I began the Devbee website back in March as a way to help others by way of documenting what I have learned about Drupal and also to drum up a little bit of business for myself. The content of this site is extremely targeted, and I don't ever expect to see more than a few hundred visits a day. This definitely does not reflect the expectations, or at least hopes, of most website owners. It's typically all about bringing in as many visitors as possible to generate money through advertising or purchases. Sites interested in bringing in large numbers of visitors typically do this by spending a lot of time focusing on "search engine optimization" (SEO). Absolutely nothing can drive traffic to a site like a top placement in the search results on one of the major search engines.
Back in the day (way back during the last millennium), all one needed to do was have a simple HTML page containing relevant words or phrases and he was fairly likely to make a decent showing in results pages. In fact, this is exactly how I shifted from studying literature to building websites. I built my first homepage (don't laugh!) for fun. It was found by an employer, and I got a cool job at a major search engine. Today, it is not so simple.
Fortunately for us, as Drupal users, we have a secret weapon, Drupal itself. Drupal SEO does not require any witchcraft or elaborate HTML trickery. It's simple, and in this article, I'm going to explain how I get consistent premium search placement with very little effort.
Stumbling upon Drupal SEO
Today I discovered that an article I wrote recently is the top result for the query "opcode cache" on Google. I almost feel guilty about it. There are countless pages out there with much more information on the topic than my article, yet I'm at the top. I guess I'll just have to deal with it.
This is not unusual. I find myself on "the first page" of many searches for terms relevant to my site. And when I'm not seeing a premium placement (top-ten), it's either because the search term is very broad (e.g. "Drupal") or there are simply much more relevant pages pushing my placement down. Just like the old days.
And more than half of my very modest traffic comes through these search results.
What's the Secret?
Now comes the mysterious part. I make no claims of expertise in the area of SEO. It's mostly voodoo as far as I'm concerned. The search engines are necessarily very secretive about their methods, trying to stay ahead of search engine spammers. And what works today may be detrimental tomorrow. What I'm going to describe below is entirely based on my own, very subjective, experience with various techniques and modules. These are the things that I believe are resulting in my accidental SEO success.
undefined Drupal itself is well-known for its search-engine friendliness. Its markup is clean and standards-compliant. It creates all the tags the engines are looking for. And unlike so many other CMSs, Drupal creates search engine friendly URLs. Using Drupal is the first step in this process, but presumably you're already doing this, so let's move on.
The Right Path
Here's an example of the URL to a Joomla forum topic: http://forum.joomla.org/index.php/topic,65.0.html
And here's an example of a URL to a Drupal forum topic: http://drupal.org/drupal-5.0-beta1
Do you notice a difference? Can you tell me anything about the Joomla article without going to the page? In fact you can, sort of: you might conclude that the page covers a topic, a fact of dubious value. The URL really provides no useful information to you. Nor does it provide anything useful to a search engine. This is key. Unless you're searching for "index topic 65.0 html", this URL isn't going to help you find the information on this page.
Looking at the Drupal URL is another story. Based on that URL, one can assume that it has something to do with "drupal 5.0 beta1", and so can a search engine. If that's what you're looking for, this page will come up #1.
Most SEO "experts" agree that the search-engine-friendly URLs are critical to a page's search ranking.
Drupal allows you complete control of the path of any page. Creating short, clean and informative paths will improve your rankings. And the Pathauto module automates the process of generating relevant paths. But be extremely careful when experimenting with Pathauto, particularly on sites with existing content. Using Pathauto without first understanding how to use it properly can result in all of the URLs on your site changing, and thereby breaking existing links to your content. If you are going to introduce Pathauto on an existing site, play it safe and enable the Create a new alias in addition to the old alias option in Pathauto's settings. But keep in mind that having multiple URLs pointing to the same page on your site may result in a search engine penalty for "duplicate content".
Sitemaps are an easy way for webmasters to inform search engines about pages on their sites that are available for crawling. In its simplest form, a Sitemap is an XML file that lists URLs for a site along with additional meta data about each URL (when it was last updated, how often it usually changes, and how important it is, relative to other URLs in the site) so that search engines can more intelligently crawl the site.
I've seen no solid evidence that implementing a sitemap will directly improve search rankings. However, even if search engines do not use your sitemap to to adjust the ranking of your pages (which I doubt), it does help them more efficiently index your site, thereby increasing the likelihood of your pages being included in search results. This one's a no-brainer.
Sitemaps would be virtually impossible to maintain by hand. And this is where the excellent XML Sitemap (formerly Google sitmeap) module comes in. Installing this module is simple and comes with reasonable default settings that don't require changing unless you want to fine tune your sitemap. After you've installed and enabled this module, you'll need to tell search engines about your sitemap. At this point, I'm only familiar with Google sitemaps, Though other major companies are beginning to adopt this concept as an new open standard.
Another common method used by search engines to determine the importance of your pages is the number of other sites that link to them. A simple way to continually promote your site while helping improve your search rankings is to make regular comments on other sites like Drupal.org. Take the time to create an account on sites similar to yours and complete your public profile. Then leave useful comments where appropriate. Do not post comments simply to include a link back to your site. This is in very poor taste and may get you blocked. Instead, post comments where you have something to contribute to the topic being discussed. If you have nothing useful to add, don't post a comment. I'm a regular participant over at Drupal.org, and I'm confident this helps the "relevance" of my own site.
By default, Drupal will use the title of your node as the page HTML title (the bit that appears in the <title></title> tags of the HTML and shows up in the title bar of your browser). This is very reasonable behavior. However, if you want to give your page that extra SEO boost, you may want to allow for two different page titles, one that appears at the top of the page in <h1> tags and the other that appears in the head of the HTML document in the <title> tag. the <h1> and <title> tags are both pieces that search engines will consider when reviewing your page. If they are identical, you're missing out on an opportunity to further promote the page!
So how do you manage to control the <title> tag contents if Drupal automatically sets it based on the node title? The Page Title module does this. Install and enable this module, and you will see an additional field on the node edit form called "page title". Use this field to configure the phrase that you think will most likely attract users to the page. Use something eye catching and alluring, something the user will feel he has to read. If you're writing about an article you found on another site, don't title the page "cool link!", instead, something more enticing: "Fascinating study of the Indonesian spotted tadpole". Follow that up with a relevant <h1> title: "National Geographic looks at one of nature's most mis-understood wonders".
Search result placement was not a top concern of mine when I built this site. But it has become a bit of an obsession now. I have no need to drive thousands of visitors seeking information on opcode caching to my site, but hitting that number one position for a query is a bit of a rush! Thanks Drupal!
Lastly, I asked myself a question as I wrote this article: Is there anything at all to what I'm saying? Well, I think there is, and I'm willing to make a bold prediction based on this belief. Within three days of posting this article, I believe it will appear in the top-ten search results for "Drupal SEO" on Google. If I'm right, that should serve as some pretty solid evidence that there's something to all this. There are currently 1,090,000 pages competing for placement in this results page. The odds of making it into the top-ten by shear luck are 1 in 109000.
And if I'm wrong, well, I can always come back and edit out this prediction to save face %^)
Update: Mon Nov 27 23:19:42 2006
A search for "Drupal SEO" now shows this article as the second result out of 1,080,000 pages. I come in just below an article on Drupal.org.
So as you now see, there is not a lot of work involved in getting premium search placement if you are using Drupal. Of course, the broader your topic, the more difficult it will be to hit the top-ten. While you can almost certainly hit number one for surfers searching for a certain rare antiquity, your less likely to see much success attracting surfers hunting for the term "sex".