A summary of SEO advice

24 Feb 2012 maze

My friend Wendy Marston recently relaunched the website for her English wedding company, Wendy Marston Events. The new website design looks great, but two-and-a-bit years of Internet marketing experience has taught me to look beyond the appealing graphics and the posh typefaces and consider how well a website is optimised for discovery via organic search... Google, basically.

I immediately spotted missed opportunities: primarily incomplete on-page SEO optimisation. Seemingly no keywords in the <title> or <h1> tags and no alt tags for images.

Why is this important? Search is important and getting more so. Organic search remains a cheap way of driving visitors to your website. Visitors, because they have typed search terms related to what they need right now, tend to convert to prospects or customers at a higher rate than those that visit via interruption advertising such as TV or radio advertising or website banner advertisements. This means organic search has a high return on investment.

Wendy has a number of target markets and most of them use the Web. Without doubt, American couples looking to plan their wedding in England will take to the Web to discover venues, caterers, céilidh bands and whatever else is needed. When those people search I wager Wendy wants her website to appear somewhere near the top.

Of course, while each organic click from a search engine is gratis, that doesn't mean SEO is a totally free lunch. SEO is a long slog of research, creating new content, getting links to your website and being patient. It's not an overnight fix or something you can just throw money at to make happen.

So after being impressed with the design of Wendy's new site but then dismayed by the SEO potential left unexplored, I decided to write down a few things I've learnt and send them onto Wendy. Halfway through I realised this would make a good blog post (and I'd also be able to get a cheeky link to Wendy's website, read on if you don't know why this is useful).

Why listen to me?

That's a fair question. I'm no overnight millionaire and I don't have a fortune based on SEO wizardry. Here are my weekly visits from organic search over the past couple of years:

Graph of organic search visits

No, I've played the game slow and steady. I've seen visits from organic search grow steadily over the past two years, and sales for my product bliss from this channel grow too. Sales where the first contact with the customer has come from organic search now make up about 1/3 of all sales.

By playing it slow-and-steady and avoiding the... let's say questionable and short term ... tactics employed by some in the SEO world, I seem to have built a reliable stream of visitors. It's taken a while to get there but I'm hoping that now I do get a good flow of visitors and revenue from organic search they should keep flowing. By employing only accepted practices to improve my search engine rankings Google does not judge me a 'spammer' and will not implement algorithmic changes to downrank me.

Everything I learnt so far in SEO has been off the backs of others. In particular, Patrick McKenzie's insights into SEO seemed to be grounded in business reality both for the short term (getting visitors and converting them) and the long term (not pissing off Google so all that revenue disappears). In addition, SEOmoz's Beginner's Guide to Search Engine Optimization and Google's own guidelines are useful starting points. And, frankly, all the above are all you really need to know, at least to get started. Whether you need to go further with the complicated stuff is really down to the competition in your particular market. But I'll come back to that later...

Having said that, almost everything I've read on SEO, even the recommended resources above, have left me wanting more. Only the most basic, fundamental advice on on-page SEO (use of certain HTML tags etc) is immediately actionable. Everything else is open ended. You'll see advice like "create great content" or "get loads of backlinks" to which I used to think "Great! Er.... how?". The more I get experience with SEO, the more I realise that those articles are right to be open ended. Any "sure fire" ways to get to #1 in Google without great content and a respected site will either (1) not work or (2) work for a few days before Google realises and bans your ass for good. And that's not what you want. So, and it pains me to say this, embrace the uncertainty.

It's also worth mentioning that SEO shouldn't be your only revenue stream. I mentioned above it only makes up about about 1/3 of revenues for me... frankly that's on the high side. Getting over dependent on one source of revenue is highly risky, so developing SEO should only be considered part of a wider marketing approach.

What I've learnt

For me, SEO has become the following four step process, roughly in order:

  1. Research the terms I want to rank highly for
  2. Create content people will want to read
  3. Optimise the content so it describes itself to search engines
  4. Get other people to link to the content

Each of these steps are ongoing. I re-run my keyword research every six months. I am constantly producing content, for the Music Library Management blog once per week and the elsten software blog every other month or so. Building links tends to be the hardest of the lot, and where you can be most creative in working out ways for people to link to you. Hint: it doesn't have to be links to blog articles, any old link helps.

Here's a selection of general rules I've worked out over time...

Measure from the start

It's impossible to know whether your SEO is doing well or not without measuring. There are two types of measurement to consider early on: the traffic your site is receiving, and the position of your site on search rankings.

Measuring your site's traffic is easy to configure. I use Google Analytics. To configure Google Analytics, sign up for an account and then install the tracking code on each page on your website (for most blog engines and CMSs that's just in one place). The very next day you'll see a report of how your visitors arrived at your site, where they are visiting from (geographically), the search terms they typed to visit your site, the pages they viewed and much more. You can hook up 'goals' so that, for example, when someone signs up for more information that counts as a 'conversion'. Over time you can optimise your site to make conversions more likely, and improve that sales funnel.

Measuring your site's position in the search rankings can be easy when it's just a few keywords you are looking to rank for. Make sure you use a browser that has been 'anonymised' so that your previous Web activity (Facebook, previous Google searches) doesn't affect the results. Chrome's 'Incognito' mode is useful for this.

The number of keywords you want to track may expand into the tens or hundreds. For this, there are lots of software to automate the process.

Research, research, research

There's no point deciding you want to rank for a given term if no one searches for it. Thankfully, you can find out how many people search for a given term in different localities. If you sign up for a Google Adwords account you can use the keyword tool to research what keywords are highly searched for.

With Wendy's website in mind I entered some keyword experiments into Adwords. Before I entered the keywords, I narrowed the search so that only searches for the United States were included. I also enabled 'phrase match' which means the only unbroken instances of the search are considered (e.g "british wedding" or "british weddings" and not "british royal wedding"):

english wedding
british wedding
UK wedding
wedding in england
wedding in britain
wedding in UK

Here are the results:

Keyword Local Monthly Searches (United States)
"british wedding" 4400
"english wedding" 3600
"uk wedding" 1600
"wedding in england" 880
"wedding in uk" 140
"wedding in britain" 46

That's a pretty healthy 4400 searches for "british wedding" per month coming from the US alone.

Of course, these numbers don't mean that's 4400 qualified prospects each month (if it did, I'd be in the wedding business). The intent behind each search is not already obvious, and conversion rates from visitor to prospect can vary between different keywords. This is why it's judicious to adopt multiple different keywords, to measure your best performing keywords over time and know where to invest future marketing cash. The beauty of Internet marketing is because the potential market (global) is so large, you can get very niched in terms of how specific your keywords are, qualifying visitors using those keywords.

Deciding which keywords to attack is not as simple as ranking them by how many people search for them and ticking down the list. Especially early on, while your website and domain is new, you will find it hard to compete with established players. It's therefore best to aim at the keywords with less competition. You can do this manually or, again, use software to do it.

Keyword research also makes a great source of inspiration for content. Whilst searching for the above keywords I found these other keywords which could be turned into blog posts and optimised for that keyword, bringing in more visitors:

english wedding traditions
british wedding traditions
uk wedding dresses
uk wedding favours
english wedding rings
uk wedding photographers

Finally, you get to learn more about your market. I just found out that "english" is 4x more searched for than "british" in the States!

Everything you do is content

One of the buzzwords in SEO and Internet marketing in general is 'content'. Indeed, the latest fashion is for Content marketing. Content, to a lot of people, means blog posts and articles, but in reality it can mean anything which is Web accessible or, indeed, anything that is NOT Web accessible, so long as it draws links in.

Wendy's business is a great example of the latter. The reason her business exists is to give couples great experiences: wonderful, memorable weddings in England. It's those experiences that are her core competency, not writing blog posts. However, by gathering testimonials and references for her great weddings, by getting press or being included in local directories, she soon builds links back to her website which helps further with her search rankings, hopefully gaining more prospects in a virtuous cycle.

The minimum viable HTML page

This is where SEO gets more technical. Each Web page is written in HTML, a markup language that includes not only the content that the end user can view but also information about the content: how the content should be laid out on the page, its typefaces, images and more. A HTML file has a structure that is used to inform the Web browser how the page should appear. It just so happens that the same structure is used by search engines to decide not only what content is on the page, but also the relative importance of different parts of the page. Communicating the intent of a HTML page discusses is not just about the text you write, it becomes about its structure too.

The most important parts of the page to communicate this intent are the title and the headings, the <title> or <h> tags (with h1 being most important, h9 least). Where possible, keywords should appear in these tags. This makes sense: if you are writing an article or a Web page about the keyword it stands to reason the keyword should appear in the title. Sub-topics of the keyword are where the different levels of <h> tags come in. For instance, you may have a <title> and <h1> tag with the keyword "English weddings" inside. A <h2> tag may have "English wedding customs". Inside that, <h3> headings may be "Morning dress", "Best man", "Throwing the bouquet" and so on (I have no idea if these are English customs, they're just examples).

Given the need to structure information clearly it stands to reason that each Web page should concentrate on one keyword. If not, it's easy to become confused as to how to include all of the keywords in the <title> tags. Adding more keywords to the mix only diminishes the importance of the other keywords. This is a topic known as keyword density. Generally, it's best to have many highly specific Web pages concentrating on smaller topics than one enormous one trying to cover them all.

One difficulty is with images. Images are not text, so a search engine cannot match a search query to an image, but you can describe an image using the alt tag. Search engines then use this to build an understanding of what the image contains. This also has the byproduct of making the page more accessible to screen readers so that blind potential customers can access your website.

It takes time... calendar time

I'm an impatient person and this is one of the annoying aspects of SEO. It takes calendar time for Google to trust your website and your Web pages. One aspect of Google's ranking algorithm is believed to be the age of your domain; the older the better (so long as it hasn't been misused in the past).

There's little else that can be done here other than to wait and to continue producing content and building links. There are activities touted as shortcuts (see Buying links below) but on the whole I don't think they are worth the bother.

Build relationships, not links

Work out all of the ways that you can build relationships with other organisations, businesses or individuals. All of these are possible ways of building your network, both online and offline. Links will follow, which further improve your search rankings. Here are some different categories of relationships that can build these links:

  • Companies that offer complementary services
  • Enthusiast and hobbyist sites for your domain
  • Users and customers

Now, applied to bliss, some examples of these have been:

  • Integration with other music servers (e.g. VortexBox)
  • Partnership with CD ripping companies
  • Features on Hi-Fi sites
  • Features on tech enthusiast or software review sites
  • Mentions by customers and users in online forums
  • Customer reviews

Buying links

Save yourself the bother. Here's a confession: I did, once. Early on, when I was frustrated I wasn't seeing the organic traffic I wanted I purchased a small number of links. I think it possibly made a small, short term difference. At best, though, the directory sites that provide these links have very low ranking themselves in Google.

At worst, they can be negative to your ranking. Sites that are known to contain purchased links can negatively impact target sites' rankings. It's probably best to just concentrate on your content and building relationships with legitimate websites.

Heed the social revolution

Social validation of your content is probably the next big wave in search. If your business is not already on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ then it's time to investigate these networks.

Two main benefits from social media marketing spring to mind. The first is the standard, word of mouth style marketing. Referrals and testimonials from past customers carry great weight. In addition, there's the SEO benefit of extra links being posted to your website. These links are likely to be helpful to your ranking. Tweets will often be picked up and featured on different websites across the Web, giving you a diverse set of incoming links from different domains.

Like with link building it's best not to shortcut the process by purchashing followers and friends to your brand on social media websites. Such 'people' (these followers are typically not real people) are likely to be recognised and downplayed over time, just like websites with paid links.

So that's my summary of SEO wisdom learnt so far. It's just basic stuff, but over a medium term it seems to be working ok.


I've spent a few minutes bashing Wendy's SEO, but what about my own shortcomings? My own plans over the next year or two to further improve rankings amount to pretty much more-of-the-same plus a few new tactics.

I'd like to mix up the media a bit on the blisshq site. Currently it's mostly text and images, but video can be a useful teaching aid for tutorials and the like and I hear it can have a good impact on search rankings.

I'd like to make more of an effort in social media. Currently I have Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts but they are underused. I could include more content on the Facebook page and also provide ways for users of bliss to share stats about their music library with their friends. These messages would link back to the bliss social media accounts, hopefully driving more interest and traffic (and, from the links, better search rankings).

That's it for now. Onwards and up the search rankings!

Thanks to woodleywonderworks and Kevin Dooley for the images above.
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