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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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?

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!

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.

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.