites.

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