Holiday source code maintenance: Website clinic for non-profits

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cross-posted on the Google Grants Blog

As the holiday season comes around, we all have a bit of maintenance to do. This is precisely why we wanted to focus the second post in our site clinic series on cleaning up your source code. Throughout our analysis of submitted non-profit websites, we noticed some confusion about what HTML markup, or tags, to use where, and what content to place within them, both of which could have significant impact on users and how your website looks on the search results page.

Before you deck the halls, deck out your <title>elements

Out of all the submitted non-profit websites, 27% were misusing their <title> elements, which are critical in letting both Google and users know what's important to your website. Typically, a search engine will display ~60 characters from your title element; this is valuable real estate, so you should use it! Before getting into the actual code, let's first take a look at how a great title element from one of our submitted sites, Sharp, will appear in the search results page: A single search result with the title link highlighted

Ideally, a great <title> element will include the name of the organization, along with a descriptive tag line. Let's take a look at some submitted examples:

Organization <title> source code User Friendliness Tag Behavior
Sharp <title>Top San Diego Doctors and Hospitals - Sharp HealthCare</title> Best Includes organization's name and a descriptive tag line
Interieur <title>Interieur 2010 - 15-24 October Kortrijk, Belgium</title> Good Includes the organization's name and a non-descriptive tag line
VAMS International <title>Visual Arts and Music for Society | VAMS International</title> Okay Includes only the organization's name

If you don't specify a <title> tag, then Google will try to create a title for you. You can probably do better than our best guess, so go for it: take control of your <title> tag! It's a simple fix that can make a huge difference. Using specific <title> tags for your deeper URLs is also important, and we'll address that in our next site clinic post.

Keep an eye on your description meta tags

Description meta tags weren't being utilized to their full potential in 54% of submitted sites. These tags are often used to populate the two-line snippet provided to users in the search results page. With a solid snippet, you can get your potential readers excited and ready to learn more about your organization. Let's take another look at a good example from among the submitted sites, Tales of Aussie Rescue:

A search result for the Tales of Aussie Rescue home page

If description meta tags are absent or not relevant, a snippet will be chosen from the page's content automatically. If you're lucky and have a good snippet auto-selected, keep in mind that search engines vary in the way that they select snippets, so it's better to keep things consistent and relevant by writing a solid description meta tag.

Keep your <h> elements in their place

Another quick fix is to assure your website makes proper use of heading tags. In our non-profit study, nearly 19% of submitted sites had room for improvement with heading elements. The most common problem in heading tags was the tendency to initiate headers with an <h2> or <h3> tag while not including an <h1> tag, presumably for aesthetic reasons.

Headings give you the opportunity to tell both Google and users what's important to you and your website. The lower the number on your heading tag, the more important the text, in the eyes of Google and your users. Take advantage of that <h1> tag! If you don't like how an <h1> tag is rendered visually, you can always alter its appearance in your CSS.

Use alt text for images

Everyone is always proud to display their family photos come holiday season, but don't forget to tell us what they're all about. Over 37% of analyzed sites were not making appropriate use of the image alt attribute. If used properly, this attribute can:

  • Help Google understand what your image is
  • Allow users on text-only browsers, with accessibility problems, or on limited devices to understand your images

Keep in mind, rich and descriptive alt text is the key here. Let's take another look at some of our submitted sites and their alt attribute usage:

Organization Source Code User Friendliness Tag Behavior
Sponsor A Puppy <img alt="Sponsor a Puppy logo" src="..." /> Best: the alt text specifies the image is the organization's main logo Uses rich, descriptive alt text to describe images, buttons, and logos
Philanthropedia <img alt="Logo" height="..." /> Good: the alt text specifies the image is a logo, but does not further describe it by the organization or its behavior Uses non-descriptive alt text for images, buttons, and logos, or uses alt text only sporadically
Coastal Community Foundation <img src="..." /> Not ideal: alt text not present No use of alt text, or use of text that does not add meaning (often seen in numbering the images)

A little window shopping for your New Year's resolution

Google has some great resources to further address best practices in your source code. For starters, you can use our HTML Suggestion Tool in Webmaster Tools. Also, it's always a good practice to make your site accessible to all viewers.