Every Saturday, we invite collaborators from outside of 'the industry' to offer new perspectives on our industry. Turning that format on it's head, the National Hockey League Players' Association invited us to share our thoughts on what they are doing online.
At SES Toronto I met Casey Rovinelli, Director of Digital Marketing for the National Hockey League Players' Association. He explained to me that the NHLPA had yet to start on the fundamentals of building a search engine optimization strategy. In particular, he mentioned that despite being an authoritative source on NHL hockey players, the website often didn't rank highly for searches about the players. Casey was keen to get started on an SEO strategy, so I offered to roll up my sleeves.
What follows is a how-to guide to begin optimizing your website for search engines, using the NHLPA.com as a live, working example.
Look For The Strongest On-Page Signals First
Whenever I perform an SEO audit for a website, the first thing I look at is the page titles.
Simply put, the title tag is one of the most important HTML tags you can work with and probably the easiest on-page SEO factor any company can address. In any SEO or competitor analysis, I find that the strongest and most immediate signal as to whether a website has got an SEO strategy is by looking at a few of pages title tags.
Page titles are often considered part of a website's set of 'meta tags', because both the title and meta tag specifically sit within the head tags of any HTML page. Strictly speaking, this is a misconception - page titles do not have to be written as part of your meta tag set. Websites can have title tags without meta tags. It is worth mentioning because there is a lot of debate around the true weight of meta tags in influencing Google. Some people accidentally "throw the baby out with the bathwater" after coming to the conclusion that meta tags aren't improving their search engine rankings.
Why Are Page Titles So Important?
Page titles are designed to display within the top of your browser but they are of particularly importance because they also display as the linked text in a search engine results page. This is usually the first impression of your website a new visitor gets, so it's worth making every page title on your website as informative as possible.
In short, your goal when working on page titles is to have as many possible search query combinations match the words in your title. Therefore, make every page title as unique as you sensibly can to cast the widest net of search term targets.
Google also highlights or 'emboldens' search term query matches to page titles in results, which act as a strong visual indicator to the user that there is a relevant match. Try to make your page titles easy to read and digest, so a user doesn't need to think about where they need to go next. Write your titles to be clearly relevant to their needs.
Assessing Your Current Page Titles
A way to assess the overall quality, uniqueness and relevance of your title tag structure is to perform a site:www.yourwebsiteURL.com command on Google. This command will return the number of pages indexed in Google and instantly provide an impression of how accessible your website information is.
Below is a screenshot of how NHLPA.com's web pages look on Google. What do you notice? Is it easy to read? Does every page strike you as unique? Or do you have to scan the page and the text to find the content you are looking for?
Personally, I find myself having to scan read across each page title, meaning the uniqueness of every page still isn't clearly signaled. These are the elements that stand out to me.
Short page titles
Every page title apart from the Home page and Terms & Conditions page have short titles. This is often a good strategy, particularly as you can see that Google will truncate page titles; however, keeping them too short, somewhat diminishes the ability of your site to target the long tail of search traffic available. You need to strike the right balance between casting a wide net and being targeted.
An incorrect page title
Did you notice how there are two pages claiming to be 'About Us'? The /auction page has the wrong title. A simple 'site:query' has revealed an immediate fix to be executed. What's more it's on one of the money making pages, which means it can't be fixed soon enough!
A change in page title convention
The /Legal page stands out as the page title convention is completely reversed. The name of the page preceded the name of the website. Which do you think looks better?
Repetitive Page Titles
NHLPA.com is mentioned at the beginning of every sentence.
Of the 2320 unique content pages indexed under the 'site:query', the first signal given to the user and to Google, is consistently the same. That's 2,320 opportunities to signal unique content to Google. So, with 'NHLPA.com' as the first phrase of every page, we must ask ourselves, is this the strongest signal we can provide? Rhetorically speaking, where should we put our most important keywords?
Intuitively, to the business owner and web designer, the current structure seems to make sense. After all, it's shows that it is a page on that website. However, to Google and a user, it's pretty obvious that anything existing on the same domain, is probably part of the same website. Given that NHLPA.com is the domain, do we really need to re-state it?
Let's examine further whether this is a good idea...
Rethink Your Page Title Strategy To Leverage Unique Content Assets
One of the primary assets of the National Hockey League Players Association is obviously information about the players. Hockey being a popular sport, played around the world, means that players will be well known, with users searching all over the world for relevant and official information. With that in mind, NHLPA should place the players at the forefront of it's content strategy.
Examining the /players/ website directory on NHLPA.com we can see that every page has been labeled with correct page titles, which correlate to the content on the page. However, a search for any player name on Google clearly shows that the websites with the player name at the beginning perform better. In fact, every single result on the first page puts the player name at the beginning of the page title. This suggests that the most relevant URL match to any search query, needs to place the relevant keywords at the beginning of the page title.
With this in mind, to improve the chance of successfully appearing at the top of Google, the page title convention change becomes obvious:
NHLPA.com | Players | Saku Koivu
Saku Koivu | Players | NHLPA.com
Re-writing Page Titles To Be Comprehensively Informative
Such a page title change recommendation above is the absolute least that can be done to improve a website. This change certainly won't see the website storm up to the top of search results, but it will have an impact. At the least, it will cause an increase in incremental traffic via the long tail of player searches.
If NHLPA.com wanted to build on this strategy change immediately, it would be worth investigating what other possible search query combinations might exist. What search terms might users combine with player names?
Most likely, it would be team names.
Let's test our gut feeling against the data. A quick search using Google Insights for Search bears out our instincts. Both team names that Saku Koivu has played for are being used as a query modifier.
Building on our previous change, the new page title strategy would now be:
Saku Koivu | Players | NHLPA.com
Saku Koivu | Anaheim Ducks | Players | NHLPA.com
However, now it becomes glaringly obvious that the most important terms to NHLPA's business are missing. Where are the terms 'hockey' or 'NHL' in the title? Let's double-check with Google Insights for Search to see if including it is worthwhile. (We probably know the answer...)
Woohoo, we've two high traffic long tail terms! So let's slot those words into the page title convention.
Saku Koivu | Anaheim Ducks | Players | NHLPA.com
Saku Koivu | Anaheim Ducks | NHL Hockey Players | NHLPA.com
When we started, the page title structure targeted two keyword combinations, namely brand name (NHLPA) and unique player name. With the new page title structure, a wider net is cast, which can potentially reach every possible search query combination for hockey player, hockey team, generic sport name and brand name. We could illustrate the new structure as a formula:
NHLPA.com | Players | [Player Name”
[Player Name” | [Team Name” | NHL Hockey Players | NHLPA.com
By interrogating the page titles against the actual content of the page we have achieved the following:
- Discovered duplicate content
- Improved the order of keywords
- Expanded the net of search terms we can rank for (player names, team names, and sport name)
- Made our page titles more informative to any search engine user
- Created a new page title structure for all player pages
Is this likely to create more traffic? Just ask Google...
Can you see the opportunity? This methodology could work for any website associated with sports or a team.
All of this may seem pretty basic, but we're really dealing with the building blocks of website usability and best practice SEO. Hopefully we'll see an improvement in pages indexed and actual visibility. Next week we'll tackle site architecture, another fundamental, but important aspect of on-page SEO. And would love to get any feedback you have regarding changes you may note yourself for this site at Google.
Many thanks to NHLPA.com for allowing us to conduct this SEO audit publicly and sharing the results. Casey Rovinelli will be speaking at SES SF on the Speaking Geek: How Marketers Can Work with Web Developers to Achieve Business Goals panel. Also you can join us in the SEW labs SEO Primer to put your website under the microscope.
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