Taking the snake oil out of SEO
Among my technology peers there are certain terms that are almost guaranteed to get some eyes vigorously rolling - such as Y2K, Web 2.0, SEO.
In website design meetings, as soon as a discussion moves to search engine optimisation (SEO) I see disengagement from the technical staff. I don't know if it is from lack of interest or scepticism of the benefits, but there is a tangible shift in attitude.
Search engine optimisation is primarily concerned with making your website content as discoverable and understandable to search engine crawlers (software that visits your site and indexes it) as possible. Google has the largest share of search traffic in Australia, so the more indexable your site is to the Google search engine, the more chance you have to appear in relevant searches which means more page views and exposure.
Part of the problem with SEO is that there is a lot of snake oil practitioners out there who make outraging and unsubstantiated claims about how they can get your site at the top of the search rankings. Most developers have probably had a friend or relation ask them how get to the number one spot on Google search without wanting to spend any time and effort. I can understand the jaded opinion towards the topic.
Secondly, much of the SEO push is driven by the marketing functions of the business. SEO seems to be pigeonholed as the concern of marketers. There is a tendency for marketing to include developers after the fact in their SEO strategy and for technology to see SEO as a problem for marketing to solve.
I asked Ron Erdos, an ex-colleague and once a Fairfax Media SEO specialist and now audience optimisation strategist at Yahoo!7, for his take on how SEO can be seen more holistically in the organisation.
"If you see SEO as some kind of trick, it's easy to treat it with disdain ... However, if you learn the principles of SEO, you'll be able to make design decisions which not only meet your brief, but put a smile on the face of senior management, when they learn that you've brought them extra traffic." Erdos says.
The first thing to keep in mind is while Google doesn't publish the secrets of their PageRank algorithms, that doesn't mean they are unknowable. SEO is knowable by testing hypothesis and observing outcomes.
There is no magic one-size-fits-all solution to SEO but there are parts that need to work together to achieve a good search outcome.
SITE ARCHITECTURE MATTERS
According to Erdos, "One URL per asset is the golden rule of SEO-friendly web development. If you have multiple URLs for the same asset, you are almost definitely diluting the SEO value of that asset."
This is why technical talent needs to be involved from the beginning of the SEO journey. Site structure and the way that the URLs are constructed materially affect how you are ranked.
As you build your online software execution, how the URLs are presented and linked to each other need to be consistent to gain maximum advantage.
Erdos recommends the "universal URL" approach, which Yahoo!7 have just implemented for their own assets. The universal URL is a reversal of the once fashionable subdomain approach - where a new subdomain for each channel such as m.example.com for mobile sites. "This is because the SEO strength of each url is determined, to a large degree, by the number of links pointing at that URL."
If site architecture is the domain of the technical team, equally important is choice of keywords which naturally fits with marketing. You have to use words to describe your products and content that your audience is going to use to search for it.
"Keyword research - learning which words and phrases people are using to find content. You then use these words and phrases in the title and/or description of your app or web page, and in other strategic places." says Erdos.
For example, if you name your site or describe it using the word "laptop" but most of your target audience refers to them as "notebooks" then when they search for the notebook term and you haven't used it in your content and links, then you are leaving it up to Google Search to know that the terms are equivalent.
Google Search will try its best to recognise similar terms such as "laptop" and "notebook" depending on how interchangeably they have been used by search users.
Even if you have a perfect system for serving SEO friendly URLs and have done your homework for naming and describing the content, you need to produce content that is relevant to the terms you promised in your keywords and URL names. If the SEO description of your site is for the terms "Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll" but the content is about insurance then your relevance will be low and your ranking sub-optimal. Erdos says that you still "need to prove that your content is engaging".
"In SEO, this is expressed as links pointing to your content, especially from authoritative sources such as news and government websites. It's also expressed by low bounce rates - users staying on your site for a decent amount of time instead of hurrying back to the Google search results page. Those are just two of the engagement metrics search engines use."
A good SEO approach combines the systems knowledge and analytical powers of your IT team with the audience understanding of marketing and disciplined content producers that keep site content current and engaging to their readers. SEO is not magic, it is hard work and good business.
Ron Erdos is the Audience Optimisation Strategist at Yahoo!7. He was formerly the Analytics & SEO Specialist at Fairfax, publisher of this website. Ron is the author of SEO for the News Pro - The Journalist's & Editor's Bible.