Optimising your website for search: the fundamentals

Optimising your website for search, commonly referred to as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), is vital if you are going to succeed online. It’s possible to do it yourself but you will get much better results if it’s handled by specialist web consultants such as Narrative Industries  (previously THBOOM!) because, in addition to it being an ongoing process, the requirements are in a constant state of flux and some of the techniques can be challenging to implement without prior experience. You will however be better placed to make decisions and assess your current needs if you know what’s involved in optimising a website for search, so we offer below a simple roadmap of the fundamentals.

Visual Design is secondary

To begin with you shouldn’t even think about the visual aspect of your website. Compared to everything we discuss below it is totally unimportant. How your site looks does not have any meaningful effect on where your site will appear in the search results on Google. Only when the fundamentals are in place should you turn to the question of how your website will look.

It’s quite common for businesses to decide that their website needs a refresh simply because they no longer think it’s visually appealing. They’ll hire a web design team to change the visuals but completely neglect the far more important SEO, copy and underlying structure. The end result is a site that may look pretty… but performs no better than the old one.

Who are you and who are your customers?

Before you dive in and create or refresh your website it’s essential that you know the answers to some big questions. If you don’t know the answers to these questions then it’s highly unlikely that you will get the most out of your online presence. We’re basically talking about Branding; not the visual aspects of your brand but the key things that determine who you are.  It’s not enough to simply know the answers, it’s essential that your answers are clear and succinct.

What do you do?
What exactly are you selling or communicating?
Who are you selling to or communicating with?
What makes you special?
What makes you unique?
What are the most important messages you want to communicate?

It’s very useful at this point to create some personas* (often known as buyer personas or user personas).  These are biographies and descriptions of imaginary customers and users and should include details of their likes, dislikes, buying habits etc. They may well be fictitious but each persona should encapsulate a subset of your actual customers. There is a wealth of introductory material online that will help you create your own personas. Personas are invaluable in structuring your marketing communications and are especially useful when doing your keyword research…which is our next topic.

* Being very pedantic at Narrative Industries (previously THBOOM!) we would ideally prefer the plural “personae”, but the UX/SEO community uses “personas” almost universally so we have used it here for clarity. Coincidentally, using the most appropriate word is more important than using the “correct” one in SEO.

Keywords

Keywords are the bedrock of your website and online presence. They are used by the search engines to determine if your website should appear in the results when someone searches for something online. It’s important that you do your keyword research before you begin to build a website because keywords affect so many aspects of a site: the actual URLs, choice of pages, page titles, copy (content), landing pages, and even the actual names of the image and video files. Not only that, but doing detailed keyword research puts the finishing touches to the branding process described above; working on the keywords will help define who you are and what you do.

How do you research keywords? You use your answers to the fundamental branding questions and the personas that you developed earlier. At this point you should be able to draw up a long list of phrases that people will type (or speak) when searching for the products or services that your organisation offers. It’s important to remember that your keyword phrases must correspond to what your potential customers will use when searching online. Your own, or your copywriter’s, perceptions of your products may not correspond to the public’s, so you need to be careful at this point. Again, this is where well researched personas are useful. There are also a number of keyword research tools available that will assist you in finding relevant keyword phrases. Some of these tools are free, such as the Keyword Planner within Google’s Adwords, others require a subscription (www.semrush.com or www.moz.com ).

Once you’ve created your initial list of keywords the next step is to narrow it down by determining which will the most effective. To do this you use the same keyword research tools mentioned above to find out how often each phrase is searched for and how competitive it is. In an ideal world all your keyword phrases would have a high search volume and low competition but this is rarely the case in reality where you’ll find that some keyword phrases are intensely fought over. It is pointless, at least to begin with, to choose a keyword which is very competitive because it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to effectively compete with the existing, well established websites that are targeting the same phrase. Instead you need to make some skilful choices that balance volume against competitiveness.

Put another way, you’re looking for gaps in the market.

If you’ve done the branding work described above you should already have come up with something that makes you special and unique. Here is where you will often find that slightly longer keyword phrases (known as long-tail keywords) are where the sweet-spot is. An obvious example would be to compare the phrase “ladies shoes”, which will have a very high search volume but be enormously competitive, with the phrase “ladies canvas slip on shoes” which will have a lower search volume but might not yet be targeted by many other websites. Eventually you will narrow down the choice of Keywords to a manageable shortlist which you can use to optimise your site for search.

Optimising for search (SEO)

There are a number of aspects to optimising a website for search but here we’ll just cover the various ways in which you should use the keywords.

Where do you put the keywords? Well these days certainly not in the keywords meta tag. This is no longer used by the search engines, and it’s better to  leave it blank so that you don’t reveal your carefully researched keyword phrases to your competitors. Keywords need to go in a number of places in your website, some of which are structural (which is why you should deal with keywords before building anything). One of the most powerful things you can do with a keyword phrase is to make it part of the actual URL of the page. Other examples of where keywords should be, in decreasing order of importance: page titles, page headings, copy.

You should only target a few keywords per page so you will need to plan how to spread your keyword list across the whole website. One of the many reasons that running a blog helps to optimise a site for search is that it creates additional opportunities to include keywords on the site. For this reason your keyword phrases should continue to drive, and be part of, new website content long after the initial launch.

It’s also very important to include your keywords in the actual file names of images, videos, documents etc that you will make available online.

cam-rev-doc-02.pdf is not as good as cheap-digital-camera-reviews-2013.pdf

Create relevant, regular and engaging content

So, you’ve sorted your branding, done your keyword research, written your copy, had a beautiful website designed (finally) that is fully optimised for search. Now you can put it live and wait for the traffic to come… right?

Wrong.

A website based on good SEO and detailed keyword research may show up in the search results and should therefore get some traffic, but keywords are not the only metric that the search engines use to determine a website’s relevance. Increasingly more sophisticated indicators are being used and the requirements of SEO have changed radically in the last year or two. There is a very real danger if you don’t take further action that your website will become a mere online brochure; a static storefront that few people walk by.

Firstly, your site is more likely to appear in the search results if it has some regularly updated content. “Freshness” is now part of Google’s algorithm. The search engines regularly visit websites to index the content and if they find that nothing has changed on your site they will not only come back less-often but will favour websites with more recent content, placing them above yours in the search results.

Secondly, what the search engines increasingly look for is “authority”. A number of different factors make a site authoritative but one of the main ones is how many backlinks the site has. What are Backlinks? They are simply links from other sites to yours. Put simply you want your website to be linked to by many others. Not all links are equal however and your site authority will only go up if you are linked to by other high-authority sites.

How can you address both of these concerns, as well as creating new opportunities for keyword placement? Simple… by running a blog on your website.

By blogging regularly you can attract links from other sites and demonstrate to the search engines that your website is relevant. But it goes much deeper than that. Blogging allows you to engage with your customers and to demonstrate to real people that you ARE an authority, that you do have good products.

This is part of what is now known as Content Marketing. By creating relevant, regular and engaging content you are basically doing effective marketing.

What sort of content should you create? It depends on what you do but options include writing industry insights, opinion pieces, background information about your products and core values, “how-to…” articles, creating infographics, white papers, instructional videos, or any number of things that are relevant to your organisation’s & audience.

Monitoring and measuring.

As you may be starting to realise, a website should not be static. Not only should you be regularly adding new content but you should also be monitoring and measuring how your site is doing. How much traffic is it getting? Where does the traffic come from? Which articles are driving the most traffic & which are driving the most conversions? Which keywords are performing well and which should be removed? You should be constantly fine-tuning your website for maximum performance.

The key tool here will be some form of website analytics. These tools will give you a wealth of information about the traffic your site is getting, where visitors come from, which search terms they used, which pages are most visited, where visitors leave your site, conversion rates etc. There are a number of options for analytics, including expensive enterprise solutions, but the most popular is Google Analytics which is free and very powerful.

Measuring keyword performance and PageRank can be done manually with some effort but it’s much more convenient and effective to pay a subscription for specialist tools, such as those available from moz.com.

The key thing is to constantly monitor and assess everything that you are doing in order to make better informed decisions about what your website needs in order to perform better.

You should also listen to your customers and your staff who regularly deal with them. There will be a wealth of insights here into how you might improve the reach of your website.

Get Social

Like it or not, and many business managers do not, you need to have a presence on social media. Yes, we’re talking about Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the others.

Why?

Because your customers are already there and they expect you to be there too.

In addition there are increasing indications that mentions in Social Media have a significant effect on your search rankings.

Just like blogging, Social Media is about more than SEO; it’s about joining the conversation. Old-school marketing (“interruption marketing”) is becoming less effective and companies need to find new ways to communicate.

Social Media is also very useful for learning what people think about you, your products and your sector. There are numerous free or paid monitoring tools that allow you to track mentions of key phrases on Social Media. In effect you can listen in on the conversation. By careful monitoring of  (and use of) Social Media you can achieve many things: better customer service, product research, discovery of new markets and partnerships and up-to-the-minute news.

There are numerous tales of management justifying their lack of Social Media presence by citing concerns that “people may say bad things about us”. What you need to realise is that if you’re an established company they’re probably talking about you already… whether you’re there or not!

A Final thought

Optimising your website for search, and maximising your online presence ideally require a state of mind rather than a simple set of techniques. It’s the same state of mind that will optimise your brand and your business.

If you would like to know more about how Narrative Industries Web Consultancy (previously THBOOM!) can help you with website optimisation, SEO, Content Marketing and Social Media then don’t hesitate to contact us.