Where Do New SEOs Go Wrong When They Set Learning Priorities?

Jan 28th
posted in

Another question we received recently from the SEOBook.com community was:

What qualities are common in Aaron Wall, DaveN, Bob Massa, Jason Duke, SugarRae, et al, that new SEOs can adopt, to come closer to people like these in expertise. Where do most new SEOs go wrong when they set learning priorities?

I've asked these people to provide their views, which I'll get to shortly.

It's a great question, because the avalanche of SEO information that confronts the beginner can be overwhelming. How do you know what information is important? What aspects do you really need to spend you time on, and what information do you need to reject? What are the qualities that make for a good SEO?

Let's take a look...

Learning SEO

Most people stumble into being an SEO.

An awareness of SEO usually comes about when a person launches a site, only to find that the site doesn't magically appear #1.

Soon after, the webmaster will likely find themselves knee deep in SEO forums and blogs, where everyone has a viewpoint, and often those viewpoints contradict each other. Contradiction is rife in SEO. To understand why, we need to understand the history of search engines.

The first step in setting learning priorities for SEO is to.....

1. Understand The History & Context Of SEO

My own foray into SEO began with Infoseek.

Infoseek was one of the early search engines. Infoseek introduced a feature around 1996 , whereby they would crawl a site and update their index immediately. This feature made it easy for webmasters to game the algorithm.

I had just launched a small, commercial site. I thought all I had to do was publish a site, and the search engine would do it's job, and put me at number one! Unsurprisingly, that didn't happen.

So, I tried to figure out why Infoseek didn't think my site was great. I could see that there were sites ranking above mine, so there was clearly something about those sites that Infoseek did like. I looked at the code of the high ranking sites. Did that have something to do with it? To test that idea, I cut and pasted it their code into my own code and republished my site. Viola, I was at number 2!

So far, so good.

But why wasn't I number one? The sites that were ranking highly tended to have long pages on the same topic, so I added more text to my pages. Soon enough, with a little trial and error, I was number one. Predictably, Infoseek soon pulled this feature when they saw what was happening.

I was clearly not alone in my underhanded trickery.

At the time, I thought my cut n paste trick was an amusing hack, but I wasn't earning my bread and butter from the internet. I was working in the computer industry, and unaware of "SEO". I soon forgot about it.

A few years later, a whole cottage industry had sprung up around SEO. The search technology had become a lot more sophisticated. My dubious copy n' paste hack no longer worked, and the search engines were locked in a war against webmasters who were trying to game their ranking criteria.

There is an inherent conflict between the business model of the search engine, and that of the SEO. The SEO wants their site to rank, the search engine wants to rank a page a searcher will find useful.

That isn't necessarily the same thing.

Therefore, the search engines are notoriously secret about their ranking formulas. SEOs try and reverse engineer the formulas, or just guess the factors involved, which is why you'll see so many contradictory viewpoints.

So who do you listen to? What information is relevant?

2. Technical Know-How

Dave Naylor had this to say about doing too much at once:

Common qualities that's simple we notice the little things and understand the larger impact that they will have in long term,

And where do you most new SEOs go wrong when they set learning priorities?

From the new SEO's on the block that I chat too, they seem to run at a million miles an hour trying 100 different things at once, they need to slow get a decent data set of information and slowly pick though it and test small things at a time, and work out thing like why is it when I search for The FT in Google it returns Grand Theft Auto ?

Most people new to SEO place a lot of emphasis on the technical aspects. It's natural to seek out the secret recipe of high rankings. Whilst most forums obsess over these issues, much of what you'll read is irrelevant fluff. These days, SEO is more about a holistic process, rather than an end unto itself.

Start with a solid, credible source - like SEOBook's course for example ;) The cost of a well researched course is nothing compared to the time you may spend heading in the wrong direction.

Most people will benefit by applying the 80/20 rule. To rank in Google, you need to be on-topic, you need to be crawlable, and you need to have inbound links.

You could spend a lifetime trying to figure out the other 20%. Unfortunately, the formula is in Google's hands, and even then, only known to a few. It is reasonable to assume Google tweaks the dials often, especially once a common exploit makes the rounds. Take Dave's advice and take it one step at a time. Focus on the key aspects first - relevance, crawlability and linking - then methodically test and evaluate in order to expand your knowledge.

Bob Massa on not sweating the small stuff:

I honestly think the only way anyone can go wrong, new to online promotion or a seasoned veteran, is to not look too hard for tricks and magic beans from those who make their names posting those so-called tricks, in forums.

I believe anyone can be successful at online marketing or even traffic generation and search engine placement specifically, if they just stop looking for ways to trick machines and instead look for ways to connect with humans.

search engines are just computer programs and algorithms written by humans. The engine is only a tool intended to aide humans do things faster and easier that are important to their lives. I think machines can help with connecting humans BUT the humans are the target, the goal, the end that machines can provide the means to.

I think one thing that is common among the list of people you mentioned is that they all realize, understand and accept that concept.

3. Strategy & Goals

The opportunity in SEO lies in the fact that Google must have content, around which it places advertising. If you rank high, you get "free" clicks.

Of course, nothing in this world is free, and SEO is no exception. There is significant time cost involved in getting lucrative rankings. And that cost comes with a reasonable degree of risk. Google has no obligation to show you at position x, and your competitors will always try and eat your lunch.

Strategy is the most important aspect, and one you should spend a lot of your time on. Why are you trying to rank? Are there better things you could be doing i.e. building up a community? Do you have an on-going publishing model? How is your brochure-web site ever going to attract links? Are you building enough link juice to ensure your entire 500K page affiliate site gets indexed?

Check out my post on strategy and goal setting. The key is to take a holistic approach.

I think some of the general principals that apply to most of them are that they are: smart, curious, hard working, blunt, honest, and sharing. They also view SEO as a tool to help them achieve other goals, rather than having SEO be the end goal.

Where a lot of people go wrong with SEO is that they try to think in concrete numbers based on a limited perspective built off a limited set of data. Some things may happen sometimes, but there are very few universal truths to the shifting field of SEO beyond preparing for change. And the certain lasting truths do not provide much competitive advantage...that is built through curiosity, testing, hard work, and creativity - Aaron Wall.

4. Measurement

It's surprising how little time is spent talking about measurement, because without it, SEOs are flying blind.

One common metric is rank. It's not a very good metric, because it doesn't tell you very much, other than you've won the ranking game.

But so what?

What if that rank doesn't help you achieve your goals? What if every person who clicks on your link ends up buying from the guy who is advertising on Adwords instead?

This is why measurement, aligned with your goals, is important. If you track SEO efforts through to a goal, and most of those goals tend to involve making money, then you'll be head and shoulders above most of the forum hacks and pretenders. It doesn't matter what tracking software you use. Become an expert and tracking and metrics.

Summary

  • 1. Understand the history and context of SEO
  • 2. Learn your chops from a reputable source
  • 3. Clearly define your strategy and goals
  • 4. Become a metrics and measurement guru

Five Dreaded SEO Topics We Hope We Never See Again

Jan 26th
posted in

1. Search Engine Spamming Should Be Outlawed

Out in the wild west, moral confusion abounds.

There have been SEOs who have argued - with a straight face - that whilst it's ok for them to game search engine algorithms, it's not ok for others to do so. This is usually because the other guy isn't following "the rules".

What are the rules?

The rules are decided - and vaguely defined - by the search engines, and then interpreted to mean whatever an SEO decides they mean. Far be it for a search engine to create rules that serve their own business interests, which may not align with the interests of the webmaster.

SEO is built on shifting sands. What do you do when what you were doing was "within the guidelines" and no longer is because the rules change? Do you willfully decide to rank lower?

Conclusion: Spam is what the other guy does. Also an acronym for "Sites Positioned Above Mine".

2. How To Create Meta Tags

Hard to believe now, but forum wars were fought over how many times a webmaster could repeat a keyword in a meta keyword tag. Twice was often deemed ok, but any more than that and you were almost certainly an "evil spammer" (see #1).

Meta tag manipulation doesn't count for anything these days. The tags are mainly used to describe the content of pages, that the search engines may display as snippet text.

Conclusion: Deader than AltaVista

3. Is SEO Ethical?

A curious framing of SEO in terms of ethics and morality.

Is it good and proper to try to get a higher rank than the search engine would bestow otherwise? The point of SEO is, of course, to get a higher rank than the search engines would bestow otherwise.

These people were usually in the wrong game. Many went on to join Seminaries.

Conclusion: Welcome to the jungle

4. Should I Buy Links?

Yes.

No.

Depends.

Paranoia runs rampant in SEO, especially when search engines make a example of someone. Like SearchKing.

Almost all SEOs once advocated buying links in, say, Yahoo, as a listing in Yahoo would lead to better rankings in Google. However, Matt Cutts put the cat amongst the pigeons back in 2005 when he declared that "Google does consider buying text links for PageRank purposes to be outside our quality guidelines".

The argument quickly descended into a semantic war i.e. define "paid". Money changing hands? Favors? Nepotism? Erm...Yahoo Directory? One of the more interesting conclusions often got buried: "Hey, perhaps if Google dislike them so much, paid links really do work!"

Conclusion: Yeah, they work

5. Should There Be SEO Standards?

A natural progression of the ethical debate. It was proposed that SEOs should all conform to a common code of practice, as other professions often do.

The problem was that the relationship between search engines and SEOs has always been grey. Only the search engine can really define what the search engine wants, and what the search engine wants might not align with what the SEO, or their client, wants. In any case, the search engine isn't going to publicly define exactly what they want, as they are worried that people, like SEOs, will game their systems.

So, you got a few self-appointed search police officers, who would suggest that everyone followed their particular code of practice, based on their interpretation of the search engines guidelines. The self-appointed cops usually out-numbered those who followed them, and invariably disagreed amongst themselves anyway.

Conclusion: Impossible to get buy-in

The 100+ Ranking Variables Google Uses, And Why You Shouldn't Care

Jan 23rd
posted in

Continuing on with our community questions, here are a few requests for specific ranking information:

"What are the 100+ variables Google considers in their ranking algorithm?"

Cheeky :)

Easy to say, hard to do. Take a job at Google, work your way up the ranks and join the inner circle.

Another question we received is along the same lines:

How do you outrank a super established website in your niche, one where Google is giving site links and their domain is older

Again, easy to say, hard to do. Either forget outranking the domain and buy it, or spend time doing exactly what they have done, and hope they also stop their SEO efforts in order to let you catch up.

These types of questions arise often. "If I could just learn a few quick-fix insider secrets, I can outrank everyone!"

If there was a quick n easy secret formula that would guarantee high rank, why would those who know it, reveal it?

The reality is that quick-fix secret formulas don't exist.

Sure, there are quirks in the algorithms that can be exploited, but they are often trumped by historical factors, like authority metrics, that are difficult to fake. One common blackhat technique is to hack an established domain, and place "money" pages on that domain. That's an admission, if ever there was, that technical trickery on your own domain is either too time consuming, or doesn't work so well.

I know some of the worlds top SEOs, and I can't recall them spending much time talking about secret sauce. What they do talk about is making money and growing empires. They're more focused on the business strategy of SEO.

The effectiveness of many SEO techniques will be dead soon, anyway.

What you need to think about for the future is user interaction.

The Future Of SEO

Have a read of this document, by my good friend and Merlot drinker, Mike Grehan. Mike outlines his view on the future of search, and he makes a number of important points:

  • The web crawler model is nearing the end of its useful life
  • Signals from users, not content creators, will become more important
  • Universal Search changed the ranking game forever
  • Forget rank, think engagement

If you want to future proof your SEO strategy, take heed of Mike's words.

The crawler model is failing because the crawler was designed for structured text, not multimedia. The crawler can't see behind pay-walls. It has trouble navigating databases in which the data isn't interlinked or marked-up. The search engines will need to look for other ways of finding and making sense of data.

Social networks, blogs, Twitter etc indicate a move away from the webmaster as signaler of importance i.e. who you choose to link out to. The search engines will need to mine the social signals form those networks. The user will signal where their attention is focused by their interaction and paths.

Universal search, in may cases, has pushed results listings down below the fold. For example, to get a client seen high up on the results page may involve making sure making sure they are featured on Google Maps. Similarly, if they have video content, it should be placed on YouTube. Google have shown they are increasingly looking to the aggregators for results and featuring their content in prominent positions.

That list of search results is becoming more and more personalized, and this will continue. Who knows, we may not have a list before too long. More and more "search" data - meaning "answers to questions" - might be pushed to us, rather than us having to go hunt for it.

The future of SEO, therefore, will be increasingly about engaging people. The search engines will be measuring the signals users send. In the past, it's all been about the signals webmasters send i.e. links and marked up content.

For now, you still need to cover the obvious bases - create crawlable, on-topic content, backed by quality linking. But you'll also need to think about the users - and the signals they send - in order to future proof your site. Google has long placed the user at the center of the web. Their algorithms are surely heading towards measuring them, too.

What are these signals? Ah, now there's a question.....

Will SEO Be Dead Within The Next Two Years?

Jan 21st
posted in

Another question we received recently was:

"SEO as we know it will be dead within the next 2 years – true or false? With the wealth of info at their fingertips combined with localized, customized search to name but a few Google will no longer need to do what it does now to determine rankings?"

I'd say "false".

People have been predicting the death of SEO since, well, the beginning of SEO. Here's a debate from 2004, and another from 2006. These arguments probably started around 1995.

So long as search engines display a list of sites, for which payment is not required, SEO will exist.

How SEO is done will change. It has always changed. In the bad old days, SEO was all about getting listed in the Yahoo Directory. If you didn't, you were pretty much invisible. There was a time that listing with Looksmart got you decent rankings in MSN. These days, few of those new to SEO have even heard of Looksmart.

Google will certainly adapt and change, and use a variety of metrics in order to determine relevance. SEOs will adapt and change, trying to work out what these metrics are.

Recently, Eric Schmidt made the following comment:

The internet is fast becoming a "cesspool" where false information thrives, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said yesterday. Speaking with an audience of magazine executives visiting the Google campus here as part of their annual industry conference, he said their brands were increasingly important signals that content can be trusted"

So, having a brand might be a signal of quality, which may, in turn, lead to a higher rank. Or perhaps Schmidt was just playing to the audience of newspaper owners. Difficult to tell ;)

Google collects a wealth of usage data from toolbars, analytics, and their ad systems, so it is conceivable they might fold these metrics into their ranking systems. Marissa Mayer recently suggested that SearchWiki data might be used ranking calculations.

Will the bar get raised? Will SEO become more difficult? Of course. But a raised bar works two ways. If you can reach it, there's a new barrier between you and those who follow you. That gives you some level of defensibility.

So how do you do SEO going forward?

I've written a lot about the importance of holistic strategy. Your aim should be to sell something to people - be it an opinion, a product, a service. All your endeavors should support this goal, and most of the time, that means doing the basics well - make your site crawlable, well linked, and solve a genuine problem for people. If your SEO efforts are not resulting in an improvement in the bottom line , then there is little point doing SEO.

Bob Massa put it well:

"I believe anyone can be successful at online marketing or even traffic generation and search engine placement specifically, if they just stop looking for ways to trick machines and instead look for ways to connect with humans".

What Aspect Of SEO Should You Be Spending Most Of Your Time On?

Jan 19th
posted in

There are so many SEO tasks demanding your attention. How do you prioritize them?

Seems to be a common issue, as when we asked for questions a while back, we received this one:

"What aspect of SEO should you be spending most of your time on? Optimizing the title tag, getting links, creating quality content? "

So which area of SEO will give you the most bang for your buck? Link building? On-page? Social media? Ask ten different SEOs, and you'll likely get ten different answers.

Let's take a step back and start with strategy.

1. Define Your Goals

Without clear goals, it's difficult to know how to spend your time. Start by listing your goals.

Do you want to sell services or product? Do you want to increase traffic levels? Do you want to increase brand awareness? Knowing which SEO dial to twist depends very much on what goal you're trying to achieve.

Once you have your list, create a set of KPIs. KPI stands for Key Performance Indicator. KPIs will give you a set of metrics to help you decide if you're meeting, or missing, your goals.

Here are a few examples:

  • Rank top ten for keyword term x in Google
  • Increase traffic from search engines by *x* percent by *date*
  • Get 1,000 new sign ups from search visitors in March
  • Sell ten widgets per day to search visitors by next week

The most useful KPIs are specific. You either hit the target or you miss.

Your strategy will be defined by your goals. For example, if your goal is to sell ten widgets by next week using a new site, then your strategy might be to forget SEO for the meantime, and focus on PPC instead. If your goal is to get 1000 new subscribers by the end of the year, then you might spend a lot of time analyzing your demographic, determining where they hang out, and getting your name and content in front of them at every available opportunity. If your goal is to get #1 for term X, then you'll be focusing a lot on link building, using keyword term X in the link.

And so on. Your goals define your tactics.

Once you have a list of clear objectives, and a clear list of KPIs, the next step is to consider the age of your site.

2. What Type Of Site Do You Have?

New Site

One of the most important task for new sites is link building. The sites with the highest quality linkage tend to trump sites with lower quality linkage when it comes to rank.

Until you build links, then tweaking on-page aspects of SEO on a new site won't make a lot of difference in terms of rank. Get the basics right - keywords in the title tags, keyword focused content, strong internal linking, a shallow structure and good crawlability - but focus your efforts on attaining links. If that means establishing a large body of quality content first, then so be it. Others may choose to buy their way up the chain, or aggressively pursue social media opportunities.

Established Site

The opposite is true for an established site. Whilst links are always important, an established site can leverage on-page factors to a greater degree.

Once your site has built up sufficient link authority, then you may only need add a new page of content, and link it internally, in order to rank well. People running established sites may wish to focus more on producing quality, focused content, and let the linking look after itself.

3. The Five Most Important Areas Of SEO On Which To Spend Your Time

These are highly debatable, but here's my ranking:

1. Produce Remarkable, Attention Grabbing Content

Everything starts with remarkable content i.e. content worth remarking on and linking to. Do you have unique, timely content? Does you content solve a problem? Does you content provide a new insight? Does you content spark controversy? Does you content start - or contribute to - a conversation?

2. Crawlability

If your content can't be crawled, you won't rank. Ensure your site is easily accessible to both humans and search engine spiders.

3. Build Links

Google's algorithm is heavily weighted towards links. Beg, buy, or earn links, and rankings follow. Get your keywords into the link text. Building links also means building relationships with people. Spend a lot of time doing this, especially in the early stages.

4. Title Tag

It is debatable how much ranking value the title tag has, both it definitely has click-thru value. Your listing fights for attention with all the other links on page. What will make people click your link?
Learn the lessons of Adwords. Match your title tag to the keyword query. Solve a users problem. Arouse curiosity.

5. On-Page Content

Forget endless on-page tweaking. Largely a waste of time. Instead, keep a few keyword phrases in mind when writing. Use semantic variations of your terms in order to help catch long tail terms. Link your page to related pages, using keyword terms in the link.

Bonus: Watch Your Competition. Do What They Do

Download the toolbar. And keep a very close eye on your competition. Whatever they do, you need to do more of it :)

Summary

SEO used to be a technical exercise involving the isolation of specific factors that, when tweaked, lead to higher rank. It still is, to a certain extent, but much less so than it used to be. Therefore, there is little point looking at each factor in isolation.

SEO has become a lot more holistic and strategic, so by far the most important aspect is clearly outlining your goals, and defining a strategy to achieve those goals.

Good luck out there :)

Small Business Link Building Ideas

Dec 15th

It's easy for the big guys.

They have big advertising budgets. They have brand awareness. Every time they twitch, some business journalist will be writing up a story.

But what if you operate a small business? You have a limited budget, you've got a pile of other things that need doing, and very little time to devote to any one aspect of your marketing strategy. How do you build links without breaking the bank?

Let's take a look at how the small business can generate quality links, and do so without a great deal of time and money.

1. Use Your Agility

The small business has one huge advantage over the big business when it comes to SEO: agility.

For a big business to change, it takes time. There is layer upon layer of sign offs. There are meetings. There are lawyers, managers and shareholders. This is a difficult environment in which to undertake SEO.

The small business, on the other hand, can move very quickly.

Chances are, there are only one or two people making decisions, so use this to your advantage. Are there aspects of your industry where speed is essential? Can you react to fast breaking news before the big guys can? Can you spot fast emerging consumer trends, and publish information on them before anyone else does? To help you monitor breaking news and trends in your area of interest, sign up to trend sites, such as Google Trends, and monitor news feeds using Google Alerts.

Big business finds it very difficult to be controversial, yet controversy can be a great marketing tool. The Sex Pistols built a career, not by copying the establishment, but by butting heads with it. Everyone knows about "Will it blend?". That viral campaign was edgy, risky and out-there. If Blendtech hadn't taken that risk, they wouldn't have been worth remarking on. A blender is not a new invention, and there are a lot of big competitors making blenders, but Blentech made their name by being a bit wild and crazy.

Are there opportunities for you to go against the grain and stand out? If you do, you'll be link worthy. Can you borrow controversial ideas form other market sectors and apply them to your own?

2. Publishing Strategy

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get people to voluntarily link to purely commercial sites.

Consider adopting a publishing strategy that has a non-commercial angle. If need be, create a second site. It is much easier to get links for sites that have utility beyond selling a product or service. Create glossaries, unbiased buyer information, review sites, blogs, wikis, or industry news sites. Once the site has built up some link equity, and is ranking well, you can add your own advertising, or link it to your commercial site.

Try to create niche information sites that cover areas no one else is covering. Think small. If you're one of the few sources for a particular type of information, you stand to get more links than sites that compete in saturated areas. Try not to compete directly with the bigger operators. Redefine your niche until you can make your offering unique.

Take a step back from your site. Is it remarkable? Would you link to it? Be honest. Think about what it takes for you to link out. Why would someone link to you? Can you make the people linking to you look good? Consider writing favorable reviews about indirect competitors. Does your site provide genuine utility when compared to your competitors? Think about what problems you can solve for people that no-one else is solving. PlentyOfFish.com made millions by providing a free dating service when every other dating site was using a paid subscriber model. Provide information that solves a problem.

Links should follow.

3. Nail The Basics

Cover the basics of link building.

Get listed in relevant directories, local business organizations, and industry verticals. To find these sites, search on industry name + add url

Issue press releases whenever you have relevant information to share. Make a list of the top sites in your industry sector, and try to get a link from them. Can you offer to do something for them, like writing an article, in return for a link? Look at who links to your competitors. Use tools, such as Yahoo Site Explorer, to find these links

Make a list of those sites and see what your competitors did to get these links. Copy what they did. Put most of your efforts into getting quality links, rather than getting low quantity junk. It's surprising how few links you need in order to rank well, especially in niche areas.

4. Give Something Valuable Away

Web designers often give away templates. They create a template, and place their link in the footer.

Think about what you can create and give away. Compare the cost of developing these widgets and freebies with the cost of buying or chasing links. If you're providing something genuinely valuable for nothing, people are certain to remark on it, especially if your competitors charge for the same thing. You can also submit your offering to sites that feature freebies, such as TheFreeSite.com. While every other guy is "giving" the opportunity for a link trade - which isn't of much value - you're going one step further.

Offer coupons. Simply by offering coupons, you can get included in coupon and bargain hunting sites.

5. Local News Interest

Local newspapers and news sites are always on the lookout for local content. Unlike major newspapers, the barrier to entry is often low, but the link equity can be just as valuable.

Is there a local aspect to your business? Are there ways you can get involved in the community that would lead to reporters writing a story about you? Issue press releases with a local angle, and try and build up a relationship with local reporters. Offer to be a spokesperson for your topic of interest if they have future stories for which they need an expert opinion.

6. Sponsor Charities

Charity sites are often amenable to linking out to those who support them. The cost of the donation might be nothing compared to the value of a lifetime link from a well-placed charities.

Offer to do work of genuine value for the charity. Could you help them market their website? Design a new website for them? Can you write an article for them, or find a way of featuring in their news stories? These links are pure gold,and because it takes some effort, it is difficult for your lazy competitors to follow.

Search on terms such as donor, sponsors, and donations to find these sites.

7. Request A Link In All Communications

Whenever you mail someone, include a link request in the footer. The communication could be an order confirmation, an email newsletter, or an invoice. Here's an example on SEOmoz.

Highlight featured content in your email footer. Update the links in your email footer regularly, so people are more likely to look at them. Think of your communications as a call to action. How can you get people to engage further with you?

Start a Twitter account and post your articles. Do the same with Facebook and any other social media channels you use.

8. Participate

Go where your audience are.

It's not just about getting links that pass PR. It's about creating meaningful relationships. If your potential audience hangs out on forums, then post to those forums. Become a trusted member and advisor. People link to SEOBook.com not just because of the great information ;) but because of the quality of the relationship has been established in the past.

This approach will serve you well for the future. Google will be placing more and more emphasis on engagement metrics in order to determine rank. Why?

The problem Google was created to solve - finding relevant information - is morphing into a problem of locating quality information. There might be a lot of crawlable information on a given topic, so finding it isn't an issue any more. Finding the information people find most useful is the new challenge.

How people engage with your site is going to become increasingly important.Look to establish meaningful relationships, wherever possible.

Further Reading:

Search Traffic Growth Profile for New Websites

Dec 15th

There is no universal right or wrong to the overall SEO process and strategy. There are many ways to get to the end destination of ranking. This flowchart aims to show some of the stages new sites go through, and to help visualize the process of ranking.

Hope you like it! Feedback welcome. :)

Here is a larger image, and a PDF version.

SEO as a Change Process

Dec 5th
posted in

In a previous article, Baking SEO Into The Workflow, we took a look at the problems faced by in-house SEOs. Most of those problems occur because SEO forces a change in work process. Change - any change - is often met with resistance.

We received a lot of great feedback on that post, so we thought we'd delve a little deeper into this topic.

The Change Process

Change managers highlight three crucial factors in any change process:

  • Start at the top
  • Address the human side
  • Approach change systematically

"Any significant transformation creates “people issues.” New leaders will be asked to step up, jobs will be changed, new skills and capabilities must be developed, and employees will be uncertain and resistant. Dealing with these issues on a reactive, case-by-case basis puts speed, morale, and results at risk. A formal approach for managing change — beginning with the leadership team and then engaging key stakeholders and leaders — should be developed early, and adapted often as change moves through the organization. This demands as much data collection and analysis, planning, and implementation discipline as does a redesign of strategy, systems, or processes.".

Let's take these ideas and apply them to the world of professional SEO.

Management Strategy

Start at the top.

Management buy in is also the most crucial element. Without their support, it's unlikely you'll get anything else done at the lower levels. That's why change processes start at the top. So, how specifically does one approach getting management on-side?

Analysis

First, do a complete audit of the existing website and web strategy, and make a list of the problem areas that need changing. Order this list in terms of importance. i.e. crucial changes, nice to have, phase one, phase two, etc. Also make a note of how easy, or how difficult, each item is to implement. Think of it as a proposal, which is really what it is. This type of analysis will show that you're serious, organized and thorough.

Management are going to be looking for you to deliver more benefit than it costs to provide that benefit. If you can show you'll achieve this, you're half way there.

Sell It

Use factors such as competitive advantage and disadvantage. Show them where their competitors - specifically their SEO savvy competitors - rank. Estimate the level of search engine traffic their competitors receive.

Create value propositions. Try to get management to place a value on each visitor. What is the opportunity to get in-front of a customer worth to them? How much does it cost to get that same attention via existing channels, such as direct marketing, print, radio or television advertising? Compare this with the cost of implementing your strategy. Show them how they can both save money, and get more return.

Managers also want to get some idea of the following factors:

  • What is the cost?
  • What is the time to delivery?
  • What should your performance metrics/kpi be?

Be prepared to answer such questions.

Use case studies. Show before and after situations where seo has made a remarkable difference. Something that has been tried and proven carries less risk than the new and different. Remember, SEO is probably going to sound new and different to all but the most web savvy organizations.

Get management to commit to your strategy on a point by point basis. Insist that you'll only be able to deliver outcomes if this strategy is followed. Outline the risks of removing any element.

This achieves two things: it gets them to commit to your course of action. They'll back you if you receive push back from designers, developers and writers. Secondly, it provides a get out of jail free card. If you miss KPIs because you couldn't achieve all of the strategy i.e. the other areas pushed back, you can show them why you couldn't deliver.

The Human Side

You go into a meeting.

There is one of you, there is a small team of designers, and there's a manager who thinks he needs SEO, but doesn't have an understanding of what is actually involved. So how do you tell them that their strategy is all wrong, to stop building everything in Flash, and start designing to your exact specifications?

You could use the direct approach: "Listen up! Your strategy is all wrong, stop building everything in Flash, and start designing to my exact specifications!" A tough road, but if your daddy owns the company - certainly worth a shot :)

More likely, however, the design team has more authority than the SEO, especially if you're new to the job.

Softly Softly, Catchee Monkey

There's an apt British phrase: "Softly Softly, Catchee Monkey".

It means play it gently and carefully in order to achieve the outcome you seek.

If you lack sufficient authority to get your way on all decisions, as is the case with most SEOs who work within large organizations, then the softly, softly approach might be more likely to produce results than the my-way-or-the-highway approach.

Consider how people react to change. How did you feel when you were forced to adapt to change? Empathy goes a long way.

For example, try putting yourself in the designers shoes.

She may have graduated from a graphic design course. During her years of study, SEO wasn't mentioned once. She has been working as a web designer for a few years, and she's acutely aware that web design is a very poor second cousin to print design. In print, the designer has free reign, and can specify everything to their exact requirements. The colors, the size, the fonts, the look and feel.

On the web, however, she has to think about how her design is going to display on different screen sizes, how the colors are going to look on various monitors, and how different browsers are going to render the layout. She has to incorporate widgets and forms from the developers. She's got to present to management in a few weeks time. The top manager, who controls her bonus, likes to be wowed by cool, cutting edge designs. She jumping through all these crazy hoops that get in the way of her graphic vision.

Then in walks this new SEO guy and demands she retool the site so a search engine spider can see it.

If there's a fan in the office, it will soon be covered in something unpleasant.

How To Make SEO Fit In

One way is to not do anything.

Not every battle is worth winning. For example, lets say you're working in house at an agency, and the work is for an external client. The client wants a spectacular site, because he wants to impress his colleges and boss. The designer is happy to design it, because she might win an award. The client hasn't specified seo as a delivery requirement, as the clients customers usually find them by word of mouth, not via search engines. Is SEO really important here?

No, it's not.

The best approach, when SEO comes late in the piece, might be to inform the manager in charge of delivery that this site is unlikely to receive much in the way of traffic from search engines in it's existing form. You could specify changes, but is that really in the best interests of everyone? Does the cost/benefit stack up at this late stage?

Insist the person with the authority makes that call. If the client comes back latter and wants to know why their site isn't showing up in search engines, you can refer back to the meeting. Most intelligent people will come to their own conclusions that their process needs to change.

But lets say SEO is something the client wants, but is not knowledgeable enough to know that their web strategy won't deliver it.

If you're experiencing a lot of resistance, try splitting the work into phases. Make phase one low impact. If it's a Flash site, or some other major SEO headache, how about suggesting they add a print -friendly version of the site, with a link from the home page?

The designer will probably go for it, because in her head, the only people likely to see a print version are those who have already seen her flash version. They are simply choosing to print it out. You know better, of course. This is the version search visitors will see. Once these pages start drawing traffic, you then have some leverage for Phase Two. You've demonstrated the power of SEO, and if only they did more of what you request, then they'll get more search visitors.

Their call.

Once you can demonstrate proof of concept, you're on track to winning the war.

Natural Synergies

In my earlier article, I recommended that you keep a look out for natural synergies. Thankfully, not all designers are flash loving design heads. Web design trends have, thankfully, moved away from graphic-heavy approaches, and have moved towards providing ease of use and utility.

Suggest incorporating SEO-friendly elements that are also design elements. Examples include breadcrumb navigation, site organization and hierarchy, most important pages closest to the front, duplicate navigation schemes if the main navigation scheme is uncrawlable, and using Google site maps. None of these elements interfere with look and feel too much.

Attend the meetings where they map out site structure. If the structure is designed with SEO in mind, a lot of other elements fall naturally into place. Emphasize the fact you need to be brought in early, not late, on site design decisions.

Content Writers

In the web industry, content writers are most likely to slot into one of two schools of thought.

One is journalism. Journalism often consists of a top down approach, or inverted pyramid.

"The "pyramid" can also be drawn as a triangle. The triangle's broad base at the top of the figure represents the most substantial, interesting, and important information the writer means to convey. The triangle's orientation is meant to illustrate that this kind of material should head the article, while the tapered lower portion illustrates that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance"

The second is copy writing. Copy writing differs from journalistic styles in that the writing is crafted to elicit a specific response from the reader, rather than to simply inform. There is often a specific objective the copywriter needs to fulfill, and every word is likely to be carefully deliberated over.

Legal

A side complication is legal. Lawyers, as a profession, tend to be risk adverse. Their job, in this context, is to prevent libelous, defamatory, or untruthful copy from being published, which could expose the the company to financial risk.

There's no simple advice I can give on how to get around legal. They carry a lot of weight. Just be aware of the legal requirement, and keep in mind that the "aggressive link baiting technique" you had planned might not be an appropriate strategy for this particular company ;)

Will It Blend?

The easiest road is with the journalists. They are trying to answer the questions Who,' 'when', 'where', 'what' and 'how' . Try to frame your SEO requests in this language.

For example., say if your keyword term is "buy house in San Francisco". A reporter could work this into his copy by asking the "what" question, s in "what is happening?" e.g. "Recently, people looking to buy a house in San Francisco have had to contend with...." etc etc.

This is very much an on-going education process, but it helps if you're already talking their language. Provide them a list of keywords, and specific examples of how they can be incorporated into the article formats they already use. Writers might actually like you feeding them article and story topics. It makes their task a little easier. Try to think of ways you can frame your keyword research as article topic suggestions, or article research.

In terms of structure, try and devise templates that encourage SEO friendly formats i.e. short paragraphs with big headings to break up the copy. You could also argue this increases readability and usability.

Have designers and developers code the templates so related articles are suggested automatically. Include a related articles section. Build the SEO right into the article structure, so that a lot of the SEO happens without the writer having to think about it.

Guidelines For Developers

Developers are used to working to guidelines and specifications, so try and work SEO requirements into these documents.

Here's a sample guideline. There is some overlap here with design, so split them up accordingly:

  1. Use descriptive file names. i.e. dog.jpg, as opposed to image568765.jpg.
  2. Include title and meta description tag in all templates. Auto - populate fields from teh templates i.e. document title - where no over-ride exists.
  3. Use CSS to control font sizes, particularly header tags.
  4. Links should, wherever possible, include keywords
  5. Titles should use text, as opposed to graphics.
  6. Specify an alt tag for images
  7. Create a Google Site Map
  8. Use the following URL format: domain/page-title-name
  9. Avoid frames. If using frames, use the the noframes tag
  10. Create a custom 404 page that links to the site's main pages, or sitemap.

I'm sure there are plenty of other rules you can think of, and depending on how co-operative the developer is, there is a lot more detail you could go into. I find that the shorter the checklist, the more likely developers are to incorporate the changes required. Long lists just create headaches, so often go ignored.

Make sure they do the important things, and don't sweat the small stuff. At least, not in your first week!

Real Life

In real life, things are never this simple.

Humans are messy and complicated creatures, so there are few hard and fast rules, nor is there a prescription you can follow. Be flexible. Be aware. Communicate. A lot. Hopefully, the ideas above will help you formulate your own approach.

You're not alone. Most professional SEOs know exactly what you're going through :)

Related Reading

Holiday SEO

Dec 3rd
posted in

The holiday season is almost upon us.

In fact, it started in July.

More on that shortly.

Part of planning a SEO campaign, especially for anyone involved in B2C retail, is to optimize with holiday events in mind. Obviously, gift giving is a tradition that no retailer can miss out on, so SEO campaigns for the holiday season are often planned and executed well in advance.

Let's take a look at some of the keywords and trends associated with the upcoming holiday season, and look at a few strategies you can adopt in order to cash in.

1. Historical Research

It is fascinating to look at keyword trends, especially around this time of year. Go to Google Trends, and flip the date back to December last year.

Notice any patterns?

For starters, a lot of people are looking for recipes. If you have a food oriented site, include a section focused on preparing common Christmas meals.

People are also looking for stores and restaurants open on Christmas Day. Think about other holiday specific information you can include to capture this type of search traffic.

The other interesting thing to note is that people are still in the mood for shopping on Christmas day. Either they're looking forward to the after Christmas sales, they're looking for something to do, or they're looking for tunes to put on their shiny new Ipod. Think about how the nature of shopping changes on Christmas day, and the few days following, which should help you earn a bit more revenue than your competitors.

Here's an interesting one:

Calendar queries rise from Christmas day onwards, and peak in early January. A last minute purchase, obviously.

2. Gift Lists

Here are few examples of gift lists.

Amazon's Holiday Customer Review Team
Twelve Good, Cheap Christmas Gift Ideas
Geeks Bearing Gifts

Notice how these types of pages pretty much optimize themselves. You can create all sorts of gift lists. Gifts for him, gifts for her, gifts for mothers, budget gift ideas, etc, etc. It is a good idea to personalize the list. Add a human touch, such as a photo, or commentary, or both.

Search on those terms in Google's keyword suggestion tool, and you'll find a wealth of profitable terms and ideas for lists.

For example:

gift ideas for guys
gift ideas for geeks
christmas gift basket ideas
gift ideas for christmas
gift ideas for dad
cheap christmas gifts
unique gifts
corporate christmas gifts
romantic christmas gift
unusual christmas gift
unique christmas presents

Often, people don't know exactly what to buy. They're hunting around for ideas. Organized gift lists solve a genuine problem, and they're a great addition to your SEO campaign. They can convert very well, because the buyer intent is closely aligned with the sales process. Think about the sales funnel and incorporate the hunting stage - not just the buying stage - into your site.

Use sales data to help you decide on your list. What are the most popular and/or high margin products? Can you group these together into the type of list people search for? Link to these lists from prominent pages, like your home page, and try to get links from other sites. This will help drive sales, increase Page Rank, and rankings. And not just for this year - hopefully for many years to come. Can you come up with the definitive Christmas list for "gift ideas for *insert term here*"? You can swap out the products each year.

3. Start Early

If you're only just thinking about SEO for this holiday season, you're probably left your run a little too late. In fact, anyone who didn't have their campaign good to go by July probably left it a little late.

Check out this chart:

Year after year, people start as early as July on their Christmas shopping! They really start to go for it in October and November.

Start planning early for next year :)

4. It Isn't About Brand, It's About The Offer

Because Christmas has a set deadline, and a lot of people leave things until the last minute, brand is the last thing on people's mind. They're focused on solving a problem.

At times such as these, the offer is the most important thing. Your copy should reflect this. This may mean rewriting some pages, or adding new pages that specifically target this time of year.

Be sure to include delivery times, and assure people that their gifts will arrive in time, else they'll be going to your competitors who do emphasize this point.

5. Coupon Codes & Discounts

There was a time when retailers didn't offer sales and discounts during their most profitable time of year, but there's too much competition these days. People will respond to discounts and coupons, same as they do at other times, so try to work them in. Given we're in a recession, and people are likely to be feeling the pinch, discounts and incentives will be especially important this year.

Check out keywords relating to:

bargain christmas gifts
cheap christmas gifts
cheap christmas gift ideas
christmas coupons
sale christmas

etc....

Speaking of which, and since Aarons clearly already in the holiday mood, we are offering all SEOBook readers $25 off their first month's subscription fees by subscribing to SEO Book through this link.

First in, best dressed. :)

6. Seasonal Imagery & Details

Stores are awash with Christmas imagery, and with good reason. It compels people to spend. If you're selling gifts direct to the public, you should do likewise.

Test pages, using PPC, as early as July. Does the Christmas imagery increase conversion rates? What wording and topics produce better conversion rates at this time of year, compared to other times? Feed this data through into your SEO campaign.

The advantage you have over PPC is that PPC bid prices are going to go higher and higher as Christmas day approaches, whilst your bid price remains the same. Zero.

You just need to prepare well in advance.

Got Any Cool Holiday SEO Tactics?

Share 'em below :)

Baking SEO Into The Company Workflow & Culture

Nov 25th
posted in

There is a big difference between working on your own sites, and working on sites that belong to others.

When you work on your own sites, you can execute changes quickly, and you don't need to convince anyone else of the merits of your actions. However, within an organization, SEO requires significant buy-in on a number of levels. Failure to get that buy in can severely compromise the effectiveness of the SEO, which might - rather unfairly - see the SEO out of a job.

In this article, we'll take a look at the problems the SEO who is either in-house, or working on a clients site, faces, and a few ideas on how to deal with them.

Embedding SEO Into The Culture

In-house SEO is just as much about politics as it is about execution.

There will be various stakeholders, many of whom man not be be familiar with SEO. There will be people who will be openly hostile to someone else insisting they change the way they work.

No matter what, you're going to ruffle a few feathers.

The first step to achieving good SEO outcomes within an organizational structure is to get management buy-in.

Given that management have probably already hired you, this should be a relatively straightforward step. Management will want to see facts, figures and strategies that support the business case. Prepare presentations that demonstrate your proposed strategy, how it supports the business case, how long it will take to achieve, and what your measure of success will be.

Once these factors are agreed to, you'll have the backup you'll need to undertake the hard part.

Convincing The Minions

Various people need to buy into SEO in order for it to work.

Some companies locate their web team within IT, whilst others place them within marketing. Sometimes, the two business units share ownership of the strategy. The important thing to determine is who has the control, especially over aspects such as site structure, content production, and overall strategy.

Think of internal employees as customers. Also check out my article Overcoming Common SEO Objections.

Look to establish rapport with, and train, the various people who occupy these important roles.

1. The Manager

You must have buy-in from the person with the most control over the business unit responsible for web strategy. They will be able to provide the support and backup you'll need.

Managers tend to respond well to anything that helps them achieve departmental goals. These goals have probably been set by upper management.

Look for areas synergy exists. For example, marketing managers often have traffic goals, and similar visitor metric milestones. Show them how SEO will help meet those objectives.

This is why it is important to frame SEO in business terms, as opposed to just a technical process. Without management buy in, and aligned business goals, you're unlikely to get support for the technical changes you need to do.

2. The Designer

The designers are responsible for the look and feel of the site. They will probably also be responsible for site architecture. Architecture and design are two areas where you are likely to experience a lot of push-back.

There is good reason for this.

What is good for SEO might not be good for users or brand aesthetics. This area that needs to be carefully balanced. If the designers think the SEO is compromising the look, feel and operation of the site, then you're not going to get very far, no matter how good your intentions are.

If your designers are familiar with usability, and good designers will be, you're in luck. There are a lot of usability integration points that work for users, designers and SEOs. For example, breadcrumb navigation can be great for usability and SEO, as they allow for the propagation of keywords, and provide internal link structure. Be on the lookout for other areas that require little change and provide natural synergies.

Once you've built up trust, you may be able to get bigger concessions.

3. Writers & Content Producers

The writers provide the words. The content producers may provide video, pictures, and other media. You'll probably be dealing mostly with the writers.

Writers, especially if they have been writing professionally for a long time, can often be very set in their ways. Writers schooled in journalistic and copy writing techniques use methods that predate internet search engines, and often the internet itself.

Old habits die hard.

Once again, a way to get around this is to align their goals with yours. Show writers how much potential traffic there is out there and how keyword research can be used to suggest article topics and title ideas. Show them that by following a few SEO principles, they can get more readers reading their stuff.

Writers often have communications objectives i.e. to achieve wider reach and exposure, so there might be some obvious, natural synergies to be had.

Check out this tactic, used by Rudy De La Garza Jr at BankRate Inc to help convince writers to adopt SEO practices:

At Bankrate, Mr. De La Garza showed editorial employees that, for some articles, deciding on about 10 main keywords before writing could help increase their number of page views. Writers were already vying for bragging rights to the most popular articles. He told them: "You know what, guys? If we apply a few SEO tactics here, I can help you win the weekly battle," he says

4. The Developer

The developers are responsible for the technical aspects of the website. Developers need to be aware of the need for site response speed - they probably are already - and ensuring the site is crawlable. This job has been made somewhat easier, of late, given the introduction of Google Site Maps.

There might be various coding practices that can be changed in order to enhance SEO. For example, try replacing JavaScript behaviors, particularly for menus, with CSS techniques. Are there other coding aspects that could be enhanced? It might provide an opportunity for the developer to train in new technologies.

I've yet to meet a developer who didn't want to learn new ways of coding. It all adds to their CV.

Political Concerns

In any change process, there are a lot of political battles to fight. SEO is no exception.

This is where training and evangelism comes in. The more people who understand what you do, and how and why you're doing it, the easier your job will be. There is no one way of achieving this, other than to communicate as often as possible.

Using external metrics can help. Suggest that other companies are doing this, and what you're telling them is industry best practice. Create a sense of jeopardy that if they don't do it, they'll be left behind. Show people how having knowledge of SEO adds to their skill set, and thus increases their value to the employer.

Outside consultants can be very useful here. Short-term contractors usually aren't part of the political machinations of fighting for position and internal power plays, and can often be more successful at implementing change. Because their tenure is limited, they don't tend to be seen as a threat to career paths.

Ongoing SEO Best Practices

Once you've got people onside, you need to start building procedures into the work-flow itself. Amend and rewrite guidelines to make SEO part of the day to day process.

For example, when writing articles, writers should search for existing published articles, and include them in a related articles section. Have the designers build a "Related Articles" section into the template, so it becomes a natural part of the article creation process. Developers should use technologies that allow for crawling. Designers should use SEO friendly formats and templates, where possible.

In this video, Marshall Simmonds discusses, amongst other topics, how to create an in-house search team from scratch:

The best SEO is when people aren't aware they are doing SEO.

The SEO has simply become part of the furniture.

Have your Say

Have you worked as an in-house SEO? Or worked on SEO within a large organization? What challenges were you faced with? How did you overcome them?

We'd love to hear your stories in the comments.

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