Just about every client we get wants to know if we can get them in the top 10 results on Google for their particular keywords. A lot of companies beat around the bush or flat out are not honest about this point, so let’s be very clear: NO ONE can promise you a top 10 result in Google in the natural search results. (We’re not talking about the paid inclusion or “pay per click” ads that run down the right or are in the shaded area at the very top of Google. For the time being, we’re only talking about the natural placement.) Let’s take a look at why.
How Google Looks at SEO
Google uses an extremely complex algorithm to determine how sites get ranked relative to each other for any given search term. That algorithm uses a LOT (hundreds, if not thousands) of variables. Some of them you can control, and some you can’t. But in the end, it’s a competition. You cannot buy your way into that listing. There is no magical piece of technology that will get you there. There is no list of things you can do to assure you that spot. Anything you can do, someone else can do. And if they do it just a little bit better, they’re going to edge out ahead of you.
SEO: A Moving Target
To make matters more difficult, Google won’t tell anyone what does or doesn’t help you get ranked higher. They keep that a closely guarded secret because they don’t want website owners playing to their algorithm just for the sake of getting better listings. Keep in mind Google’s success is based around their ability to provide the most relevant websites to any given search. If they allow website owners to manipulate the results artificially, the quality of their searches would go down and no one would use them. So not only do they keep their methods a secret, but they are constantly updating them at random times every few weeks or month to keep website owners guessing what does or doesn’t work.
But anyway, back to the variables that make up your site’s ability to get listed… Again, there are a LOT of variables, but two of the biggies are keyword density and site popularity.
Search Engine Optimization by Keyword Density
Keyword density is roughly defined as the number of times a keyword phrase (ie, what someone is searching for) appears on a page, divided by the number of total words on that page. But it gets much trickier. For instance, key word phrases in certain contexts are weighted more. Having the keyword phrase in your page title is worth big points. If you have the keyword phrase in your domain name, that’s even better. Where you put it in the actual content of your site makes a difference too. When it’s put in titles, bold face type, bullets, at the top and bottom of the text, or as a section heading, it’s weighted more. If it links to something, that helps. Or better yet, if another site that is about that keyword phrase links to the page itself, that’s worth a lot of points (we’ll come back to the issue of site popularity in a moment.)
So for starters, it’s important that each page of your site only be optimized for a single search term. If you offer ten difference services or products, you should probably have ten different pages for each one of them. By the definition of ‘density’ you can’t have a high density for a single subject AND have multiple subjects on the same page.
Meta Data Optimization
Surely, you’ve heard about certain tricks that can help your rankings. It used to be that “meta tags” could be used to help give the search engine some clue as to what your page was about. (Meta tags are simply hidden pieces of code in your web page that aren’t seen by your visitors, but that anyone looking at the code (ie, search engines) can see.) The problem with meta tags is that people get to pick what they are, which for makes them somewhat useless for Google. Google basically doesn’t trust any website to TELL it what to think (rightfully so since website owners would of course artificially expand those keyword lists to get all the traffic they could). So Google gives basically no merit to meta tags these days. People have often tried hiding keywords in other parts of the page that are invisible to users, but that search engines can see. Tricks have included making the font color of these loaded keywords the same color of the background. Well, Google figured this trick out long ago and will penalize sites that do this by moving them down the list or removing them from the list altogether. The people would change the font color by one shade (a computer can see 6.7 million shades of color. People can only see a fraction of that, so the difference was unnoticeable to users, but it was technically different from the background color, so Google didn’t see it as the same.) Well, Google got wise to that trick too and now checks to make sure the colors of text and backgrounds are within a certain range of contrast, or else you get penalized. Another trick is to hide loaded text under images (using a technique called layering). Truth be told, this one actually can still work if done properly, but you’re playing with fire. While it may get you good results today, Google may figure out how to catch you a few months from now and you could get de-listed.
The bottom line is that trying to trick the search engines into thinking your site is more relevant to something than it really is is a dangerous game. There are some grey areas here, so depending on how aggressive you want to be, that’s something we can discuss with you. It’s a bit like doing your taxes in that the more aggressive you are, the better results you can get, but the more chance there is of getting caught. But we’ll save that for an off-line conversation ;-).
Building Site Popularity
The other big trend in search engines is to look at site popularity. Think of it as an election. With so many sites out there, Google assumes that over time, people will eventually find their way to the sites with the most relevant content. So sites that get more traffic and up getting points with Google just because they’re popular (yes, this is a ‘the rich get richer’ type of setup). Google also looks at how popular sites are with other sites. When a site links to you, it gives you credibility (or so Google assumes). The more popular the site linking to you is, the more weight Google gives to it. A site that is considered highly relevant and highly trafficked will carry a lot more ‘points’ with it if it links to you than some personal home page that has nothing to do with your site. In fact, here again, because people have tried to get as many links as possible to their site to appease the Google Gods, “link farms” popped up where people traded reciprocal links just for the sake of getting links. Google now penalizes you for having irrelevant sites link to your site. On the other hand, if you can get a powerhouse site to link to you, it’s golden. This is when media is so important. Let’s say you get CNN to write an article on you and it links back to your site—that’s huge. In Google’s eyes, CNN is a hugely trafficked, highly relevant and reputable site, so it figures if CNN will link to you, you must have reliable content.
Please note that we’re not even skimming the top of the ice berg here. The number of factors that go into real search engine optimization is staggering.
So anyway, back to our original point, one of the main reasons we can’t promise any specific results is because we have no ability to control your competition’s ability to go out and get links back to their site, nor can we control how much traffic they are able to bring to their site. So if anyone tells you they can guarantee certain rankings, they’re not being straight with you. Usually when companies make such promises, they aren’t talking about a top ten ranking in Google. They’ll use wording like “top search engine placement” but then they go and get you top placement in some obscure search engine that no one uses, which doesn’t help you. Or they are actually talking about using pay per click advertising to buy your way into the ads you see at the very top and right side of Google. (Not that there is anything wrong with paid advertising. In fact, that’s an important part of most campaigns just because if you put all your eggs in the SEO basket, you could really make out, but you could also fall flat on your face. Paid inclusion mitigates that risk by guaranteeing a certain degree of success for your ad dollars. When you’re done reading this page, we have another one of these all about PPC advertising.)
Setting Realistic SEO Expectations
So we’ve just spent a lot of time telling you what we can’t do and how we can’t make any promises. Some sales pitch, eh? We feel it’s important that you understand why we can’t promise anything and that we set realistic expectations up front. Now that we’ve done that, let’s look at what we can do for you with regard to search engine optimization.
Our SEO Process
First of all, picking the right keyword phrases is paramount. If we don’t get this right, nothing else really matters. It’s important to understand that your keyword phrases are not what YOU think your site is about, but that they match what users looking for your products or services are actually going to type in. For instance, let’s say your company offers computer services. No one is going to go to Google and type in ‘computer services.’ So maybe you refine your term to be ‘web design services.’ Ok—now we’re getting somewhere. But even so, there are still a ton of sites out there, so you probably want to be more granular. A lot of people want to add ‘cheap’ (or variants thereof) to the term because they think they’ll get more traffic. And while that may be true, what good is traffic if it’s not your target customer? If you get a ton of traffic looking for cheap web design, and you end up being expensive, then all you’ve done is created a bunch of traffic to your site that you need to pay for, field sales requests for, etc. but who ultimately aren’t probably going to buy from you. So it’s important that you get the right search terms that no only accurately pre-qualify your users, but that are what they’ll actually be searching for. A lot of times, you’ll want to go after users who aren’t hunting for you because they don’t know you exist. For instance, let’s say you make a new kind of piano that you call the “keyless piano.” Well, no one is going to be looking for ‘keyless’ piano in Google. So you need to go after the more known search terms and then use your listing text to hook users into your site. As you can see, this could get complex, and there are a lot of things to consider here. So one of the things Taoti does is to really sit down and get a feel for what you do as a company so we can come up with the right keyword phrases to target.
SEO: Search Engine Process
Once we do that, we figure out how to build your site so that we optimize for each given search term we’ve come up with. As we mentioned above, you can’t really optimize a page for more than one search term at a time (unless they are very closely related) because of the keyword density issue. So ideally, your site should at least have a page for every search term we identify.
Next, a lot of this is going to boil down to content. Going back to the keyword density issue, one of the best things you can do for your site is to get it jammed full of your keyword phrases (but not too full, because if Google thinks you’re artificially jamming it full at an extreme level, they’ll penalize you). One of the things you’ll find is that content that is great for search engines isn’t great for real people, and vice versa. So you’re going to need to consider where your priorities are. Do you write awkward text that search engines will love? Or should your content be user-driven with the understanding that it won’t be as optimized as it could be? So Taoti can either advise you on the things to pay attention to when writing copy, or we can actually write it for you. But do note that of everything we’re covering here, good content is probably 80% of the battle. This is BY FAR the most misunderstood issue in SEO. Most firms blow right over it because good content is hard to write and takes a lot of time, so whether you do it or we do it, it’s a major investment to do it right. And most firms just don’t bother getting into it a whole lot because copy writing is a tough service to sell (for a lot of reasons). But make no mistake: if you’re content is right, none of the other tips and tricks and SEO tactics are going to be able to make up for it.
There are a variety of other technical aspects of SEO—things like making sure the text is visible to search engines, encoding images with keyword rich text, matching page titles, file names, and subject headings, etc. There is a list of about fifty different standards Taoti uses to build a properly optimized site. But again, these technical aspects of the process are not nearly as important as the link popularity and the content issues we’ve outlined above.
You are probably sitting there thinking about your company and how your content and website may or may not fit into this neat little mold that we’ve outlined. We understand that the specifics of your business may not lend themselves well to SEO. But we can still work with whatever the limitations are. That’s why there really aren’t any bulletproof ways in which to deal SEO. It really comes down to a company-specific type of effort based on your products and services and even your industry. We can’t really do you a true service in SEO if we don’t take a look at your industry in general and understand what your competition is doing since SEO is all about relevancy to that competition.
Redesigning Your Site to be SEO-Friendly
A note about ‘redesigns.’ When it comes to working with an existing website, things get a bit more complex—especially if you are already having some moderate success with natural search engine placement. For one thing, rebuilding a site usually means new file names, and if we use new file names, we lose whatever rankings you enjoyed with your old ones. So one of the big questions we need to deal with is whether we take the initial traffic hit by upgrading to more SEO-friendly file names and structure and lose whatever rankings you had in hopes of better placement several months down the road, or do we just stick with what you have so that we don’t lose whatever placement you already have (with the understanding that things aren’t as optimized as they could be.) Tough call, isn’t it? We understand. There are actually a variety of issues that come down to making tough-call decisions like that. But that’s just the nature of the beast.
Again, we’ve only scratched the tip of the ice berg here. SEO is an amazingly complex and multi-facetted type of effort and it’s specific to each company and each web site.
Any time we build a new site, we make sure it conforms to our own standards of what an optimized site should be from a technical point of view. Beyond that, a lot of it is up to you as to how much into the link popular and copy writing you’d like us to get involved. We can simply provide some basic concepts and training and let you handle it all internally. We can work side by side with you on it. Or we can completely assume those roles for you. That conversation usually comes down to what is economically feasible.
There's More to Marketing than SEO
On a final note, please realize that SEO is not the only game going. You need to consider other forms of advertising for starters. Also, you need to make sure that you’re addressing the root of your problem. Let’s say that you’re only getting one sale per week, so you come to us saying you need more traffic. But we find that you’re getting 100,000 users per week. Your issue isn’t traffic. It’s that your site isn’t doing a good job of converting traffic to sales. We get a lot of clients who come to us for SEO and never bother addressing the real need they’re facing. You don’t want traffic for the sake of traffic—you want sales or leads. It may be (often is) your site that needs some work in terms of generating more sales and leads. It can be a lot easier and less expensive to simply improve your site and see if you can increase your conversion rate rather than dump a small fortune into driving more traffic. For any web-based venture, the key to success boils down to two fundamental principals: getting traffic to your site, and converting that traffic to sales/leads. If you fail to do either one of those effectively, it doesn’t really matter how well you do the other one. So don’t get caught in the SEO hype (and yes, we know there is plenty of it these days) and loose track of the big picture—that your site has specific goals and objectives to meet and that simply optimizing your site may not be the only way to skin that cat.
If you’re not sure if your issue is with traffic or conversions or with something else, we’d be more than happy to provide a free initial consultation and if nothing else, offer you some free and friendly advice on areas you may want to focus on and what your next steps may be. Just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Ideally, include a bit about your company, what present marketing efforts you’re doing, and if possible, it would be very useful for us to have an idea of your existing traffic and conversion rate.)