When you’re working on the web, the topic of SEO (aka Search Engine Optimisation, or optimization for any American readers) is always going to come up at some point or another. We don’t offer specialist SEO services, but we do know a couple of things about SEO. However we’re constantly struggling to find a good way of explaining what exactly SEO is to our customers, whether they need it or not, and if they do, then how much do they need? What’s worse is that there’s a lot of self proclaimed “SEO experts” out there who do nothing to help people understand in simple terms what SEO actually is, and quite often it’s only after spending money with one of these crews that people stop and think “Hang on, did I need that?”.
So, this post is our attempt at writing some simple and readable info on what SEO is, what it isn’t, and maybe to help you decide if it’s something you need to look into right now.
Note: There are also a lot of hard working SEO consultants out there, and our apologies that you guys get painted/tainted with the same brush. The ones I’m referring to in the first paragraph are those who run a 2 minute Google Webmasters report, send it through without any context or explanation, and then charge $1000 for it.
Ok, so what *is* SEO, actually?
SEO can be likened to some strange voodoo ritual, chanted by mystics that results in the gods of Google blessing your website and you receiving a huge increase in visitors and sales.
Well, no, not really – it’s basically about refining and adjusting your content and your site so that people can find content that interests them. The focus is supposed to be on the people who are searching for things, not on you or your website being “#1”. If your site contains something that someone is searching for, then you want to help the search engine (i.e. Google, Bing, whatever else people use these days) to know that.
Why is that important? Simple – because if your content isn’t relevant or interesting then no amount of SEO can really help you. There’s a well known phrase that says “Content is king”, and it’s true, because the foundation of the internet is built around the fact that if you have a site filled with interesting stuff, then people are going to come read it. If not, then they won’t. In some ways, SEO can be like the special sauce on a burger – that sauce can make a good burger an excellent burger, but on its own that special sauce is not going to do much for you as a full meal.
At this point, you might be wondering “Why don’t you just check how Google works, and then do everything possible to make Google happy?”. Well there’s a good answer to that – Google are very secretive about how their processes work (and on top of that they quite often refine and fine-tune their inner workings), and so all the recommendations you might get from anyone on SEO are all based on guesswork, combined with trial and error.
What we’re trying to say here is that before even thinking about SEO, your first stop should always be to read through the pages of your site, and ask your self some simple questions:
- Is this the best content I could write? Is it interesting and engaging? Would people want to read it?
- Does this content accurately reflect my business, the services I offer or the products I sell?
- Does it contain common words and phrases that I want to be associated with my business, and that I think people might be using in searches?
- Does the content ever change? Is there a reason for people to check back after an initial visit, or is everything static and unchanging?
- Does the design and layout I have look interesting and tidy? Does it jump out and grab people, without distracting them from the content?
If not, then there’s a good place to start, and if you’ve got a Content Management System (CMS) like Ignition’s Site Foundation Framework then the good news is that you can make most of those changes yourself (design changes in the last point are usually the exception, and will usually require some consultation).
If everything from the above checklist is looking in tip top shape and you still want more (and who can blame you) then maybe some SEO could help you, but to help you make that decision it might be useful to have a few examples of some of the ingredients of this special sauce. I say some, because the sauce’s recipe differs for every website, however there’s usually some common ingredients.
Here are a few examples:
- Adjusting page titles – as funny as it sounds, your page titles can make a big difference to people’s ability to find your site (but guess what? There’s no one simple “best format” for page titles, it’s a case of trial and error to see what works best for YOUR site)
- Adjusting page “meta data” – this refers to fields that contain small pieces of data that help describe your page. The most common example of meta data is the ‘description’ and the ‘keywords’ field, however recently the keywords field is falling out of favour, and some people will advise removing it entirely while others still claim it makes a difference and should be present.
- Your URLs – people will be happier clicking on a link if it’s obviously what they’re looking for. For example, consider 2 links: www.mysite.com/289489/tabid/73/articleID/108136/Default.aspx vs. www.mysite.com/about-our-services/. With the latter example it’s pretty clear what you should expect to see, with the first example it’s not quite so clear! Be careful when adjusting these sorts of things however, as although it might be easy to change these URLs then you’ll need to make sure that any links on your site are also updated to reflect these changes!
Once again, if you’re running a CMS then it’s likely you can change all of the above yourself – certainly that’s the case with the Site Foundation Framework, and most other commonly used CMS packages.
Here’s a few more examples of special sauce ingredients:
- Getting external links – each external link to your site is kind of like a mini recommendation. The more links you get, the better your content looks in the eyes of search engines. There’s many ways to get links – the most common is quite obvious. You ask for them. You may need to link back in return, or be able to offer some way of saying thanks, but otherwise it’s as simple as that. Other easy sources of links are from Facebook and Twitter, if people are talking about your site there then that’s a nice source of inbound links. There’s also slightly dodgier ways of getting links – such as “content spamming” links on popular blogs or websites (content spamming is as simple as it sounds, find a popular site or blog and leave a comment with a link back to your site in their comments section – don’t do it!).
- Writing press releases – have you done something worthy of note or interesting? Have a press release to tell the world! It might sound grandiose, but it’s quite common.
- Adding a blog or a news section – while this one is probably more in the ‘Content’ category, it can at times be considered a special sauce ingredient.
Want more? Ok, here’s some technical examples:
- Looking at the speed of your site, where it’s hosted, what sort of resources it uses (some additional items such as custom/external fonts will require additional loading time)
- Use ‘Good’ HTML – the HTML (the language of the web) your site uses should be ‘good’ (Guess what - it doesn’t need to be perfect).
- Ensure you’re using basic tools, such as Google Analytics (to measure your visitors and see what sort of search terms they’re using) and the Google Webmaster Tools (to check for any critical)
I’ve written more about some of these technical aspects in the past – if you want to read more then try this link, however note that it’s largely aimed at a developer audience.
Here’s a question for you to think about. Looking at the 4 sets of bullet points above, applying some common sense, and thinking in general about the sorts of things that Google might be interested in, which set(s) of bullet points do you think would have the most affect on the number of visitors for your site? Does answering that question help give you a feel for where the best value for money for improving your site could be found?
So, in Summary
What SEO is:
- Refining or tweaking your content
- Adjusting “meta content” (i.e. pieces of content that describe what’s in each of your pages)
- Getting inbound links to your site
- Something to be done on top of good content
What SEO is not:
- A magic “I WIN” button to save your business
- About being “#1 on Google”
- A definitive science
- A replacement for having interesting content
I’ve got a SEO Report for my site – What does it mean?
Anyone (EVEN YOU!) can generate a SEO report for your site using free services such as the Google Webmasters Tools. They’re pretty easy to use, and will spit out a load of information. If you’ve just paid for a SEO report, then chances are if you ran a free report from Google Webmasters tools then the two would look incredibly similar.
The real value is not in the report, it’s getting some honest information and help about interpreting the report, helping you to focus on the important bits that are really going to make a difference to your website, and not getting hung up on every single warning and recommendation that might be made. What I mean here is that saying “Make the page load faster” probably isn’t going to help if your content is awful. People need to want to load the page before making the page load faster is going to be any help to anyone!
Here’s another question for you – if you ran a SEO report on some of the world’s most popular sites, do you think that report would come back saying “Perfect! Nothing to do”? If you do, then you’d be wrong – because SEO is not an exact science, you could pick many sites that are doing incredibly well, run a SEO report over them, and obtain a list of errors, warnings, recommendations or ideas for improvement. This is because SEO is very subjective, and there’s no completely right or completely wrong answers.
Good SEO services vs. Bad SEO services
This one is also a little subjective, and this is largely our opinion, but for what it’s worth:
What is a bad SEO service:
- Running a report from a free tool and not explaining the results
- Ignoring the fact that quality of the content is the single biggest key to a site’s success
- Not offering helpful recommendations about actual changes that can be made
- Confusing site owners with technical jargon that they don’t fully understand (As a site owner, do you want to understand what VIEWSTATE is? Do you want to know that while it can be an issue when it is of a huge size, that when it’s small then it’s not a problem? Do you want to read 20 pages of discussions from people arguing either way as to whether it’s an issue or not? No, you don’t. Do you?)
What is a good SEO service:
- Realising that content is king, and looking to augment good content rather than replace it
- Having a good understanding of the analysis tools used, knowing which warnings can be ignored, and which revisions will make a big difference
- Being willing to stand behind recommendations
- Explaining things in understandable language, rather than hiding behind a veil of technical jargon (this one is hard, as everyone has a different level of understanding here, and some things need a certain about of technical information in them, but it’s a matter of finding a balance on a per customer basis rather than churning out the same report for everyone)
- Not trying to convince a customer that a few minor warnings in a report are the reason their site isn’t successful
So, is SEO snake oil or special sauce?
If there’s one important thing to take away from this post, it’s that SEO can be an important factor to your site’s success, but it should never distract you from focusing on having well written and interesting content, and a visual design that’s attractive as well as functional. Good SEO techniques can definitely be the special that makes a tasty meal an excellent one, however on their own they’re not going to automatically “make your site #1”.
Let me say that again, on its own, as it really is that crucial: It’s important to stay focused on your content, and not to treat SEO as a magic bullet.
If you’re a site owner, we’d love to know if you found this post useful, and if there are any other things you might want to know about SEO. Please let us know via the comments, or get in touch via our website.
If you’re a SEO professional and either agree or disagree with anything here then please comment and let us know, we’d love to have a chat with you and edit this post accordingly. What we’re really looking for is some helpful information for customers so they can understand SEO fully, and have appropriate expectations when spending money on SEO, which in the long run will benefit good practitioners of SEO.