SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, is big business and has made a lot of people a lot of money over the years. SEO is sold heavily by specialist companies small and large the world over and this article lifts the lid on the mystique and secrets of the trade in what many would like you to think is a black art.
SEO is all about maximising the chances of your website appearing high in search engine listings. In this article we’ll focus on Google but it’s fair to say that if your website is optimised for Google, the other search engines, such as Microsoft’s Bing, will not complain either. Google has a UK market share of around 88% of all web searches (April 2015) so it makes sense to focus on that first and foremost.
Before you get caught-up in the SEO frenzy, you should ask yourself just how important is it that by website is found on Google? That may sound mad because, well, why wouldn’t you want it appearing high on the hog but for some businesses it’s not the be-all and end-all. One of our clients runs a very successful on-line shop on his website but he also has a massive (for a local business) 12,000+ following on Facebook. He only sells within Kent and he knows he can get all the business he can manage by using social media to promote offers so, in his words, “I don’t care about Google” but, for most businesses, you will – it’s just worth asking the question of yourself.
A movable feast
Things have changes in recent years and are changing right now, as we speak. Google doesn’t stand still for very long and they’re continually changing how website are ranked and thus presented to the end user. One big change in recent years has been away from a reliance on “keywords”. It used to be a fairly simple process to embed within the website’s code a number of key words which we wanted Google to consider but that was problematic because unscrupulous operators would use misleading key words – such as the name of their competitors – and this would lead to end-users clicking on a link, only to find the page they’d reached was either inappropriate or not what they expected. These days, Google primarily rely upon these key factors in their rankings:-
- Popularity of the site (how many people visit it)
- Relevant, consistent and appropriate content structured in a way that makes it easily readable by a human being
- Well structured, modern, compliant code under the bonnet
- Mobile device compatibility
There are also a number of other ‘technical’ facets but if you get the above right first, Google will like your website.
To say that the popularity of a website leads to better rankings is a bit of a catch-22 situation – how can you be popular if you’re not ranked highly? Well, not all traffic to your website has to be as a result of a search. For example, if you’re using social media you should take every opportunity to link-back to your website. You should take every opportunity to print the address of your website on vehicles, menus, brochures, press advertisements etc. and if you do this diligently people will visit you and, the more people that visit your site, the more Google will take notice and your site will climb up the rankings organically.
Whether you can rely on organic popularity very much depends upon the nature of your business. For example, if the purpose of your website is to tell people who you are, where you are and what you do then the organic approach could work for you. However, if you’re selling popular items on-line in a competitive market and with a big investment in stock, you need to start selling quickly and that may mean appearing in the top 5 rankings for your chosen specialisation. In this case, there are techniques for doing this but, they cost money. Quite big money sometimes and we’ll talk about ‘paid-for-rankings’ in another article.
It’s a sad fact that far too many websites are boring. There, I said it and, what’s more, many are difficult to read, confusing, difficult to navigate, poorly structured for the reader and stacked with irrelevant text and gimmicks. It’s better now in 2015 than it was, say, 5 years ago but nonetheless many websites have some work to do. In simple terms, Google’s search algorithm tries to analyse a page on a website and rank it as if it were a human reader. It’s not, of course, but it applies some very clever rules when reading a web page electronically and if we understand a little of how it does that means we can make better web pages and achieve better rankings so here goes with a simple explanation. Hold on tight!
A web page has a number of distinct elements, some of which are buried in the HTML code which makes-up a web page, and others are visible to the human eye. These are:-
- The Header
- The Content
The Header is a bunch of lines of code which tell web browsers, such as Google’s Chrome, about the page. It also gives the viewer some information via the browser. Header items include the name of a page, a short description of the page and other technical information such as the version of the code that’s being used. The important things in the header, as far as SEO is concerned, are the title, the description and to a lesser extent, the version of HTML coding standards being used. Depending upon how your website is constructed and who constructed it, you may or may not have the ability to change or modify any of this important header information but either way, it is vitally important to have meaningful, relevant and well constructed header information.
The content is what you or your web designer will have access to and forms the body of your website. Content may be text, images, photos, videos, forms etc. but they all have one thing in common – in HTML (the programming language of the web) they are all wrapped in what are called tags. These tags tell your web browser how to display what’s inside them. Here’s an example of a typical tag.
The end user doesn’t see the tags ‘h1’ but your browser will know just what to do with them – in this case, display the text as a header, typically in a larger font, different colour etc. and the reason for getting slightly techie is to explain that search engines use these tags to decide relevance and readability. Think of it just like reading a newspaper, you read the heading and then sub-headings and in HTML we can use different size headings from H1 down to H6 (generally the smallest) so Google looks at these to decide, to some extent, how the page stacks-up for readability and relevance so it’s crucial they relate to the web page header information and its content. For example if your domain name is greencars.com and the title of the page is ‘Beautiful flowers for you and your family’ and the description says ‘Kent’s best plumber’ and the content and headers say things like ‘Children’s toys’ then the search engines are going to get mightily confused – actually it’s worse than that, they will think you’re trying to scam the end user and stop indexing your site altogether.
The key message here is make the page title, description, headers and main content relate to each other by perhaps using the same repeating word in each like, for this page, the key word is ‘SEO’ and in that way Google is in no doubt about what this page refers to.
More on content
Up to now we’ve been talking about content in terms of its structure and not the actual words used. Google, and others, use what’s called a readability index to assess your web pages – it sucks in the text, processes it and grades it according to certain built-in rules. Exactly what these rules are is a bit of a mystery but somehow it grades pages. We strongly suspect that one of the methods used is called the Flesch–Kincaid readability test but basically the search engine is trying to determine if the page of text makes sense or is it just a list of words in no apparent order? You can try a readability test on your own website here if you so desire and, while you’re there, try typing in a simple sentence then moving words around or changing them entirely to see what effect it has on the readability scores. The results can be enlightening.
A good image is important
Google’s rankings algorithm likes some images on a web page but it complains if there are too many or the ratio of images to text is outside of what it considers normal. There are no golden rules. A big no-no though is a page consisting only of images or, indeed, a single image or photograph. This is because it has no way of knowing what the image or photograph is and what it shows and it could equally be a really interesting photograph or something much more unsavoury. Therefore it’s always sceptical of image-heavy pages and tends to reduce the ranking scores accordingly. The search engines also like, and reward accordingly, images and photos which have captions and what are called ‘alt tags’ which describes the image to be included in the HTML code.
The links effect
Finally on the subject of content it’s worth talking about links to other websites and web pages. To understand why links are important you need to go back to the dawn of the world wide web and the whole ethos behind the internet which is broadly that all information should be shareable, unrestricted and ideally, only appear in one place. For example, if you are trying to explain to the readers of your website how something works or why it’s important then rather then re-inventing the wheel, why not just direct them to some other site that already has a perfectly decent explanation already? Google likes links quite a lot and rewards the site accordingly as it believes you’re being a good web citizen. Similarly you should encourage other websites and social media pages to link to your site or individual pages. It all helps the ranking score. If you would like to read more about the importance, or otherwise, of links on your website here is an excellent article on the subject.
Security and SEO
I’m sure at some point when browsing the web you’ve seen the acronyms http and https appear in the address bar and you may have also seen a little padlock symbol appear somewhere. Basically, http (meaning hyper-text transfer protocol) is the base level of communications between your browser and the server which hosts the website. It’s not secure in that the strings of text can quite easily be intercepted and translated in to real-world text. Most of the time this doesn’t matter a jot but if you’re running an on-line shop or asking people in any way to submit personal information then it matters a lot so the protocol https (the ‘s’ standing for secure) was introduced to provide a more secure session and encrypt the data between the browser and server.
Another aspect to security is proving, as far as is reasonably possible, that the website you’re visiting is who its purporting to be. Anyone can create a website and have it on-line in minutes – it could be reputable or it could be hosted in a back bedroom anywhere on earth by someone who is setting out to scam you or infect your computer with viruses or spyware. The point is, to create a website you don’t have to prove who you are to anyone. HTTPS changes that to some extent. It requires that owners of a website install what’s termed a digital certificate on their server and the process for acquiring this certificate means that the owner will have had to prove who they are in the real world and they will have had to pay for their certificate too, often around $100 a year.
Because HTTPS is inherently more secure and helps to prevent end-users being scammed or misled, Google have recently started to improve the rankings of sites which have a secure certificate and we suspect that within the next 12 months they will start to degrade the listings of less secure sites and within 24 months, a certificate (called an SSL certificate) will become essential for any half-serious business website if decent rankings are required. It’s a cost overhead which many complain about but if it helps end-user confidence in your website then it may pay for itself in quite a short time. You should ask your web developer for advice on SSL certificates but, be warned, some agencies are out to make money by charging ludicrous amounts and scaring you into parting with your cash. Our advice is to pay somewhere between $50 and $150 per year on your security certificate no more, no less.
As we write in September, 2015, around 30% of all visits to websites are made from a mobile or tablet device and that figure is to to reach 70% by 2017/18 so if you want your website to be effective then its essential that it displays well and is usable by mobile devices. At first it was ok for a site to be ‘mobile friendly’ and what that meant was site shrank itself down automatically to display on smaller screens. You’ll still see a large number of sites around like this and, if you’ve ever tried to use them on a phone or tablet, you’ll know how tricky it is to hit the right button to navigate around or read the tiny, tiny text. The next generation of sites are called ‘responsive’ which means that not only does the website display well on all devices and computers, the content and the look & feel change according to the device it’s displaying on. Sometimes text will be enlarged, menus will change to display in the way we expect phone menus to be presented, large images may be replaced by smaller ones and the whole user experience will be far less frustrating.
Prior to May this year (2015) it was all about aesthetics and usability but Google changed that and started ranking websites with responsiveness built-in ahead of those which didn’t. It is now crucial that any business website features a responsive design and you can check yours here, for free, at Google’s own responsive design checker.
In sort, if you have a website and it’s not responsive, you will be losing potential customers and losing ranking position.
Finally, pay attention to the detail
Even in these days of ‘text speak’ and almost an acceptance of poor spelling and grammar it’s vital that your website makes sense to visitors and, vitally, the search engines so pay great attention to spelling, grammar and readability. If I say ‘the best plummer in Kent’ your brain will know I probably mean plumber and you will intuitively know what I mean but a search engine ‘robot’ will just see it as a string of text and possibly assume it means you pick great plums! Good spelling and grammar lead to better search engine rankings and happier customers so it’s worth spending a little money on a professional proof reader – we regularly use a journalist for final checks and it’s money well spent.
SEO is important and its arguable which are the most essential elements. Our view is that if you pay attention to the elements above and get those as ‘right’ as you possibly can, organic growth and good search rankings will follow. But, if we had to prioritise it would be in this order:-
- Make great, readable and well structured text.
- Use images and photos sparingly and chose them well.
- Use the latest coding standards and structure the code properly
- Be responsive
- Be secure
- Get the spelling right
- Promote the heck out of your website on social media and anywhere else you can make the web address appear.
SEO is not ‘fire & forget’ you need to work at it and set aside time to review your web statistics through tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console which will provide valuable clues as to how much traffic your site is generating, who’s visiting you and what they have searched for when they do. You should be prepared to make regular minor changes and tweaks to your site to optimise your rankings which is why people often pay others to do it for them – it can be time consuming.
If you’d like to know more about SEO or have us take a look at your existing website for SEO compliance please contact us on 01227 364659 or message us using this contact form. We never charge for an initial appraisal/consultation and we may be able to offer you a valuable insight for FREE!