Findability: Is your blog as findable as possible?

BlogHer Original Post

Everyone has heard of search engine optimization, right? But have you heard of findability? I hadn't, until recently.

The term "findability" seems to originate with Peter Morville, who published a book called Ambient Findability in 2002. Blogger DonnaM wrote about it in 2004 in Usability testing for findability. Jakob Neilsen wrote about it in 2006 in Use Old Words When Writing for Findability. In 2008, I happened to read Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO, and Beyond by Aarron Walter and I got very excited about how simple changes to my blog might make it more successful.

In fact, when I wrote Review: Building Findable Websites on my blog, I said,

Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO, and Beyond by Aarron Walter (New Riders, 2008) is one of those rare books that is so full of good ideas, it makes me enthusiastic about what I can do when I put the book down and go work on my blog or website.

As Walter defines it, findability includes accessibility, usability, information architecture, development, marketing, copywriting, design, and, oh yeah, search engine optimization. Walter continues to try to popularize the concepts, and recently published Findability, Orphan of the Web Design Industry at A List Apart. He starts right off with the orphan metaphor and works it all the way through:

Once upon a time in a web design agency, there lived a sad little boy named Findability. He was a very good boy with a big heart for helping people…

* find the websites they seek,
* find content within websites, and
* rediscover valuable content they’d found.

He used his arsenal of talent for planning, writing, coding, and analysis to create websites that could connect with a target audience.

A bit later in the article he sums up findability as,

The fundamental goal of findability is to persistently connect your audience with the stuff you write, design, and build. When you create relevant and valuable content, present it in a machine readable format, and provide tools that facilitate content exchange and portability, you’ll help ensure that the folks you’re trying to reach get your message.

What are some of specific techniques for findability discussed in the book? The book talks about markup strategies, which include web standards, accessbility, and microformats.

In terms of web standards, that means to separate stucture (the (X)HTML) from presentation (the CSS) from behavior (the JavaScript) to create sites that are accessible both humans and machines. Use modern code that follows the rules and check how you're doing with a validator. Use alt attributes with images, encode characters, use tags that communicate semantically by making page hierarchy clear. There are a number of other markup tips such as which tags are essential and whether or not to use meta tags. Regarding images, get rid of image maps, and if you replace headings with snappy looking images make sure you do it accessibly. Microformats include hCalendar, hCard, hReview, hResume and others. These are nothing more than standardized ways to present certain information with HTML and CSS that the search engines (and a lot of other apps) recognize. I've been using hReview on Web Teacher for some time now. I can verify that reviews I write this way make the search engines very happy.

In terms of server-side strategies, the book talks about building file structure, 404 pages, URLS, and server optimization for speed. It discusses naming everything from the domain name to files, folders, and URLs. There's advice for moving pages or whole domains and how to use redirects and custom file-not-found pages to keep them findable in the new location.

Creating content that drives traffic is another important aspect of findability. Walter says quality content is on topic, fills a niche, conveys passionate interest, is trustworthy, appealing, original and appropriate. There are also many types of content beyond the blog post. You could consider other types of publications such as white papers or articles, links, reviews, recommendations, syndication, and user generated content in comments and forums as part of your content. You can also add RSS feeds from other sources such as Last.fm, Flickr, job sites, events and other worthy feeds to your content.

Of course, most of us here are concerned with blog findability. The strategies include regular posting, linking and trackbacks, original templates, post titles, archives, topics, and special sections on the blog for things like popular posts and recent posts.

Be sure your site has a search feature. If you use Ajax, Flash, audio and video be sure you are not locking out some of your potential readers. If you have a normal web site and not a blog, try to build a mailing list so that you can contact readers and lure them back to the site regularly.

Merely summarizing the high points here created quite an imposing list of things to do. Fortunately, Walter thought through which actions are the most important and beneficial for you. The final chapter in the book tells you how to prioritize the changes you may need to make and helps you tackle them starting with the most useful first.

I happen to know Aarron Walter. We work together on a curriculum project for the Web Standards Project. I contacted him about this article and asked him to identify the two most important things a blogger could do to improve findability. Here's his response:

1. Customize your permalink structure to include keywords in your URLs. Many blog platforms make it easy to define the structure of each blog post URL. Ideally you want each URL to contain the same keywords as those in your post title.

2. Define your update services. When you publish on your blog, it automatically notifies (called a ping) many tracking services instantly so your content gets indexed by search engines and various other services. Be sure to define which update services your blog should notify. WordPress keeps a comprehensive list of the top updates services at http://codex.wordpress.org/Update_Services.

Helpful resources for making your blog more findable:
- Aarron Walter's site: free download of Findability Strategy Checklist
- Findability Checklist
- A Blog Not Limited: Getting Semantic With Microformats, Part 1 the first of a series on microformats by Emily Lewis
- SEO Blog: 10 Coding Guidelines for Perfect Findability and Web Standards
- SEO Blog: The 10 Worst Findability Crimes Committed by Web Designers & Developers
- BlogHer: Melanie Nelson's Basic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Tactics

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Virginia DeBolt
BlogHer Technology Contributing Editor
Web Teacher
First 50 Words

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