When I’m discussing websites, and online presence in general with my clients, the question of Search-Engine Optimisation (SEO) arises a great deal.
It’s a much used – and abused – term, and I thought it worth setting down a few thoughts, to clear the air a bit.
What is SEO?
Since the dawn of the internet search engine, online businesses have been endeavouring to gain an advantage by improving their ranking – basically, how high in the search results they appear when a search is made using terms that are relevant to their business and likely to be used by a potential customer. A search engine works by sending out a little “bot”, known as a crawler. Think of it as a sort of benign virus that crawls around the web, reading published pages and, importantly, reading the page descriptions that accompany them but are not seen by internet users, and indexing them according to its own criteria. While in theory nobody knew exactly what those criteria were, some of the rules of the game (and this is very much a game) were made public, and a whole industry devoted to playing it was born.
The appearance of Google was the big game changer, and since its arrival SEO has become overwhelmingly a matter of propitiating the Google Beast.
So what does the Beast like?
Well, the important word to remember here is ‘relevance’. Google is interested in maximising the reward for its users. Well-rewarded users spend money more freely than users who have had to fight their way through a pile of irrelevant, and hence unrewarding, search results until they found what they were looking for. And the more freely its users spend money, the more likely it is that Google can take a little bit of that money for itself.
The game in the early days largely revolved around the use of keywords. Keywords are words relevant to your product or service that are likely to be used by people looking for it. They are listed in the page’s description meta tag, a little document that accompanies the page and tells search engines important information about the page itself. Back then, SEO used to consist of peppering the text of web pages with key words, with little or no regard to the quality of the text itself – a practice known as ‘keyword-stuffing’. The result was the promotion of a great deal of shoddy online content, and the search engines have since been engaged in a relentless program of improving their search algorithms, rewarding publishers of relevant content by ranking their pages highly, and punishing publishers of irrelevant, repetitive and keyword-stuffed content.
To help it in this quest for quality, Google has developed some astonishing abilities. It now has ‘context awareness’ which allows it to interpret the wishes of its users, even when they do not use an exact match for a keyword. It also has and ‘autocomplete’ function, which suggests full search terms based on the first words a user types into the search box. The result of these two functions has been greatly to reduce the value of exact keyword matches, and to increase the need for well-written, relevant textual content.
So my first SEO tip is – Invest in well-written, relevant content
Reputation is Everything
A recent major development has been the advent of Google Plus. Google+ originated as a social media site similar to Facebook. For the purposes of small, local businesses, however, it has certain important features, notably the Google+ local listing. This exploits Google’s contextual intelligence to interpret search terms used to find local businesses. Businesses which list themselves under Google+ local will be displayed in the search results directly under the local guides (Truelocal, Yelp, and so on), when a user uses a search term such as “cafes Rozelle”
Now, do you see the yellow stars that appear in several of these listings? These are the business’ star rating, indicating that it has received sufficient reviews to rate, and what that rating is. I don’t know about you, but unless I’ve got all day to devote to finding a café in Rozelle, my eye is going to be quickly drawn to the ones with a star rating, and almost as quickly to the ones with a rating of 4.5 stars or better. So imagine that one of these businesses has invested heavily in optimising its online content, but then displays a 3-star rating, because it has received some rather indifferent reviews – or worse. Well, they might as well have saved all the money they spent on SEO-ing their content, because with a rating like that, it counts for nothing.
So here’s tip no. 2 – pay attention to your online reputation. Make it easy for your customers to give you reviews, and respond actively to what your reviewers say, so that you keep getting good ones.
Google Adwords campaigns
In the wrong hands (and there are many of them out there, grasping for your money) Adwords campaigns can be a great way to waste a lot of money. In the right hands, they can pay handsome dividends. In an Adwords campaign, you essentially pay Google an agreed sum when the use of a search term relevant to your business results in a “buying action” – a click on your landing page, or a certain number of “impressions” loaded from search results. The rate you pay depends on the frequency with which a term is used, and the relevance of the term to your – and your competitors’ – business. The easy, click-bait terms are thus the most expensive. But “The riches are in the niches” – identifying low-volume search terms that are highly likely to result in you making a sale is a great way to thrive on Adwords without spending a fortune. Alternatively, Adwords allows you use a high-competition keyword list, but to constrain your coverage geographically, so that you are not displayed in, and do not pay for, searches outside your geographical area. This is not the place to go into an exhaustive description of Adwords’ features, but it’s definitely an area in which I’d advise investing in professional assistance, and here’s my
tip no. 3 – when choosing an SEO expert – ask for references.
Ask to see case studies which demonstrate your SEO guy’s familiarity with your industry, and his ability to accomplish measurable – and measured – ranking improvements.