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Looking back through my notes from the fantastic SearchLove2012 (Day One here, Day Two here if you’re interested) I had a lot of comments in there referring to Kings and Queens within our business. Guillotines seemed ultimately fitting for our industry as they seem to fall randomly (and less randomly) with great frequency. So what are the contenders for the SEO monarchy in 2012 and why?
Following the decimation of a huge number of sites this year via our guillotine wielding friends Penguin and Panda, the place and strategy of the link builder has changed drastically this year and focus has switched more heavily to the role of content writers and marketers.
Thanks to Penguin, gone are the days of quick wins such as rewarding directory linking, pushing your pet sitting services to fifty restaurant directories to great effect. In reality we all knew this kind of tactic held no value to the user, real or perceived. In roughly (i.e. at least) nine out of ten cases these links, these directories, were never intended to ever be read…by anyone. So where’s the value in that? Don’t get me wrong, we all did it. Because it worked.
But the niggling little voice in the back of your mind that kept repeating ‘this won’t last, this is too easy!’ was right. Wil Reynolds touched on this in his (very awesome) talk at SearchLove this month; if it’s too easy, it’s not going to last. Why should it? SEO directory linking is a ‘cheat’, a quick win for nothing. Google has more intelligence than to let you or I continue gaming it in such a manner, and they’ve decided to draw the line.
These days, so as not to get slapped with Penguin’s wet fish of an algorithm update, not only will you need to review your backlink profile, but also watch your anchor text and internal linking.
When I say content, I mean both on-page and off-page. However, the value and quality of site content is just as important, especially since Panda was released. Although there are other elements which may bring the mighty Panda paw down upon your site, content is the sticking point for most web masters hit by our bamboo munching friend. You need content now more than ever, and not just any old rubbish either. If enough pages on your site are deemed by Google to have ‘thin’ content, your entire site could be hit and rankings could spiral.
Thin content essentially means low quality, scraped, duplicated or keyword stuffed text, you know; the kind you are highly unlikely to derive any real value from, or let out a little moan when you click away from it after 3 seconds of reading. These will be the sites for the guillotine.
Greater emphasis has been put on creating good quality, original content that is likely to have value and purpose for the reader. One hundred sites regurgitating the same old drivel is not going to entice or inspire anyone to read on, or use their product or service. If you can stand out from the crowd with amazing, informative, and optimised content, then the chances are a user may become a prospect, or even better, a client/consumer.
You may want to try writing as if you are talking to you target audience in person. What would you say? How would you say it? Another good starter is thinking about questions clients ask. What sort of things keep coming up? What do they want to know? If you can answer these without them having to ask (especially if your competition doesn’t I’m inclined to believe users will think positively of you as a qualified source of information, aka someone they might like to deal with.
And so it came to be that content was declared King. Well, by some anyway…
What do we have if we don’t have an audience? You could have all the high quality content available on a given subject, but if you have no audience it’s useless.
In this article by Chris Brogan, Sang Kim, CEO of Rippleo is quoted as saying “Yesterday you were a magazine. Today you’re a club…Content isn’t King, it’s a means” .
This is a tricky one. Surely as much as having no audience means your content is useless, having no content means you’ll never have an audience either. Maybe when we talk about audience we should be thinking more about the definition of that term. Maybe community is king; now THAT is worth thinking about.
When it comes to defining online community, most definitions are not accurate enough to be used in this post. However, back in 2007 Jeremiah Owyang tried to define the term, and I quite like the outcome: “Online communities are bodies of people joined together by a common interest”. Simple.
Community isn’t just getting in front of someone and hammering home your sales message. Okay, so we know it’s about brand awareness, but if you do it right it should naturally morph into brand engagement; developing trust and value, interacting with users, creating relationships, and conversions. All sounds a bit cheesy and cliché I know, but that’s because it’s true. (I tried to find some cool metamorphosis images to go here but when you actually look into the caterpillar/butterfly thing it’s pretty disgusting.)
One of the greatest upshots here is that creating an online community helps develop your business offline too. People start talking to each other, hopefully recommending you, drawing even more people to your site and helping them convert. There’s no stronger marketing tool than Word of Mouth (I think Richard Baxter may have said that or something similar at SearchLove, but don’t quote me).
To my mind audiences see you, and communities are with you. Get a grip of who you should be engaging with and where they tend to be, and go there to find them. Communities have an attachment to you which can be strengthened and reinforced, by involving them and reacting to them you can create a great experience for your users which they will go out into the larger world and share via a number of on and offline mediums, strengthening your brand and position.
Going back to the original point, the whole content vs. audience question seems a bit chicken and egg to me. Let’s move on…
Without being able to analyse data from our SEO, PPC and Social campaigns how would we ever know what worked and what didn’t? How could we determine what we were doing right and doing wrong? Without data our opportunity to improve and learn is severely limited.
Each business will require different data analysis to understand user behaviour and optimise the site accordingly. In general the use of Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools is essential, as well as finding a tool that suits you to monitor your inbound links (such as Majestic) and rankings (such as for example Advanced Web Rankings). Aside from this you will find a tool for almost any site metric you can think of if you look for it, and many of these tools are free. Record and report on your site statistics regularly, monitoring for any changes, positive or negative, which can be used to further improve the site.
What good is brilliant content if it cannot be accessed by search engines, or its target audience, for that matter? Hmm, another quandary…
As far as SEO is concerned accessibility relates to the ability of search engines to get into and decipher your site. Better accessibility means search engines have a better understanding of your site and are able to place it more appropriately within SERPs. In essence, if they don’t know what you’re all about, they don’t know how to place you.
W3C Accessibility Guidelines state that the four principles of website accessibility relating to disability are:
Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. This means that users must be able to perceive the information being presented (it can’t be invisible to all of their senses)
Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable. This means that users must be able to operate the interface (the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform)
Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable. This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding)
Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. This means that users must be able to access the content as technologies advance (as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible)
Many of the accessibility points for the disabled and for search engine bots overlap, such as headings, alt text and video transcripts. This post from Powermapper has a table indicating all crossovers between the two if you’d like to know more.
Think carefully about your site hierarchy and make sure make sure your navigation is simple and easy to use, no small CTAs or tiny links. There should always be a clear backwards trail and your site should allow bots to crawl it easily with links to all pages you would like indexed. Your site design should be aesthetically pleasing and in keeping with your subject. Try not to crowd your Home page, instead creating a page for each subject or topic, with easy to follow links to each. Make sure your site has both an HTML Sitemap for the user and an XML Sitemap for search engine bots. A Robots.txt file including the link for the XML Sitemap is useful here too.
So who else is in the running for Queen of SEO?
On the face of it this looks like a good call, especially if we are saying that content is King. Both Panda and Penguin were designed essentially to get webmasters with poor sites to improve quality and value, and I think most of us knew something like this was coming. Not as SEOs, marketers etc but as human beings with an ounce of common sense too. Who was surprised when directory linking stopped working as we spoke about earlier? Who thinks it was unfair and couldn’t understand how this could happen? I don’t want to know to be honest, it makes me cringe.
Google’s Fable, sorry, Philosophy number one is ‘Focus on the user and all else will follow’. This rings true to the Quality Queen ideal. Google claims to focus on the best user experience and even though some of us hate to admit it all algorithmic changes and the fluctuations we experience do seem to be made to this ends. You can read all ten of them here if you’d like. At the end of the day it is Google we are trying to please, and they say they simply want us to please the user.
Google also say ‘it’s best to do one thing, really really well’. Now, is it just me or is this vastly hypocritical? Or can all Google products be simply filed under ‘search’ in some way or another? There’s a full (huge) list of all Google products here. The section titles are search, paid advertising, communication & publishing, development resources, map-related products, statistical tools, operating systems, desktop applications, mobile applications, hardware, and services. But YOU should do one thing really well. Right.
Err, do one thing. Really well.
In all seriousness I think what Google are trying to say here is don’t spread yourself too thin or try to be all things to all people; it doesn’t work. Be known for doing one thing to a very high standard (providing high quality) instead of being a Jack-of-all-trades and reducing quality (high quantity).Stick to what you’re good at and don’t get carried away.
Usability basically means making your site easier to use, which goes hand-in-hand with SEO making it easier to find. Focusing on areas such as design, user interface, and architecture, usability has a lot of cross over with accessibility.
If users can access the site but not navigate their way around it, that’s quite a fail. The quicker and easier you make it for users to see where they need to go and what they need to do to get to what they want, the better. Rule of thumb is often 3 clicks. If it takes more than 3 clicks to get to where users want to be they are likely to get bored and wander off to a competitor.
According to Trenton Moss of Webcredible “Every £1 invested in improving your website’s usability returns £10 to £100″ (source IBM), and “a web usability redesign can increase the sales/conversion rate by 100%” (source Jakob Nielson). While I imagine this will vary to a degree based upon your product or service, it does highlight the importance of site usability.
There’s a ton of information available online for improving your site’s usability. Some of my favourites are:
– Always have your logo in the top left hand corner which links back to the Home page
– Never disable the back button
– Build an HTML sitemap & have a link to it on every page
– Make CTAs very obvious with an obvious path to follow
– Keep your navigation uniform in design
– KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)
– Space your text so it can be scanned easily
– Optimise site speed
– Create a custom 404 giving users options such as link back to Home page, search bar and links to popular pages
– Keep URLs human-friendly
So there you have it, my contenders for the potential King and Queen of SEO-land, but as always it’s not that simple. There can’t be just one king or queen, you need all these elements and more to create a great site. In researching this post I’ve found Emperors, Princes and goodness knows what else pimped as the leading light of your SEO campaign.
But if it was that easy not as many of us would have jobs; more companies would be doing it themselves or those of us that like a challenge wouldn’t be interested because it was so straightforward (read: mundane). It’s the constant flux and challenges of search that drew many of us in and it’s what keeps many of us here.
You can read thousands of articles claiming to have ‘the key to SEO’, but at the end of it there is no simple answer. The SEO landscape is forever changing and we have to change with it, however more often than not, Google are weeding out the easy answers and quick wins in favour of trust and quality (gasp!).
I was talking to a friend recently who has her own site, explaining the latest algorithm changes and what they might mean for her. She was semi-incredulous that Google would be so unfair as to discount her directory links and view her negatively for not having updated the site in months. But that’s not a bad thing.
Put yourself in the user’s shoes and remember how many times you’ve tutted and clicked away from a spammy site that positioned well for all the wrong reasons. This should not be our goal. The new/current definitions should help get rid of more of the poor quality, get-rich-quick results, leaving users with the information, products and services they were looking for.
If you have been hit by an algorithm change or penalty ‘guillotine’, don’t feel too jaded. By following Google’s guidelines and improving your site using the above there’s every chance you can get back in the saddle, move back up in SERP results and regain a lot of your lost traffic.
A Note About The Title (For Anyone Who Spotted the References):
It has been said many times that you should write about what you know (even if it’s just the title), and I know a lot about Aerosmith. From that first shiny purple vinyl in Pound Stretcher, Edinburgh (circa 1993) we’ve come a long way together (largely backwards as I feel they started to sell out a little tiny bit in the ’90s…), and I will go through a lot to see them while they’re still up and running.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about not only have you missed out on America’s Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, but this title won’t mean much to you either. Here’s a YouTube video of Aerosmith performing Kings and Queens in Japan a few years ago, originally from their 1977 album, Draw The Line. Enjoy!
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Playing cards on a colorful soft background via BigStock