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.

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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.

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?

Are You Using Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics? You Should!

by Alan Eggleston

Two tools you should consider adopting for your web editor’s toolbox are Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. Both are free from Google with a free gmail account.

Google Analytics

Let me start with the latter: Google Analytics. It tracks activity on your website or blog, including how many visits your site gets, how many are new or returning, how long visitors stay, how they got to your site, what they searched to find you, and more. There is a ton of information there if you mine it well, which can help you determine how to maintain your site. Google Analytics is easy to install: All you need to do is insert some code into your site and verify ownership.

Webmaster Tools

The former is equally informative: Webmaster Tools. It provides both data on your site and hints and tips on how to make it better for searches, which as we all know is key to finding you on the Web. The name may make you think this is only for a webmaster, but really, it’s meant for website decision makers. Whoever sets up the account can add users, so even if your webmaster initiates it, he or she can add you as web editor – or the reverse.

Webmaster Tools is a way for Google to alert the site owner to trouble: Are they having trouble reading any pages? You can fix it and have Google re-index them. Have they identified “unnatural” links? You can examine your links and fix the problem so they don’t damage your ranking. Has Google found malware on your site? You can locate and eliminate it. They can also look at your structured data to make sure it isn’t messing up the way Google reads and displays it.

More Useful Tools

In addition, Webmaster Tools allows you to tie your articles into your Google+ Profile for search ranking to help highlight your authorship. They also offer Google Places to make it easier for searchers to find local businesses and the Google Merchant Center to make finding products easier in a Google search.

There is so much more. Both Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools have blogs to help explain the services and forums for finding help. All can contribute to making life easier and more productive for web editors and their teams.

Battling “Unnatural” Links

by Alan Eggleston

Battling "Unnatural" Links

photo (cc) creative commons license by cogdogblog

Have you received an email notification from Google alerting you to “unnatural” links to your site and wondered what that was all about? It’s pretty simple, actually. Someone has set up inbound links to your site that don’t make sense to Google and they don’t trust the links for ranking. But instead of being so cryptic, Google is trying to help you identify and remove them. Search Engine Land, a leading media voice on search, recently reported on it, including a video by Google’s Matt Cutts.

The first step has been to send you an email notice of the problem, including some samples of the unnatural links. Also coming through Google’s Webmaster Tools are downloadable lists of the most recent links to your site, which will allow you to identify more unnatural links if more exist. They provide downloadable lists of domains that have links to your pages, more sample links, and the most recent links. This may become easier to find as it is rolled out, but here is how I found it:

Webmaster Tools > Website Dashboard > Traffic > Links to Your Site > Who Links to You Most (then More)

Unnatural links may affect the ranking of only a specific page or, if the unnatural links are more common throughout your site, they may affect the ranking of the whole site. So it is important that you pay attention if you receive an email notification from Google and try to eliminate as many problem inbound links as possible. Some examples of types of links that Google doesn’t trust include widget links, paid links, spam links from reputation management firms, and aggressive article back links (examples).

You may not even be aware of the inbound links others are creating to your site, which is another reason the most recent links list is valuable. They may be others in your organization conducting marketing you are unaware of, outside groups hired by others in your organization to do link marketing, or even competitors purposely trying to lower your ranking (so called “negative SEO“). Email notifications and Webmaster Tools can help you manage it to help you protect your ranking.

Using Google’s Free Keyword Research Tool

Trying to figure out keywords for your website? Try a recent article by Search Engine Land, the recognized non-commercial leaders in SEO. They explain in detail how to use Google’s free Keyword Research Tool to find the most relevant keywords for your site. And they explain why, despite what you might hear from some wayward SEO “experts,” keywords aren’t dead but very much still important in planning websites.