Falling Leaves: the Ardes blog

Search Engine Optimisation Tips

Ray Drainville

Search Engine Optimsiation (“SEO” for short) is important for web developers & their clients alike. It’s often described as a “black art” because no one outside of the search engine companies know exactly how search engines work (I mean, c’mon, it’s a trade secret). Companies like Google & Yahoo give pointers to help web developers do right by their clients, and in the right way (“best practice”), but they’re—necessarily—incomplete. In any event, we all want to perform well in search query results.

The following is a report from a couple of events sponsored by Business Link that I attended with one of our clients, Rick from specialist door manufacturer Distinctive Doors. It seems fair to present this stuff here, given that the events were a) free & b) open to the public.

The events were conducted by Mark Kelly of Click Appeal & Jon Colegate of Sunflower, respectively. Each session provided good information. We at Argument from Design knew much of it, but you’re just kidding yourself if you think you know it all. These talks quantified their claims in real terms & attendance at such events—like hanging—“concentrates the mind wonderfully”. Taken together, they presented a good overview of SEO. They preached “good practice”—which isn’t really a secret, but might as well be, given how little this is understood by the more general population.

Contents of this Report. Please note that I’ll be mostly going sequentially through the events, but I’ll periodically jump back & forth between the two, as the two were quite complementary. Also, I’ve peppered commentary throughout.

Note that you can tidily divide SEO stuff up between what the web developer, site owner & SEO marketer need to do, respectively; I haven’t followed that road here because there would be a lot of repetition. Marketing your site effectively & getting to the top of search results is a joint effort & this report has been organised to reflect this.

Use Keywords Effectively

Mark Kelly presented “Turning your site into a customer magnet”. Designed as a “mini-session” on SEO, Mark emphasised the content of the site & how it was structured, all in terms of that cornerstone of SEO, keywords.

Whilst those inside web development may find it hard to believe, your average business owner often doesn’t really understand what keywords are, much less how to come up with useful ones (indeed, it’s another example of how web developers have to educate their clients in order to make that website successful). Keywords are the terms that punters use to find your website: they’re the words they enter into Google (or, if they’re feeling retro, Yahoo, Ask or Altavista) to find your products or services. If your site is well-structured (more on that below) and if you’ve chosen the right keywords, then potential customers will come to your site & you’re on the road to success. But how to come up with those all-important keywords? Where do you put keywords? How do you create the right mix of keywords for a given page? How do you quantify any of this? And what should you expect from your web developers? Read on.

To come up with keywords, Mark suggested WordTracker, which offers a chargeable service (they also offer a limited trial); Jon suggested Google Adwords’ free keyword tool. While we all appreciate free stuff, I suspect web dev professionals will want to at least take a look at WordTracker—whichever you prefer to use possibly depends upon their respective interfaces.

So why use a keyword tool instead of just figuring it out yourself? Because you may be wrong—very wrong—about what prospective clients search for. These tools help you understand the language your audience uses. They also give you an idea of how many people have searched for a given term—but just as importantly, they provide information about the volume of competition (in terms of advertising) for that given term & variations to try. Why would you want to try variations?

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Keywords & the Value of Specificity

Mark gave a great example. It was put in terms of purchasing ads, but the exercise works equally well if you aren’t considering ad purchases. Let’s say you sell nice leather goods. If you put up an ad for “quality leather goods”, you’re going to get hammered by the amount of competition for the keyword: because many people will search for the term, you’re paying for lots of eyeballs to perhaps visit your site. And of those that do visit your site, only a fraction will stay—because you won’t have what they want.

A smarter way to go about the whole endeavour would be to increase the specificity about what you’re offering: i.e., put up an ad for “quality leather laptop cases”. Why? First of all, because the competition would be lower, and therefore cheaper, for the ad; but more specifically, you’re targeting something specific that someone might search for. Whilst fewer people will search for this second term, they’re more motivated to buy. And you can be even more specific: “yellow quality leather laptop cases”. It’ll be even cheaper to purchase the ad & your potential customer will have found what she wants that much more specifically. The motivation to purchase is that much higher. (Oh, and don’t forget a clear & visible “call to action” like “Buy Now!”).

(Incidentally, Mark argued for different landing pages for the different products, i.e., yellow laptop cases, green laptop cases, etc., the notion being that the visual connection with what the visitor searched for & then sees is very important. I’m a bit dubious about this, but web developers should consider the point in designing their sites. Jon made the point, I feel, better: don’t hide all your products or services behind a single page. Why? because you’re diluting your keyword density).

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How to Use Keywords Effectively (Hint: Hire a Copywriter)

OK, so we know what a keyword is, we know about the value of the keywords we want to use, in volume in terms of queries & (if it’s relevant to you) ad revenue. So how do you use keywords effectively?

This is something that SEO specialists bang on about a lot; indeed, Jon did, too, but Mark did a better job with a a great example. First of all, he presented a paragraph of text (presumably from his own website); then he presented the same slide with the keywords highlighted. Here’s what he wrote:

It’s no secret: ecommerce continues to go from strength to strength. Many businesses benefit greatly from adding an ecommerce solution to their operations. The internet also offers many cost effective opportunities for starting a small business, ideas for new businesses & home business. 2007 was another fantastic year for online sales.

Many business owners now place e-business high on their business plan for 2008. Where to begin? How can you find out how to get the most out of your budget and make the right choices when planning and implementing your e-business and selecting such services as ecommerce hosting & shopping cart solutions?

Now here it is again, showing the keywords in italics, plus the number of daily queries for that term. By using the keywords discretely—and naturally—the page was able to cover some 2,037 daily search queries:

It’s no secret: ecommerce (284) continues to go from strength to strength. Many businesses benefit greatly from adding an ecommerce solution (49) to their operations. The internet also offers many cost effective opportunities for starting a small business (77), ideas for new businesses (40) & home business (570). 2007 was another fantastic year for online sales.

Many business owners now place e-business (91) high on their business plan (567) for 2008. Where to begin? How can you find out how to get the most out of your budget and make the right choices when planning and implementing your e-business and selecting such services as ecommerce hosting (140) & shopping cart (219) solutions?

I’ve read about the tactic—and it’s a completely legitimate tactic—but this was such a good, concrete example that I had to present it here. Now let’s not fool ourselves: the prose won’t win any awards. But those paragraphs read completely naturally. Compare that to all too many sites out there that use the same phrase (like “plasma tv” multiple times in a short sentence) & you can see that this was written for humans. Which, after all, is what you’re actually trying to reach, even though you have to pass through a mechanical filter.

Certainly this is something over which we as a business have been inconsistent, even unclear, with clients. We of course talk to them about keywords, but not in detail like this. Using a quantifiable approach like this is very valuable.

An aside now. Both Mark & Jon had to contend with some pretty random questions from the business owners attending these events. Many of the attendees genuinely had a hard time following a lot of this stuff (and why wouldn’t they? whilst important to their businesses, it’s not their sole concern) & both presenters had to struggle to keep on subject & to time. For us web developers, it’s another lesson in how we have to guide our clients, gently, in these topics. They’ll struggle thinking about all of this in general terms & will want to make it more concrete by talking—at length—about their own businesses.

More relevant to this part of the discussion, however: no matter whether the attendees were having trouble following this, they’re likely to write awful prose. Add to this the fact that most clients struggle to come up with their own content—it’s the single most common reason why web projects miss their deadlines—and perhaps you can see that having a copywriter in your stable is a priority. If you’re in South Yorkshire & you don’t know any, we can put you in touch with some copywriters.

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Where to Place Keywords on Your Pages

OK, so we know that we’ve got to write natural-sounding prose. Where else should you place those keywords?

  • Title tag: and be sure to place it before the company name, so that the keywords appear in truncated search results;
  • URL: Having a URL that reads /leather/laptopcases/yellow/ is far better than /categories/2/products/6—this is a problem that Rails developers suffer from, perhaps all the more if you’re into RESTful URLs;
  • Meta tags: both the keywords & description variants;
  • Heading tags (i.e., h1, h2, etc.);
  • Body copy (erm, look above, will you?);
  • Links: yes, place the keywords within links rather than the surrounding text: definitely avoid “click here”.

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Note: Use Heading Tags Appropriately

Business owners with self-created sites, and many web developers as well (we’ve certainly been guilty of it) will often make a mistake and lose a big opportunity: they’ll put the company’s name in the h1 tag (and perhaps use more than one h1 tag, which is also bad). It’s the misguided notion that somehow you want to prioritise the company rather than the product or service being sold. Search engines value the ranking of the various heading levels appropriately, so use them well. Each page on your site should put the purpose of that page—defined in terms of your keywords—in an h1 tag & then use the following heading tags appropriately. As Jon said, the page should clearly express what it’s about; and those heading tags will help you structure the meaning of the page. Use wisely.

As an aside, this brings up the issue of relevance. The heading tags will help structure the meaning of the page; but search engines have greatly improved their ability to parse the relevance of terms to a page. If you’re struggling with your own site, trying to force your keywords into your document unnaturally, stop: a copywriter can help you. Just be sensible.

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Why Get to the Very Top of Google?

So that was the meat of Mark’s talk. Jon’s talk (“Taking Control of Search Engine Optimisation”) was more generally about SEO rather than simply a subset of keywords & content. You perhaps can see why I think Business Link should have offered these two events in close connection with one another, because together they were more than the clichéd “sum of their parts”.

Jon immediately started off with some critical figures: First, he concentrated upon Google because Google have about 90% of the UK search market. The first entry on a Google query result will derive about 50% of click-through traffic (“click-through” refers to visitors jumping from the search engine to a site that provides them with what they’re seeking). The second entry derives about 13% of click-through; and it trails off from there. So, um, the obvious point here is: try to get to number one. How to do that?

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How to Get Great Organic Query Results

“Organic” query results derive from popular sites, good content, well-formed (X)HTML & accessible content—of all these points, the first two probably matter most, but the others help considerably. If BoingBoing, Slashdot or the BBC link to your site, that’s a big vote of confidence from very popular sites. You thought popularity contests ended in school? Wake up and smell the coffee!

Good content matters, too. People look for information; unless they’re looking for a very specific product, they’ve not come to your site just for the pleasure of a salesman’s pitch. They want helpful information. In fact, Mark spent some time in his talk discussing the fact that if you provide useful information (such as answering “What’s a DSLR?” or “How to choose a DSLR?”) you develop trust. I started reflecting that your average business owner’s conception of selling on the web squeezes out the whole importance of developing trust. No wonder many people find their sites don’t perform as they hoped.

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Give a Reason for Search Engines to Return to Your Site

And not just search engines, but people, too! This is related to using keywords effectively & writing good content, but again, this needs to be explicitly stated. If you don’t update your site with new content, search engines will reasonably assume it’s been abandoned. How many websites have you seen where the most recent item in “Latest News” is three years old?

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Common Barriers to Search Engines

Poorly-formed markup & poor accessibility affect your performance. If you use (X)HTML properly & don’t put your content behind a firewall made from Flash or Javascript, search engines will find it & evaluate that content more easily. Remember: searchbots cannot read Flash, cannot use Javascript & cannot view images. They are entirely dependant upon what you write; more specifically, what you write out in the open, so placing good content behind a login is a problem.

Now, practically speaking, accessible, well-formed markup may only shave off 20% of your site’s search problems; but that could make the difference between being #1 in those query results & being an also-ran. Why? Because most sites out there are still formed poorly.

Mark & Jon both emphasised a good navigation system, preferably one that uses your keywords. This seems like a no-brainer to me, but there are lots of sites created by graphic designers (who make beautiful stuff, but they’re not information designers) that prove this needs to be made explicit. Jon also recommended a sitemap. The need for this seems obviated by a good navigation system, but it’s something to consider.

Finally, be aware that good organic search results take time—and money. This makes sense, because if popular sites are going to link to you, you’re going to have to make a concentrated effort to attract their attention; developing good content doesn’t happen overnight, either. Keep all this in mind when your new client states “And we want the site to rank #1 on Google in a week”. I know you’ve been there.

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Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Query Results: Short-Term Value

This was interesting & Jon’s thoughts on this were compelling. Several attendees clearly thought that advertising was the way to reach the top of Google. Well, because it is: you pay to be one of the “sponsored links”. But that’s a fiscal arms race with your competitors. Jon thought it better for short-term goals, like presenting a new product to the marketplace. Your placement will rise & fall with that PPC that arms race; the groundwork of (say it with me), well-formed markup & compelling, accessible content—that is, your organic work—will matter much more for your long-term success.

That’s not to say PPC doesn’t work: it does. The point here is that your efforts should be concentrated upon your organic query results.

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Can Your Web Developers Really Take You to #1 on Google?

One of the first things that really hit me attending Jon’s event was his crystallisation of something I’ve been saying for a long time: web development and marketing are not the same thing. On the face of it, this seems like a totally obvious & non-controversial thing to claim: yet remember the client who’s said “And we also want the site to rank #1 on Google”? Clients will easily confuse the fact that we can develop marketing tools with the act of marketing itself. The two are different.

Web developers can provide a firm foundation upon which to build your optimised site; but you may well require marketing professionals to derive the full value of it. Not to bang on about it (OK, I’m banging on about it), this is something we often emphasise to new, and less experienced, clients. We provide good, solid code where the content-to-markup ratio is very favourable; we make the site accessible using progressive enhancement techniques; and we will work closely with you on the application flow so that the site works as you need it to. But it’s really up to the site’s owner to provide the compelling content & the marketing budget necessary to do really well organically.

OK, so we’ve already covered keywords (or key phrases, if you like), writing & updating good contentm removing barriers to search engines, clarifying the page’s purpose, what’s left?

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Avoid “Spamming” Search Engines

Why, the bad stuff, of course! Again, this is a no-brainer. Avoid unnecessary redirects, which can suggest that you’re performing some sort of bait-and-switch. Definitely don’t try to hide text (say, white text on a white background or text in a one-pixel box set to visibility: hidden).

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Most of this report has thus far covered what web developers & site owners can do for a site. The rest is more in the realm of marketing. And, as you’d expect, it’s hazier. Marketing people are more hesitant to divulge their secrets.

Linking to Your Site: Why Popularity Works

We’ve mentioned that SEO is, in part, a popularity contest: your page rank is affected in part by who links to you. What matters are the quantity, quality & relevance of those links. Why is this important?

  • It’s more difficult to game the system (big sites are more powerful than you; and tens of thousands of smaller sites will be difficult, if not impossible, for you to control);
  • They—supposedly—offer an independent review of your site’s content;
  • They’re—again, supposedly—more reliable guides to your pages’ context (relevance rears its head, again);

This in part explains the increased importance of “social networking” sites like Digg, Magnolia, StumbleUpon, Youtube, Facebook & blogs—sites can become naturally linked as like finds like and the like, erm, like what they’ve found. And it makes sense from a psychological perspective: it rekindles the joy of serendipity, something written about, movingly, in The Long Tail.

From a corporate perspective, though, this is why SEO is partly a marketing issue. You’re unlikely to naturally become the next Will It Blend—you’ll have to use PR & other marketing tools to make your voice heard.

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What Kind of Links to Encourage

Remember: text is king. Text gives context & relevance. If we link to your site with an image, search engines only have our alt tag to provide any context. A textual link is, therefore, better. For instance, we might want to have the link text to our site state “Sheffield-based Rails developers”—“Argument from Design” doesn’t provide context (or, indeed, a judgement on the link), so the latter is less useful.

What does this mean? From a corporate standpoint, it may well mean that you want to develop a link policy, where you cite the types of things the link text should state. Be sensible, though: if you told me I could only link to you if I used the text “super awesome”, I’d certainly get Bolshie. And if you tried that with BoingBoing, you will most definitely get humiliated before a very large audience. Complying with your link policy is only a request that you can make, a courtesy that’s extended only if you’re reasonable about your terms.

Also, try to encourage links to pages other than your home page. This partly helps in terms of increasing relevance, but also helps search engines index your site & discover perhaps hidden elements to your sparkling personality.

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Reciprocal Links: Does it Work?

Your average business owner will always discuss reciprocal linking with web developers as if it’s the golden key to riches. In our experience, they’ll link to other sites willy-nilly. They do this because some SEO person said it works. Well, it can work. But it rarely works. Why? What went wrong between the communication of a strategy & its implementation?

It’s almost certainly because of relevance. If a financial services site links to a windows cleaning site & a greetings card site, it doesn’t feel right, it seems unnatural. In fact, it feels like the online version of BNI—some small business networking agreement.

To my mind, a good way of developing a reciprocal links policy follows from providing good content: when you write something compelling & you link to someone you respect, and that person links back to you in the context of something he writes, that’s real reciprocal linking. A few months’ reading of Jon Gruber’s Daring Fireball will provide plenty of examples of this—although there can be more than a whiff of mutual regard (note how many linked articles reference Daring Fireball & you’ll see what I mean). It reminds me of Spy magazine’s old feature “Log Rolling in Our Time”. Then again: what’s the big deal? Jon Gruber & his linker are participating in a real conversation: they’re providing relevance & context to one another because it makes sense to do so.

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Link Building Strategies

Without going through a Bataan Death March of iffy content production, social network chummery & seemingly random site linking, what link building strategies should business site owners pursue?

  • Contact Mining: Look through your contacts & see where you can develop some meaningful reciprocal relationships;
  • Directories: Many search engines (and a lot more besides) will take advantage of directories such as the Open Directory Project & the venerable Best of the Web (the latter I certainly looked at, entirely too much, back in the mid 1990s.). Real, live humans make these directories: you submit your site with an eye towards where you think it should go & they evaluate it. But because it’s indexed by real, live humans, be kind. I mean, c’mon;
  • Niche Organisations & Directories: Obviously related to the above; but they usually cater to one profession, discipline or locality, such as graphic designers, or feminist analytic philosophers, or companies in South Yorkshire. You often may have to pay for your listing, but again, this provides relevance (and that apparently golden “Seal of Approval” we call a link);
  • Online PR: Jon suggested building a “community of links” by writing articles for other publications (both general & industry-specific) online. He also suggested online PR firms like PR Web. I’m completely unfamiliar with the latter (which may explain why I toil in obscurity), so I cannot evaluate its worth;
  • Viral Marketing: Money Pit? Not necessarily, but this will be time-consuming. Jon suggested social networking sites, but that’s more easily said than done. Again, though, we’re back to good content;
  • Content Development: More specifically, write on your own & other’s blogs & magazine sites. But be forewarned that a blog whose last entry is three years old is as bad as a “Latest News” whose last entry is three years old. If have time for it—and have something to say—write & be sure to encourage linking to your writings from relevant social networking sites;
  • Advertising: We’re not talking about AdWords here, we’re talking about banner ads. You know, like the “Fart Button”. I’m sure that worked a treat. Seriously, though, Jon thought that “Google didn’t like them”. My suspicion? They’re outside the purview of search engine rankings.

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So What Do SEO Specialists Do?

Are do you notice anything about the marketing portion of this report? That it’s a bit thin on the ground & hand-wavy? I noticed this, too, as did several of the attendees. One asked whether there were “secrets” that SEO marketers employ that the punter cannot. Jon hesitated & said “Yes”. He didn’t elaborate.

And why would he? The attendee was in effect asking him to give away his business for free & Jon wanted to protect his business. Jon & Mark were both encouraging “good practice”—which aren’t per se secrets, but certainly are received as such by your average business owner. There are going to be several ways which SEO specialists will try to effect your ranking. But the question & Jon’s response raise something that’s both a question & a worry: what do SEO specialists do for you, exactly?

Note that Jon said Page Rank is valued because it’s difficult to game the system: not impossible. My concern would be that your SEO specialist should use acceptable techniques to help your site & this is something you should question closely. SEO specialists have a really poor reputation (at least among web developers) for being, well, weaselly. Let me be clear: Mark & Jon came across well. And I’m not saying that SEO marketers will put your site in some sort of link farm—they certainly don’t want their customers to be blacklisted from Google—but by employing SEO specialists you are perfectly within your rights to ask them what they plan to do for your site, without their having to divulge any secrets. I can make some very simple-minded guesses about some things: for example, they’re likely to find appropriate partners, PR sites & industry-specific blogs that could be successfully used to create real links. But that’s just the stuff anyone can easily conclude from what Jon outlined: what else might they do?

It’s going to be a question of their ethics & as we’ve mentioned, the SEO profession doesn’t have a great reputation. Of course, all this could mean is that some are poisoning the profession for everyone else. But have you ever come across an obviously automated blogs that simply collect data & barf out “content” for linking purposes? I think we can conclude where they come from. Again, question your SEO person very closely about what they plan for your site.

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I promise to be brief (now? I promise now?!?). These events were about three hours long apiece, all told (including breaks) & if you cast your eye over what you’ve just read, you’ll see that they covered a hell of a lot of ground.

As I said at the beginning, attending an event like this concentrates your mind on the subject. During & after each event, Rick & I were filled with ideas to implement, both for his site and our own. I’m hoping that writing this stuff down, in one place, will help others concentrate upon it. After all, it deserves your concentration—if you won’t devote time to your site, your competitor will to hers; and anyway, why would you invest your money in the first place if you don’t want your site to prosper?

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