5 Things Every Catholic Should Know About How Search Engines Work
On Monday I issued a rallying cry for Catholics, as well as all pro-lifers, to get serious about search engine optimization. These days the human search for truth is often literally a search typed out on the internet, so it’s of the utmost importance that Catholics understand how to make sure our websites are visible to search engines. Some folks asked for specific tips for how to go about this. Though entire books have been written on the subject, and there’s a multimillion dollar industry for people who specialize in this area, search engine optimization is really quite simple. Whether you are in charge of the official internet presence of a large organization, or simply have a small personal blog, you can play a big part in fighting the search engine war if you understand these five simple principles:
1. There are tools that will tell you which search terms are most popular: As we’ll discuss in #2, you’ll want to hone in on somewhere between one and three search phrases for which you want your site to rank high. To help you determine which keywords would make most sense for you to target, you can use Google’s handy keyword tool to find out how popular various search terms are. And keep in mind that the most popular isn’t necessarily the best: It would be much harder to rank on page one for the super popular term church than for the less popular term church in Denver. So, for example, if you run a parish website in Denver, it may make more sense to optimize on the latter, less popular phrase that’s more in line with your mission.
2. The typical website can only rank high for a few key terms: It is unlikely that your website would be able to rank on page one of the major search engines for lots of different terms, so the best strategy is to choose just one or two to focus on. For example, if you run a pro-life crisis pregnancy center in Cincinnati, you may decide that the most important phrase that you’d want your site to rank high for is abortion in Cincinnati, so that women searching on this term will know that there is a positive alternative to abortion available to them. As we’ll see in the tips below, knowing your goal term(s) is critical for making your site search engine optimized.
3. Search engines look at the words in incoming links to your site: One of the ways to improve your rank for a key phrase is to get others to link to you by using words from that phrase in their link. This is also good to know for anyone who publishes anything online, whether or not you care about your own site’s search engine rank. You can help search engines like Google find sites with truthful, quality information by creating keyword-rich links. For example, let’s say I write a post referencing an article that debunks the myth that Catholics worship Mary, and I link to it by saying, “Check out this article that debunks the myth that Catholics worship Mary.” Here are two ways I could place the link, one good, one bad:
- Good: “Check out this article that debunks the myth that Catholics worship Mary.”
- Bad: “Check out this article that debunks the myth that Catholics worship Mary.”
Notice that in the first one, the link includes the words Catholics worship Mary, which will help people searching on that subject find that page.
4. Search engines look at how frequently words are used on sites: To use the example from #2, if your crisis pregnancy center sets the goal of ranking high for the term abortion in Cincinnati, you’ll want to find ways to incorporate that term into the content of your site (without gaming the system, of course—you’ll get penalized by search engines if you create pages with no real content solely for the purpose of improving your ranking). So you may want to write a blog post called “Considering abortion in Cincinnati?”, create a static page with the title, “We offer alternatives to abortion in Cincinnati,” etc.
5. Search engines value words in some parts of websites more than those in other parts: The people who write search engine algorithms figure that websites will put the most important terms in places such as the domain name, page titles, section headers, bolded phrases, etc. If you have some basic knowledge of the technical side of websites, you can review the tips here to get a more detailed explanation of the most important places to put keywords. If you don’t know the difference between a meta tag and an H1 tag, don’t worry about it: Just make an effort to make your page titles and section headers contain the keywords that are important to you.
Whether you’d like to improve the rank of your own site, or just help other sites you like be more visible to search engines, knowing these five things will help you make a difference. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out Google’s webmaster tools, and read some of their informational posts about how search engines work. Also, if you’d like to learn from the best, just search on search engine optimization and see what high-ranking sites have to say. By definition, any site that’s on page one for the term search engine optimization must know a lot about search engine optimization!
This might sound boring to the non-nerds out there, but I assure you that this knowledge is critical for the modern Catholic. In order to use the internet to evangelize the culture, half the battle is simply to speak the truth on our websites; but the other half is to make sure that people can find them.