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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Policing Links in Your Comments Section

Links in your site or blog comments section are good, right? They can be. They can also be bad. To keep them good, you need to police them.

Any link on your site – internal or external, inbound or outbound – will affect your site’s search ranking. The most important factor here is the link’s quality, and several factors will determine a link’s quality.

(Photo: Simon Rowe, creative commons license.)

Link Quality

Internal links (links to pages within your site) that go to pages with high quality content add value to your site. The closer the anchor text relates to the topic of the page you’re linking to, the higher the value. You want links to all your pages to show search engines the size and breadth of your content, but the more high quality content you have, the more value your site has.

External links (links to pages outside of our site) that go to pages with high quality content add value to your site, and the higher the authority and popularity of the page and site of that link, the higher the value. Again, anchor text needs to relate highly to the topic of the page you’re linking to (or being linked to), and it’s always best if link URLs use keywords, not random code. (Content management systems and some blogs will default to using random code, but you can often change to using keywords.)

Inbound links (links to your site from outside), including trackbacks, are less within your control, but can affect the value search engines assign to you. That’s why it’s important to look at trackbacks (referrals on other sites to yours) and monitor when another site links to you – if you don’t like a trackback you can often delete the notice in your own blog and if you don’t like an inbound link you can request that the other site not link to you; most will comply. One inbound link to avoid is a “doorway” page, which is a list of links between unrelated websites often in exchange for your linking to them.

Don’t accept offers to “exchange” links when you have nothing in common with another site. They’re just doorway sites, regardless of their sales pitch to you. If you don’t have a business or social relationship with the other site in which you would naturally link to the other site in your content, don’t exchange links.

Outbound links (links from your site to others), including those that commenters add on your site, can also detract from the value of your site. You would like high authority and high ranking sites, but in a comments section is less within your control. What you should watch out for include:

  • Obvious spam – links to product pages or topic pages or blogs that have nothing to do with your content but are meant solely to benefit the poster.
  • Stealth spam – written to look like a legitimate comment but containing poor quality links, usually with misspellings to avoid spelling filters. Website URLs and email names are often nonsensical letter combinations, again meant to avoid filters. Also look for URLs with .nl, .pl, .ru, and other international extensions where spammers often originate, plus use of URL shorteners meant to hide obvious keywords or odd URLs.
  • Legitimate comments that link to low quality pages – spam pages, doorway pages, and other garbage content meant to fool you into allowing the link on your page but having no real value to you. Search engines will devalue your site when they follow the link from your site to this eventual garbage page.

You can often engage filters on your comments section that won’t allow comments with spam or with certain numbers of links and other parameters. Some bloggers don’t like to filter their comments; that’s fine if you don’t mind losing search ranking value.

You’re the Boss of You

I once experienced another blogger who used the comments section of my blog to sell her wares on my site. It was blatant hijacking of my blog to sell her stuff, never asking permission and never apologizing. She promoted her products and then provided a link to her product pages. I politely asked her to stop but she continued anyway, so I had to block her from my site. I found out through comments on her own blog that she was doing it to other blogs, too. It’s not OK.

Your blog and your site belong to you, and you set the rules. It’s also up to you to police the rules. That includes watching for links and where they lead or where they originate. Links may be good but they also may be bad. Either way, they can affect your search ranking, which can affect whether new readers can find you!

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.

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 – “White Hat” or “Black Hat”?

By Alan Eggleston

White Hat SEO” or “Black Hat SEO”? It isn’t exactly like the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but in the world of SEO (search engine optimization), there are “good-guy techniques” (so called White Hat SEO) and bad-guy techniques (so called Black Hat SEO). Which will you choose?

White Hat SEO focuses on the human Web experience and usually follows the rules and suggestions explained by search engines for optimizing the user’s search experience. Black Hat SEO looks to game the system, seeking ways to circumvent search engine rules and flaunt their recommendations to give themselves or their clients an edge. White Hat SEO works for the long haul and provides long term sustained ranking. On the other hand, Black Hat SEO may provide great rankings in the short term, but almost always eventually results in loss of positioning once the tricks and workarounds are discovered, as search engines penalize sites for misbehavior.

How to do White Hat SEO

As a white hat, you make sure your meta tags are up-to-date, accurate, and relevant to your content. You build links within your site and relevant links to other sites, but you don’t overdo it. You limit keywords on your page, and you make your content reader-friendly rather than SEO-friendly. That’s not to say you ignore other good SEO-practices, it just means you don’t focus your site on SEO, you focus your site on your reader. Content is always high quality, in-bound and outbound links are always quality, and research always produces quality keywords – those are the hallmarks of a site with white hat SEO.

How to avoid Black Hat SEO

The sign of a black hat is a page full of mischief: Pages are coded, keyworded, linked, and written to impress search engines rather than readers. They may contain links to doorway pages: directories or lists with no common interest other than to link back and forth. The list of keywords is long and may even include words not even in the content. Source code may include text that will not appear on the page but solely for the benefit of the search index. Some other black hat techniques include cloaking (anchored text that leads elsewhere than you think it does), hidden content (text or links too small or colored to not be seen), keyword stacking, keyword stuffing, content that belongs to someone else duplicated for its SEO value rather than being linked to, spam of all kinds (pings, links, comments, trackbacks, referrals), and domain squatting (registering misspellings of popular domain names).

If you think this article is weighted against black hat SEO, you’re right. Black hat SEO can make immediate short-term gains, but those gains are usually offset by penalties that cost you ranking in the long run. The fact is, you don’t have to resort to black hat SEO to rank well, even in a very competitive market – you can place very competitively with smart white hat SEO, and that’s what I always recommend to my clients. Which will you choose?

My next article: SEO – Google Isn’t the Only Engine in the Race!

Google may be the most popular search engine, but it isn’t by any stretch of the imagination the only engine in the race. How to prep your site to compete in the other races, too.

Why SEO Matters

By Alan Eggleston

According to Mashable, a reliable technology blog popular today, there are currently more than 350,000,000 Internet domains – News of Delhi places it more precisely at more than 366,848,493 (as of December 2011). How many of those are your direct competitors? More important, how many of them compete with you indirectly?

SEO matters because it helps two kinds of people find your website: people who know you but don’t know your website and people who don’t know you but want your content. Both can find you using a search engine like Google, Bing, Yahoo!, AOL, Alta Vista, or one of many others.

If someone knows your name, chances are very good that they will find you by entering your name in the search window, although it isn’t a given. If someone knows of you but doesn’t know your name, they can enter keywords about you and scroll through results pages until they run into you. If someone knows about your topic but not about you or your name, again they can enter keywords about your content and scroll through results pages until they run into any site that offers the actual content they seek, which may or may not include yours. Your goal is to maximize the chances that those people will find you before they find someone else. That’s also the goal of SEO.

Chances are good that those who know your name are getting to your site just fine, unless you have a difficult or strange domain name. So let’s focus on the other two groups of seekers. The more difficult you make it for them to find you in a search – the way most people who don’t know your domain name will try to find you – the less likely it is they will find you. Good SEO practices are to remove as many obstacles to finding you as possible. Good SEO practices are to set up your site to make finding you as easy as possible.

Back to your competitors: You have direct competitors – the sites with whom you compete directly for customers. You also have indirect competitors – the sites that through their website practices and through search engine algorithms place them in competition with you for ranking on the results pages. Some of both groups optimize their pages for search engines, some don’t. You can’t control what they do, and you can’t control what the search engines do, but you can control what you do. You can control how you optimize your pages and create the opportunity for seekers to find you.

That is why SEO matters.

Also see my series on SEO Basics for more on SEO for Web Editors.

My next article: SEO and Keywords
One of the most important tools you have to work with in search engine optimization is the keyword. It should form the basis of all your work to optimize your Web page. Up next in my series of articles will be, “SEO and Keywords.” Join me!