Discover CALS

See how our current work and research is bringing new thinking and new solutions to some of today's biggest challenges.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Do the words 'content optimization' cause you to furrow your brow or strike fear into your heart? Maybe you've heard the acronym SEO – Search Engine Optimization – but have no idea why search engines need to be optimized or just figured an SEO was similar to a CEO? Or maybe you were part of the Internet Bubble but could use a refresher and update on current best practices?

Then have no fear as we will explain the importance of optimizing content on your web pages and walk you step-by-step through some easy fixes to make your website or page more search engine friendly.

SEO: Who needs it?

We all do. If you have a web presence, and want people to find your information, you need to pay attention to search engine optimization (SEO). Unlike how it may sound, we are not trying to make a search engine, say Google, better. We are, however, making our website better for Google to understand. (FYI: We'll be using Google as an example of a search engine throughout this tutorial as including Google Images, Google Maps, and YouTube, more than 90% of web searches happen on Google. These tips and tricks are good for any search engine.)

As the name indicates, search engines actually search, or crawl, other websites in order to answer their users' questions. Back in the early days of search engines (AltaVista, anyone?), keywords--terms folks are using to search--were all the rage. But in 2013, Google created a new algorithm that cannot only see relationships between keywords but identify the intent of the user, making search a lot more sophisticated and understanding SEO even more important.

By making your website easier to find, your ranking on the search engine results page goes up. Location, location, location is just as important in this virtual real estate market as it is in the real world. Statistics show that if you aren't one of the top four organic search results--meaning not a paid ad--on the page, people will not be making their way to your page, resulting in a lower Domain Authority (DA) ranking, aka a website quality and trustworthiness rating. It's a vicious cycle.

We know, we know. As an individual web contributor, SEO can often seem like an overwhelming and time-consuming task. But as you'll see, it's as easy to optimize your content as 1, 2, 3!

Content optimization: Step-by-step

The first step happens even before you put pixel to page: Identify your target audience, what they need, and how they can address those needs through – or take action based upon – the information you are providing. This is really the most important part of the process as it helps you develop appropriate keywords, keep content concise and to the point (eyes get tired looking at a screen!), but it can also help you determine if certain documents or bits of info need to live on your website versus say your department/unit's Box system.


Keywords are ideas and topics that define what your content is about. In terms of SEO, they're the words and phrases that searchers enter into search engines, also called "search queries." If you boil everything on your page — all the images, video, copy, etc. — down to simple words and phrases, those are your primary keywords. Keywords are as much about your audience as they are about your content, because you might describe what you offer in a slightly different way than some people ask for it. As a website owner and content creator, you want the keywords on your page to be relevant to what people are searching for so they have a better chance of finding your content among the results. When multiple pages target the same keyword, the page highest in the site architecture will typically have more value

Best Practices:

  • Avoid keyword stuffing
Meta Description

Let's be honest, the term meta description is not really descriptive enough for the general web content contributor. That's why in our editing system we call it "Page Description." This description is what shows up under the website link on a search results page. Why is filling out this field so important? While keywords in it are important, this is also a way to get people to actually click through to your page by telling them what is on your site/page. Consider the goal for the page. Description should align with and support this goal. In other words, think of it as a one- to two-sentence sales pitch. It's best never to leave this field blank. However, if you do, some search engines will simply pull in the first 160 words of the first content of that page, so make sure a keyword or two shows up early in your page content.

Best Practices:

  • 160 characters is the ideal length
  • Avoid very short descriptions
  • "Don't use quotation marks"
  • Clickbait will be penalized
  • Make description easily readable for the target audience
Page Title

It sounds counterintuitive, but it's best to write the page title last. Why is that? Well, you've already written the content and then distilled that down to your one- to two- sentence page description, so writing a concise and information-filled page title will be much easier now. Titles show up at the top of a browser, in browser tabs, and are often used as default anchor text for some linking. Keep in mind that each page should have a different title.

Best Practices:

  • Place keyword toward the front of the page title
  • Every page should target a different concept
  • Optimal length is 55-60 characters
  • Create titles that answer questions: How to? Why do?
  • Use cardinal numbers
  • Describe succinctly the value you provide
Image Optimization

Don't forget that images included on your page are also counted as content which needs to be optimized. This not only matters for search engines but also for accessibility for those with visual impairments. As your images may be appropriate for print (pixels, pixels everywhere!), you'll want to reduce the size of the file as much as possible without sacrificing picture quality. If you don't have Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, try using a program such as PicMonkey or Pixlr.

Best Practices:

  • Maximum size: 200KB
  • JPEG: Most common, but no transparent backgrounds
  • GIF: Ideal for logos or various page elements
  • PNG: supports transparent backgrounds, has better color, but file sizes are a bit larger

You may think that headings listed in the drop down menu are simply there to make formatting your text easier, but the fact is that they are also very important to SEO. In fact, not only to they help search engines find your content, but if the search engine likes to spit things out as lists, your content will make sense. It's kinda like writing an outline for English class (but hopefully more fun). Also, using headers makes your content much more accessible to those who need to use screen readers, due to visual impairment. Here's a way to think of the organization:

Heading 1 (H1)

  • Main topic or title of page (headline)
  • Only one per page

Heading 2 (H2)

  • Sub-topic of H1
  • Multiple per page

Heading 3 (H3)

  • Sub-topic of H2
  • Multiple per page

Best Practices:

  • Use the primary keyword in the H1 tag
  • Use keyword and beginning of tag if possible
  • Use related topic keywords in additional headings (H2, H3, etc.)
  • Use H2 and H3 to optimize for additional keywords