The State of SEO

‘Help me get to No.1 on Google’ is a common refrain from new and old website owners. The art of getting a website on the first page of Google’s and other search engine’s search results is, as many of you will know, known as Search Engine Optimisation or SEO. There are many techniques and tactics to achieve this, but over the last couple of years in particular Google has taken on those that use the dark arts or black hat techniques to get their site ranked highly.

In many ways, this has made it more difficult to get to No.1 as it is harder technically to play the system, but in other ways, it has made things simpler – it is the quality of the content of your site that matters most together with the quality of the incoming links to your site.

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Goldilocks SEO

I’ve been pinning more infographics up on Pinterest and now have a few followers. Some are excellent like the one below which really encapsulates the art of SEO  through three bowls of porridge, only one of which is just right for our SEO master, Goldilocks.

Source: flickr.com via Robert on Pinterest

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Over-optimisation, Matt Cutts and the Future of SEO

SEO is a constantly evolving field and a whole industry has sprung up around it. With companies investing significantly to boost their rankings against those of their competitors, experts are constantly working out new ways to rank highly with Google. At the same time, Google wants to make sure that only genuinely relevant websites with compelling content get to the top in its search results.

In less sophisticated times, the most basic SEO meant filling in keyword metadata (lists of keywords to describe you site that are coded in rather than visible on screen) with as many keywords and phrases as possible. Some people would ‘stuff’ as many keywords in as possible to help drive traffic to a site, including keywords of little relevance to the site’s content. Google soon downgraded the importance it gave to keyword metadata (but not keywords in a site’s visible content), and began to give  more prominence to links coming in to your site. Link building or link baiting (a term Google surely doesn’t like) then became big business.

Now Google is focussing on what it calls semantic search. It is trying to ensure that the relevancy and quality of a website’s content is the key factor in getting a web site a high ranking, that search results are in line with ‘user intent’. Matt Cutts, Google’s Head of Web Spam, speaking as part of a panel at the trendy culture fest that is SXSW in the States in March, spoke about ‘over-optimised’ sites.  Cutts explained:

We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly doing their SEO – versus those making great content and trying to make a fantastic site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go  beyond what a normal person would expect in a certain area. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.

Some people have interpreted this as a Google crackdown on SEO which may be a bit over the top but it is certainly a crackdown on SEO abuse and black hat techniques. The other search engines are broadly working in the same direction. Following this, Duane Forrester from Bing emphasized the importance of sites being ‘socially engaged’ so that links occur naturally as a genuine sign of popularity. You can hear the full SXSW panel discussion, Dear Google and Bing: help me rank better, at Search Engine Roundtable.

It will be worth watching Google’s next moves closely over the next few weeks or months.  Matt Cutts explained that Google does not hate SEO but warned that if your SEO techniques ‘go beyond the pale , your site might not rank so highly’.

How to do SEO, or how to make your site google-friendly (part 2)

Come up with great keywords and key phrases
This is not as easy as it sounds.  Try to think  of words that people will use to get to your site but also think of ones that are unique to you too – find your niche! Use Google’s Keyword Tool to help you identify popular keywords and phrases or use software such as the free Good Keywords (which also has some useful free resources on keyword research and SEO) or Wordtracker. Check what keywords your competition are using too but don’t assume they’re the best ones. Come up with better ones that will direct searchers to you not them!

Use your keywords effectively
Content is king. Try to use keywords several times in the first 200-300 words of your site (but not so it looks like spamming and to the detriment of the content). Most importantly, make sure your keywords feature in your <title> tags, and in your main headings <H1>, <H2> etc, and in the ALT tags for images.  Keyword metatags don’t really matter any more for SEO (they were abused by the black hat brigade) but do use the meta description tag. Make sure any documents or videos that can be downloaded from your site also contain relevant keywords and this applies to the site’s own folders too – don’t save the home page in a folder called home.htm, use something more sescriptive.

Make each page unique
It is better to have several pages of 400 words than one of 1000. Target keywords to particular pages and make sure that they feature in the url and page titles, and create meta descriptions for each page. Separate keywords in urls by a hyphen so Google sees them as distinct words. Don’t optimise every page with your your domain name unless it’s a natural fit – your domain name is unique to you and will be represented throughout your site.

Validate your site
An accessible site that meets web standards is also likely to get more brownie points with Google. Don’t use frames (invisible to Google) or tables to lay out the pages. Validate your website with W3C – a site that validates has been coded well and Google’s search robots will crawl the website more easily. If it doesn’t validate, you  will find out the reasons why and be able to rectify them. Use Google’s excellent Webmaster tools to check your site too.

Use good navigation and internal links
Clear navigation around your site will help the Google robots too as will good use of internal links. Use relevant keywords in the texts of those links and don’t use ‘click here’. Include a sitemap and avoid Flash or Javascript for navigation links. Stick to simple HTML links.

Keep content up-to-date. Add new stories, pictures, new products, write articles or update your blog. Google likes new content. It makes your website look active and an active website is more likely to be a relevant one. Sprinkle your blog with keywords and submit your blog to Google’s Blog Search.

Get links
Inward links to your site helps Google determine what your site is about, how important it is and what keywords are most relevant. Google likes this because it is not in your control and represents what others think of your site. Now that business employs teams to analyse and get links, Google may like it a bit less, but they are still very important.  It’s a sign of trust. Links from respected and well-known sources are the best ones to get, and better still if it is just a link from them to you. Try to get links into all your pages, not just the home page. Google is not so keen on reciprocal links (too cosy) and be wary of those that promise to create hundreds of links to your site (Google is coming down on links generated by such tactics). And one good link is probably worth more than a hundred dodgy ones, and good relevant content will create its own links as people willingly link to your site.

Use social media
Make a video, upload it to YouTube and Vimeo and link it to your site, utilising keywords (of course) at the same time.  Use Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Blogger and get your friend to link to your site from their social media too. Make sure there are links to your site from relevant trade and local online directories but also from friends, partners, associates. The more (genuine) links the better. Don’t overdo it though and make sure the social media you use is appropriate to your business.

Don’t just do it once
Monitor the results. Is your ranking getting higher or lower over time? Analyse your site using Google Analytics, tools from your host or software such as LinkDex or WebCEO, which include some free features, or employ someone to do it for you!

How to do SEO, or how to make your site google-friendly (part 1)

A website with a good search engine ranking will be listed on the first page of Google and other search engines such as Bing and Yahoo! There are tools and techniques that help achieve this and the process of employing these has become known as search engine optimisation or SEO for short. In essence, SEO is a process in which you are trying to make your website ‘google friendly’ so searchers see your site before those of your competitors.

Black Hat or White Hat?

There are some underhand ways to do this known as Black Hat SEO, but it is best to stick to an ethical approach – White Hat SEO – as Google is likely to find you out and blacklist – plus Black Hat SEO is basically a spamming approach and no-one likes spammers. Best to keep wearing the white hat. Google have their own their own starter guide to SEO which is definitely worth a look at, and it’s a good idea to keep up with their thinking, and a good place to do that is at Search Engine Land.

What does Google like?

Google and the other search engines like certain things about websites. Google increasingly says that a good quality website with relevant content is vitally important, but how does it tell? Google has robots that trawl the net assessing websites for relevance (using a complex and ever-changing algorithm). It looks at things such keywords, links and the names of images.  Google also likes fresh content and the use of social media.

In the next post, I look at the steps to SEO success.

Get to #1 on Google

So how do you make sure that your website gets high up in Google’s search results, in short, that it is google friendly.  Search Engine Optimisation – SEO – is the technique employed to try to achieve this on Google and the other search engines such as Yahoo! Through the use of keywords (familiar territory for a librarian), incoming links and other design features, there are various ways to boost your site’s rankings. I’m reading Get to #1 on Google, another In Easy Steps book, which gives a good introduction to the topic.  There’s also a nifty looking bit of software available for free called Web CEO, and loads of ‘Webmaster tools’ from Google, such as Google Analytics and Google Sitemaps, to help you analyse the hits on your website. Yahoo has some similar tools such as Yahoo Site Explorer.

Unfortunately, a couple of things seem to have gone since the book was published. Firstly, the backward link checker on the Google toolbar which let you see which sites are linking into your site, and secondly, also on the tool bar,  a site’s google page ranking, both great tools for webmasters. SEO is a controversial topic and this is probably because Google is trying to make sure that rankings are based on good website content and genuine popularity rather false popularity conjured up by experts mastered in the dark side of  SEO – so called ‘balck hat’ SEO techniques . If anyone knows where these useful tools have gone or if there are good replacement, please let me know.

All fascinating stuff for the inner geek (and of great appeal to me as a qualified librarian). I’m currently making my way through loads of websites on SEO and will report back on my favourites soon. Semantic SEO is the next thing apparently.