SEO, It’s Not Magic, and It’s Hard Work

SEO image

SEO image
SEO image

During almost every website I build I get asked by my client’s what I’ll be doing to make sure their site ranks high for XXXXXX search term. Unfortunately this stems from the widely held belief that SEO is some sort of magic Voodoo that is done by the site code only. We can’t blame clients for wanting to rank well in search since it’s such a traffic driver but we can educate them so that they think of SEO properly.

It’s All Wrong

I’m not sure where this dumb idea about SEO being all in code and trickery came from but the fact is that this is wrong. Sure a well coded site using current best practices is a huge leg up in gaining search engine ranking but if there is no original, good content on the site there is nothing to be crawled by search engines.

Good Content!

I think back about one client who had lots of content on their site. They put up something new each day. It was relevant to their field even. Unfortunately it sucked. All they did was grab a news story that related to search terms they wanted to rank for and put the headline on their site with the first paragraph from the article. Sometimes they added a link to the original source. The article was followed by a link to their contact form.

While this is content, and it is published regularly, it’s not good original content so ultimately they’re just wasting their time. SEO comes from good original content.

I Now Refuse

Unfortunately with the client I list above about 4 months later they came to me complaining that they still weren’t ranking for the search terms they wanted to rank for and started blaming me for it. When I asked if they were writing at least one original article a week I was told:

In a perfect world we’d take the time for that, but it’s just not going to happen.

This has lead me to one response to clients when we start talking about SEO. As soon as they start to talk about it I ask if they’re going to write original content at least once a week. If I get any other answer than “Yes” I tell them to stop talking about SEO. If you give me no original content to work with there is nothing I can do.

SEO is not magic. It’s good content, Good Content, GOOD CONTENT

The Right Way to Think About SEO

When you think about SEO you need to be thinking about a long term plan for how you’re going to achieve ranking for search terms. It’s not instant pay off, but a long term commitment to produce good content.

I currently like to cite the paddling site I run with a friend. I’ve been heavily involved in the site for 3 years. The first design/code I did for the site sucked. I can live with that reality. I was new to WordPress and hadn’t dug into SEO much so the markup was not well suited to identifying content to search engines.

I only rebuilt the site last year and while we did see some increase in repeat traffic and see more people clicking on more articles with the redesign, we really didn’t see an increase in search engine visitors. We see about 1000 people a day come directly from search terms. Having talked with a number of other paddlers running sites we’re far and above the highest in about 90% of the cases.

We out rank local stores for purchase specific search terms. I don’t even sell anything.

We have accomplished this with approximately 100 articles. When we want to rank for a new search term, or better for a current one, we come up with 3 or 4 articles to write that would pertain to the term then sit down and write them. Then we wait a few weeks and guess what, we start seeing people come to our site via the terms we wanted to rank for.

That’s my big secret.

Just Stop

So stop thinking that some company can come in and help you move from not ranking at all to ranking number 1 on Google for a term. Sit down and get some original content on the site. Do some work instead of expecting someone else to do it for you. Stop being lazy. Setup a long term plan and follow through on it. Sure it’s not easy but it’s what needs to get done.

What Type of Experience Do You Provide

the experience of reading

the experience of reading

The Issue

Working in the web industry means there is lots of news to follow. Tons of new developments all over that you are expected to keep track of. If you don’t keep track of the latest developments you can quite quickly find yourself using outdated techniques.

I use Google Reader to organize all my feeds. It’s great for moving through lots of feeds quickly to get the good stuff. Follow a few friends and they can share items you missed. Google Reader is accessible from any internet connection on any machine. Jump on the Google Gears bandwagon and offline reading is only a sync away. But Google Reader sucks…

Google Reader sucks for one thing though…reading. Yeah that’s right Google Reader sucks if you actually want to read the articles in your feed.

Google Reader is just not pretty. Sure the blue links with purple for visited links is accessible but boy the experience of reading is sadly lacking. Sure you can install HelvetaReader and get some nice typography and drastically improved looks for links but it’s still has a long way to go. It most certainly doesn’t make reading an enjoyable experience, reading in Google Reader is a utilitarian experience.

The Experience

I personally miss reading as an experience. I miss sitting and enjoying a good book. Yeah I know that much of those times are gone but the web could learn something.

Most sites are full of flashing little banners for adds (I know people need to get paid). Though they say ‘content is king’ it’s really only lip service it seems.

A book is just words on paper. You’re not getting distracted by that cool flash add. You sit and experience the story, experience the content.

I want blogs to start taking some of this experience into their design and layout. Drop the flashing adds. Tone down content all over your sidebars. Provide the user with some beautiful typographic layout in the body copy and let the other things fade to the background.

Yes I do realize my site doesn’t totally mesh with this idea, but a redesign is in the works.

The Reality

So despite all the charming things I said above the reality is that putting time into a blog is a lot of work. At some point there has to be a payoff and for many people it is financial. Financial comes in a few forms. It can be the adds. It can be the referrals for clients.

Most of those payoff’s require some form of advertising and some way to pull the focus off the text and onto your services or your adds and contact forms. But let’s see if we can leave off a bit and let the reader focus on what they came to see, the content.

Contribute to the Link Economy?

You are reading a blog post (profound I know) and staple of blog posts is to cite other sources via links. Like when I wrote “You Might Need a Redesign if…”. In that post I linked to Niki Brown’s Ugly Website competition.

So why did I do that? Well ultimately Niki had content that was relevant to my post so I linked to her site. What does it mean to provide a link to her site though? Honestly it means that I endorse Niki and her content. Yeah that is what I said. Providing a link to someone else’s site says that you endorse that content.

The Rub

Here is the problem, or at least the potential for problem. What if I did not know Niki and did not interact with her on a regular basis? Do I go back and continually verify that her content align’s itself with the overall goals and marketing strategy of my business? If something changes that makes her content objectionable to me I really should be removing the link.

The Reason

Really this came up for me as we talked about it at my full time job. I work for an organization and we walk a fine line with our predominantly older and and conservative constituents. Regardless of our internal beliefs some of our constituents are more or less traditional. We need to make sure that we provide good content without presenting information that might be objectionable to our constituents. We need to seriously evaluate not just the single page we are linking to but the overall content of the entire site.

On top of evaluating the current content we need to make sure that over time the belief’s and values of the organization remain consistent with our own. For us this means a lot of work.

The Point

I suppose the point is that when you link to a site make sure you do some sort of evaluation. You need to realize that any link you provide is basically saying you approve of the site and it’s content. So make sure you do.

The Disclaimer

I really like Niki. She was just used as a recent example. I never forsee a time when anything on her site would become objectionable to me. Just so I put that out there.

5 Blogs for Web Designers to Follow

shot of the nettuts site
shot of the nettuts site
  1. Nettuts
  2. Nettuts is part of the Envato network. Nettuts covers all sorts of web design and development. Everything from WordPress to posts on Coldfusion. Articles are well written and frequent.

  3. A List Apart
  4. Published by Happy Cog A List Apart covers all topics dealing with web design. From usability to introductions to Ruby on Rails. While only published a few times a month each article is packed full of knowledge and is good for reading more than once.

  5. Digging Into WordPress
  6. Although this blog is a newcomer to the scene the authors are not. Follow this blog for lots of neat little tricks to use in your wordpress development.

  7. CSS-Tricks
  8. Another blog by Chris Coyier (Digging Into Worpress is also by Chris) but a bit more generally focussed on CSS. A great all around resource for design and coding tips. Also check out the forum for lots of helpful people.

  9. Wireframes Magazine
  10. If you are looking to learn more about wireframes and information architecture look no further. One of the things I love about this blog is that it shows examples of how other people do their wireframes.

Twitter for Business

twitter for business
twitter for business

Where ever you look today you see that everyone is using social media and not just in their personal lives. Look around many of the big companies are using social media as well. Some do it well some do it poorly.

What is twitter for big business? It’s more than just a place to tweet about your accomplishments. People want to see the people inside the organization. They don’t want to be advertised at they want to create and nurture relationships with people inside the organization. They want to know someone on ‘the inside.’

The hard part for business is how do they utilize Twitter (and other social networks) while still maintaining their overall marketing plan? I recently talked with a religious ministry that acknowledges some of their constituents don’t approve of drinking so it would be inappropriate to tweet “Beer and burgers on the weekend yum yum.” So how do they let employees have a presence on Twitter to communicate while making sure that they are furthering the mission and goals of the organization?

The Separation

First off let’s separate personal and business twitter accounts. Yeah I know that the purpose of Twitter is to be personal but note the example above. There are lots of personal things that you may choose to share on Twitter that are not really appropriate to share as an employee tweeting with a business and really do you want your personal Twitter account to align with the companies marketing plan?

Second get some more generic business twitter accounts. What do you do when your lead developer leaves the business and lots of your clients were interacting with them? Do you loose all of the clients? If you didn’t part on good terms will they use it to damage your reputation? A more generic business Twitter account means you can switch who runs it if employee’s change.

The Plan

Third you need to have an established written plan or code of conduct for use of social media for work purposes. As with the example above some things just aren’t good to be discussing over work channels. To help avoid unfortunate slips write a clearly define do and don’t list for social media interaction. Yes you will probably have some times when things won’t go as planned but a well written clear plan will help mitigate those times.

The Summary

Yes business should be using social media. There are tonnes of benefits from client interaction, support, and relationship building. Don’t just jump into the social media realm. Create a clear concise plan, separate the work and personal social media chanels for employee’s, and create business related accounts. If you start out on the right foot above you are way farther down the path to success.

Are Free projects worth the time?

Is Free worth the time?
Is Free worth the time?

As a web designer and coder it is always easy to find people that want work done online and just happen to have no money to pay for that job. Probably 90% of those people are just looking for a hand out. Let’s just say it they’re cheap bottom feeders, but a few are really just having trouble and wondering if someone has the good will to help them out.

Really the question today is, “Is it really worth helping that 10%?” Is it worth helping those that aren’t just out looking for free work? Those that understand that you are making a sacrifice and offer to bend over backwards for you?

The Cons

The first con that comes to my mind the is time it takes to work on these projects. Most of them seem to be the scope of month long project but have a deadline of 3 days. Who has the time for that, even if the project is paid?

Right after lack of time comes the whole money thing. I now that we’re all supposed to be altruistic and help our neighbour but at the end of the day I like to sleep inside and eat. Money is what lets me do that. I have to earn it to spend it. I can’t do projects with no pay or I don’t eat and sleep in a cardboard box I stole from someone’s recycling bin.

The third major Con that comes to my mind with free projects is the normal quality of clients. That 90% I spoke of is often the type of client with unreasonable demands for a huge site and tight deadlines. Of course they want it done for free and if you manage to convince them to pay for it they ride you even harder cause “$100 is a lot of money to put out for this web design stuff.”

The Pros

So the pros come from the 10% of people who are actually good and reasonable. For me most of them have been twitter friends that were just having trouble and needed their blog fixed. They weren’t coders really so didn’t even know how to trouble shot the problem.

The biggest pro I have gotten from doing some free projects is referrals. One small item I did about a year ago has yielded 5 referrals this month. Honestly the 3 hours I spent fixing the blog was well worth the time at this point. Sure it took a long time to get any benefit from it but there was benefit.

The Conclusion

Really for me it comes down to how the potential client approaches the situation. If they set out looking for a free ride I’m really not willing to get involved. If the person starts by looking to be pointed in the right direction to solve their problem and it ends up beyond them I don’t mind helping.

The best scenario that illustrates ‘inexpensive’ work I did recently is probably WITA. WITA and I got in touch cause she was looking for a blog redesign. She said upfront she didn’t have much cash and really was just looking for where to start in designing a blog. I walked her through the process I go through for design and she came up with a design. When it came time to plug it into WordPress she didn’t beg for me to do it free. She just asked where a good place to get it coded inexpensively was. I asked for her budget and quoted my normal rates. We agreed on a price that was affordable for her and I told her that the old “cheap, good, fast” triangle applied and she was getting cheap and good. I fit the project into the time I had that wasn’t booked by other clients and we got her blog rolling.

The bottom line is WITA didn’t come looking for a handout. She knew my time was valuable and was reasonable. She was nice. Funny how nice gets you stuff.

So what say you? Is free/cheap work worth the time?

Wasting Time with Social Networking

wasting time with social media?
wasting time with social media?

Unless you have had your head in the sand you have heard of social networking. Social networking is the big craze right now. Many people would tell you that if you’re not using social networks with your business your missing out on customers. There are people that make their entire living teaching you how to maximize your social network. I’m not entirely sure that you need to be on social networks to have a successful business though.

The Success

The evangelists for social networking are always the people for which the medium has worked (which should be obvious). Of course you get referrals from your 4000 twitter followers. You have 4000, I would hope that one in there knows someone who needs your services.

The problem for most people is that they don’t have 4000 followers or a few hundred linkedin connections so they draw from a smaller pool of possible referrals. This represents the vast majority of people on these social networks.

The Time

Next we often here that it just takes time to build up big numbers of followers and connections. Of course this is true it takes some amount of time to do anything. More of something often means more work put in at some point.

I have been on twitter since January 2008 and have done lots of posts, send lots of interesting links and don’t just advertise myself. I try to just be me which is what everyone says you should do. I have 752 followers. I have watched people put up the same links I do (after me sometimes) and get more return in followers and interaction from that small amount of time.

I have watched people that started on social services after me that have far surpassed me. They will tell you how many refferals they get, which is great for them. For some reason it just doesn’t seem to happen for me despite all of my time input and the fact that I follow all of the best ‘advice’ of the ‘pros’.

The Punch Line

Of course I sound jaded and jealous, I wouldn’t disagree many days, but I wonder more how much time we waste on social networking that could be spent with our families. If we spent the time tweeting and communicating on facebook with our significant others instead I’m sure those people would feel much more valued than they do.

Really at the end of the day social networking needs to have some form of ROI. The ROI for you can be business or social, it really doesn’t matter. As long as you get some value for the time you invest it paid off.

I personally enjoy twitter so for me that is enough. It’s nice to chat with people and some business connections may happen but really it’s just fun.

So for the future I won’t participate in networks that I get nothing from (Facebook I’m looking your way) and will spend time on the ones I do get something from.

Heck if I sound mildly interesting you can even follow me Twitter Plug.

Anyone else have thoughts on the social networking phenom? Is it worth all the time we sink into it?

Build Some Social Capital First

build social capital
build social capital

Over the last few years social media has become a huge item for both personal users and business alike. Most people have a facebook profile. Many people and businesses now even have a twitter accout. But not everyone yet.

I was recently asked to do some social media consulting for a business. They wanted to know all of the normal stuff like what ages and target markets are on social networks. Which networks they should focus on. Should they let employees use social networks during work to talk to clients?

What they failed to grasp though was that they needed to invest in the networks before there was anything to get back out of them.

They have an event in 3 weeks and wanted to advertise it on Twitter and Facebook. Of course advertising over those sites is great, the problem is they don’t even have accounts on them. No account means you have no followers. No followers means you have no one to market too.

What they failed to grasp was that in many ways social media is like a bank account. You don’t just open an account and start taking money out (and if you know of pre-filled bank account leave it in the comments). Before you can get anything out you have to put something in.

So if you want to use social media as an extra way to advertise your service or event remember it’s not magic. You have to cultivate you followers, fans and friends before social media has anything to return to you.

Google Conversion Optimizer

I attended a webinar on Google Conversion Optimizerrecently and had to write a summary for work that I thought I would share with everyone. I don’t profess to be an expert (that’s why I went) so if there are things I am missing let me know.

What is the Conversion Optimizer?

At it’s core the conversion optimizer helps you bid more effectively on adwords. It takes all of the info that gets generated by an adwords campaign and analyzes it all to adjust your bids on keywords for situations that bring better conversions for you.

Where Conversion Optimizer Shines

Regular adword campaigns allow you limit your campaigns by country, city, state or neighbourhood (though this IP detection is not always effective). Google Conversion Optimizer adds more to just that general segmentation. Over time conversion optimizer learns what regions, search strings… yeild better conversions for your site. As it learns what terms…have a higher conversion percentage on your site it adjust your average bids higher so that you come up more often for those things (note: you still set your maximum and it doesn’t go over that figure).

The example given int he presentation dealt with a surf shop that advertised for ‘surf board’ and for ‘ocean sports.’ As one would think they saw lots of good ROI on the term surfboard and some ROI on the term ocean sports. When they turned conversion optimizer on they saw a big increase in ‘ocean sports’ as the tool learned what types of sites to display the add on and what exact queries meant people were really looking for a surf shop. This fairly broad search term ended up having a very high ROI as conversion optimizer learned more and more when to feed their add out (with little increase in average payment for adds).

Some Caveats

As with anything that uses historical data to tailor results the bigger your data set the better the campaign is tailored. So over time you campaign could yeild more conversions for the same or lower pricing. Tieing in with this it was suggested that you just start a normal adwords campaign and after a number of weeks (no firm number mentioned) turn on the conversion optimizer.

You also can’t make large changes to your campaign and have the conversion optimizer maintain its effectiveness. You can add a few keywords and maybe take one or two out but when using conversion optimizer it is best to make changes slowly over time so that it stays effective. If you have to make large changes for a campaign it is best to turn off conversion optimizer make the changes let it run for a few weeks and then turn it back on.

Finally conversion optimizer requires that in the last 30 days you have had 30 conversions and that you have conversion tracking turned on. Now if your campaign regularly has 30 conversions in 30 days but for a period or two it drops to 24 (the number mentioned in the presentation) you should still be using conversion optimizer. It will still have a large data set from the other recent 30 day periods to act on.

Other resources I used when writing this post: