People just love to go on about search engine optimisation these days. They LOVE it. SEO experts are put on pedestals as the salesmen that just keep selling, even when they’re not at work. If they’re not going to do it, their competitors will, after all.
Except SEO is a mugs game, the “experts” are full of shit and it’s pretty much all lies. I’ll give you this one for free. By the end of this post I’ll have walked you through how to search engine optimise your web presence and with any luck, you’ll see the benefits. Before I do that, I’m going to give you a little background information.
The person that “manages” the SEO in your company (if the job listings for “SEO Managers” are to be believed) are sharp, sales focused individuals with a good grasp on technology. As such, these individuals are relatively well paid, for a general sales job anyway.
I did a very quick sweep of some job sites and came across the following job listings. These represent a fair sample and are pretty much the average (source http://www.totaljobs.com/JobSeeking/SEO.html).
SEO Manager £35000 – £45000 per annum + Bonus + Benefits
SEO Manager £35000 – £41000 + benefits
SEO Marketing Executive £30000 (SEM / PPC / Adwords / Analytics)
SEO Web Leader £30000 – £45000 per annum + Benefits (Featured job)
Other Supporting Figures (http://www.itjobswatch.co.uk/jobs/uk/seo.do)
UK excluding London average salary £30,267
% change on same period last year +5.27 %
There are multiple pages of results that look the same as that cross section. The average amount an “SEO Manager” pulls in as a base salary appears to be around £35000. That’s not mathematically accurate, but it’s a reasonable estimate.
So what does an “SEO Manager” really do? Well, interestingly one of the job listings above really gives the game away. “SEM / PPC / Adwords / Analytics”. To decompose the acronyms “search engine management”, “pay per click”, Google Adwords and Google Analytics.
Lets dissect each of those job roles one by one and work out what your SEO Manager is doing for you.
Search Engine Management
This is actually a reasonably interesting category because it doesn’t mean very much. The real wins in “SEM” will be done by your programmers or your middleware CRM systems. I’ll explain some of the valid techniques for “SEM” below, however, it’s important to note that “search engine management” doesn’t really mean anything at all and should be something to happen naturally as your website grows.
Pay Per Click Submissions
Daily, this role tends to involve the exporting of a product list from a database, and importing it to a number of PPC sites, such as Kelkoo and PriceRunner. Often a very simple task to automate, despite PPC sites having a tendency to ask for data in weird and wonderful formats. This bit of the job description probably covers nagging the PPC partners when they invariably don’t list your products in time.
Daily, logging into your Google account, monitoring the Estimated Cost / Day on some keywords (and when I say monitoring, I mean “stopping bidding when they look too expensive”) and using the very friendly Traffic Estimator Sandbox to pick new links to bid on. Not a hard task for a seasoned marketer of any kind.
Google Analytics / Analytics Software Of Your Choice
You could almost be fooled into believing that anyone could be an “SEO Manager” with roughly a days worth of reading the Google help documents and learning how to use a few very simple tools. Oh, you were thinking that too? This is a job your marketing department should be doing. Don’t have a marketing department? It’s not hard, it’s your job, and I can help you with some very simple tips.
You see, the good thing about Google is that they’re on your side. Google thrive for two reasons.
- Search is their thing – Google is the internet’s home page, they drive almost 90% of the worlds traffic. You don’t need to play them, they want to know who you are.
- Google survive by selling adverts.
Google want to list you as much as you want to appear at the top of page 1 (and, seeing as nobody reads past the first two pages of search results, better keep off page 3+).
So lets make it easy for Google to find you.
In the dark ages of the internet (or for the sake of argument, the early 2000’s) people were always trying to sell tips related to manipulating your Google “page rank”, the magical algorithm that Google uses to determine who appears at the top of the search page. There were even some tips that worked. That was 2002. Before we go any further I want to make one thing explicitly clear:
You can’t fool Google’s search results for your website.
SEO That Works
Got it? Excellent. So what can you do?
Lets take a fictional product in a reasonably established market. You’re a company that develops interesting light fittings and lamps, and you’re about to launch a new range of touch-sensitive-base lamps. Sounds plausible.
Luckily for you, Google is really really good at indexing websites, but there are a few simple tricks that help Google index you thoroughly and quickly.
- Content is king
If you’re trying to get highly listed for a keyword, ensure your site has content related to it.
- The Holy Trinity Of Keywords
One of the simplest and more effective ways to get indexed and ranked highly is to ensure that there’s a good relation between your URI and the topic you’re hoping to rank highly for.
Make sure your URL, page title and keyword densities all say the same thing. Ever wondered why if you search for anything on Google the Wikipedia link is always in one of the top three places? This is why.
Google indexing puts a lot of weight in to the relationship between the URI of your website, the title of your page, the header tags (H1) and the keyword density of your content. To work using the above touch-sensitive light example a URL of http://www.touchlamps.com/shop/Our-New-Touch-Lamp.html would rank higher for the search term “touch lamp” than http://www.lighting.com/shop/touchlamp which would rank higher than http://www.homeware.com/products/123. Likewise, if there were two shopping sites www.lamps1.com/shop/lamp and www.lamps2.com/shop/lamp if the page title of the former was “buy items” and the page title of the latter was “buy touch lamps” the latter would rank higher. Having the H1 and H2 tags on your page relate to lighting or touch lamps would further endorse your page rank.
What should you take away from this? Ensure that for each page of your site, the keywords that you want
o be linked to for are frequent in the top 1/3rd of the page.
- Use a sitemap
Commonly missed, nothing helps a search engine better than a good sitemap. You’d probably like to dynamically generate this for a large shopping site, but if you don’t, Google offer some nice webmaster tools to help you. Sitemaps act as signposts for search engines, enabling them to efficiently spider and index your website, allowing you to dictate the way the search engine behaves related to your content along the way.
Sitemaps help you tell the search engines how often you expect any given content to change, and suggest a frequency of re-checking to allow their indexes to be permanently up to date.
There’s no use in trying to see a new product if the search don’t know you’re trying.
- Reputation Reputation Reputation!
It’s all about who you know. The internet is brilliant for spreading word of mouth so make friends with other sites that share either your interest, or interest in your products. Nothing works better than a little positive PR.
Do you sell a product that has a rabid fan-base? If so, consider searching for user forums or big sites in the user community and throw them some freebies. This is a common trick in the ultra-competitive market of technology resale. Supply fan sites with free samples in exchange for links and you’ll find that your page rank improves as a consequence.
Google and other search providers give “bonus points” to your ranking if you’re linked to by other locations that also rank highly for the same keywords. Thus, you might take a financial hit for sending out products (worst case) or just be willing to help out other resources by linking to other useful content (if you’re not a retail entity), however the SEO-bonus and goodwill produced from such an effort will be worth far more.
- Sanitise Your URLs
Having a URL schema that looks something like http://shopping.netsuite.com/s.nl/c.851077/n.2/sc.10/category.285/.f is the quickest way to punish yourself and your website for no reason. I picked that URL at random, it’s a website based on Netsuite’s web platform and their CRM produces some of the worst URLs I have ever seen (I just searched for “netsuite /s.nl” due to pre-exposure to their URLs in search of an example, I couldn’t comment on the actual content of that URL).
If your developers or your CRM aren’t producing human-readable URLs, get new developers or get a new CRM. It’s really that simple, it’s taking part in the online market with a self induced handicap. Url rewriting is very simple, and doesn’t even have to be perfect to be good enough. It’s well supported using mod_rewrite in Apache or a handful of ISAPI filters on IIS up to IIS6, and supported natively with HTTP modules from IIS6 onwards.
Look at it this way, what do you prefer: http://www.hotlamps.com/shop/123/touch-lamp or http://www.hotlamps.com/shop/s.nl/c.851077/n.2/sc.10/category.285/123 or http://www.hotlamps.com/shop/123. I would always vote for the first URL, it reinforces what you’re attempting to sell, plays into your page rank bonus for Url to content relationship and just makes far more sense to a visitor.
Use URL rewriting or you’ll regret it.
You’ve done all that and you’re still not getting traffic? You’ve got a brand new touch lamp you’re trying to sell and just can’t get the page impressions? Thinking about hiring an “SEO Manager” to make all your problems go away? Stop. Buy your visitors.
I’m not a marketer (and that’s probably obvious by now) but if you’re doing all the right things and people just aren’t seeing your product, it’s time to look into your cost-per-acquisition of a new customer.
You’ve just decided you need to go through with an online marketing push for your new flagship range of lamps. A quick Google search (13th Jan 2009) leads with two sponsored links. One for “Touch Sensitive Lamps” and another for “Touch Lamps at Amazon”. In addition to that, the sidebar (sponsored links) point to “M&S Lighting”, “Touch Lamps at shop-com.co.uk”, “Touch Lamps? at dealtime.co.uk” (a price comparison engine), “Lamps Touch”, at supaprice.co.uk (also, presumably a price comparison engine), Ask.com, and Shopzilla.co.uk/ComparePrices.
Two things strike me about those results. The first is that most of them are price comparison engines buying sponsored ad space for the minimum buy price. The second is that there aren’t many players in the “touch lamp” market past M&S so buying links should be easy.
Regardless of your hiring an “SEO guy” or not, you’re going to buy buying Google ads. It’s a fact of life in a world dominated by a single search provider and even more dominated by a single Ad provider. You have to do two things, buy the right keywords, and play the price comparison engine game.
Buying The Right Keywords
The really great new is that Google has a fantastic tool available to you to predict how well buying clicks will go for you. To maintain the current example, I ran a few phrases through the sandbox (find it yourself at http://adwords.google.com/select/TrafficEstimatorSandbox) and got the following results:
||Est. Cost Per Click
||Est. Ad Position
||£0.00 – £0.65
||1 – 3
||£0 – £1
||£0.80 – £1.08
||1 – 3
||3,214 – 4,021
||£2,580 – £4,330
||£1.05 – £1.52
||1 – 3
||5,981 – 7,484
||£6,270 – £11,410
||£0.66 – £0.85
||1 – 3
||17 – 21
||£0.81 – £1.01
||1 – 3
||£0.57 – £0.74
||1 – 3
||238 – 297
||£140 – £220
||£0.80 – £1.14
||1 – 3
||6 – 7
||£5 – £9
||£0.55 – £0.72
||1 – 3
||4 – 5
||£2 – £4
Using readily available tools, it doesn’t take any kind of expert to recognise trends when provided with tabular data. You basically want to buy a good spread of keywords with the lowest CPC vs. the highest Clicks/Day, but more likely, meeting somewhere in the middle. From the above predicted results (and remember, they’re just predicted trends) the two sure-buys seem to be “bedside” and “touch lamp”. Which makes perfect sense.
My one word of warning when buying traffic is to be careful not to get carried away. I’ve worked for a company that crippled itself buying really obvious keywords and costing itself more to purchase some clicks than the profit margin on the item. That’s commercial suicide. Know what your recommended cost-per-acquisition is and don’t go over it, however good an idea it seems.
Playing The Comparison Engine Game
I don’t have very much to say about the comparison engines. They often charge you for submission and position, and they index so many products that they have instant high ranking on search engines. They minimum bid on any keyword that you can buy and are very prolific.
I’d pick just one or two to participate in, and closely monitor the ROI on any payments you make to them. Don’t let them hold you to ransom, just remember that any links you’re paying for on comparison engines are placed side by side with the links of your competitors. So make sure you’re the best OR the cheapest, but don’t presume the links have much value.
So Should I Hire That SEO Manager Anyway?
That’s totally up to you. But as a rule of guidance, if you were to be selling a new range of touch lamps, you’re SEO Manager would have to bring in 28500 potential sales per year to make hiring him anywhere near as efficient and worthy as just buying 90 days worth of Google ads for “bedside”. You could save your £35k, ensure your developers are doing the right thing and get the same results, for nothing.
Earlier I said that “you can’t fool Google” and I really meant it. Over the years tonnes and tonnes of tricks have been developed to exploit the way page rank works.
A few of the most common tricks were:
- Flooding your page with huge collections of keywords the same colour as the background of your website to increase page rank via keyword density.
- Blog link spam
- Websites full of links to your own content
You’ll be pleased to hear that these techniques, along with being the digital equivalent of fly-postering, not only don’t work, but negatively effect your rank. Google have something like 4,500 developers. A large portion of them will be dedicated to stopping people tricking and abusing their ranking algorithms. Don’t waste time trying.
I used to work as a developer on a large eCommerce website specialising in IT equipment and hardware. I was responsible for writing all the code that dealt with search engine optimisation and wrote the majority of the web-facing code.
I met many many people who claimed to have some secret source, I read lots of aging documents on Google page rank (whatever you read is out of date, page rank changes daily) and sat through too many meetings with brain dead SEO consultants who couldn’t advise anything concrete past their smoke and mirrors.
Worse than that, I saw some of these consultants hired to “improve” our page ranks in a number of unsuccessful and unquantifiable ways. I’ve seen consultants cost tens of thousands of pounds delivering nothing when that money should’ve been spent on traditional advertising and content creation. I’ve seen companies try and buy so many links it forced them to near bankruptcy.
I wouldn’t call myself an expert on SEO, but I certainly know what doesn’t work. After three months of working on “SEO” the only things that ever worked for us, were good content, good links and purchasing Adwords.
I hope you take a few good practices from this, but more than anything, I hope you don’t buy into the SEO bullshit.
If you want proof that regularly updating content works, go search for “David Whitney” on Google. My humble website ranks above any other (source http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=david+whitney&btnG=Google+Search&meta=).