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SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of influencing natural search results so that your web pages appear when searched using the right keywords. In essence, SEO comprises all of the actions that can be taken to make your web content appear in search engines more frequently and ranked relatively high, driving targeted visitors to your website. Boise State University utilizes the Yoast SEO plugin in WordPress to enhance and improve SEO.

Writing with SEO in mind

Most people start their search for information with a search engine. If they can’t find your page, they won’t read your content.

To help readers find your content, you have to use their vocabulary and keywords starting with your page title, summary, and first paragraph. This will help optimize your search results.

Finding the right keywords

In Google Analytics, browse to Acquisition > Search Console > Queries to view the keywords people are using to search university content. Add keywords to the search field located near “Secondary Dimension” to filter through the results.

For popular search terms, you can use Google Trends to compare different versions of headings to see what will be most effective. What you’re calling the subject of your page might not be what readers are calling it. With Google Trends, you can input two or more different words or phrases and see over time how often people have searched for them.

For an alternate look at the common keyword search for Boise State web content, go to and type in a keyword or phrase. Scroll to the bottom of the search results page to view “Related Searches” for keywords and phrases others have used in Google to search content.

Once you know the most popular keywords, use them in:

  • Titles
  • Headings
  • URLs
  • Introductions and summaries
  • Chapter and section titles
  • Metadata descriptions (Yoast)
  • Outbound link descriptions

Want your page to rank higher on Google for a search term? Use the Focus keyphrase field in the Yoast SEO plugin, and it will analyze the page for you and provide you with suggestions on how to improve your page to increase the likelihood your page will rank higher.

If you’re not getting the search results and/or traffic you expect, maybe the terms you are using aren’t the same ones your audience is using?

Use semantic structure for headings

Google and other popular search engines will index a well-structured page higher than one that doesn’t conform to best practices for HTML and web accessibility.

We beat this concept like a drum at Boise State: Your pages must be semantically structured. This means your headings should follow a semantic numbering system:

  • The page title is always heading 1 (H1), and you can only have one H1 on a page.
  • Therefore, heading 2 should be the first heading used in your page content, followed by heading 3, heading 4, heading 5, or heading 6 as appropriate.
  • Don’t skip headings; you can’t go from H2 to H5.

This way, both humans and machines (like search engines and screen readers) can read web text and easily make sense of its structure. For more information, see the WebAIM article on Semantic Structure.

On-site and Off-site SEO

There are two types of optimization that can be done: On-site and Off-site.

  • On-site optimization includes the many factors that are controlled on your website by the creator, such as content, focus keywords, heading tags, title tags, meta descriptions, and captions and alt tags on images.
  • Off-site optimization comprises the aspects that are controlled outside of your website itself, such as page rank, link building, social media. and reputation building.

As web content authors at Boise State, we can directly influence the following on-site SEO factors:

Start With Optimized Content

When it comes to search engine optimization, page content is the single most important consideration. Here are a few guidelines for writing content:

  • As previously mentioned, proper page structure is critical for SEO. Using proper semantic markup to structure your page (headings, links, lists, etc.) will help search engines understand the structure and importance of your content. Be sure to include relevant keywords in headings where possible.
  • Try to write from the reader’s perspective. You want to use language that readers actually use rather than the most official-sounding statements you can make. For example, instead of writing “admitted students,” use “getting accepted” or “getting into Boise State”.
  • Consistently structured content helps search engine crawlers make sense of the organization of your site. Be sure to utilize the Boise State theme styles, best practices,  and consistent navigation across the entire Boise State website.
  • Content should be kept to useful and relevant topics rather than branching into different directions. Focused content has a better chance to provide relevant keywords more frequently.
  • Try to keep your pages or posts to a minimum length of at least 300 words.

Focus Keywords

A focus keyword is the search term that you want your page to rank for. Focus keywords are short 1-5 word descriptions of the main topic of the page. By entering a focus keyword in Yoast SEO, Yoast evaluates the page’s content and provides feedback on how to improve content for the focus keyword.

When selecting a focus keyword, think about what the user will type into their search engines. Your keyword should be relevant and also easily used in a sentence. Once selected, your focus keyword can be used frequently throughout the page (but don’t overdo it by purposely injecting your keyword in every other sentence — search engines will penalize you if they think you’re trying to game them):

  • Use the focus keyword in headings or titles.
  • Mention your focus keyword and synonyms of that keyword in the main content of your page. You want at least one mention of the focus keyword in the first paragraph of content at the very least.
  • Use the focus keyword in ALT tags, captions, and file names.
  • Include the focus keyword in your page URL or permalink.

Title Tags and Meta Descriptions

Title tags and meta descriptions don’t impact search engine ranking algorithms on their own, but they can produce more descriptive search results and more user click-through, which will increase your page’s rankings.

  • Title tags appear as the clickable headline in search engine results. Try to include your focus keyword in your title tag, and make it unique in some way so that it stands out against other search results. In WordPress, the title tag is your page title.
  • Meta descriptions are concise summaries of your page that appear beneath the clickable headline in search engine results. These act as first impressions for users to decide whether your content is relevant to their criteria. If you don’t enter a meta description, search engines and social media sharing functions may display the first text on the page by default. Edit the meta description in the Yoast SEO plugin.

Further reading on title tags and meta descriptions

Learn more about title tags and meta descriptions at the Moz SEO Learning Center.

Yoast SEO

Boise State’s WordPress theme uses Yoast SEO Premium to help optimize your web pages. You can find the Yoast SEO panel on each page and post beneath the main WordPress editor window:

Yoast SEO panel

Yoast’s website features a comprehensive overview of how to use the features of the Yoast SEO panel to improve and optimize your SEO:

Yoast WordPress SEO Tutorial

Images and SEO

Images can help improve the user experience on your site for some visitors. However, images should be used to enhance content, not replace it. Pages with more images than text are nearly invisible to search engines, so be sure to include any important information from a picture as text on the page. Search engines will not be able to see any text placed in an image, so never use text in images to convey meaning.

To help image content appear in search results including image searches, include relevant titles, alt tags and captions with images. Do not copy/paste your photo title into the alt tag or meta description; rather, provide more meaningful content in each section.

Also, make sure your images are optimized for the web. If your images are too large search engines may penalize your content because it won’t be seen as friendly to mobile users on cellular connections.

PDF Documents and SEO

While search engines are able to index PDFs uploaded to your site, there are a number of issues that lead us to recommend converting PDF content to web content instead.

Web pages offer the following advantages over PDFs: