Search Engine Optimisation
It’s hard to believe that there can be anything that could be added to the reams of print already written about search engine optimisation (SEO) that already exist, both online and offline. However, we’ve been asked several times recently to write a blog post about our thoughts on using this marketing technique and so here they are! This blog post is more about how SEO fits in to an overall marketing strategy, rather than going into the nuts and bolts of how classic SEO is done. As you’ll see if you read on, I’m not convinced that the old fashioned geekery of SEO is worthwhile in many situations, and the recommendations I make below should be possible for anyone who is able to use the internet without requiring much technical knowledge at all.
As a bit of background, I (Lucy) spent nearly 7 years working at Google where SEO is almost a dirty word. Google’s entire business model is based on returning the most relevant results to someone who does a search on Google: if people stop finding what they want on Google, they’re only a click away from another website which might provide better results. Therefore Google (and all search engines) have a huge incentive to make sure that the websites they show in their results for any given search are the most useful ones. This means they do not take kindly to people trying to manipulate their results using underhand techniques. Having been indoctrinated like this in my formative years, I very much agree with their principles and so if you’re looking for a cheat’s way to beat the search engines you’re in the wrong place.
A Brief History of SEO:
SEO is changing fast and so it’s useful at this point to provide a quick background to how it started and where it’s going. Back in the day, the first search engines had various ways of crawling the internet to find websites and add them to their index. For some you had to submit your site to them to be included, others used primitive algorithms to find sites. Because the web was small, search engine indexes were too. As the web expanded, however, these expanded and other business models were tried: Yahoo for a while charged several hundred dollars to be included in their directory. Google came along in 1996 (initially called BackRub due to the innovation of Larry Page and Sergey Brin who used the the number of links one site has from another to determine if it’s a ‘good’ site or not) and from there outstripped all the other search engines by providing fast, relevant results to searchers. The algorithm they used has been endlessly updated (Google says on average there are about 9 improvements per week) which means they now use literally hundreds of different attributes to decide whether a website should be in the results for a search, and if so, where it should feature, top or bottom.
These updates are necessary to overcome a problem the search engines face which is their own popularity. For a huge number of businesses, search engines can be literally their life and death. Many online shops find that up to 90% of their customers discover their site using Google or other search engines, meaning that they are very reliant on them for their livelihood. This creates an incentive for them to do whatever it takes to keep their sites at the top of Google, even if it violates Google’s terms and conditions. giving rise to the SEO industry The fact that some of the jargon sounds very technical means that unscrupulous SEO practitioners will charge clients to use techniques that are against the rules, to get results faster. This is typically known as ‘black hat’ SEO, as opposed to ‘while hat’ SEO which does the same thing but sticking to the rules so it often takes longer to see success. While black hat SEO may sound like a good short term investment, it has enormous risks. There have been some very high profile companies who have been removed from Google’s index altogether for cheating: BMW and JC Penney to name two, as well as legions of smaller websites. It’s simply not worth Google’s while to allow any company, however big, to get higher up the results than they should be.
What Exactly Is SEO Anyway?
Traditionally, white hat SEO involved 3 elements:
- Indexing: Ensuring a website is in a search engine’s index
- Crawling: Making sure the search engine can crawl the site to find out what it’s about
- Content: Putting content on the site which makes it is the most relevant site for the search words that are most important, e.g if the site is about fly fishing, ensuring there is lots of content on the site about fly fishing (and ‘salmon fishing’, ‘trout fishing’ etc) so that when someone does a search on Google for ‘fly fishing’, Google sees the site as very relevant to that search and puts it high up in the list of results.
To begin with, the first two (indexing and crawling) could be quite technical, requiring good knowledge of HTML and how search engine algorithms work. However, all this is changing dramatically with the changes in website design and the provision by search engines of tools like Google’s webmaster tools. Webmaster Tools enables anyone who owns a site to submit it to Google’s index directly. The advent of content management systems (CMSs) which allow people without technical knowledge to manage their own websites, provide tools to do SEO as part of the package, meaning that with just basic knowledge, most people can ensure their site is tagged, and designed in a search engine friendly manner.
CMSs have also made it very easy for website owners to update their sites regularly to ensure that their site has fresh, relevant content on all the time. This is one of the things that Google looks for when deciding if a site is relevant or not, and again, these technological advances have put basic SEO within the grasp of most website owners.
Lastly, the burgeoning world of social media means that a company now now easily have multiple ‘websites’ – including a Facebook page, a blog, a Google Places page, a Twitter stream etc. These can play a huge part in SEO as they all provide a way to get your company found on a search engine, even if it’s not your actual website that is found first.
The world of SEO is changing rapidly!
What Should You Do for Your Website?
As the person responsible for a website then, what should you be doing to push it higher up the search results?
The first thing to bear in mind is that you could hire 20 people to work full time on optimising your business’s web presence and still not have everything done perfectly. The key is to do the things that will make the biggest impact in the least time, and then get comfortable with the idea that nothing done online is ever finished or perfect. Knowing what is possible is important though, as it’ll allow you to spot opportunities for marketing when they arise.
The following are the key things that I would recommend very broadly to every business or charity. The more that you do obviously the better, but don’t let it get you get distracted from other areas of your business that may be more important!
Make Sure Your Site is Set Up Correctly:
When getting a website designed and built it’s vital to make sure that the person doing the designing is tasked with doing so in a search engine friendly manner. While Flash sites may look swanky, the huge issue with them is that there is usually almost no HTML on them, which is what Google relies on to know what the site is about. The more the site can be built on HTML the better, in terms of SEO. Once this is done, ensuring that each page has a relevant description, and title is important, but don’t bother with (or listen to web designers who say they will provide) keywords or other meta data, as this is no longer used by the major search engines to rank pages.
Subscribe to Webmaster Tools:
Anyone can set up an account (it’s free), but you may need the help of the person who designed your site to get access to it. Once you have access you can check if your site has been submitted to Google (or Yahoo or Bing) using a thing called a ‘site map’. This is just a hierarchical map showing how the pages of your website are laid out. Submitting one to Google means that Google is then aware of what parts of your site it should be crawling, and will guarantee that your site gets into their index. Ensure that the person designing your website provides you with one, or else use the module in your CMS to generate one yourself. Once you have subscribed, you can then use this to monitor how your site is performing, and to ensure that there are no errors on your site.
Set up Google Analytics and monitor it:
Google Analytics is an incredibly powerful free tool that tells provides masses of information about how your website and marketing overall are performing. Google is currently rolling out a limited trial of merging Webmaster Tools data into Analytics – and I am certainly hopeful this happens as it would be great to get all the information about a website in one place. Analytics provides information such as what people searched for on a search engine to find your site, where they come from (which country, town etc), what website sent them to your website, how long they stayed on your site, where they left the site, and mountains more. It’s used by everyone from huge companies to the smallest charities, and is only limited by the person using it in terms of the data it can provide. Every website should have it implemented (again you may need the help of your web designer for the initial setup).
From an SEO point of view, Google Analytics can be used to see how your SEO strategy is performing, for example to compare the amount of visits your site gets from organic Google searches to visits from other sources such as AdWords, Facebook etc. It will also show which search terms are driving the most traffic. For example (to return to fly fishing), it will show if the term ‘fly fishing’ is more important in getting visitors to your site than ‘trout fishing’).
Set up Google Places:
The next frontier of the big search engines is said to be local searches. As more and more people have smart phones and use them when out and about, the need for information about local businesses is increasing exponentially, and search engines are very keen to make use of that. To tap into this market, Google has launched Google Places which allows any business with a physical location to create a listing associated with a particular area. It’s very similar to how a traditional yellow pages directly works. For a local business this is probably the single most important SEO thing they can do, as for most searches on Google now that contain a place name, the first 6 or 7 results will be Google Places pages, rather than traditional websites.
As you can see from the picture below, they can really dominate the search results, which is great if you’re one of the top ones, but not so great if you’ve just stuck with a website and spent all your time and effort optimising that.
Social networking is important from an SEO point of view, as it provides another online profile for your business which helps to increase the chances that one of them will show up for a given search. Another advantage is that it provides a place where you can legitimately place links to your website (see below for more on links). Lastly, for searches for your own company name, it means your company can dominate the top results for that search, ensuring your competitors are not there at all.
There are more and more social networking sites, and being present on all of them could take up all your time. If you’re relatively new to it, I’d suggest starting with one of the big ones (Facebook, Twitter), getting the hang of it and measuring it to see if it is converting into business for you, before getting into more. As a general rule, Facebook works really well for companies selling to consumers, where a blog, Twitter or LinkedIn can be really valuable for businesses selling to other businesses (B2B).
As mentioned further up the blog, one of the main reasons that Google did so well when it started was that they discovered they could determine with great accuracy how good a website was by looking at how many other sites linked to it. If a website which is deemed to be very authoritative (BBC, Irish Times etc) provides a link to a website, it’s likely that this site is credible and worthwhile. Google rewards sites which have links to them from ‘high authority’ websites by ranking them more highly.
This is an area of SEO that many people get very hung up on, submitting links to their sites in many random places across the web. In reality they’d be better off doing some more traditional marketing or PR, and using this to get one link from a good website than wasting their time with links from irrelevant sites. Having said this, every link helps, so ensuring that you hyperlink your business name when you use it on your blog, Facebook or Twitter, in all press releases etc can be very valuable. Examples of more traditional marketing that can have an added link benefit are things like setting up partnerships with other businesses in a similar industry, and then doing co-marketing, e.g if you are a small hotel, you could provide links to tourist attractions in the area, and in return ask them to do the same for your hotel on their website.
Keep Updating your Website:
The idea that a website can be set up and left to fend for itself is now long dead. With the advent of content management systems as mentioned above, anyone can update a website and this is now expected, not just from an SEO point of view, but from your customers too. At the most basic, a news section on your site where you can update what is going on at the company can work well, but you should ensure that you refresh the other content regularly too.
Get into Video:
The other huge growth area of the internet apart from local search is video. YouTube is the #2 search engine on the internet after Google in terms of volume of search, and people’s appetite for video is growing exponentially. Having bought YouTube in 2006, Google is pushing aggressively to drive this growth further, and so is incorporating video into its search results, much like it does for local. See an example below:
Videos online do not need to be big production affairs, a decent camera with a video setting will shoot a perfectly good video. Demonstrations of products work really well, as do how-to guides, recipes etc. It can be a great way to get your company seen on the first page for results that are very competitive because, while your website may be one of a million eligible to show for that search, a video has much less competition.
In summary, SEO is not something to be scared of, and should be within the reach of anyone who is keen to promote themselves online. Some of the technical stuff can be useful in the initial set up phase of a site, but after that it’s much more about marketing than technical ability. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments, or contact us directly at Bread & Butter Marketing where we’ll be happy to help with queries about your specific business.
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