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.

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?

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!