Developing Bot Vision

When we, as designers or writers, choose fonts and type size and words we bold, we think about it as humans. What catches my eye? What will other people notice? This is an important approach, but when that text is going to be displayed on a website, it’s important to remember that human eyes are not the only ones to scan your text.

Bots (or spiders) are mini programs that roam the web reading content and reporting back to their search engine parents (such as Google or Bing) on what content can be found on which websites. One of the simplest ways you can improve the search engine optimization (SEO) of your website is to look at it through the eyes of a bot.

What Bots See

The thing about bots is that on their own, they’re of limited intelligence. If you’re able to add a page or post in WordPress, go into “Edit” mode for one of these and click on the “HTML” tab for a page or post that already has some content. You’ll see something like this:

It’s not what we people see, right? And bots have a harder time making sense of much of this than even we non-coders do. They can’t tell what pictures are about, they can’t guess what content a link will send a viewer to, and they can’t use context to decide which information on the page defines what the page is about.

Don’t panic: you CAN talk to bots to tell them what you’re trying to say, and you DON’T have to be a programmer to do it.

Talking to Bots

As a content manager, you can follow a very simple set of principles to help search engine bots understand what your website is about without having to ask for your web developer’s help.

1. Bots Understand Hierarchy

Instead of formatting your headings by making them bold (html speak: “strong”) or italic (html speak: “emphasized”), use nested heading formats. That’s not as technical a term as it sounds: nested headings work more or less like those outlines you had to write for research papers in high school.

(How to write an outline.)

You can find the style choices for these headings in your WordPress WYSIWYG by looking at the drop-down box on the second row of text editing tools. It should have options like “Paragraph,” “Heading 2,” “Heading 3,” and so on.

Paragraph text is what most of your text should be. “Heading 1” describes your page or post title, so don’t use this within the body of your posts. “Heading 2” is used to describe the next most important information after the page title. “Heading 3” indicates that the text is a sub-division of the last “heading 2.” Bots love those nested hierarchies–it allows them to understand what matters most on the page, so use them.

Elephants Rock! (h1/page title)

Elephants Never Forget (h2 headline)

Elephants and Facial Recognition (h3 headline)

This is a bulleted summary of a research study on how elephants recognize faces twenty years later. (paragraph text)

Familial Relationships Among Indian Elephants (another h3 headline)

This is a bulleted summary of a research study on familial relationships among Indian elephants that also makes a point about the long memory of elephants. (paragraph text)

Elephants Are Loyal (another h2 headline)

2. Bots Read Meta Data

Remember how bots can’t understand photos? Still true. They can, however, read meta-data such as title tags, captions, and alternative text. If you open up the “Edit” window for a photo within a WordPress post, you’ll see a number of fields where you can enter descriptive information.

Make sure the fields labeled “Title” and “Alternative Text” give an accurate description of your photo. Videos are similarly difficult for bots to parse, but if you’re pulling the embed code for the video, it should already have the information encoded. If you’re making and embedding your own videos, adding the appropriate alt code is a conversation for another lesson.

3. Bots Read Link Text

When you link to another page on your site or to off-site information, bots can’t figure out what you expect them to find on the other end of that link if you don’t tell them. How do you tell them? Link descriptive phrases. Let’s take an example:

Option A: Learn more about our content creation services.


Option B: Learn more about our content creation services.

Which one makes more sense to bots? Option B, hands down. They see the text connected to the link and say, “Oh! I know what that link is about!” If that’s not enough of a reason to make a habit of descriptive link text, here’s a bonus factoid for you: bots use that text to figure out why people link to your site. Setting a good example for a new web standard means you’re helping to build a world in which bots have that much more data to figure out why your site is awesome.

The Bottom Line

There’s no reason to fear SEO spiders or bots. They’re not the stuff of nightmares, and you can help them to understand your site more easily. The payoff for some small changes in your habits is that search engines will be able to send more people to your site when they’re looking for what you provide.