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Optimizing Your Content for Search

Website content that is relevant, up-to-date and built according to best practices will be more easily found by your intended audience via search engines like Google. This page serves as a guide to help with both content and technical best practices. Ultimately, the goal is to create and format content that search engines love, without losing sight of your main communication objectives.

Content Best Practices


Keyword Research and Implementation

The proper keyword research strategy and implementation is essential to findability on the web. The main question to answer is, “What words or phrases are people searching for when they should be finding my content?” A good strategy is to start prioritizing keywords from general search terms to more specific keywords and phrases your audience will be using.

Here are some external resources to learn more about keyword research:

It is important to include these keywords and synonyms in the site URL, the title, headers, subheads, anchor texts, meta description, first paragraph and throughout the text body, as well as in image alt-texts, image filenames and captions.

Writing Content

For every page you create, your users’ goals should be at the center of your content decisions. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and think about what information your users would be seeking on your webpage. Try to use language and terminology your audience would use.

Make sure to include a clear call-to-action (CTA) somewhere on the page. When you know why your readers are coming to your page, you can tailor content that naturally points them to where they ultimately want to end up.

Formatting and Organization

When you are writing for the web, it’s vital that you organize your content in a logical and targeted way. The title tag, headers, subheaders, bullet points, short paragraphs, and callouts all make content easy to scan and digest.

The title tag should reflect the subject, relevancy, need and target keyword. It is the first thing that users see on the page and in the search results listing, so it’s important to accurately label the content.

Using heading tags in the correct order allows search engines to index your page properly and creates a hierarchy of importance for the content on your webpage.

Headings also make your webpage scannable for users. Page and section headings allow users to quickly identify the content that is relevant to their interest.

Meta Descriptions

Meta descriptions are brief summaries of a webpage’s content. Because search engines display meta descriptions in search results, they are important in crafting a short compelling story about a webpage that will influence the user’s decision to click on a specific search result.

A good meta description should use active voice, accurately reflect what’s on your page, incorporate targeted keywords, and have a character limit between 100 and 160 characters. The goal is to ultimately compel users to click on your link.

Frequent Content Updates

If you don’t update your content frequently, your page rank will drop. It’s important to schedule regular updates to page content and media files. Not only does this improve your ranking, but it gives your audience insight into your latest news and updates.

Technical Best Practices


Page Title

The title of the page is weighted heavily in keyword searches. The title of the page is what appears (usually) at the top of your browser window. The title is controlled in HTML code by what exists between the <title></title> tags in the document. Depending on how you write your content into your pages, a Content Management System administrator may be able to advise you on how to set page titles. Keep your titles concise, but put your most important keywords there in natural language.

The URL

Search engines concern themselves with the words they can identify in the URL of a page. URLs closer to the top of the site hierarchy have higher weight than pages deep in the site. Each word that can be identified by the search engine will be compared against the keywords searched for, so it's important to use good wording when naming pages and folders.

A good word separator is a hyphen. Failing that, you may use the underscore. If your page is attempting to market a graduate degree in psychology counseling, you might for example have a URL like www.northwestern.edu/programs/psychology-counseling-graduate-degree.html. The keywords in the page name are slightly more important than folder name keywords. Don't go overboard to create elaborately long URLs just to pack your keywords in; but at the same time avoid the "slug," as it's often called, which is a one-word description of a piece of content.

Canonical Tags

A canonical tag tells search engines which specific URL represents the master copy of a page. This prevents problems caused by duplicate content appearing on multiple URLs and tells search engines which URL they should be indexing.

For example, both https://www.northwestern.edu/index.html and https://www.northwestern.edu/ will take you to an identical Northwestern homepage. However, we created a canonical tag to communicate that we prefer the second version (without index.html) for search purposes. If you type “Northwestern” into a search engine, you will see that the URL does not include the index.html.

To learn about canonicalization, please talk to a developer in your affiliated department, or learn more about it and see example code using these external resources:


XML Sitemap

Create and submit an XML sitemap of your webpages for indexing purposes. Even though search engines can still technically find your pages without one, adding a sitemap can simplify the process.

By submitting an XML sitemap to Google Search Console, you’re giving Google a clue that you consider the pages in the XML sitemap to be high-quality search landing pages, worthy of indexing. The sitemap.xml provides a means to communicate the priority of a page in the site and announce additions of new pages – please note that it is important to keep this sitemap up to date, or it will be ignored.

If you have questions about how to create a sitemap, please reach out to your affiliated IT team.