That’s it. Shut the doors, disconnect the phone. Prevent the dog from barking with a rubber chicken.*
For SEO is dead and we don’t have jobs any longer. Damn.
At least that’s what some people will tell you, and as others ask whether this is indeed true, search engine optimisers, web developers and business owners must learn to separate the wheat from the chaff; fact from fiction. SEO; the very mention of these three letters is enough to turn some potential customers’ and digital industry sceptics’ stomaches. ‘But isn’t SEO dead and gone?’ you might have heard them ask, quickly qualified with ‘Anyway, it’s all some kind of dark art, isn’t it?’.
Having sat and thought about these two questions a great deal (likely when I should have been doing something more productive and sociable, such as watching Game of Thrones) I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to both is ‘no’. Easy, right off to the pub.
Oh, you want proof…
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
This is one of the greatest of all life lessons and I’d like to thank my dad for it (cheers, Pete). It can be read a couple of ways, but what it boils down to is the fact that you can’t know everything and that this is fine. Don’t panic, this doesn’t mean you’re stupid. What it does mean is that some people are very good at some things. If your boiler breaks down, then unless you’re a plumber, you’re unlikely to know a) what’s wrong with it and b) how to rectify the problem. Plumbers can fix boilers. Great! In exactly the same way (but with cheaper call out charges) SEOs know how to best ‘fix’ a website to give it the best chance of success. Yes, you can certainly sit and learn SEO/plumbing/rocket science but these things take time, time perhaps better spent doing what you want, what you’re good at and what pays the bills. Aged 14 I bought a car. Armed with a Haynes manual and thinking I knew far more than I really did I quickly dismantled that car. It took me nearly 4 years to reassemble it.
SEO: The Dark Art
The simple fact of the matter is that search engine optimisation is not a dark art at all. This is a myth invented by the less-honest side of the digital industry in an attempt to part non web-savvy folk from their cash. Technical? Yes; SEO is a ‘thing’ still. It’s just not a thing that requires mythicising. Understanding and applying SEO does require some effort, of course, and if you’re already creating great content then you’re halfway there. It’s in knowing how to leverage that content and your site to pull in the hits that an SEO-er can help.
Content is King
Surely my website will be fine as long as I just keep it updated with good content though? To a degree, yes. But some businesses don’t even do this and of the ones that do very few of them go on to push out content in a way that attracts those two holy commodities – traffic and links. Writing great content is only the beginning, much in the same way that building a super-gucci site is only a small fraction of the overall battle for traffic and sales. SEO today is as much about engagement through sharing, promoting, recommending and networking. It’s almost like a more technical extension of traditional marketing and PR.
…or whichever spurious version of SEO we’re supposedly on now thanks to here-say and speculation. What I’m trying to say is that search is evolving. This is great because it means that people care and that it’s still a ‘thing’ worthy of our time, money and efforts; it may be that it’s just not quite as ‘cloak and dagger’ as it was once perceived to be. As stated above, a great deal of SEO groundwork is being done already by people creating content and undertaking more traditional PR and marketing activities – they just don’t know it. SEO has always been about the user, the reader, the visitor, and this ‘new’ version of SEO reflects that; it’s simply the best, most sociable, trustworthy, relationship-building way of creating and sharing content. You might even argue that actually doing things in the real, tangible world; engaging people in social, sharable activities is now as much a part of SEO as calibrating your .htaccess file or getting your site structure right.
Here’s One I Made Earlier…
An example of this ‘doing’ side of SEO can be seen in the Kendal Mountain Festival’s approach. If you’ve never come across it before ‘Kendal’ is the largest outdoors culture festival in the world, beating Banff in Canada in its size and scope. It’s a truly huge event and generates vast quantities of extremely high quality content – both in terms of film submissions, art, literature and workshops, and in the information that is generated on its website and social media. But simply generating content on its own isn’t enough. In order to maximise traffic, shares and links back to the site ‘Kendal’ runs competitions, broadcasts video reports, pushes press releases to local and national news, uses social media display screens to encourage visitors to interact, puts on races and invites people to watch giant screens in the middle of the high street…and this is just the beginning!
The Top Ten Musts of SEO
If you’re still not convinced that SEO is alive and kicking – albeit in an evolved state by comparison to the keyword-stuffing, black hat, link buying days of yore – then try these hints and tips out for yourself, and don’t forget to monitor the changes in SERP ranking and traffic!
- Get a Google account – tie together Analytics, Webmaster Tools, My Business and Google+ under a single user name (preferably not a personal account).
- Submit an .xml Sitemap in Webmaster Tools, Bing etc. and verify the top level domain and subdomain(s).
- Make your metadata brief and succinct. Fill in your Title tags, meta descriptions, alt tags.
- Use a straightforward, hierarchical site and URL structure. So rather than www.mydomain.org/2Thdnn65.php?post=jdnf&action=edit use actual human words which humans (and search engines) will understand, for example: www.mydomain.org/videos/video1.
- UX. Saaay whaaat? Short for ‘User experience’, this refers to the look, feel and navigation of your site. Will users understand the layout and architecture? Can fonts be read easily? Are images blurred and mis-sized?
- Format your copy. Use header tags such as <h1>, <h2> etc. to provide structure to your work. Break it into easy-to-read chunks. Hey, even throw in some fancy styling such as <em>, <li> and <strong> to really add some zing
- Do good stuff. Write great copy; create engaging content that attracts users and helps them to learn, enjoy and spread the word about how great your site is. You need links!
- Share. Don’t be shy. Use social media to tell the world what and where your content is and link your content throughout and back to your site. Network, build relationships and trust. Be a leader in your field.
- Name your .pdf, .jpg, .png etc. files with a descriptive title. Don’t use generic file names like 12345.jpeg.
- Monitor your site’s performance and continue to build and improve. Check for broken links with 404 errors, html and server errors, look at crawl stats and how users find your site… Your website is often the first place a potential customer/reader/user will come to before contacting you – make sure it reflects your brand and upholds your standards.
James Swann is an SEO, copywriter, ‘social’ guy, blogger and general website-building nuisance at outsrc.co.uk, Kendal – a web design and development agency specialising in websites and digital for the outdoor industry. He enjoys tea, cake, riding bikes up and down mountains and being nerdy about the web. You can follow him @jamespswann on the Twittertron.
*Apologies to W.H. Auden for the ridiculous parody of his great work, Stop all the clocks.