Search engine optimisation – a holistic approach

By Nick Holmes on September 5, 2009
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Filed under Articles, SEO

First Published in the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers, September 2009.

Most users don’t look past the first two or three pages of results returned by a search engine, so understanding and implementing search engine optimisation (SEO) is critical. SEO is the process of improving the volume or quality of traffic to a website from search engines via natural (or “organic”) – as opposed to paid for (or “sponsored”) – search results.

In most contexts below, given its market dominance, I use “Google” as short-hand for all search engines.

How Google ranks web pages

Using sophisticated algorithms and deploying phenomenal computing resources, Google ranks all your web pages according to their perceived relevance and authority with respect to all possible search terms keyed by the user (keywords), thus determining the position of your pages for those keywords in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Google’s algorithm for calculating the relative importance of pages for given keywords is called PageRank (named after founder Larry Page).

SEO broadly involves influencing two sets of factors affecting page ranks:

On-site and on-page factors relate to the inherent value of your pages: the design and structure of your website generally and the layout and content of individual pages. These factors are wholly in your control.

Off-page factors relate to how others value you. Principally this concerns the number and value of links from other sites to your pages. You have to work consistently at gaining and retaining these “votes”.

Within these broad sets there are numerous individual factors affecting PageRank.

On-site and on-page factors
website IP address
server location
domain name of website
URL of page
title of page
meta description of page
freshness of page content
links on page to external websites
page “theme”
website “theme”
Off-page factors
number of links to website
PageRank of links to website
number of links to page
PageRank of links to page
text in links to page (anchor text)
page click-through rate (CTR)
“stickiness” of page
total number of pages on website

Google’s Toolbar PageRank

Google calculates an aggregate PageRank for each web page and this value is displayed in the Google Toolbar if you have that installed in your browser. But this “Toolbar PageRank” is a measure of the overall value of the page (on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 10, commonly expressed as “PR6” etc), without reference to keywords. Because it is such a visible and easily digestible measure, it is often accorded undue importance; but what’s much more important is the rank of the individual pages for particular keywords.

It’s not [rocket] science

Since Google’s PageRank algorithm is a closely-guarded secret and is constantly changing, SEO involves a lot of intelligent guesswork about the relative importance of the above factors, based on analysis and experience of what works. SEO is thus not an exact science, more of an art; and it is an art whose basic principles are well-established, easily understood and readily implemented by the non-technical.

So don’t fixate on the technical detail and don’t be unduly persuaded by precise rules quoted as being optimal by many so-called SEO specialists. Instead, have in mind that, at the end of the day, Google is seeking dispassionately to judge the value of your pages and match them to the value users are seeking. Build a great website, well-structured, readily navigable, with lots of informative and compelling content and good, useful linking and Google will eagerly digest and value your pages, users will come to you, others will link to you and Google will reward you further.

Also have in mind that SEO is not an end in itself. You are after not just click-throughs from Google, but users who will find value on your site, who will trust you and bring value to you. Favour not the short-term, rank-boosting approach peddled by many get-rich-quick SEO specialists, but a balanced, longer-term value- and trust- building approach which will earn you enduring authority and PageRank.

Let’s do it!

SEO for dummies

If you’re not a self-professed SEO expert, you probably regard yourself as an SEO dummy. Fear not: here are six steps to effective SEO for you. You may not be competent actually to implement the necessary changes, but you are competent to conduct this review and to instruct your “webmaster” or “SEO expert” accordingly. SEO should not be left to the techies.

1. Review your Google results

Your first step should be review how your web pages are seen by Google. To do this, enter a search in the Google search box in the following form: site:yourdomain.co.uk. This will clearly show you: (a) all the pages on your site that are in Google’s index; (b) the titles of all these pages (as to the importance of titles, see step 4); and (c) the relative ranking of these pages (so, for example, if you have two pages on a similar topic, you can see which is ranked higher).

2. Decide which keywords to target

It’s all very well to want to be on page 1 of Google, but all search engine results pages are with reference to particular keyword searches by users. Put yourself in your prospective client’s shoes, brainstorm with your colleagues and come up with a list of the primary keywords you wish to target. Two or three word searches are by far the most common. Start with a couple of dozen and extend the list later as necessary. Against each primary keyword note a few synonyms and closely-related terms – your secondary keywords.

3. Write informative and compelling content

Take your list of primary keywords and review your existing web pages against the list. Ensure you have a web page providing informative, compelling content for each topic reflected in your keywords. As to the content, broad generalisations, expansive language and marketing-speak will not do! Treat each page as an article on the topic, with a concise introduction and good, informative textual substance. Use short sentences and short paragraphs; break up the text with clear subheadings and bulleted lists; and include links to relevant internal pages and to supporting external sites.

4. Optimise your content

You’ve done most of the work now, but to really make your pages work for you in Google you’ll need to review and tweak a few elements to “optimise” each page for your targeted keywords.

The page title is by far the most important element: Google gives far more weight to words in the title than to words anywhere else on the page. The page title is the wording contained in the html <title> tag. In a browser window it appears in the blue title bar at the top. Because this is not very prominent to the viewer, it is often paid little regard by the inexperienced, but it is key. The page title is also shown as the heading in Google results, linked to the page, so it should be intelligible and high impact to maximise your chances of a click-through. Review your page titles as described in Step 1. Each page should have a unique title directly “promoting” the page content. A good rule of thumb is a title in the following form: Primary keyword – secondary keywords – Your Name.

The page meta description is an optional hidden element within the <head> element of a web page that can be used to describe the content of the page. The meta description is important to Google and in some instances is displayed in the results. Not all pages will necessarily benefit from a meta description, but certainly your home page and the main section pages of your site should include one. The description should be intelligible and high impact and include your primary keywords near the start and all your secondary keywords. Limit it to say 20 to 25 words.

Now review the content of your page and ensure that your keywords are well represented on the page, in particular in the first few lines of text and in headings. But you need to strike a balance: excessive repetition and “keyword stuffing” will annoy your readers and may also be penalised by Google.

5. Keep it fresh

No matter how good the content, your pages will gradually drop down the rankings if they remain unchanged. Keep them fresh by regularly reviewing and updating them. News and blog pages of course will score well on this count.

6. Build in-bound links

The ranking of your pages is strongly influenced by how many other pages link to them and how important the referring pages are. A link from any page, even an unimportant one, will count, but the more important the referring page, the greater the increase in the rank of your page.

An essential part of your search engine optimisation strategy should therefore be to increase the number of inbound links by conducting a structured link-building campaign, including link-swaps and directory submissions. Start with your associates, clients and suppliers who are most likely to favour you with a link.

Link-building campaigns are meat and drink to the SEO industry who will do the work for you for an often substantial fee. Most will employ legitimate tactics but bear in mind that Google constantly strives to devalue attempts to build artificial links designed purely to boost rankings and the benefit of such practices may be short lived. In particular note that selling links contravenes Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and the selling site may well be penalised; consequently links purchased from those sites may turn out to be worthless.

Doing it all in one with blogs

Blogging provides an inexpensive, efficient and effective way to publish web content and to expose that content to the search engines. With blog software you can easily create and update new pages on your website without any technical knowledge. You think and write; the blog software does all the rest out of the box.

There’s much more to blogging than just pushing out content, but for present purposes let’s concentrate on a huge benefit of blogging – its built-in SEO effects. SEO should never be your primary purpose in blogging, but it is a compelling reason for you to start a blog, to use a blog service rather than a custom CMS for topical content, to blog better and to blog more frequently.

How does blogging provide SEO? First and foremost, blogging generates great new content. As each new item (blog “post”) is published, your site content is enhanced: new pages are created with page titles, headings and content that include many keywords relevant to your audience, so your presence in Google increases for all those terms.

Google loves blogs. It likes the fact that your website is being frequently updated and places a higher value on your pages than it does on otherwise equivalent pages on more static sites. Google knows a lot about blog structures and crawls and indexes new content surprisingly quickly: you get onto Google ahead of the more pedestrian competition.

Blogs also automatically generate RSS feeds which effectively distribute your latest information to those who choose to subscribe to the feeds. As more and more people adopt RSS reading, this distribution channel is becoming increasingly effective and will drive more traffic to your blog. In addition to the indirect SEO benefits of increased traffic, other bloggers and sites may also “pipe” information from your RSS feeds into their pages, creating links to your blog.

A good blog will also establish connections and conversations with your peers and readers by providing comment and analysis, linking to other bloggers and encouraging user comments. These connections and conversations further enhance your visibility and reputation, leading to networking and consequent linkage with others of influence.

These factors – good content with keyword relevance, frequency of updating and quality linkage to (and from) your site – are the key metrics used by Google and other search engines in determining your page rank.

Without question good blogging will dramatically improve your visibility in the search engines by improving your score on all counts.

Nick Holmes is joint editor of this Newsletter.

Email nickholmes@infolaw.co.uk.