Thursday, 19 September 2013

SEO training seminar - how well do you know Google?

Yesterday I visited The E Word for one of their free monthly SEO training seminars. My agency has collaborated with The E Word on past projects, and I was recommended the training by a digitally-minded colleague who has his certificate for "successful completion"of the course proudly displayed on the agency wall. The offices aren't the easiest to find, especially by public transport, but the building itself is a small "annexe" with corrugated iron roof and modern, open-plan interior.

I was greeted at the door by the second of the morning's speakers, and promptly offered a choice of breakfast (pain au chocolat, croissants, flapjacks... well, cereal would just be boring!). The Managing Director, Dan Nolan, presented the first half of the morning's session. Nothing too flashy, just a good old-fashioned Powerpoint presentation and interesting content.

I am going to attempt to share with you some of my notes from the seminar...

Three key elements to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO):

  1. Code - if written badly, the coding of your site can slow down its loading time (and, with people now increasingly expecting fast loading sites, this is important to remember). Make sure your code is as succinct as possible.
  2. Content - make sure it is relevant to the topic of your website and that it is useful for people visiting your site.
  3. Links - search engines will look for inbound links to your site to suggest it is trustworthy and good quality content (if other people like your site, so will Google!).
Something I hadn't fully appreciated until yesterday was that "keyword stuffing" no longer works. A few years ago it was possible to get up the Google ranks for a keyword (ie. a word that someone is likely to search for) by just repeating it an awful lot of times on your web page. This would result in people using white text on white backgrounds so that users couldn't see the words on the page, but Google would recognise the content as normal. My driving instructor's old website was a perfect example of that - I wish I could share a screen grab but that site is long gone (now he seems to have a mobile site as his only website instead... love you, Chris, if you're reading this!).

The process that the search engine will go through in order to rank your site is:
  1. It "crawls" the page (looks at everything on it)
  2. It then indexes the page
  3. and ranks it accordingly using algorithms that predominantly focus around content and links
A good tip for getting up the ranking on keywords for your website is to put yourself in the shoes of your consumer or target audience. I would use my own blog as an example at this point, but my articles are so sporadic and unrelated that I can only dream of good SEO! Using my agency's website as an example though, we like to call ourselves an "ideas business" rather than just a creative agency or a design agency. We also tend to refer to our PR team as "media relations". But in reality, a user is going to be searching for "pr agency" or "advertising agency manchester" etc.

In fact, 1 out of 4 searches now include a location. I think we as the Google users are becoming increasingly savvy about how to get the results that we are looking for. 'Google Venus' is an upcoming algorithm being developed by Google at the moment which will recognise the location you are searching from and then display results specific to where you are. As pointed out by Dan in the seminar, this could be both a blessing and a hinderance depending on the nature of your search. If you are a big global corporate wanting to search for something location non-specific, then this algorithm is going to be a pain in the neck. We'll see how that goes for Google...

Whilst getting your keywords right is imperative, it is also important that you don't put yourself in front of the wrong audience by using the wrong keywords. For example, if you are a high quality wine merchant, you don't want your website to appear for a search of "cheap wine" or "discount booze" etc. This isn't on-brand and it isn't going to display your site to the intended audience. Google Adwords (Google's pay-per-click advertising service) will allow you to specify negative keywords so that your ad does not appear in such unwanted searches.

High traffic to your site isn't necessarily good traffic. You might still have a really high bounce rate (rate of people going to your site and leaving immediately). So remember that the ultimate goal is always conversion, rather than traffic. Even if your site isn't e-commerce, you are still selling an idea, a message, brand awareness etc. in some capacity. The more specific someone's search that your site appears on the rankings for, the more likely that person is to be interested in what you have to say/offer - as exemplified through my very simple diagram:

When researching your site's keywords, ensure that you...

  • Hold a focus group so you can all pitch in ideas - write down everything!
  • Analyse where your competitors rank highly but Googling terms yourself
  • Consider the terms that might appear in your user-generated content, such as blogs and news articles
Dan reckoned that anything between 5 and 30 keywords is sensible for one website, depending on the size of the business and the budget available for SEO. You should persevere with testing your initial list of keywords for 6 months - no less - as seasonality will affect what keywords are most popular. And don't water down your keyword results by including unrelated content on your website - keep the content on-topic, as Google uses semantic indexing (LSI) to understand what your website is about.

Google is getting better at recognising synonyms in keyword searches, so not only will it now correct misspellings (which is accurate most of the time), but it will display similar search terms in its results. eg. cuisine / food. 

As I mentioned at the start, generally the rule is that the more people who link to your site, the more trustworthy your site looks to Google - although Google will be able to tell if all your links are spammy and all mysteriously linked in the same way, so make sure these are links from relevant sites pointing to relevant content on your site. If you do a deal with a few mates that you'll point your site to theirs in return for them linking back to yours, Google will see this and it will count against your ranking. A link is ultimately seen by Google as a mark of approval, a recommendation that your site is going to be interesting.  Quality is better than quantity when it comes to links!

In order of most loved and trusted sites for your site to link from, with the most loved and trusted site links at the top, good links come from the following:
  1. Authority sites (universities, government, news sites - have a think about how you could get them to link to your site!)
  2. Industry influencers (people who can retweet / share content)
  3. Blogs
  4. Directories
  5. Article sites
Creating interesting content is in my view the ultimate goal with a website, and is also absolutely key to SEO. Your site should be a resource for your audience. 

Content should be:
  • relevant
  • unique
  • engaging
It's great if people are sharing your content - this means more inbound links after all. But be careful that people aren't copying and pasting your content onto other sites. This devalues your content from Google's point-of-view. Check for duplications using Copyscape.

Although it's an expert on all things word-based, Google is not yet capable of seeing or hearing - so visual and audio content does not impact on SEO. However, it will recognise the file names given to any images or videos on your site, as well as tags and descriptions - so make sure everything is labelled with this in mind when you are uploading content.

Videos and pictures are really important in improving dwell time on your site, even if they don't directly affect Google ranking. Engaging content is key to avoiding high bounce rates - and an example of a good bounce rate for an information (not e-commerce) website would be <40%. The bounce rate for e-commerce sites is naturally higher, as users quickly switch between sites comparing prices.

To give your content unique value, ask yourself: What hasn't been said before? What can I add to the online world that someone else might not have already said? Dan's tips included:
  • thought-leadership blogs
  • infographics - informed by surveys and data
  • top 10s
  • press releases
Include content that people will want to share and pass on!

Bearing in mind the keywords being searched for in order to find your website, it is a good idea to begin sentences with keywords as this is bound to capture your audience's attention more effectively... and it also helps SEO! Think about where the user is going to go next. You want to keep their interest, yes? Then provide them with the next step. If you want to sell them an item, give them a 'Buy now' button. If you want their business, make your contact details readily available at all times. It's not rocket science (well, some of it might as well be!).

As I said before, the loading time of your page also impacts on how likely your audience is to stay on your page. Test your page's speed using Google's page speed tool which will look at both desktop and mobile speeds. You should aim for a result in the mid-90s out of 100.

I was wondering why GooglePlus was still managing to cling on to the social media market, and it might have something to do with my next point: Google loves GooglePlus. Who 'da thunk it, I know! If you're posting blog articles, link them to a GooglePlus profile (I need to practise what I preach) and remember to include +1 buttons on shareable content as you would with Facebook or Twitter buttons.

A general good social media buzz is an effective tool in improving your site's SEO. If you've got something to say, don't just say it on your website. Push it out to all the channels you can, being careful not to duplicate word for word of course. And send it to key influencers who might link back to your article (increasing inbound links and traffic).

Google Spiders will crawl (or visit) your website regularly depending on how often your website is updated. So if you carry out updates three times a month, then Google will review it three times a month. In terms of updating their own search engine, however, Google updates two algorithms every week, so it's vital that we all stay up-to-date with our websites' SEO.

Cost-wise, an SEO plan should break even after a year.
A freelancer will charge £300-£1000 a month.
An agency will cost £2000+ per month.

Finally, we were left with some summarising top tips to take away with us (you will see that I've focused more on some than others):

  1. Produce content that reflects the priorities on your site
  2. Make your site a resource - show that you're passionate about your industry and create shareable content
  3. Add metadata to all your pages
  4. Have a logical site structure and content plan
  5. Use free Google tools (eg. Webmaster) to inform your conversations with web developers
  6. Consider your relationship with other suppliers - they could be a great source of links to your site
  7. Focus on high quality, relevant links
  8. Use social media to your advantage - set targets for yourself, find relevant people to follow you on Twitter and share content

And in case you were wondering who is in charge of SEO at Google, it's a man called Matt Cutts who has his own blog. Type his name into Google and see if he's first in the rankings...

Well, it would be a bit embarrassing if he wasn't.

Register for The E Word's next training session here.


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