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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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.

Removing Roadblocks to Quality SEO

One of the unsung rules of search engine optimization (SEO) is: First, put up no roadblocks to efficient indexing. Of all the things you can do to optimize your website, the thing you have the most control over is how easy you make it for search engines to index. This article is about the most typical roadblocks and whether you choose to set up or tear them down.

Heavy Programming Before Any Content: Look at your source code: If there is a lot of code – multiple lines of code – before any headlines and body text, you have a roadblock. It’s usually java script or CSS programming, which can be written in a separate file and referenced as a single line of code for the browser to find instead. Doing that doesn’t involve a significant delay for the browser and it improves SEO significantly.

Content Positioning: The best SEO occurs when the first thing a search engine spider sees after the <head> tag is content. Move your headlines and body text as close to the top of the page as possible. Insist programming and CSS code be separate files referenced as single lines of code to alert the browser and then get to the content.

Flash Programming: A major roadblock to SEO is Flash. It looks nice on the page, but search engines do not index Flash, and if that’s where your message resides, no one will be indexing it – or finding it in a search. Overrule designers and go for the indexing instead of the sex appeal. (Yes, search engines can index text in Flash, but most Flash does not involve text.)

Graphic-Heavy Pages: A page of graphics and images or a page heavy in graphics and images instead of text is not indexable. A search engine needs text to index your site. Designers like to build graphic-rich pages and place images high on the page for the visual impact, but they won’t do you much good if no one can find you! (And words in a graphic or image are not indexable text.) Alt tags with keywords for each and every graphic and image will help but are not adequate substitutes for body text!

Drop-Down Navigation: Navigation done right provides good internal linking, but drop-down navigation built with java script is not easily indexable and is a roadblock. Again, it looks sweet but it won’t serve you well in a search. There are other ways to build drop-down navigation without using java script.

Inadequate Content: Search engine spiders like at least 250 characters of body text to determine keyword relevancy. Can you use less than that on a page? Certainly – but it’s a roadblock to optimization. Do yourself a favor and provide enough content to index.

Inadequate Links: Search engines follow links and determine a site’s subject matter and authority based on its links, both internal and external, both inbound and outbound. Links are a roadblock when there aren’t enough to help build your site’s reputation. You don’t need a lot of links all at once – in fact, it’s probably best to build links over time.

Bottom Text Links: Search engine spiders read from the top of the site and from the bottom, so a set of text navigation links at the bottom help reinforce your internal links. In addition, if your navigation at the top features hypergraphics or java-script drop-down links or other roadblocks, bottom links can become the only way a spider has to follow content into your site and determine relevancy for your pages.

A subset of roadblocks to SEO are slowdowns to good SEO. They are comparable to having access to the Interstate highway and driving the minimum speed. Here are some examples that will help you drive closer to the maximum speed and make the most of indexing.

H Tags: Using H tags for headlines (H1 for the main headline, H2 for the next level of subhead, H3 for the next, etc.) helps not only establish the hierarchy of importance, they are also a signal to search engine spiders of the importance of the text in the headlines and subheads – like using the <strong> tag in the body text to highlight or bold important words. Not using the H tags represent a slowdown because these are tools you should be using that aid the indexing of your site.

Strong or Bold and Italic: Other tools you should be using to highlight keywords, this for body text, are the <strong>, <bold>, and <italic> tags. Using these with keywords is like waving your hands at the spiders and saying, “Here’s another important word on my site!” If you don’t use them – judiciously of course – you are driving in the slow lane.

Keyword Positioning: Search engines think the closer to the top and front of a page a keyword is, the more important it is to the page. So it will place more importance to that keyword when it has key positioning. In a race with a competitor in search results, the one with the best positioning (among other factors) will get the best ranking.

Top and bottom of the page: You should use your keywords as close to the top of the page as possible and again at the bottom, because that’s where the spider expects to see them and where it assumes your most relevant words will be.

Front of the paragraph: Use your keywords in the first paragraph as close to the front of the paragraph as possible to show search engines this is what your site is about.

Front of the sentence: If possible, begin your first sentence with your keywords. If not, use them as early as possible in the first sentence or within first couple of sentences – the sooner the better. Make it read naturally, of course, but bring it up quickly.

These adjustments, all considered “white hat” actions, should help you remove roadblocks and slowdowns so search engines get a better, quicker read of your site.

Tightening the Screws on SEO Cheaters

by Alan Eggleston

With Panda, Penguin, and now EMD (Exact Match Domains), Google is tightening the screws on SEO cheaters. Don’t get caught between the screws.

Google has been tightening the screws on cheaters – black hatters who try to pull tricks on search engines to artificially improve their rankings in searches. It sometimes also affects optimization practitioners who think they’re white hatters but are skirting the edges of the rules or simply trying to compete with others who are skirting the rules. With Panda, Penguin, and the new EMD algorithm, it’s getting harder to manipulate the page to improve your page ranking. But not impossible.

I’ve talked in earlier articles about how to avoid getting caught up in algorithm changes: Follow the search engine guidelines. I’ve been doing it for years and have yet to suffer a set back for doing the right thing. Here is a brief synopsis of how to handle these three relatively new dangers to SEO:

Quality Content (Panda Filters)

  • Provide unique, well written content created for the reader not for the search engines.
  • Don’t repeat content and handle material from content farms with caution.
  • Forget about content aggregation and do your own content.

Quality Coding (Penguin Filters)

  • Avoid spam techniques.
  • Optimize your site to be found not to rank high on search engines.
  • Write for the reader not for the search engines.
  • Follow search engine guidelines in spirit as in rule.

I haven’t said much yet about the new EMD algorithm but it can be no less lethal to the spammer:

Domain Name Pages (Exact Match Domain or EMD Algorithm)

  • Optimizers who otherwise follow search engine guidelines should be fine
  • Use an exact-match domain but write content natural to your audience and don’t exaggerate keywords to over-emphasize the domain.
  • SEOs who keyword spam to match the EMD will lose ranking – find a more natural mix!

I have seen mixed results on exact-match domains. One client with a domain name match has improved ranking because we have followed guidelines – a competitor who does not has been blown out of the water.

Losing ranking from any of these filters or algorithms is avoidable. And making your website visible to your audience or customer is doable. The search engines are going to continue tightening the screws on cheaters, and you don’t have to get caught between their screws.

Body Text: Optimizing Content Without Keyword Stuffing

By Alan Eggleston

Optimized body text is as important to higher search rankings as optimized headlines, meta tags, and linking. They all work together. Together, they are critical to someone finding your website in a search.

To hear some tell it, you need to sprinkle your text with keywords and use your keywords a certain percentage of your total text. Not quite. What you need is for your keywords to appear naturally in your text, and you can add them strategically for clarity without tripping the “keyword stuffing” tripwire. Here’s how.

Keyword Stuffing: Loading a Web page with keywords to improve its search engine ranking. Keyword stuffing defined by Google itself…

Keyword Rules for Body Text

Rule one: The more often a keyword or keyword phrase appears on a Web page, the higher that page should rank in search engines for that keyword or keyword phrase.

Rule two: To be effective a keyword or keyword phrase should be used a number of times on the page, but don’t worry about trying to match a certain “keyword density” or percentage. For best results, go for quality over quantity.

Rule three: Write keywords early into your content, then write them at the end of your content. The most important keyword should be at the beginning of the first paragraph.

Rule four: Highlight keywords by making them bold or italic (first use), using them as anchor text for links (first use), and using them in subheads and alt tags.

Rule five: Write naturally. It shouldn’t be apparent to your reader (and, thus, the search engine) that you are optimizing your page. Write for the reader.

Rule six: You may use variations on the keyword, such as various verb forms, since the search engine will recognize them. Use different spellings only if your audience will use them in doing a search or will expect to see them in use.

Rule seven: Use keywords to help you write more clearly, replacing nouns you might be tempted to use otherwise which might confuse readers. However, do not simply use keywords to add keywords.

An Example

Let’s go back to the Lone Ranger and Tonto example we used for writing SEO headlines. For this exercise, we assumed that instead of working together until they can ride off into the sunset, the Lone Ranger and Tonto decide to split early and go their separate ways. Here’s a possible article, the text first unoptimized then rewritten to be optimized:

Not-so-optimized…
Masked Man and His Faithful Sidekick Split
Silver and Scout never saw it coming. One day they were helping the Lone Ranger and Tonto chase outlaws, the next day they were all going their separate ways. The foursome made the split after a news conference announcing irreconcilable differences and an even division of the loot they had compiled from turning in bank robbers, stage coach bandits, and petty thieves. Marshall Matt Dillon accepted their resignation with reluctance but said it was understandable given the group’s tumultuous relationship. They will hand in their outfits and turn in their six shooters before riding out of town tomorrow, although the masked man is expected to keep his hand poured silver bullets.

Optimized…

Lone Ranger and Tonto Go Their Separate Ways
The Lone Ranger
and Tonto are going their separate ways. The famous Masked Man and his Faithful Sidekick, with their fleet-footed steeds, Silver and Scout, announced the split at a news conference citing irreconcilable differences. The Lone Ranger and Tonto will leave with considerable loot, which they compiled from catching bank robbers, stage coach bandits, and petty thieves. Marshall Matt Dillon accepted their resignation with reluctance but said it was understandable given the heroic duo’s troublesome relationship. Tonto said that he and Kemosabe will hand in their outfits and turn in their six shooters before riding out of town at high noon, although the Masked Man is expected to keep his signature silver bullets. We bid the Lone Ranger and Tonto a hearty “High-oh, Silver, away!”

What I did in the last paragraph was replace common nouns like he or they or them with the keywords The Lone Ranger, Tonto, Masked Man, Faithful Sidekick, Kemosabe, Silver, Scout, and so on. It’s easy to use the common nouns when referring to the subjects of the article, so it’s also easy to replace them – when it will read naturally – with the actual keywords. What you will find is that in attempting to optimize the text you will actually be clarifying it as well. In longer articles, you can also add subheads, quote boxes, and other devices that also contain the keywords. After you work with the copy, read it over and make sure it reads naturally – if it doesn’t, you may have tripped the keyword stuffing tripwire and you may be penalized.

Next Up – An Editor’s Look at Links

How many links are too many? We are told we need outbound links, inbound links, internal links, but no one says how to tell when enough is enough. We’ll have a discussion next time – join me!

Search – Google Isn’t the Only Engine in the Race

Nearly everyone knows that Google is the top search engine in the world, but it isn’t the only engine in the race.

Why is this important to you as a web editor? If you are planning SEO (search engine optimization), you need to be aware of where your readers will be looking for you. If they use a search engine, very likely they will find you on Google. But there are dozens of others, and readers are fickle – sometimes people use different search engines for different reasons. It pays to plan around readers finding you on other search engines, too.

Identifying Other Search Engines

The Search Engine List* is a great resource for both identifying and understanding the top search engines. You should take into consideration that while Google currently accounts for approximately 66 percent (in round numbers) of search traffic, Bing and Yahoo account for about 16 and 13 percent respectively. The traffic falls off sharply from there. You should also take heed of a recent rumor that Yahoo may soon drop out of the search race altogether.

So readers may Google but they may also use Bing or they may use Alta Vista. They may have a family computer at home and for family security reasons search on a family-friendly engine like go.com. They may be more tech-savvy and like hotbot.com. Or, they may use AOL and prefer to use the AOL search feature, powered by Google. (Note: Some “off brands” like Alta Vista and Go.com are powered by Yahoo.com, and Yahoo.com is powered by Bing.)  The thing is to watch your analytics for referral traffic and note where your readers are finding you and make sure you aren’t setting up roadblocks.

Preparing a Smart SEO Plan

How do you set up an SEO plan that prepares you for all these search engines (and, technically, for some, directories)? They all have rules to follow, and you can’t follow them all simultaneously. However, you can try to maximize your page across the search engines most important to you by identifying common rules that allow you to fit the engines of most interest to you.

Example:
There are word and character limits to elements like the page titles and meta descriptions. I consolidated from the various guidelines so that when I prepare a site for SEO, I plan for six to 10 words in the page title (but as many as 12 if absolutely necessary) and no more than 150 characters, including spaces and punctuation, in the meta description. Those will fit almost any search engine, and certainly Google and Bing, my main targets.

Consult a search engine’s Webmaster Tools section for information on how to optimize for that specific search engine.

Start with Google and Bing Webmaster Tools

Consult Google’s Webmaster Tools for their rules. They also offer a Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide that is extremely helpful. They have a very helpful Webmaster FAQ, too. And for a quick-scan overview, you can check the Webmaster Guidelines. Here is a page on writing quality page titles and meta descriptions, key to effective SEO.

Consult Bing’s Webmaster Tools for their rules, and here’s a helpful site map of Bing Webmaster Tools. Bing offers Guidelines for Successful Indexing here. Bing also maintains a helpful blog, forums, and technical support. Note: Yahoo uses Bing Webmaster Tools.

*Search Engine List is a great list, but it isn’t 100 percent current. For instance, it lists cuil.com, which is no longer available. I recommend it because it is mostly current.

Next Up – A Diversion and then Pandas and Penguins

After a slight diversion to address graduates, my next SEO topic will be about Pandas and Penguins and Google’s attempt to rein in spammers. Join me for both!

SEO and Keywords

Pick a Word, but Not Just Any Word

By Alan Eggleston

A keyword is a word or set of words very close in meaning to the subject of your Web page. You hope – you dream – that people using search engines will use your keywords to look for a website written around those keywords and find your website. The whole process of optimizing a website for SEO (search engine optimization) begins by deciding on the keywords for each page. The follow-through is to make sure the keywords are used in the page title, description, keywords list, and content for that page to establish relevancy.

Keyword Development Process

  • Step One – Research the main word that describes the topic you will cover on the page. Example: car
  • Step Two – Look for other words (synonyms) that people might use to describe that main word. Examples: car, automobile, sedan
  • Step Three – Think of other words that might surround or support the main word in searching for your page. Examples: American made 4 door sedan
  • Step Four – Focus on in what order the words will be written in describing this page. Examples:  American 4 door sedan with 4 wheel drive
  • Step Five – The deeper into the site the page, the more descriptive and accurate the words must be. Examples:  Red Jeep 4 door SUV 4 wheel drive manual transmission
  • Step Six – Adding the city will help with competitive local searches. Example:  American made car dealership Grand Rapids
  • Step Seven – Adding the company name will help when people know your company and simply want to find you. Example (page title):  Used Cars and Pickups – Hefty Automobile Sales
An SEO purist will tell you that you should focus on the main keywords and not include the name of the business or organization, but some businesses will insist on having their name show up in the title. Fine. At least use it at the end so that the main topic shows up at the front.There is room for 8 to 12 words in the page title in the browser tab, depending on word length. I plan for up to 10 and sometimes squeeze in 11.

Word proximity in keyword selection can play a big part in ranking, so the fewer words you select the less variables you have to worry about, although the less opportunities you have to match as well. Try for three or four main keywords maximum for writing your page title (ignoring words like “and” and “the”), but feel free to add a few more words to your keyword list as long as they actually appear in your content.

My next article: SEO – Inside or Outsource?

Doing SEO right can take time and energy your schedule may not allow. Do you do it yourself – inside – or do you hire it done outside – outsourced? Up next in my series of articles will be, “SEO – Inside or Outsource?” Join me!