There’s an excellent SEO article over at Search Engine Watch (SEW), that attempts to distinguish between Search Engine Optimised (SEO) websites and Search Engine Friendly (SEF) websites. This discussion can get pretty technical, but I want to tackle the other end of it, i.e. what clients should expect from an SEO website and how search engine optimisation responsibility should be divided between the design & development team and the client (or management).
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.
Let me start by reiterating, very briefly, the premise of the SEW article: in a nutshell, the author, Mark Jackson, postulates that a search engine friendly URL does not a search engine optimised website make and there’s is way more to be done in terms of website structure and information architecture than rewriting your URLs.
If this sounds like complete gibberish to you, let’s rewind a bit and start at what should be the beginning of any civilised conversation: let’s define the terms we’re operating with.
What is SEO?
Let’s head over to trusted Wikipedia for this one:
“Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the “natural” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results. Other forms of search engine marketing (SEM) target paid listings. In general, the earlier (or higher on the page), and more frequently a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine. SEO may target different kinds of search, including image search, local search, video search and industry-specific vertical search engines. This gives a website web presence.
As an Internet marketing strategy, SEO considers how search engines work and what people search for. Optimizing a website may involve editing its content and HTML and associated coding to both increase its relevance to specific keywords and to remove barriers to the indexing activities of search engines. Promoting a site to increase the number of backlinks, or inbound links, is another SEO tactic.”
Nice and concise. There you have it. In other words, it’s old-fashioned sales techniques, applied online. Let’s see:
“Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the “natural” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results.”
TRANSLATION: free advertising. Your website is the ad, the internet is your media.
In general, the earlier (or higher on the page), and more frequently a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine.
TRANSLATION: If you get your ad on national television you will get more customers than if you advertise on an obscure radio station. And that’s the difference between being on positions 1-10 as opposed to 10 and lower. On an average about 40% of people click on the first search result, 30% on the second, 20% on the third and the rest may take the trouble of looking at the rest of the results. Heaven help you if you’re not on the first page.
Little note of explanation here: I said FREE advertising. You can also pay to be first – but only in the “Ads” section on the results page: the light green areas at the very top of the page or on the right. These can get pretty expensive, function of your industry and competition.
“SEO may target different kinds of search, including image search, local search, video search and industry-specific vertical search engines. This gives a website web presence.”
Scroll to the end of this article for more on local search, image search and reviews.
Onsite vs Offsite SEO
This is the part where things get tricky.
Onsite SEO means making sure of the following hygiene factors (that’s what I like to call them):
- Search engine friendly (SEF), i.e. the URLs have a good structure:
- Your website is easy to crawl and index:
- built in HTML & CSS, Flash is really not ideal as it is more difficult to crawl
- You have a sitemap
- Your robots file allows robots to index the relevant content and blocks them from accessing and/or indexing duplicate content and content that should not rank (e.g. Thank You pages, etc)
- You can – and do – change the page titles to target the relevant keywords for any given page
- You can – and do – optimise your images and use alt tags (refer to the image optimisation section below)
- Your H1 tags are accessible (some designers do hide them for aesthetic purposes) and are used to target teh relevant page keywords
- You redirect (301) your non-www domain to your www or vice-versa. You have no idea how many large websites miss out on a significant percentage of viewership because if you type domain.com instead of www.domain.com you land on a blank page. Or worse, you miss out on link juice because backlinks to your site are both in www and non-www format.
But let’s not get technical here, if you want to find out more have a read of this article.
- Images rank in Google Images – so you have a good chance of getting traffic that way. Use the alt tags to associate keywords to your images (sensibly please, do not spam). You can see in the image below how a search for “logo design sydney” brings up a couple of the Limeshot logos.
- Images impact the speed of download for your website. And page speed has recently become an important factor for search engines. If your website is image-heavy make sure you do one or more of the following:
- save the images at the lowest resolution you can manage without making them horrible (I suggest a “high” quality jpegs – 6 factor)
- Use a Content Delivery Network (CDN)
- Resize them in Photoshop, not on the website. It will help with the page speed.
Assuming your website is search engine optimised, the most of the SEO results will actually be driven by this: the offlise factors, also known as links. The links you get from other websites. They all count as votes of confidence for your website, and they determine, overwhelmingly, whether your site will rank well or not.
There are countless ways of getting links (aka backlinks): organically, as in your site is cool enough or sells something cool enough to make people link to you our of their own accord; reviews and referrals (if you provide really useful content); comments of blogs and forums (this is where the legit line it’s getting blurred); links from social media; and a whole other range of options I will not mention, as they can get very, very dodgy.
However, one thing to be noted is that you can get links that are bad for you (e.g. links from spammy or porn sites – unless you sell porn, of course). Of course, you need to get quite a few of these links to damage your reputation, but still, you have to watch out for them.
You can also get too many links, too fast. If your SEO agency is getting you 1000 links a day, stop them. Such levels of activity will flag your website as spam to search engines. What you have to aim for is a steady flow of links, acquired in time.
When a design agency promises an SEO website, what do they mean?
Good question, and it varies widely from agency to agency and very often is determined by the limitations of the Content Management System (CMS) they use. So whenever they make that statement, make sure to ask, very specifically, what is included in that SEO website.
Generally speaking, when a design agency mentions a SEO website they mean addressing some or all of the hygiene onsite factors mentioned above.
They will NOT source backlinks for you. The offsite SEO is either your job as a client, or the job of a good SEO agency. Please understand a design agency does not have the resources or the know-how (or quite frankly the disposition) to hunt for links. This is better done by people who are specialised in SEO. Also, since search engines change the rules of the game all the time, the SEO specialists are the people who make it their job to stay on top of the latest SEO developments.
However, your design agency should be able to tell you exactly what type of onsite SEO they can provide and you should ask before you find yourself tied up with a Content Management System that will work against you in the SEO game.
How to choose a trustworthy SEO agency
If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford an SEO agency, there are plenty to choose from. However, this is a highly volatile industry, and not all SEo agencies are created the same. Ask to talk to some of their existing and previous customers and find out what the results of that collaboration were.
Run from any agency that claims they will get you that number one position. No one can promise you that. It depends on competition, on subtle changes of algorithm, on a thousand little factors. Of course, they may be able to get you there for one day, but that is not always sustainable. Aim to get on the first page.
Also be mindful of the fact that an SEO audit means something entirely different from ongoing SEO. An SEO audit will examine your current website for onsite SEO factors; ongoing SEO is concerned with link-building.
Anyways, if you’re in Australia and you want a couple of referrals to some decent SEO agencies drop me a line.
What can and should you do to help your website rank?
If you can’t afford an SEO agency at the moment – and of course there are plenty of situations when you won’t be able to – don’t worry, you can still do something yourself.
First of all, download Google’s excellent SEO starter guide. It’s an excellent resource to get your head around this SEO thing and provides quite a few suggestions to tick off all those onsite hygiene factors.
Optimise your website for local search
If you append any location to any search query (e.g. “Chinese restaurant Sydney”) you will find there are a lot of results at the very top of the page showing businesses relevant to the respective query around the location you specified.
These results, my friends, take no months of link building and no expensive SEo agency. They don’t even require a website. They are free and easy to get and can be your very cheap ticket to getting some clients via the internet with a minimum of effort on your part.
There’s a great article over at Reuters on this topic, have a read and remember: local search optimisation doesn’t cost a dime!
Optimise your images
Two things to keep in mind:
Blog and Twitter
There are no quicker ways of getting content indexed and sometimes backlinks than blogging and getting involved in social media. It is also a good way of targeting certain keywords and phrases without putting them on the “official” part of your website. Let’s face it, you may want to get traffic for “cheap” whatever-you-sell, but nobody wants their brand officially associated with cheapness, it’s just brand erosion at its worst.
Use Webmasters Tools
Have a look at this excellent video on using the Webmasters Tools like an SEO over on the official Google blog.
Probably more relevant to B2C but nevertheless extending more and more to B2B, reviews and ratings rank high on Google’s first page and people do trust businesses with positive reviews more than they trust businesse they know nothing about. It is the online version of a friend’s brag of a good service they received.
So if you can motivate your clients to give you a review – either on your website or your Google Places page) – then do; it will help with your rankings.
And last but not least, remember:
Content is King
Unavoidably, if you keep on writing about your products and services and you find different and new angles, interesting stories, etc not only will you entice people to read your website (bloody hard these days, I tell you, most people never stay on any web page for more than 30 seconds), you will also create a keyword clouds that will strongly signal search engines what your website is about (and should rank for).
A not of caution though: the latest algo change, released in January 2011, penalises or at least discards content that has not originated on your website. So careful with re-blogging information you found on other websites.