About alaneggleston

Writer, Editor, Book enthusiast

Time to Revisit Your Content Strategy?

by Alan Eggleston

Happy New Year! The change in calendar year is often the trigger to revisit your content calendar and your whole content strategy. If January or February is a down time in your organization, this is a perfect time to do one.

Does your current content work?

Photo by Victor1558 by Creative Commons license.

Photo by Victor1558 with Creative Commons license.

Many web editors often do a sweep of their content at this time and decide any big changes. This may happen at other times of the year or more often than once a year, such as at change in fiscal calendar or concurrent with annual share holder meetings, but often New Years is a convenient trigger. Maybe now is when you decide when that time should be and plan for it.

A more useful strategy is to revisit your analytics at least quarterly and adjust your content strategy based on site performance. Online publishing is amazing for its quick turnaround –  make that work for you.

What does your data tell you?

A deciding factor for changes in content direction is website performance. Take a look at analytics and decide what your stats are telling you – is your current content working and thus worth continuing, or do the numbers tell you that readers want something different? Are visits down or perhaps never really up in the first place? Do visitors stick around or do they come in and get out quickly? Do they visit a lot of pages per visit or do they hit where they enter and leave? Do they arrive at the home page or come in to the site in-depth? Where do searches bring visitors and what do they do when they arrive? Are purchases up? Have you experienced growth in any of those numbers? Analytics can provide you with a ton of great strategic information.

What is your search performance?

Another decision, and one where many web editors historically have been weak, is about search performance. How does your site do in a search? How many of your visits are from searches and how many from people who simply know how to find you? What search terms are they using, and are they the search terms you were expecting (and upon which you base your optimization strategy)? Which search engines are driving the most traffic to you? How many come to you by outside links or by social media and what does that say about your link and social media strategies? What is your search strategy and is it working (do a search audit to find out), or should you rethink that as well? If you don’t have a search strategy – a strategy to improve how your site is found in a search – now is the time to start working on one.

Search performance is often tied to search engine policy. Have you read and followed search engine guidelines or are you unwittingly running afoul of their rules and being punished for it?

What are the search engines telling you?

If there’s any possibility your site isn’t performing well in a search – and, thus, not driving traffic to you – it is worth your time and energy to register for and use search engine webmaster tools. First determine which search engines are driving the most traffic to your site. It may not be Google like you think. However, Google in particular will provide you a lot of feedback if your site is doing something wrong – if they can’t index your pages, for instance; if you have troublesome links; if you aren’t measuring up to their standards. And Google will often suggest changes to help you meet their needs and allow you to resubmit your site for indexing (a “reconsideration request“). If they’re penalizing you, finding out why and doing something about it is a great benefit. Explore the other search engine webmaster tool sites to see what they can tell you and help you fix if they are key to your search strategy.

Google introduced major changes to its algorithm the past couple of years that may have affected your search performance. Are you aware of them and how running afoul of them could affect your site performance?

  • Google Panda* – filtered for poor quality content such as unreasonable duplicate content.
  • Google Hummingbird – entirely rethinks search to add nuance, handle questions, and adjust for mobile search.

*Panda and Penguin were folded into Hummingbird.

Panda could affect your search performance if you run a lot of duplicate content or if your content is of little value in Google’s eyes. Google is OK with duplicate content for globalized sites where different versions of a site contain regionalized versions of the same content. But to aid sites, they introduced the “canonical tag” for URLs to distinguish original content.

Penguin could affect your search performance if your content contains low quality links, including link farms or doorway pages and spammy content and links in your comments sections, such as in blogs or news sections.

If any of these algorithms may have dampened your search performance, now is a good time to rethink how to revise your content to remove the penalties. For instance:

  • More actively administer blog comments to eliminate comment spam, which is rampant.
  • Recode content to add the canonical tag for original content.
  • Make sure writers create only original content and that editors filter for duplicate content (run a search on segments of content to look for duplicates).
  • Eliminate gratuitous link trading and external links that don’t make sense for your content.
  • Revise major current content to build more nuance to improve search performance.
  • Strategize how to build nuance into your new pages to improve search performance.
  • Ensure your site is designed to handle mobile, which Google has also said is now important.

Growth is about improving the search

Today, content is about more than providing interesting text on a page for readers. It’s also about how you attract readers to your page and sustain readership. It’s as much about how you build the page and work with search engines as it is about publishing itself. As you rethink your content calendar – now, at New Years, or at any other time of the year – think about how you bring the reader to you.

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Authority – How to Build it into Your Site

by Alan Eggleston

As a website owner or builder, you are trying to work with three search algorithms created to thwart hacking of search engines: Google’s Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird. Your best strategy is to try to build more authority into your site, which works with the best sides of all three of these algorithms. According to Google, to build authority means to build quality.

Defining Authority

How to Build Authority into Your Site

Photo: Friends of Europe on Flickr, Creative Commons license. Photo was edited from original.

What is “authority”? Think about authority in general: An authority is someone you trust to give you reliable information, a source you go to for good information. It’s the same on the Internet. When search engines assign authority to a website, it’s someone they feel provides solid, reliable, verifiable, unique, factual information. They tend to be news or media (who report firsthand on events or people), reference sources (who list facts rather than opinions), universities or other institutions of higher learning (who catalog histories, facts, reports, or research), and original sources (who report on research). In business, they tend to be brands (who own patents and trademarks, establishing their ownership of technology).

Unless your website is among these, how do you build authority in your own right?

Building Authority

Look at what most of these authority sites do in garnering or protecting their authority: They publish volume or quantity, reliability or quality, unique information and usually first-of-a-kind, factual information or opinion based on unique research, verifiable works with rugged footnoting, featuring usually named and tested contributors and online, vigorous linking. You can do this, too.

Volume: The more you publish the more variety you are likely to have and the better the indexing you are likely to have. Volume can be number of pages, but also length of pages. Doing both would be better. Number of pages creates depth of site, length of pages creates depth of content, and search engines like both.

Reliability: Anyone can write but only authority figures write quality content that readers return to time and again. Readers “like” quality articles promoted on Facebook, give them “1+” on Google+, “RT” on Twitter, and – most important – link to them on their blogs, in forums, and in comments sections. Write good content that others can’t find anywhere else and watch readers pass it along.

Unique: The Internet is full of duplicate articles, although less so since Panda came along (Google estimates 25-30% of content is duplicate). Still, lesser quality writers can’t pass up the desire to duplicate success and repeat what works for others – sometimes even plagiarizing works. Blogs are full of repeat material. Authority figures write their own and write on topics first. Break new ground on the topics you cover!

Facts: The Web is full of opinion and fluff. Authority figures write facts or opinion based around their unique research, research their unique position, or their knowledge makes their opinion valuable. So either bring new light to facts or discover new facts to bring new light to your readers. Use facts to your advantage to put them to your reader’s advantage. If your site sells products, create new ways to look at products using facts.

Links: A lot of sites use links merely to tap the ranking strength of the links. Go another step better and add authority to your site by citing sources or providing your reader with more information. This might be less useful for you on a higher-level sales page than on a lower-level information page.

As an authority, you want others to link to you. You still need to be careful that links to you and that to whom you link aren’t garbage links, but on the whole, quality links are good and help build authority. The more authority your site has, the easier it should be to encourage links, but promoting them should still be part of your strategy – just avoid doorway offers.

White papers: Go into depth and show your knowledge on a topic by writing a white paper on your area (or areas) of expertise. Caution: These need to be well done, far above fluff or promotional pieces. Similar to white papers are studies, poll examinations, definitions, and more rigorous research papers that provide value to your reader and establish your authority in the subject.

Leadership: Be the leader in whatever community you find yourself. If you have a website and can add a blog to take stands or create growth in that community, that’s another way of building authority. If as a website editor or publisher you can rally employees who are “community” leaders into writing posts for the website (for instance, one of your R&D techs or scientists could write information pieces; nursing or health care supervisors could write tip articles; or real estate staff could write local articles to help people moving to the area) that could help establish authority for your website.

Promotional writing: Promoting your website on social media or in professional or other industry journal websites could also help build authority, including adding links to pages in forums, blogs, on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and on Quora (perhaps address a question on your website and then refer to it in an answer on Quora).

Establishing authority, thus, means becoming an authority and with that producing quality content. It can be hard work, but it will be worth it in the ranking power you will build.

Why Keywords Still Matter

by Alan Eggleston

“Keywords are dead,” scream the headlines. If you believe the screamers, keywords went the way of the buggy whip and the BetaMax. Not so, and I’ll tell you why.

Photo: Phillip Stewart, creative commons license.

Photo: Phillip Stewart on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

At the heart of every search is a keyword. Or a couple of keywords. Or a string of keywords. But even at the heart of a keyword string is still a keyword. Every search begins with a kernel concept of what the searcher is looking for – the keyword, even if someone searches in the form of a question or asks by voice instead of by keyboard. “Restaurant.” “Chevrolet.” “Tacos.” “Book.” The search widens as the topic narrows to “a” restaurant or “a model” of Chevrolet or “a kind of” taco, so the keyword string better defines the search. It may be a universal search or the string may localize.

As a content provider, you still need to decide the overarching keyword and keyword string that defines your content. Then you need to optimize your page for it so – whether as a couple of keywords or a string or a question – a searcher can find your page. That should form the basis of your page title, meta description, H1 headline, some anchor text for links, and so on. More on meta tags in a moment…

Google would say, you write the content and we will decide the keyword string and where you place in any particular search in meeting that searcher’s needs. Content providers have been so concerned with making a top ranking, they have kept trying to rig the system to rank instead of trying to provide great content. The result is Google Hummingbird. Today, Hummingbird simplifies the search by looking at your content and finding nuance for the keyword string. But even with that nuance added in, you still need to begin with the keyword and keyword string. Working diligently with keywords gives you control of your content – not working with them gives the control over to your competitors.

What Do I Mean, “Optimize” for the Keyword?

What does it mean to optimize the page for your keyword? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t mean repeating the same keyword over and over again – keyword stuffing. That doesn’t work anymore. It means creating content that better defines what you mean when you write about that keyword. It means varying the words you use in your content to establish the nuance that supports the meaning behind your keyword. It means building links and anchor text that also add nuance through connecting to meaningful content – on your site and off-site.

So, what is different for keywords since the introduction of Hummingbird? Not much, it turns out. It is much harder to simply stuff a page with keywords, especially since Google killed off its free keyword tool and keyword reporting program. However, it hasn’t reduced your need as a publisher, editor, or writer to know your audience and reader and vary your keyword vocabulary. Google does offer the keyword planning tool as part of its AdWords program, and it allows you to use it free even if you don’t advertise (it says). And there are keyword tools on Bing and Yahoo, which are just as useful for defining keyword use. Furthermore, there are other “free” keyword tools (also this one and this one), meaning you get to use them free for a limited time – so use them wisely and use them sparingly.

How to Plan for Keywords

How would I plan for keywords today in the Hummingbird era? I would still plan pages around a keyword as before, but instead of amping up one keyword I would create nuance for it building quality content and quality links with useful synonymous keyword derivatives. For instance, if my site was about Chevrolets, I’d build in content about the Chevy, the Malibu, the Cavalier, the Impala, the sedan, the SUV, the car, the automobile, and so on. I would have a content-rich site that included not just sell copy about what’s on my lot and the service department, but also about the dealership, the company, GM, and the history of the brand. I’d also link to Chevy enthusiast groups and have a blog and keyword-rich social media links. Finally, I would have an FAQ page that addressed questions people might ask online trying to find my site.

How to Use Keywords in Anchor Text

A few words about keywords in link anchor text: Google has said it will penalize for using only keywords in links. They want you to vary the anchor text for links. For example, instead of always using “Google” as the anchor text for a link to the Google site, they’d like you to use more generalized words like “search engine” or “leader in search” or “did a search on such and such” or whatever words would fit the context of the link. The same would go for your site – also for link URLs. Don’t always use the home page of a site – go deeper into the site. Instead of www.google.com, go for www.google.com/about for instance, depending on the context.

How to Use Keywords in Meta Tags

I’ve heard suggestions that to optimize for Hummingbird you should write page titles as statements. I’m not sold on that. A page title functions much as a subject heading in your local library book catalog. The page title is where the keyword is very important and that the root keyword needs to stick out. Everything else has to build the nuance around it. Furthermore, search engines limit the number of words/characters you can have in a page title, so you shouldn’t waste those limited elements on useless statement words. I would focus on the keyword in the page title, then work with some nuanced keywords in the meta description, headlines, and especially in the body text and links. The meta description needs to be a statement but also has a word or character limit (I have found success with a 150 character and spaces limit) – again, be efficient with keywords and nuance-building words.

So, do keywords still matter? They sure do!

Are they harder to work with? Most likely, but even so you’re going to get more bang for your search if you don’t panic and optimize efficiently.

Will Google change the game again? Of course! But that’s what makes our work so interesting.

Optimizing for Google Hummingbird

by Alan Eggleston

Google Hummingbird – how do you optimize for it?

Green-breasted Mango hummingbird

Photo by: Kat&Sam on Flickr by Creative Commons License.

First, you need to know what it is. Google Hummingbird is a new search algorithm that seeks to differentiate the nuances of meaning in a search, not just identify a search’s keywords. It is preparing the way for searching by asking coherent questions in the search window instead of just entering keyword strings. (Have you seen the new Google TV ad of the kid prepping for a class speech? It’s all about asking questions.) You will still be able to perform word-string searches, but Hummingbird will maximize the question search.

Second, you need to know how that affects a search. To do that, you need to remember a little history on search. In the early days, you did a search by entering a keyword; you might have looked for “painter” or “artist.” A few years later, the search engines refined searches so that you entered a couple of words; you might have looked for “art painter” or “fine artist” or even “Renaissance artists.” When mobile Web intensified and competition for search results became more critical, the search string got longer; you might have looked for “fine artist in New York” or “Midwest landscape artists.” Today, with Google Hummingbird, the emphasis is on answering questions and figuring out what the searcher is really asking. Did she ask, “Where are the best Midwest painters?” as in where is the quality best or as in where are they most numerous – or what?

Now, you need to know how that affects your site ranking. A site that relied on keyword stuffing and other keyword cheats to get high rankings isn’t going to do well with Hummingbird. Working with a couple of keywords with a little bit of content won’t tell the search indexers much about your site. But a site that has provided a lot of information with a slew of terms and links to authoritative sites that better help define the keywords will garner a lot of nuance and will do great with Hummingbird. Similarly, a site with a lot of pages that contain a lot of content will do well.

Keywords are still important – they are just harder to manipulate a site around. Similarly, links are still important but harder to manipulate for ranking.

Optimizing Tips

So, how do you optimize your site for Hummingbird? Most important, I would make sure my site had a lot of content – and not flimsy, me-too content, but great, quality content. Then I would make sure I built quality links that helped support the concepts I am building in my content. Finally, I would start by asking a series of questions I think searchers might be asking in a search and try to answer them in the content to help build relevancy to that nuance. A page of highly relevant FAQs or Q-and-A’s, for instance, could be helpful, as might be a page with questions as subheads that you answer in the body text – but don’t overdo it (not on all pages, for instance).

One thing is becoming clearer with all the recent changes by Google – not making keywords easy to find, multiple Penguin and Panda updates, the new Hummingbird algorithm – search engines want you to stop focusing on keyword manipulation and focus on creating good, quality content. They want you to stop looking for cheats to the guidelines and focus on optimizing for the guidelines. My own experience is that continuing to do the SEO basics (as provided in the search engine guidelines) provides stellar results. A client who was doing great before Hummingbird was released is doing incredibly well now.

Finding Free Images Through Image Search

by Alan Eggleston

Images (photos) can add impact to an article. They can add emotion. And they can add understanding. An article on a website or blog without an image may inform, may entertain, may even motivate, but it certainly won’t convey in the same way as one with an image. At least, a well thought-out image. For all those reasons, every editor should consider balancing the web page with text and an image.

Images add value to articles.

Photo: JoshArdle Photography by Creative Commons license.

Yet, one very good reason many websites and blogs don’t include images on their pages is cost. A good image can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, well beyond the budgets of many small businesses and certainly beyond those of most bloggers. But using images doesn’t have to be expensive. I’ll show you how to find useful, meaningful images without the cost.

Some Images are Free

There are free image sites. Google the string “free images” and you’ll find them. Some are free to access the catalog but there is still a licensing fee to use any of the images. Some are free to access the catalog and use the images, but the quality isn’t always the greatest. Some you don’t find out whether the image is free until you locate the image and check the photographer’s licensing agreement.

Well, there’s a much better way to find free images.

I find my images by doing an image search on one of the major search engines. They all work a little differently, but all involve filtering the image search for creative commons license use when I do the keyword search. The easiest, by far, is with Bing. Google is second easiest. And Yahoo is the third, with the side benefit that it’s allied with Flickr.

Finding Free Images with Bing

To find an image to use for free using Bing:

  • Go to the Bing home page and click on the “IMAGES” main navigation tab.
  • In the search window, enter a keyword or keyword string for the image you want (example: “chains” or “chain link fence”). Hit the enter button or click the search icon.
  • Now in the gray top filtering bar, click “License” and in the drop-down list of choices click:

for commercial sites or blogs

    • “Free to share and use commercially” or
    • “Free to modify, share, and use commercially”

for non-commercial (personal) sites or blogs

    • “Free to share and use” or
    • “Free to modify, share, and use”

Bing cautions in their online help page, and it’s always wise to follow:

“When you find an image that you want, go to the originating website for the image and determine the actual license for the image. Next, go to the Creative Commons website and make sure you read and understand the license and its provisions, restrictions, and attribution requirements.”

Finding Free Images with Google

To find an image to use for free using Google:

  • Go to the Google home page and click on “Images” in the main navigation.
  • In the search window enter a keyword or keyword string for the image you want. Click the enter button or the search icon.
  • On the results page, click on the gear icon at the far right above the image display. In the drop-down list that appears, click on “Advanced search.”
  • At the bottom of the Advanced Image Search page, under “usage rights” (defaulted at “not filtered by license”) choose:

for commercial sites or blogs

    • “free to use or share, even commercially” or
    • “free to use, share or modify, even commercially”

for non-commercial (personal) sites or blogs

    • “free to use or share” or
    • “free to use share or modify”

Again, once you select an image, go to the image on its original website and verify the license language to make sure it is indeed free and that you understand what is required and allowed.

Updated: Google Chrome offers a plug-in for finding duplicate images, which may make it easier to find an image’s original owner and original licensing. Read about it here.

Finding Free Images with Yahoo

To find an image to use for free using Yahoo:

  • Go to the Yahoo Image Search page.
  • In the search window, enter your keyword or keyword string. Click the enter key or the search button.
  • When the image results page comes up, click on the double arrows “>>” in the upper left under the tabbed main navigation.
  • Now look at the new left hand navigation and click on the last item: “Labeled for Reuse.” That will filter the images for those that allow you to reuse them. Unfortunately, that’s as focused as the filtering goes.
  • When you find an image you like, go to the original image on the original website and see what the licensing requirements are.

Finding Free Images with Flickr

A photo storage service allied with Yahoo is Flickr. Each user gets a terabyte of storage for their photos and they can determine as they store their photos how they want to license them. You can search the site for photos and the ability to use them. Here is how:

  • Go to the Flickr home page (or access it through the Yahoo home page).
  • In the search window at the top right, enter your keyword search word or search string and hit the enter key or click the search icon.
  • On the image results page, beneath the search window at the top right, click on “Advanced Search.”
  • At the bottom of the Advanced Search page, click the box for “Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content” and if they apply, click also either or both:
    • Find content to use commercially
    • Find content to modify, adapt, or build upon
  • Click the “Search” button

Always verify that the image you want is free for use as filtered by going to the original image and reading the licensing restrictions and requirements.

Attribution

Often one of the restrictions listed with a creative commons license is the requirement that you attribute ownership of the image. It probably makes good sense whether or not they ask for attribution to give it, since you are using their work. I usually go one step further by linking the photographer’s name with their website. Often their work is on Flicker, allowing them to showcase their other works.

  • Here is what my photo attribution usually looks like:

Photo: Rusty Clark, creative commons license

(See it here.)

So don’t let cost be an excuse for not adding visual impact to your articles. You can afford “free!” – with a little image search and time.

Optimization and the Competitive Analysis Audit

by Alan Eggleston

In my last article, I talked about how to conduct a search audit. Those are very useful for determining your site ranking and whether your site is optimized for search. However, they won’t help you position yourself against your competitors as much as a competitive analysis audit will. This article is about how you can do that.

Photo: Pixaby, creative common license in the public domain.

Photo: Pixaby, creative common license in the public domain.

1. Who are your competitors?

First, identify your top two or three competitors (or perhaps it’s one big competitor). Compare your website rankings against theirs for the keywords or keyword phrases for which you optimize your site. If you rank higher than any of them, great! Then you should work on improving your ranking if you don’t already occupy the top spot.

On the other hand, if any of your competitors rank higher than you, you need to analyze why. That means examining their source code, links, and social media.

  • Compare search rankings on Google, Bing, Yahoo, and any other search engine that drives significant traffic to your sites. Look for their sponsored ads on various search engines, too. Because results that show up in sponsored ads can bring quick response, you may need to invest in them, too, to be competitive.
  • In a competitor’s source code, look for agreement between title tags, description tags, and body text (and on Yahoo, keyword lists); look also for use of alt tags on graphics and images, text links at the bottom of the page, file names using keywords, image names using keywords, and such elements as positioning of keywords in headlines, paragraphs, and so on. Do they use H1 and H2 tags on headlines? In short, what are their SEO best practices? Also, what are their SEO “black hat” practices – do they violate any guidelines*? How can you perform even better on your site?

*In a very competitive market, when someone violates guidelines they put all others at an unfair disadvantage, especially if others are following the guidelines. Be aware that if you report a competitor and they find out, retaliation is always possible, even if you aren’t doing anything wrong. Reporting is anonymous, but that doesn’t mean competitors won’t find out.

  • Look for your competitors on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. There are others, too, but let’s start there. Are they engaging customers there and leading them to their website? It can be a big advantage you should consider jumping into if you aren’t already. Look on their home page for icons linking to other social media sites.

2. How do you compare in a search?

Second, look at the meta tags on competitor sites and do a search audit to see who ranks highest for their keywords or keyword phrases. If you don’t use or optimize for their keywords, should you? Does this give them a competitive advantage if you don’t?

  • Make sure any keywords you optimize for are true to your business and your message.
  • Look for ways to best them for relevancy. For instance, can you mention the keywords earlier on the page than they do? Can you position keywords for a phrase in a more logical order? Is there any “low hanging fruit” you can take advantage of, such as using H tags on headlines where they don’t? Do they not use unique page titles and descriptions on their pages? Optimize better than they do!
  • If location is key to your business success or if you’re considered a local business or organization, is your location (most usually city) part of your keyword string and prominent on your home page? If you have multiple locations, do you have location pages to support that?

3. Where else do competitors have a presence?

Third, look for competitors in directories like search engine maps and registries (such as Google Places), business registries (like Merchant Circle and Local First), and industry or professional registries. You should consider registering with them especially if your competitors are there.

  • Most directories are free but you can buy higher postings. Look for your competitors in the choice spots. If they show up there, you may need to invest in the same choice spots to be competitive.
  • If your site gets a lot of mobile business, make sure you register with Google Maps and Google Places, and even if you don’t get much attention on Bing or Yahoo, register with Bing Maps and Yahoo Maps to make mobile search easier.
  • Register for multiple categories where available. For instance, if you’re a hardware store, don’t just settle for hardware. Register for plumbing, electrical, building, and any other area the registry may cover.

4. Keep your eye on your competition.

Finally, conduct your competitive analysis audit periodically. As the saying goes, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” Your competitors may be doing the same thing and making adjustments that you’ll need to counter. New competitors may enter the market, or competitors who weren’t a factor before may suddenly surface. I would at least compare rankings monthly for a few months and then do a more thorough audit if ranking results are volatile.

Build on Your Own Strengths!

Note: Most small businesses and organizations aren’t SEO-savvy enough to do an audit so when you do one you have the advantage. However, some hire SEO companies to conduct campaigns for them and they will be savvy. The important thing is to learn what your competitors’ optimization strengths and weaknesses are and then counter them by building on your own strengths and reducing your own weaknesses.

Search Audits – Finding Out Where You Stand

by Alan Eggleston

Photo: Alan Eggleston screen capture

Photo: Alan Eggleston screen capture

One of the first actions I take for a client – whether I’m providing SEO services or simply writing or editing copy for them – is to perform a search audit. In addition to doing the thing they ask me to do, I want to know, where do they stand today in a search, and how can I build on that (and certainly not make it worse)?

When you decide to make changes to your website, you should know where you stand in a search, too. And you should take actions that will do it no harm. The best way to know where you stand is to do a search audit.

What is a search audit?

Like any kind of audit, a search audit is an analysis. In this case, it looks at the basics of your website and attempts to see what results a basic search returns and how your website contributes to it. Here is what I do in a basic search audit.

My basic search audit

First, I set my search tools to “any time” and “all results.” I also clean out my browser cache, history, and cookies; these, plus location, can affect results. (See Google’s Search Settings for more details.)

Next, I do a basic organic search using the relevant keywords and phrases for my site and see where my site shows up and how my site compares with my competition. This isn’t an exhaustive search, more of a cursory search to see if my site shows up in the very important first three pages of returns, how I’m competing with others whom my potential customers may also find, and for my most critical keywords and phrases.

Afterwards, I look “under the hood” of the site – in the “source code” to see what optimizes the site or what acts as roadblocks to search. I’ve talked about these before, but to summarize:

  • Meta tags: Does every page have a unique page title, description, and list of keywords? Does every image and graphic have an alt tag?
  • Positioning of elements: Is the top of the page code heavy, or are indexable heads and text at the top?
  • Head tags: Do headlines and subheads use the H1, H2, H3 (etc.) head tags to add weight?
  • Strong tags: Are keywords bolded or italicized with “strong” and “emphasis” tags on first use to add weight?
  • Links and anchor text:  Are keywords given authoritative links using a variety of external URLs and anchor text that tell search engines they are meaningful and highly relevant to your page?

To look at source code in a Windows browser, right click on the page and in Chrome scroll to “view page source”; in Internet Explorer scroll to “view source.”

I also verify that there isn’t anything “black hat” in the source code that could earn penalties, including hidden text, keyword stuffing, link stuffing, and so on.

More robust audits

If I’m doing SEO work for the client, I do a more exhaustive audit including more keywords and phrases, identifying and searching for specific competitors (a competitive site analysis), and searching through greater results depth. For very competitive industries or for clients where local results are particularly important, I focus more on local results.

I also look at inbound and outbound links more thoroughly. Search engines penalize for linking to spam and sites that aren’t relevant to your topic, so it’s important to ensure you don’t accept link exchanges or links with no real connection to you or your organization, including links further down the link matrix. One way to review links is through the links reporting in your analytics program (Google Analytics includes this feature, which also allows you to disavow negative links).

This is also a good time to consider how you approach social media interaction. Facebook, LinkedIn, blog, and other social networking likes, retweets, shares, forwards, and other interactions that indicate an acceptance of your content add value to your site, and if what gets passed on includes a link to your site, all the better. So be sure to add links to interior pages to your site and a way to pass them on.

Also good to check is whether your site is registered with certain professional and industry directories, which provide opportunities for links, and listings like Yellow Pages, Maps (Google, Yahoo, and Bing), Google Place, and Local First.

After the NSA PRISM surveillance revelations, some people looking for additional privacy have started using less prominent search engines, such as StartPage and Ixquick. Google and Bing remain the dominant search engines, but for the immediate future, don’t forget to account for this shift in source of traffic.

It’s all about building traffic

All these elements and more can affect how search engines view your site and, thus, your search ranking. Your whole purpose should be to optimize your site for searches so people who want your product or services can find them. Performing an audit will help you find where you come up short and improve your site. That is your goal, right – bringing in more traffic?