Curated from: The Guardian UK, 27 July 2015 (Mark Smith)
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales once reportedly said: “If it isn’t on Google, it doesn’t exist”.
While statements like this may be best left on the sun-blessed coffee shop terraces of Silicon Valley, as far as brand and business awareness is concerned, it isn’t far wrong.
The numbers are staggering. Google currently accounts for 88 % of the UK’s search engine market. It processes an average of over 40,000 global search queries every second, 3.5bn searches per day and 1.2tn searches per year worldwide.
On the web, sole traders can in theory compete with the corporate big boys, so being able to be found – and found easily – among those searches is essential for any firm. It’s this desire to be higher up the Google rankings that has led to the explosion of the search engine optimisation (SEO) industry.
Successive Google algorithm updates have seen the nature of SEO change radically. Where once processes such as keyword stuffing – cramming words that are popular in Google searches into your website’s copy, whether they make sense or not – may have worked, now they can actually work against you.
These algorithm updates, such as the exotically named Panda and Penguin, mean that now – as Bill Gates once famously said – “content is king”.
Meaningful content that operates as part of a wider digital marketing strategy, with the likes of social media and blogging all playing a part, is now key. The ability to view your site on smartphones is also gaining importance at an exponential rate.
But because of the rapid speed of change, there’s a feeling among experts that some small businesses are still getting it wrong.
“There seems to be a belief that if we cram keywords into content then this will push those all important rankings up,” says Sarah Duffy, MD of creative marketing agency Red Hen Creative.
When we approached Google, they said they don’t comment on SEO, and much of what’s under the bonnet is still the subject of supposition from the outside world.
One thing’s for sure though, Google is getting smarter. It’s now much harder to take shortcuts or to pull the wool over its eyes and cheat your way to the top – you have to earn your place.
But lack of time and writing expertise can prove hefty roadblocks for firms looking to evolve their content. A lack of patience too (SEO can take months to start showing any real impact) is also a problem.
Phil Morgan, head of search at advertising agency Delineo, says: “SEO results are only keenly felt long-term, and therefore it can be difficult for small business owners to see the value in taking time out of their day to write about their industry.”
He adds: “The online audience has evolved and expectations are high. They are mobile, they are time poor and they live in a world where sharing ideas and content on social networks is just a natural part of consuming online content.”
Cheshire-based wedding photographer Christopher Ian has seen first hand how much Google has changed.
“Google is my primary source of enquiries so it is of vital importance. When I first started my wedding photography website in 2011, I found that ranking well depended largely on key wording specific phrases,” he says. “I’d just put in a list of locations or photography styles, listed one after the other in a robotic style. But now Google will look for these words and phrases in the form of structured and real-world paragraphs that actually make sense, it is more human.”
So what options do businesses have if they want to get their SEO in order? Firstly, when it comes to creating content, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of being earnest – create content that’s enjoyable to read and genuinely relevant to your customers.
Duffy says: “Don’t stuff content with keywords – it’s just awful to read. Yes, you’ll probably boost rankings for a short time, until Google blacklists you, and in the interim once you do get a potential customer on your site, they’ll click off within seconds. People buy from people – be natural, be engaging, be human.”
Another tick in the plus column when Google is ranking you is if reputable websites link to you, and if people are talking about you online.
Leon Brown, founder of Nextpoint, which sells education services and content, says: “I use social media to engage in conversation with people, it’s also useful for opening opportunities.
“You can use it to refer people to your content as part of the conversations and find people who can share your content, such as retweeting on Twitter.”
Faced with a real lack of understanding about this rapidly changing industry, SEO experts and agencies are still highly sought after.
Alex Fenton, lecturer in digital business at Salford Business School, runs courses at MediaCityUK. He says: “A lot of SMEs come on our courses and quite often they will have had some kind of bad experience, either being ripped off by someone taking their money and not delivering results, or some kind of search engine penalty.”
Paul Delaney, head of natural search at Vizeum Manchester, adds: “To ensure no opportunities are missed, having the right team members focus on SEO and essentially learn through training will really help get the business on the right track.”
Five ways to improve your SEO
1. Create great content. Google’s reputation depends on it leading users to high quality sites, so the better and more original your content is, the more Google will like you.
2. Get reputable websites to link to you. You can achieve this by gaining a good following and reputation among your customers.
3. Write great title tags. Good title tags should be like an interesting newspaper headline but with relevant keywords included.
4. Social media is a big part of SEO now and it’s only going to get more important. So if you don’t at least have a Facebook and Twitter page for your business, get on it.
5. Make sure your website is optimised for mobile. When someone is searching for something on a mobile device, Google will now promote websites which are mobile friendly ahead of ones that aren’t.