Hidden at the end of most website task lists is that pesky little duty of search engine optimization (SEO). Many consider SEO to be a post-production part of a website; a job for the marketing department or search engine marketing (SEM) vendor that is typically handled by the client or copywriter, not the developer. While this may be true to a degree, many of the more advantageous SEO tricks fall solely on the developer to implement before the website even launches.
With that said, I'd like to point out five SEO tips and misconceptions that hold true with nearly every website.
1. The 90's called and they want their META tags back
Filling a page with nice META descriptions and keywords is in no way a solid SEO plan. Google, Yahoo! and MSN account for more than 90% of all internet search traffic, and none of them care about your meta tags. They haven't for years.
Don't delete them just yet though, as they can be used for SEM. When Google hits your site for a keyword, and finds it, it will look for a nice snippet of text to go along with it. This is usually the sentence in which Google finds said keyword, but sometimes the keyword is in a heading, alternate ("alt") text, or other string that is otherwise unfit for a seach engine result description (the text that comes up with your link in a search results page). A well-formed, inviting, spam-free description can possibly make the difference in a user clicking on your listing as opposed to a competitor's. As for keywords, only put a few focused words that are comma-separated (not space). They won't help with search engines, but may come in handy when supporting legacy applications and certain ad platforms
2. Titles can outrank placement
Well-formed titles can convert better than placement. This post is about SEO in development and not in copywriting, so I refer you to this video if you would like to know why titles hold high conversion value.
Why does this matter to the developer? If you're writing a website using a CMS, whether it be an in-house application, Wordpress, Drupal, or forum, you need to ensure that each page can have a properly-formatted, relative, SEO-friendly title. Even when using 3rd party or open-source CMS applications, it's not an incredibly difficult task to change the way titles are formed, or at least allow for custom titles. If you are not a developer, then you need to add this item to a checklist when shopping around for a CMS.
3. Search engines need to be able to read your site
You should already have a no-script, no-Flash version of your website to accompany your Flash version. If you use a CMS backend, this is particularly easy. A no-script site doesn't have to be flashy, or even pretty—only accessible.
Solutions to this problem are simple. When developing your Flash site, create a non-Flash, text version that will be displayed when a user does not have the Flash plugin. SWFObject is the the way we handle this at Union (formerly Studiobanks). SWFObject will let you be maintain accessibility while keeping your code clean. Dreamweaver has a built-in plugin, and you can always use your 'noscript' tags.
4. URL Rewriting makes everyone warm and fuzzy
URL rewriting should be used to address documents and applications within your websites whenever possible. Check out the URL for this blog post. Notice how both the URL and title are filled with great keywords? This is particularly useful for content-relative ad programs and aids nicely in search-engine placement. Additionally, URL rewriting gives us a lot of nice application features that create URL independence from the application layer. Need to change the application engine from PHP to ASP? No problem (URL-wise). Need to use a 301-redirect for all articles from an older domain? No problem.
It's easy to get into the habit of holding off rewrite rules until a site is ready to launch because of DNS/domain limitations on a development server, but it is important to keep rewriting in mind as you develop your website, as it will make the cut-over much more painless.
5. Slashes and Yahoo! have a love/hate relationship
Tip #4 outlines URL-rewriting, where you might take a page url like...
...into something like
I've never read a definitive answer as to why, but it is a known issue that when indexing a website, Yahoo! likes to sporadically include/delete slashes to/from your nicely formatted URL. If you are not careful as to how your rewrite rules handle URLs, you may find Yahoo! running into a lot of 404's instead of your intended page. You can take care of this in a number of different ways. I prefer catching the non-slashed url and redirecting it to the slashed version, then applying the rewrite rules to it, like so:
RewriteRule ^pagename$ pagename/ [R,NC]
You could also use a catch-all for these rules as well as a few other methods, all of which should keep your site happy with Yahoo!. Please note that this bug may be fixed any day now, but it's still good practice at the expense of one line of code. We do the same with Internet Explorer all the time, right?
If you haven't gathered yet, SEO is a field of tricks, guidelines and rules that can change just as fast as you learn them. The tips above are meant to help you avoid SEO pangs later in the development cycle by considering them in the planning process. I know I barely scratched the surface with these five, so feel free to leave your own in the comments!