Search engine optimisation

ALPHA. This guidance is provided as a general starting point for anyone designing online content, or working on digital projects that involve designing new content or reworking old content. It is a work in progress, and we welcome feedback and suggestions to improve the advice. Contact us with your feedback.

Search engine optimisation is often referred to as SEO.


The positioning of keywords is vital, as more weight is given in certain places. Use your most relevant keywords for each page in metadata and page content, especially in headings and links.

Write for your readers, not just for search engines. Keyword stuffing will affect user experience as your text will sound unnatural, and result in penalties from search engines.

Focus on writing clear content, and let your keywords fall naturally into place.

Choosing keywords

Choose keywords and phrases for headings and link text that make sense to your customers. Use words they would actually type into a search engine to find your content.

The keywords they use might be different to the labelling or the headings used within the organisation. To get an idea of the words your customers are using:

  • find any user research that has been done
  • talk to your customer contact centre staff as they tend to know ‘common questions’ and common terminology
  • use search tools like Google AdWords and Google Trends.

Using Google tools

You will need a Google account to use these tools.

Remember to filter for New Zealand, or your country of choice.

Volume figures are not exact, but these tools are good for quick, indicative feedback on the words you are using, or thinking of using.

How to use these tools to research keywords

Keywords in page content


Using keywords in link text will help improve search engine rankings. Web pages also achieve better search engine rankings when other relevant and reputable pages link to them. Look at ways to create strategic cross-links between related pages.

Headings and sub-headings

Google ranking prioritises ranking for the words you use in headings and sub-headings, so make sure you include good, relevant key words.

Follow the 5 tips below to help keep your headings and sub-headings useful as navigation aids, and short and easily scannable.

5 tips for writing engaging headlines according to the Nielsen Norman group:

1. Make sure the headline works out of context.
2. Tell readers something useful.
3. Don’t succumb to cute or faddish vocabulary
4. Omit nonessential words.
5. Put the keywords first. This is called front loading.

Headings Are Pick-Up Lines: 5 Tips for Writing Headlines That Convert

Keywords in metadata

Most search engines use metadata when adding pages to their search index. Metadata such as page title and page description are commonly used to describe your web page when it appears in search result pages.

Good metadata is essential for all web pages. Badly written, irrelevant or missing metadata will lower the ranking of your page in a list of search results.

Your most important metadata are your page title and page description.

Page title and page headings

Be clear about the difference between page title and page headings.

Page headings are the h1, h2, h3 etc. elements that appear on the page.

The page title is the unique title element that is required for every HTML page, which:

  • defines the title of a tab in your browser
  • is shown in browser history
  • provides the title for a page you add to your favourites or favourites bar
  • displays the title of a page that appears in a list of search engine results.

This last point is important. The most prominent text that appears in a search result is the page title. It gives you a quick indication of a page’s content and it has a major influence on what search result users will click on.

It is good practice for the first part of the title field to match the h1 field.

Some other standard context may follow. For example h1 | Business area | Department name

This way when a user selects a link from a search result list, the heading (h1) on the page they go to should match the link they came from. This helps to:

  • reinforce their choice
  • minimise confusion.

Page descriptions

The page description appears in search results. It may also appear in other locations across your site, or in other contexts if your content is machine shareable.

Page descriptions should:

  • summarise the page — don’t just copy the first paragraph.
  • be unique — don’t recycle from other pages.
  • be around 150 characters — including spaces.
  • get straight to the point. Briefly describe what the page is about, making sure the most important content areas are covered first — 2 or 3 sentences are all you need.

More about writing meta page descriptions

Alt text

‘Alt text’ is text that describes an image, within the alt attribute.

Alt text is important for accessibility and this should be your main consideration when writing alt text. But including a keyword can also help boost your page’s search engine optimisation — particularly for image-based searches.

Just make sure your choice of words doesn’t compromise the main goal of improved accessibility.

Further reading