April 24, 2009
A lot of people in the PR industry view search engine optimisation (SEO) as something of a voodoo dark art and, consequently, are afraid of tackling it. The main problem with the SEO industry is that unless you already know a lot about the subject, it’s kind of hard to tell the professionals from the cowboys.
Let me be clear: there are some very good, respectable SEO consultancies out there that do excellent work for their clients. But there are also a lot of amateurs who, at best will charge you a small fortune for doing very little useful work, or at worst will use some unprofessional black-hat techniques that will risk getting your website de-listed from Google’s index. If you don’t understand SEO, it’s not always easy to tell the difference.
But here’s something that both the professionals and the cowboys are unlikely to tell you: about 90% of SEO is very straight forward common sense stuff. To prove it, I’ll run through the basics here and by the time you’ve read the whole article, you’ll know just as much as most of the people who pass themselves off as SEO experts. If nothing else, you’ll at least be better positioned to tell the difference between good and bad SEO consultancies.
Let’s start by defining our terms, when we talk about SEO, we generally mean that we’re trying to ensure that our website is as close to the top of Google’s search results as possible when somebody searches on specific words or phrases that are relevant to our business. There are other search engines, but Google is by far the market leader and, broadly speaking, what works for one search engine works for them all.
And if you’re wondering why you should trust what I write here any more than all of the other SEO snake-oil being peddled on the internet, I can promise that everything you read here can be independently verified by reading through the Official Google Webmaster’s Blog.
A website’s position in Google’s search results depends on how important Google thinks that site is. And, simply put, Google judges the importance of a site by counting the number of other websites that link to it. This brilliantly simple idea formed the foundation of Google’s all conquering search technology; sites which contain high quality content tend to attract lots of links from other websites, therefore the more links a site has, the more likely it is to have good content.
So, one of the key principles of SEO is to get as many links to your site as possible.
The next important thing you need to understand is that it’s not a good idea to simply plaster links to your site all over the internet. In order for your site to rank highly for the search terms that are important to your business, the links to your site have to be relevant, which means that it counts for a lot if the sites which link to yours feature content which is relevant to your business. If you sell garden furniture, you want lots of links from websites which feature content about garden furniture.
Links from non-relevant sites don’t hurt, but they don’t help as much as links from relevant sites.
The text used in a link (called anchor text) is also very important, because if the same phrases are used in lots of links to your site, Google will begin to associate those phrases with your site and you are more likely to rank highly in search results for those phrases. If a gardening website writes an article about your company and provides a link to your site, they might publish it like so (imagine the underlined text is an active link):
Click here to visit Joe’s Garden Furniture
This gives Google no useful information about your site, so in an ideal world you would want the link to look like this instead:
Visit Joe’s Garden Furniture
This improves your site’s chances of ranking highly for the phrase Joe’s Garden Furniture as well as the ‘nested’ search terms: Garden Furniture, Garden, and Furniture. But it’s important to remember that good SEO focuses on all of your website’s pages and content, not just the home page, so if the gardening website is writing specifically about your range of patio heaters, it would be better for them to provide this link directly to the relevant page on your site:
Visit Joe’s Garden Furniture patio heater page
When Google’s vast computers are scanning the web and deciding how important websites are (as discussed earlier, by treating links from other websites as ‘votes’ to determine a site’s importance) it assigns a 0-10 score to each individual page on the web, called Pagerank. You can view a site’s Pagerank score with the Google browser-toolbar, which displays the rank as a small green bar:
This screenshot shows that bbc.co.uk is a very important website with a Pagerank of nine out of ten. The BBC is obviously a globally recognised news source and its website has millions of links from other sites. Very few sites achieve this level of Pagerank, it takes a lot of time, effort and the kind of resources that only large organisations like the BBC have access to. Pagerank is based on a logarithmic scale, which means it gets progressively more difficult to increase in rank, and the exact algorithm for calculating Pagerank is one of Google’s trade secrets.
Here’s the point of all this – links from sites with high Pagerank will help your site more than links from low ranking sites. Think of it like this, a vote from a site which Google already views as being a high quality site is a valuable vote of confidence in your own site’s quality.
Why does Pagerank matter? If your business was highly competitive and lots of different websites were all trying to rank highly for garden furniture related search terms, all other things being equal, the sites with higher Pagerank will perform better in search results.
It’s important not to get caught up in the Pagerank chasing game, this is a futile distraction – it’s enough to understand what Pagerank is and how it affects your site.
Do. Not. Spam. Ever.
Google is smart, it knows that people are always trying to figure out ways to beat the system and get their sites at the top of the search rankings, so it invests a lot of effort into identifying spammy SEO techniques and penalising sites which aren’t playing fairly. If you employ a dodgy SEO company, or you try to take shortcuts by using lazy, underhand tactics to boost your site’s rankings, you run the risk of getting your company’s website delisted from Google – the consequences of that should be obvious. It happened to BMW, it can happen to you.
What can PR do to help SEO?
The good news is that a lot of the things that PR is good at doing are the kind of things that help SEO. There are technical optimisations which can be carried out to your company’s website by SEO specialists (although the rule of thumb is: build a good quality, standards compliant website and you’ll be fine) but in terms of encouraging people to provide you with good quality, relevant links, here are a few ideas:
- Build relationships with relevant online media and persuade them to write about your company – this almost always results in a link to your website from a page full of highly relevant content.
- Press releases distributed on leading wire services will allow you to embed links with relevant anchor text, and the releases will get syndicated by any number of websites, depending of course on how interesting your announcement is.
- Create high quality content on your own company website – provide useful, interesting content and people will be happy to link to it. Having a lot of relevant, high quality content on your own site is perhaps the most important factor in SEO.
- Create high quality content and give it away. Infographics, widgets, Q&As, How-To guides, there’s no end to the kind of content you can create and give out to blogs, discussion forums and websites in your sector – this not only produces links, but also builds goodwill.
What we’ve discussed here is a top-level overview of the basics of SEO, but those basics account for the bulk of the work. Get this stuff right, keep doing it consistently over time, and you’ll soon see results.