In previous chapters, we learned how to use the intersection of search data and business needs to identify effective Web site content strategies, as well as a little about how search engines work. How can we bring this information together into our organizations so that our content strategies are effective for search?
At a high level, in order to effectively use organic search as an acquisition channel, companies should ensure their Web sites can:
- Be discovered by search engines so their pages can be added to the list the crawler uses to traverse the Web.
- Be accessible to the crawler (build the site architecture so that it doesn’t introduce obstacles).
- Have extractable information (ensure content isn’t inaccessible).
- Be relevant and useful to searchers.
Sounds easy, right? The good news is that the path to success is fairly straightforward. But as you might imagine, the devil is in the details. The practice of ensuring that sites implement all of these things in a way that searchers can find them is known as search engine optimization (SEO).
However, as we’ve seen, for a business to be effective online long term, it has to think of search as a key part of all aspects of its organization, and not as a separate activity. And the term ‘‘search engine optimization’’ is a bit of a misnomer because it implies that you’re optimizing your site for search engines when in reality you’re optimizing your site for your audience (who often are searchers) and ensuring your site is built to be successful in an online environment.
You may in fact need a point person to ensure that search acquisition best practices are being built out within your organization, particularly if your organization is in the early stages of building out that process.
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The phrase ‘‘search engine optimization’’ tends to bring up bad memories of e-mails asking you to trade links and Web pages with repeated words but no real information and no place to click but on ads.
‘‘Search engine optimization’’ implies optimizing a site for search engines, but understanding how search fits into your business isn’t really about that at all. It’s about operating your business effectively within the current landscape. If you have retail stores, you likely have a real estate specialist scouting out locations. If your product appeals to teenage girls ages 13–17, you’ll want to do market research to find out what they like. As we’ve seen, search strategy is no different.
But still the term SEO is often more associated with buy-cheap- Viagra-while-you-play-poker-online-and-file-a-mesothelioma-classaction- lawsuit than it is with customer engagement, usability, product strategy, and more sales.
Consider this recent posting on a tech startup e-mail list (emphasis mine):
We are in dire need of a customer experience/consumer experience expert . . . Does anyone have any suggestions for partners/firms/consultants to reach out to in order to try to find adequate partners to assure that the consumer’s needs and issues are addressed? (Not SEO experts—usability or consumer experience experts for e-commerce).
And yet the description is exactly what good SEO should be: understanding and improving the customer experience.
On an entrepreneur forum, someone posted that 95 percent of SEO is useless. He went on to write:
Some of the tactics I’ve seen ‘‘SEO professionals’’ sell are:
- Link farms—This goes into my pile of 95 percent of the SEO tactics that shouldn’t be used.
- Code all content within H1 tags.
- Code all content within anchor tags.
- Put title attributes on all content.
- Make the content as verbose and wordy as possible.
- Put your top 20 keywords in all image & file names.
- Paying forum/blog . . . spammers.
Yet, nothing he’s listed there is an ‘‘SEO tactic.’’ All of these items are spammer tricks (and not even ones that are generally used anymore).
What he’s said is similar to saying that 95 percent of what painters do is a scam, and then listing as that 95 percent things like substituting cheaper paint and charging you for the expensive stuff, painting only one wall when you paid for all four, and spraying graffiti rather than painting the room.
Any legitimate painter would have good cause to protest that none of those things are painting tactics.
Let’s take a look at just a few more viewpoints on SEO found from around the Web:
- ‘‘Many of the so-called ‘SEO professionals’ are not much more than modern snake oil salesmen. They game and manipulate the system for their own intentions.’’
- ‘‘Everyone uses Google for search, and therefore online businesses need to be found on Google, which means you need to do Search Engine Optimization. SEO is the worst thing ever invented. It’s destroying good Web application development.’’
- ‘‘I actually despise being labeled an SEO. Why? SEOs are like the 21st century car salesmen. Most are slimy and have no clue what they are talking about. They tell you [that] you just need to put spammy keywords in your title tag, keyword tag, and write a spammy as hell description metatag.’’
- ‘‘Search Engine Optimization is not a legitimate form of marketing. It should not be undertaken by people with brains or souls.’’
The perception of the SEO profession may have hit one of its lowest moments in August 2009, when Fox News published a story entitled ‘‘Top Online Marketing Jobs to Leave You Friendless.’’ The article states:
Job-hunting? Think about becoming an e-mail spammer . . . or a Web site spammer . . . or a search engine optimizer. Here’s a great opportunity to become part of a team of Web-savvy professionals who clog the Internet with unwanted ads and sell users’ personal information to the highest bidder. Not only are these jobs legal, they can be downright lucrative. Here are some of the top online marketing jobs that will make you money . . . and leave you alone and friendless.
Search Engine Optimizer
Ever wonder why ‘‘nonsense’’ Web sites sometimes turn up in your search results on Google or Yahoo!? That’s because search engine optimizing scammers work full-time to create thousands of other Web sites that link to the spam site.
Of course, that doesn’t actually describe a search engine optimizer. It describes a Web spammer.
I don’t know if the term ‘‘SEO’’ can be reclaimed. While the negative perception about SEO is inaccurate, it is the case that a subset of those who practice SEO tend to narrowly focus on rankings, rather than customer experience. This certainly isn’t true of all who practice SEO, but it’s hard to distinguish when we’re using the same name to describe both types of practices. And, as mentioned earlier in this chapter, the term ‘‘search engine optimization’’ doesn’t describe well the whole picture of integrating a search acquisition strategy into a more comprehensive business strategy.
Throughout this book, I’ve used ‘‘search acquisition strategy’’ to describe this effort, which includes:
- Using search data to build a comprehensive and effective product and content strategy.
- Understanding searcher behavior and building searcher personas that maximize customer satisfaction and conversions.
- Realizing the customer acquisition funnel begins with the search box.
- Integrating organic search with other marketing efforts.
- Ensuring the technical architecture of the site can be properly crawled and indexed by search engines so it can be visible to searchers.
When I look at organic search acquisition, I’m looking from a point of triangulation. I understand that searchers want the best result as quickly as possible. I understand that search engines want to understand the Web so they can deliver the most relevant results. And I understand that site owners want to market their content effectively to the right audience.
We’ve talked about using search data, building a comprehensive strategy, creating searcher personas, and engaging with customers. But what do your product marketers, content writers, and Web developers need to know about their roles in ensuring your search strategy is effective?
- Web development teams should build Web sites in such a way that they can be easily crawled and indexed by search engines.
- Upper management should provide the necessary support for making infrastructure search-engine friendly.
- Upper management should state requirements in terms of functional outcomes (an easy to navigate menu system) rather than implementation (a Flash menu).
- The content management system and content modification process should easily allow for non-technical staff to update important content sections of the site, such as the title, headings, and paragraphs.
- Those doing market research, determining product features, building a product road map, or developing a company vision should understand the value of search data and how to effectively make use of it.
- Allmarketing goals should be shared and allmarketing silos (such as offline advertising, online advertising, and e-mail marketing) should share data and understand how one channel impacts the rest.
Content writers should understand keyword research, searcher behavior, and how to build searcher personas.
No one should build a page without knowing the answers to the questions:
- What is the goal of this page? What is the conversion event and call to action?
- Why would a visitor land on this page? What would he or she want to get from it?
- Why would that visitor then want to follow the call to action?
- Any offline campaigns should include an organic search component. What searches might this campaign drive and what is the searcher experience?
- Any ad agencies building Web content to support offline campaigns should have search-friendliness as a default requirement.
Becoming Too Focused on SEO
As already noted, this book is not about how to tactically implement SEO. This book is about how to think strategically about search and how your business fits into a search-based culture.
There is, however, one point of tactical SEO that is important to convey to your organization. If you read search blogs, attend search conferences, and otherwise follow the search industry, it’s easy to get caught up in the particulars of the search engine algorithms. How many times should a particular word be repeated? How many links should any given page have? How many words should be on any given page? Chasing the answers to these questions can have vast opportunity cost and little gain. The search engine algorithms are in a constant state of flux. Experts are tweaking settings every day to see how they can make results a little more relevant. If you spend your time ‘‘optimizing’’ your site for these algorithmic particulars, you’ll never have time to do anything else.
A much better strategy is to focus on what the search engines are trying to achieve with all of those algorithm tweaks—showing the most relevant results for a given query. Ensure your technical team gets the foundational infrastructure elements right and ensure your marketing and product teams build the right features and content. This will not only get you ranking well, but will help you achieve what you’re really after—which is not rankings, but customers.
Search Engine Guidelines and Penalties
The search engines have published guidelines.7 Violate any of those guidelines and you risk having your site demoted in ranking or removed from the index. The spirit behind the search engine guidelines is that the search engines reserve the right to take action on any sites that intentionally try to manipulate their ranking algorithms—which makes sense, since core to the search engines is the relevance of their results. If sites are manipulating those results and making them less relevant and useful to searchers, the engines have methods of pinpointing that and adjusting for it.
The search engines (and Google in particular) have published a number of examples of what might constitute results manipulation. Generally, these are pretty straightforward and likely sound very similar to the spammy tactics the SEO naysayers incorrectly attribute to SEO. But the examples also serve as a check for those who aren’t spammers who may have lost sight of what’s really important about search acquisition in their focus on rankings.
Building Search into the Process of the Organization
By now, you know that a successful search acquisition strategy relies on weaving search best practices throughout the organization. This becomes difficult as business activities can be segmented from each other, departments may have political reasons for not collaborating with others, and some organizational processes simply aren’t built for this type of cross-department collaboration.
The key is support from the top down. If upper management provides a central search goal that can be shared by all parts of the organization and provides the resources necessary for search integration, individual departments are motivated and empowered to embrace search best practices.
Below are some best practices to consider weaving into the organization.
We’ve seen, at a high level, how search engines work and how searchers interact with results. Beyond what topics you choose to include on your site, which clearly have a significant impact on the audience you attract, what should you think about when building content?
- Ensure the site has useful information architecture. Do multiple pages have similar content? Will visitors be confused about which page to access to get the information they want? Consider this results listing for [small business intuit]. Having many pages about the same topic makes for confusing search results, an overwhelming user experience, and unnecessary maintenance overhead (see Figure 6.1).
- Ensure the content uses the language of the customer. Make sure anyone writing copy understands keyword research (Chapter 2) and uses it as part of the writing process. And make sure the organization has a process in place that keeps track of this research. Too often, I see companies spend significant time and energy researching customer language and crafting engaging messaging, only to have another department or outside agency later revise the content without realizing the work that had been done and removing all of those carefully researched words.
One potential method for keeping track of the words customers use to search is to indicate the ones chosen for the page focus in the meta keywords tag8 of the page. The contents of this tag aren’t used by search engines for organic search, but can be
helpful for internal communication. Depending on the content management system your organization uses and what internal processes you have in place, determine best practices for communicating these types of details on a page level.
- Use standard HTML components on the page. Once you’ve determined the key content for the page (for instance, ‘‘natural arthritis treatments’’), ensure that content appears in the page’s title, primary heading, and textual content. Remember that based
on how searchers skim search results pages, you should put the most important keywords in the far left of the title. And you should qualify phrases as fully as possible without being overwhelming (‘‘Canon X54T Digital Camera with Zoom’’ rather than ‘‘X54T’’). (See Figure 6.2.)
- Remember that every page of the site is a potential entry page for visitors.
- Clearly indicate the primary topic.
- Help the visitor complete a task.
- Provide orientation and contextual information about the site.
- Motivate the visitor into the acquisition funnel with a compelling call to action. As we discussed, every page needs a clear call to action. Pages can suffer from no call to action (remember the PEAK6 personality pages) or too many calls to action. Without a clear call to action, all the work to get the page crawled, indexed, and ranked was for nothing.
- Answer visitor questions. Remember the list of questions we generated using the Wordtracker Keyword questions tool on page 45? The type of phrasing searchers use can be important to keep in mind when building content, particularly for sites that provide a collection of answers or FAQs about their business. For instance, answers.oreilly.com provides information about the most commonly asked questions in technology. The company would attract far greater acquisition from search if it worded its headings as questions, much as people would search for them, rather than as answers. So, for instance, ‘‘How Do I Set Up a Relational Database with Rails’’ rather than ‘‘How to Set Up a Relational Database with Rails.’’
- Ensure the site has a good internal linking structure. This is vital for an easily crawlable site. At least one link should exist to every page (a good HTML site map helps provide this, as well as gives visitors a browsable architecture) and the links should use descriptive anchor text.
It’s important to think about what to link to from your home page. This is the page that most visitors will see, so it makes sense that you would want your most important pages to be linked to it. Search engines know this too, so they can use this link architecture as a signal of importance.
Sites can go overboard with this though. As soon as someone starts thinking about how to structure links solely in terms of how the search engines might interpret them and not in terms that make sense for visitors, the usability of the site declines and search engines (which are on to these tactics) can no longer use these signals to determine relevance.
Marketing, Advertising, and Public Relations
We know that organic search should be integrated into other marketing activities—everything from market research to Super Bowl commercials. What do the marketing, advertising, and public relations departments need to know about search?
- Your customers are also searchers. For any advertising campaign you undertake, ensure organic search is part of the planning process. What taglines and products are you promoting? What might your advertising efforts cause your audience to search for? Do you have pages on your Web site devoted to those things and can search engines access them?
- Searchers are also your customers. The people you are trying to attract through search are the same people you are trying to attract through e-mail campaigns, other online and offline advertising campaigns, press releases, and other channels. Share data and you may be amazed at how much more complete a picture you can get of your audience and how much better you will be able to provide them with a compelling, consistent experience.
- Be wary of all Flash sites and micro sites. advertising agencies sometimes build micro sites and Flash sites as part of a campaign. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either tactic, but both require a bit of extra attention to ensure their content can be easily found by search engines. Make sure your ad agency knows that searchability is part of the project requirements.
- Understand online reputation management. When someone searches for your brand, what types of results appear? Ensuring your site is easily visible can help minimize any negative results about your brand.
- Links are valuable. Any online marketing, public relations, or social media effort generally includes links back to the site. These links can be a valuable acquisition channel. Relevant links can also be valuable for helping search engines understand the value and context of the page.
Marketing, social media, and public relations can help your link profile considerably. Use social media to spread awareness about your great content, and you’re likely to get bloggers to pick up on it and write about you. Once your PR team understands the importance of search and links, the team will do its part to make search acquisition effective by linking to specific pages (rather than just the home page) with descriptive anchor text in its press releases to increase the chances that news outlets will use those links and anchor text.
Market Research and Product Development
We’ve already seen just how valuable search data can be for market research, product development, and audience analysis. From an organizational standpoint, determine how use of search data can effectively be integrated into existing processes. This may be as easy as simply getting departments to share data. If the advertising department is already doing keyword research for paid search campaigns, it may be able to just share its findings with product development. If you are not currently using search data, user research, market research, or other departments you may need to learn how best to do keyword research and incorporate searcher personas into existing audience analysis and market research.
Metrics and Analytics
Use analytics data to augment search data and better understand your customers. (We’ll talk more about analytics in Chapter 8.) You can learn what they’re searching for that leads them to your site, what pages they find most useful, and what pages other sites find more valuable based on referral data. You can also use analytics to track your organic search efforts. Are you getting qualified traffic from the queries that you have targeted for your searcher personas? And are those searchers finding those pages useful?
We know that, as user behavior changes, more customers will turn to online support mechanisms. Customer support can take advantage of search in a number of ways including:
- Using search data to find out what problems customers are having and what they’re searching for.
- Ensuring that searches for frequently asked questions bring up relevant answers from the company.
- Reaching out to any disgruntled customers who have posted negative information about the company (generally findable by doing brand searches).