A question I get asked a lot is, how come our competitors are higher up the Google rankings than us? Up until now, the easy answer was to point any enquirers towards books on SEO (search engine optimisation) or companies that specialise in optimising websites.
I knew that Google likes to pick up keywords in text and description tags, that incoming links matter, and that was about it. Before you ask, I had never bothered to optimise my own site as I felt that I was unlikely to get work from a random search on “web design” or “copywriting”. You may feel that way too: SEO is not the be-all and end-all, often word of mouth and other recommendations are the drivers for your business. Your website is therefore an online resource for those who are already interested in you and what you do. I think that’s absolutely fine, however if you are interested in drumming up a bit more business via the internet read on …
So, a few months ago I had a couple of afternoons to spare, and thought, right I need to get to the bottom of this. So I packed myself off to the National Library of Scotland (one of my favourite places) and ordered a stack of highly recommended books on SEO. Of these, by far the most useful was a relatively light tome called Outsmarting Google by Evan Bailyn with Bradley Bailyn. In a moment I’m going to précis the main points for you, but anything I say here must come with the proviso that I have not tried all of these methods myself yet, and those I have will not yield any results for a few months yet, such is the way that Google operates.
To summarise then, Bailyn and Bailyn say that the five most important factors for ranking on Google are: links, keywords, page title, URL structure, and time.
Inbound links + PageRank
So Google will look at your ‘PageRank’ – this is based on incoming links to your site. But before you go off to buy up links, beware. Google is smarter than that and actually ranks those incoming links. So if you were to get linked to by a highly respected site with a high volume of traffic such as The Guardian or the BBC that will bump up your PageRank. On the other hand, sites that sell links, and there are many of those, are actually downgraded by Google and won’t help your ranking, in fact they can actually have an adverse effect.
“Links matter far more than any other factor. And if you get the link component and the meta page title component right, you’ve got 85% of the job done right there.”
To find out how to bump up your ranking, Google the search terms you would like to score highly on, for example ‘yoga for pregnancy’, ‘adult swimming lessons’ or ‘baking classes’ (they should be relatively wide searches) then Google them and check the results. The top ten results are, naturally, ranked highly. Scan those for organisations that could link to you, purely by being a member of the same industry, then approach them for a link. For example, a search for ‘Alexander Technique’ will bring up the Society of Teachers of Alexander Technique so a link from them will be a great boost (AT teachers make sure your listing includes a link to your site). You can also do associated searches, so ‘yoga clothing’, ‘learning front crawl’ or ‘bakery utensils’ for example, and see if there are any useful sites to approach there. A word of warning though, don’t make your search too narrow or Google may have to scrape the bottom of the barrel and offer more lowly ranked sites in its top ten. Remember, you are looking for links from high ranking sites, and most importantly, sites that have never sold links.
Keywords are the search terms that surfers type into Google, we already mentioned a few examples above: ‘yoga for pregnancy’, ‘adult swimming lessons’ etc. These guys are not difficult to find. Just get into the head of a potential client for a moment, or conduct a bit of research amongst friends and associates. If you are a nutritional consultant for example, a search may be ‘dietary advice’, ‘optimum nutrition’ or ‘is chocolate bad for you?‘ So Google these terms and look at the blue underlined heading of each of the top ten results. They keywords you find in these headings are what your competitors have found work well. So a search around ‘is chocolate bad for you?’ reveals keywords ‘chocolate is good for you’, ‘is chocolate healthy?’, and ‘healthy eating’, to name a few. These keywords can then be incorporated into the nutritionist’s content, meta page title and even her URL. Now try this exercise with keywords appropriate to what you do.
Meta page title
The meta page title is the description of the site. If you search for your url by name, the Google result will show your site description, next to the name. (In WordPress this is usually found in General Settings and it is the ‘tagline’.) For example, ZONE Architects shows that its meta page title is ‘Edinburgh architects & interior design studio’. Having said that, not all themes allow the tagline to show. I’ve just discovered that mine is not visible. Making a note right now to look into that. But I digress.
Getting back to ZONE, you’ll see that they have incorporated some keywords into their meta page title in a quite natural way. I say that because it is a no-no to try and cram lots of search terms into your page title, for example our architect friends may want to score highly in searches for ‘new build design’, ‘extensions’, ‘refurbishments’, ‘commercial and residential buildings’ and so on, however, if they listed all of these in their meta page title, they would almost certainly be labeled as spam and fall to the bottom of the rankings. Ouch!
And it’s not just the home page that counts, these days meta titles for all your pages can boost your rankings. For WordPress sites I recommend a plug in such as All-in-One SEO pack which makes adding this keyword information super simple.
Choosing a URL is really important, if you are in a crowded market, it may be really difficult to get a URL that incorporates your keywords, but it is not impossible. So, for example, if you sell pink glow sticks your best URL would be pinkglowsticks.com, .co.uk, .org or .net. If you can’t get that then go for greatpinkglowsticks.com or something like that. If you already have an established name that doesn’t incorporate what you do that’s fine, but think about having your keywords as page titles, good examples include jewellery designers 1of1design who have this page: www.1of1design.co.uk/jewellery/ and Julie Cade Yoga who specialises in yoga for pregnancy: juliecadeyoga.co.uk/classes-with-julie/yoga-for-pregnancy/
Like a good whisky, SEO takes time. It’s very frustrating, for sure, and it also means that it is dangerous to pay for SEO as usually you’ll have settled the bill long before you’re sure there has been any effect at all. When you launch your site it will be a least a month before it ranks at all for any competitive keyword, and I’d say probably two months before you get the first real opportunity to show if any of your efforts are bearing fruit. You’ll remember that I mentioned getting quality links, well this too takes time to show up in the rankings. Your site may be years old, but if your links are new, you will have to wait for them to mature too. So stop, breathe, and have patience. Good rankings come to those who wait.
Find out more
I’ve just scratched the surface here. To find out more please check out Outsmarting Google by Evan Bailyn and Bradley Bailyn. It’s about £10 at Amazon or free from the library, and certainly better value than most SEO ‘experts’.