Optimizing the Elephant
Over the last couple of days, (my wife and) I have been questioning the sanity of writing a Do-It-Yourself, Search Engine Optimization (“SEO”) Primer. Do we really need another one? So, I did a Google Search for “SEO.” It returned 41.5 million results in just over one-half second.
Well, there’s my answer – “Yes,” we need it. In fact, with that many “hits,” on a term as esoteric as “SEO,” how the heck DOES a small business with limited resources, ever hope to be found by someone who wants what they offer? Even more daunting: How do they show up on the first page of results – where more than two-thirds of people limit looking? I’d say small businesses need all the help they can get.
As of this writing, there are also some big changes going on, regarding how Google evaluates websites. A lot has already been written about this, but (in my opinion) very little of it for the non-IT, business person. Most rational people do not follow this industry – they have better things to do, like having a life, or running a business, or both.
Unfortunately, some of these changes may impact these same people – greatly, and before they even realize they’re happening. If my websites (which provides sales and leads) suddenly dropped out of the search results, I’d be very concerned and more than a little irritated. If I was then informed it was because I was being penalized, I’d be down-right ticked. Because the guy I paid to manage these things was playing “fast and loose” with the rules?
I. Would. Be. Livid.
So, like anything else, there comes a point where I need to be involved, whether I want to or not.
SEO for the non-IT Bussiness Person
As I mentioned, my goal is to provide this series for the non-IT, business owner. There are plenty of SEO experts (trust me on this one – or, just ask them) who will tell you that you don’t need to do any of this – just leave it to them (“for the paltry fee of $xxx per month”). I am also fairly confident that for anything I say here, there will be multiple, other opinions. So, I offer this as just my experience and what I’ve learned through additional research. If you find it useful, I’ve succeeded.
There is one caveat: this is still a somewhat esoteric and technical subject. I will attempt to make it as non-technical as possible. While there will necessarily be some technical discussion, I’ll try to keep it at a minimum.
SEO is Getting Found Online
So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, we’ll discuss how to get your website ranking higher, in the Search Engine Result Pages (“SERPs”). Why do we care? Because where you rank; how closely you match someone’s query; and how trustworthy your business appears, has a direct impact on your revenue. Search Engine Optimization is about ‘getting found online.’
Once you’re actually found, you have another, subtly different challenge – getting the phone to ring. That (‘getting the phone to ring’ – a type of “conversion”) depends, at least partly, on how well your website conveys relevancy and trust to the user. How well does your offering match their expectations from a query?
Google’s new algorithms attempt to better combine the two – how prominently you’re displayed and whether you’re worthy of calling. And, for those who have been gaming that system (e.g. using technical tricks to appear more qualified to a search engine) Google’s become better at penalizing.
What Optimizing the Elephant Isn’t
One philosophy that has served me well over the years, is that sometimes I don’t really know what I want until I have some idea of what I don’t want. So, if you’re looking for quick-and-easy ways to skirt around Google, save yourself some time and look elsewhere. If you want a simple plug-in so you can ignore these issues, I don’t have it.
However, if you’re open to learning a few things – even if it’s just to better understand what your SEO vendor is doing and why – I’ll do my best. If you’ve got some ideas on how I can improve, please let me know. I may not always agree with everything somebody tells me (and occasionally, for semi-rational reasons), but I do try to at least listen.
Understanding the SEO Dynamic
In my experience, I find it somewhat difficult to fix something I don’t understand. In some cases, I’ve found that to be flat-out dangerous. On the flip side, I am also a firm disciple of the “if it’s working, don’t fix it” school of thought.
So, what exactly is our challenge? Simply, it’s: “how to align our desires/wants/needs with Google’s.”
Somehow, I suspect that as much as we might “deserve” it, Google is not going to be expending inordinate resources to make sure they meet our “free-advertising” requirements. Therefore, we might be well served by looking at some of Google’s concerns. We might also look at why their concerns are important.
In order to better quantify a website’s “Content Quality” and “Trust,” Google continuously refines the algorithms used to rate it. Their goal is to display it appropriately in a list of results to a given user-query. Those algorithms have matured over time and in response to companies’ efforts to be displayed as prominently as possible. Today, Google can recognize, and more importantly PENALIZE, sites that mask weak quality with technical “trickery.”
Stated even more simply: “The ‘Black-Hat’ SEO stuff is gonna hurt.”
So, What Does Google Want?
There is a great deal of debate about this, and Google does provide us with guidelines and clues, but no company is going to divulge everything to their competition. I am however, convinced of a couple of things. First and foremost, Google wants to make money. (Don’t we all?) They do this predominantly through advertising.
Their most widely recognized product is a search engine. People use it because they trust it to give them relevant, reputable and quality results – quickly. Google’s revenue stream is based on the quality of their offering – just like the rest of us. But, let’s look at a couple of those words a little more closely, because they define some of Google’s challenges, as well:
- Relevant = adj. Closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand
- Trust = n. Belief that something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.
- Quality = n. How good or bad something is. A high level of value or excellence
- Reputable = adj. Well thought of, highly regarded, respected
How they gain and keep these characteristics depends on how well they return search-results matching a user’s query. Think about it. If you are searching for a local supplier of dog food and the first three pages of results are for generic, Canadian Viagra, that pooch is… uh, never mind – let’s not go there.
Regardless, not only does that impact Google’s credibility, it impacts user-satisfaction and ultimately Google’s revenue stream. They have every reason (and pretty much facility) to protect that revenue stream.
Again, simply stated: “Google does not like spam.”
What Does Google Expect?
Google publishes how they expect you to conform to their best-practices. Whether you look at their Webmaster Guidelines, news releases, trade shows or whatnot, the core directive is always the same: build websites for users, and build quality, trusted content into your website.
The better you do that, the more prominently you’ll be displayed.
That’s it? That’s “all” we have to do?
For a large part, it is that simple. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Do any of you have limited IT/web budgets? Do you compete against larger or even multinational corporations? Do you simply dislike being told what you can’t do?
Google’s Real Challenge
Google’s real challenge is ultimately “how do you technologically QUANTIFY quality and trust?” That is no simple task. For our purposes, the answer is that they have to approximate or infer it. This brings us to:
J. R.’s Law of Metrics:
“The ease of measurement is inversely proportional to the importance.”
Stated differently: “If it’s easy to measure, it’s probably not that important.”
Corollary: “If it’s important, it’s gonna to be a bitch to measure.”
Inferring Content Quality and Trust
So in reality, the only things Google can really measure are things that infer content-quality and trust.
So, what are those things?
We’ll get to that in a minute. In fact, there’s a brief exercise at the end of this post to help you determine some of those very things about your own website. But, before we delve into that, let’s go back and look at the things we want. How do we make sure our desires are still fulfilled, as we attempt to align with Google’s.
What Do We Want from SEO?
Being a little self-centered, my desire is pretty straight-forward:
“Whenever someone is looking for something I offer, or even remotely related to something I offer, I want to be the first and only result displayed – every time.”
(In the immortal lyrics of the Kinks, in What Do You Want from Life?: “Well, you can’t have that…”)
If you’re anything like me, I suspect you haven’t seen those types of results, either. But, realistically, how do we get as close to that ideal, as possible? That then, is the real purpose of this exercise – “how to make sure we are prominently displayed whenever someone searches for our offering – without breaking the bank.”
How Do We Get There from Here?
The easiest way is to build content quality and trust right into our websites, right from the very start. You all did that, didn’t you? If you did, you’re already most of the way there. However, I suspect that there are a couple of you who are reminded of the old adage that haunts me:
“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.”
You didn’t do that? You inherited a website that was predominantly an online brochure? One that’s been tweaked over the years, by who-knows how many different people and with no documentation? Welcome to the club – it’s a big one. If that’s the case:
“The second best time is today.”
The hard reality is that you have a decision to make. Can you start this on-going journey of updating your site to become a quality, trusted site; or, are you better off starting over?
While that sounds frustrating and like “just another irresponsible technology problem,” it’s no different than the decision you’d make on any other piece of equipment in your business. Why should it be? Your website is just another business tool. If you’re spending more money maintaining it than you are replacing it, it’s time for a new one (or at least refurbished one).
I have a small woodworking business, I run as well as this webcraft one. I absolutely detest spending money on things I already own. I “get it.” But, I invest in good tools. I’ve also had good luck with well-refurbished tools. My operating parameters are pretty direct: I want them accurate, dependable, sturdy, lasting and easy to use and maintain. When it comes to my shop-tools, I conform to those guidelines and I’ve done well. Why would an electronic tool be any different?
Start the On-Going, SEO Heavy-Lifting Now
That said, if you’re going to scrap everything and start over, you may still find value in the rest of this series. It will help guide you on how you build your website. More realistically, it will help guide you as you work with a vendor to design and build your website. For the rest of us, I will attempt to break down the refurbishment into manageable chunks.
Please remember that this is not intended to be a complete, step-by-step “how-to,” but a conceptual guideline for what needs to be done. The specifics will vary with your environment, your business and your other needs.
In SEO, Work is still a 4-Letter Word
As you get started, I warned you earlier that this was not an easy, nor a one-time task. It is ongoing and entails that four-letter word “work.” However, if you’re running your own business, I suspect that’s something you’re neither unfamiliar with, nor afraid of. It’s just a slightly different skill-set.
So, let’s get to it.
I’m going to lay out a general idea of how to get started. Let’s evaluate the content-quality, for now. We’ll get into more of the specifics next week, but this exercise should get you prepared for that discussion. What we’re going to do, remembering Google’s challenge with quantifying quality, is take a structured look at content.
Our goal is making your site better for USERS.
To do that, we’ll look at:
Optimizing each page – hence, the “byte by byte” concept
Evaluate each page and do keyword analysis
Evaluate Page Titles and Descriptions
Evaluate Images, Descriptions, Tags and Links
Evaluate Links (we’ll go far deeper into this, but for now, just evaluate)
Define and Implement a strategy to match your site’s content with its desired Keywords
Optimizing categories of pages
Optimizing the home/index page
As we move forward, we’re going to start looking at some of the more technical issues, too. Those simply focus on making your site more friendly to crawlers/bots/search-engines. In today’s environment, those are still important, but secondary to making it friendly to users.
Select a single page from your website
Choose one of your better webpages, but not the main Home/Index page or one of the Categories – one of the more specific ones
Make a “Keyword” List
Make a list of words and simple phrases you think should trigger that page being found. Do it on paper. Make an actual “list” – one word per line, top to bottom, down the page. List everything at first. You can go back later and strike the ones that might not truly apply. Think a little, take a break and even discuss with others. But, make a thorough list.
(Note: At this point, DON’T simply go through your page and pick out the keywords. You want to know what keywords you WANT or this page – whether they’re already there or not is a different issue.)
Make a good list – you want it to be complete, but also relevant. We’ll learn about some tools that help this process later, but for now, let’s go through the exercise, because we want to better understand those tools, when we do use them.
Compare your List to your Page
After you’ve made your list, look at the text on your page
- How many times do those specific words show up?
- Are they in context?
- How original is the copy on that page?(Is it a copy and paste of the manufacturer’s product description?)
- How easy is it for a novice user to understand?
- How friendly is the page in general?
- Is it easy to navigate?
- How long does it take to load?
- When was the last time the page was updated?
Which of the above items can you rank QUANTITATIVELY – with a number?
Compare the Page Title and Description
If you know how, or have someone in your organization who knows:
- What is the title of the page?
- What is the exact description?
- What are the H1 and H2 headers?
(If you don’t know, don’t worry – we’ll get into that in a bit. Just make yourself a note to come back to it.)
Compare the Images
With the same qualifiers as before:
- What images are on the page?
- Are they relevant/appropriate to the context of the page?
- What are their titles?
- What do they link to?
(Again, if you don’t know how to do this, don’t worry – we will cover it.)
Compare the Links
Look at the Links on your page. Include those that:
- Are in the menus
- In the Header and Footer of your page
- In the text-area of your page
- How many do you have total, in all areas?
- Do they link to other pages of your website?
- Do they link to other websites?
- If they link to other websites, are those locations appropriate to the context of THIS page?
What is your “Quality” and “Relevance” rating for this page, based on the different Keywords/Phrases you listed?
How closely do all of those pieces of information correlate with your list of keywords? Can you put a “number” on them? How do you compare with a similar page for your competitors?
How’d you do?
Hopefully, you have gotten two things from this exercise. The first might be an appreciation of Google’s challenge in ranking a webpage. You’ve probably begun to figure out that the things they can put a hard-number ranking on are limited. But, you can also see where those might INFER relevancy and/or quality. And, secondly, you are starting to get a grasp on what you might need to do to begin ranking higher in the search results.
Next Week: “Pandas and Penguins and Ranks! Oh, my!”
Next week, we’ll look a little into what we know about two of Google’s algorithms (Panda and Penguin) that help measure things, and hopefully broaden our conceptual framework. Continue reading Search Engine Optimization: Problem? What problem?