Looking at your website from outside

Sometimes people who think they need to buy search engine optimisation or internet marketing really need to buy common sense and a neutral eye.

I’ve been thinking recently about how a lot of business people don’t seem to be able to look at their websites (and maybe their businesses) from the point of view of a visitor or potential customer.

As is often the case I’ve had a batch of remarkably similar calls, this time from businesses who all work in similar fields, such as IT consultancy, business training, etc. but who all have a complete lack of identity or message in their websites. They want to be found in search engines. Their problem is not just in getting noticed by search engines but in getting read and understood by users if they do arrive on the site. The fundamental cause of their problem is they are not getting the message home about What It Is That They Do.

Their sites are usually full of business-speak – they talk about “complete quality solutions”, and “business focused learning” but don’t tell you what they are there to solve or teach you about! They are so lacking in real information that you sometimes wonder if they take their site text straight out of a generic marketing book which doesn’t actually mention the product.

Talking to potential clients the first question I ask is frequently “what keyword phrases do you want to be found for?” With these companies they often don’t know! If I can’t suggest keywords from looking around the site then I try to tease out of them what the business is about. In the worst cases they still don’t know!

But the important thing here is that the site has already failed! I’ve been designing and studying sites for 12 years – if I can’t work out what a site and a company is about in a few minutes of study what chance have they of capturing the attention of a user comparing a number of sites looking for information to justify spending money and probably making up their mind in a few seconds? (Studies have shown that users generally decide whether a site is any use after about 10-15 seconds.)

An ex-colleague was once working on a site about change management and had to re-write the content to focus the pages more efficiently. He asked the client to describe what it was the company actually did since it wasn’t clear from the existing site. He was sent some freshly written text to explain it but having read it he was no further forward and the situation wasn’t improved after three phone calls. The client may well have been excellent at what he did but since he couldn’t describe it to someone who really wanted to understand it his chances of selling himself were pretty low.

If you have a site that doesn’t seem to be working for you then try to look at it from the point of view of a user who knows nothing about your business. What impression does it give you? What phrases stand out? Can you immediately tell what the company does, what its specialities are, what it can do for you? If not then the design is already flawed and needs a rethink. Read the main text further; does it give a clearly stated idea of the main elements of the business or is it full of generic marketing language with no real meaning. If it’s the latter then you’ve missed the chance to tell people what you do and why you’re different enough to be worth giving the contract to. Worse still, if it’s not getting across the message to the user then the search engines won’t see it either because there are obviously no keywords in there. Result – very few visitors, very few conversions.

If you really are in a business like change management then you have to realise that if you want to be found in search engines you’re going to have to find some more specific search terms to go for – those two words are so generic that there are 53 million competing pages in the UK alone on Google. Fortunately most businesses have much more specific subject areas and talents – make sure the management committee or the marketing department don’t hide the specifics under loads of compromises and/or worthless jargon on your site.

Search Engine Penalties

Penalties are something that seems to evoke something akin to open warfare in search engine optimisation circles. There are those who flatly deny that such things exist, there are those who insist they definitely do exist, and there are those (who seem more interested in semantics) who contend that it’s really filters rather than penalties and can’t seem to make their minds up either way.

Personally I have little doubt that they do exist – I’ve seen too many instances of sudden changes in ranking that could only be the result of corresponding changes in content. And no, I don’t believe in coincidence. Someone once said that

“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.”

and that seems a perfect description of our relationship with search engines.

So who among the search engines has penalties? Recently I’ve been dealing with a site that seems to have been suffering from a duplicate content penalty in Google. Having found some more duplicate content on the site and removed it I was interested to notice that there was an immediate improvement in Yahoo rankings for the terms related to that page. This tends to confirm a feeling I’d had for a while that Yahoo had introduced either a filter or a penalty for duplicate content. Nothing as severe as Google, who seem to dislike it a lot and have long memories, but a perceptible difference in ranking.

So far I haven’t seen any evidence of MSN having any duplicate content penalties. However they do seem to be developing their algorithms all the time so don’t rule it out for the future.

On a more general point I never cease to be amazed that anyone uses someone else’s content – is it just laziness? To me, if I’m trying to sell a product or a service to people, I want to use my own words, my own angle on things, to sell that product. If I know anything at all about what I’m selling and who my market is it seems clear to me that I’m the one who can best articulate that. Why would I want to rely on someone else’s view?

Write your own copy, or if you don’t have the writing skills then talk to someone who does, tell them what you want to say and get them to write it for you. …. and make sure their work is completely original.

Throwing good money after bad … or not

Sometimes it makes more sense to start again rather than to try and fix what you’ve got. That applies in website optimisation as much as anywhere else.

Sadly there are plenty of sharks in the SEO pool, and taking their advice can cost you thousands of pounds. I’ve recently spoken to a couple of people who’ve spent a lot of money trying to fix sites that are not ranking well. Investigation soon revealed that they’d had some pretty dodgy advice in the past and had been penalised for unethical optimisation techniques. Now you can either sort out the problems so you’re whiter than white, do more good quality optimisation, and then sit out the penalties until you come out the other side; or you can chuck that domain in the bin and start over.

Sometimes it may be worth sitting it out if the penalty looks like it might eventually end, but other times if there’s no sign of improvement it may be throwing good money after bad. If a previous optimiser has really made a mess of your site with doorway pages, hidden text, duplicate text, etc. it may never recover no matter what you do.

A new site on a new domain will take a while to rank well – 6 months is not at all unusual before rankings start to come through on Google and to get anywhere useful may well take longer. You need to decide if you can survive on MSN and Yahoo results (which usually come through rather sooner) or if you can afford to use PPC to get the traffic you need until natural listings start to kick in.

It can be a tough choice but it may be better to learn the lessons of the first site, apply them to the new one and move on with the advice of a trustworthy SEO.

The Return of AlltheWeb

Well it’s actually never been away but since it was taken over by Yahoo it’s certainly been a bit quiet. I always had a soft spot for it as it seemed to produce good quality relevant search results even when Google didn’t.

Now however it has a new version with an interesting feature – AlltheWeb Livesearch. As you type into the search box it produces a drop down list of alternatives which updates continuously, and it puts up the search results for the nearest search to what you’ve typed so far as you go. Seems pretty fast too; which was another feature I appreciated in the past – unlike Yahoo which sometimes seems to take ages while waiting for sponsored results to load.
Might make for some interesting experiments. I’ll be going back to it more often from now on and comparing the results to Google.

SEO Clients are like Buses…

… the same ones seem to all come at once.

For some reason we seem to get batches of companies from the same industries appearing together. One month all the calls seem to be from mortgage and loan sites, the next they are all job agencies, the next it’s the turn of the Spanish property sellers.

This would merely be a minor curiosity were it not for one important consideration – conflict of interest.

Strangely enough potential clients seem to take very differing views on this. Some are worried that there may already be a similar site to theirs’ being optimised by the SEO, while others look explicitly for such relationships on the basis that “if they can get them to the top of the rankings they can do the same for me”.

In my experience most ethical SEOs look at it something like this:

If the potential second client in the same industry is looking for different keywords/phrases from the first then there’s no conflict of interets and it’s ok to take them on.

If they are looking for substantially the same keywords as the first client then it’s potentially a conflict of interest and both the existing and the potential client should be made aware of it and have the right to respectively veto or withdraw from the project if they object.

Try asking your shortlist of possible SEO companies what approach they would take. It might tell you a lot about them.

First Contact – start of a new SEO Blog

Hi

Welcome to the introductory message in the new SpiderwritingSEO blog. This will be a periodic look at some of the issues that come up in day to day SEO work and a heads up about any interesting changes that occur in the search engine firmament.

Hope you enjoy it over the coming months and find it useful.

Bill