Search engine optimisation. It's not a tremendously exciting topic but it can make or break a business's success online. For those not in the know, SEO is all about getting your website as high as possible up the rankings on Google (other search engines are available...) for relevant search terms, so that potential customers and other stakeholders are more likely to stumble across you.
The discipline is regarded by many as a complex dark art. There are many theories about how to shoot up the tables and some less-than-reputable companies who claim to guarantee you'll be at the top of the rankings once you've put them to work. In reality though SEO is a pretty straightforward process and there are some simple steps you can take to make it easy for customers to find you online.
What not to do
In prior years it was easy to get picked up by a search engine. They used to scan the web and pick up on the use of particular words on web pages, and deliver results based on the closest match to the search term. And so people would pack their website with the words they wanted to be ranked on, resulting in hilariously awkward and nonsensical text on some websites. But now Google's wised up.
'Google is extraordinarily good at detecting whether or not someone is trying to game the system, whether there’s any foul-play,' says web marketing expert Andrew Girdwood, of DigitasLBi. 'The number one tip is don’t try and trick Google.'
Search engines also pick up on the links to your website that are hosted on other sites. In the past it was simply thought of as a case of the more the better, so marketers would create hundreds of links on directories and other low-quality sites, in a process known as link-building. But that's something else Google's begun to clamp down on.
'Now trying to do those sort of things doesn’t hold much weight with Google,' says Tim Grice, director of search at marketing agency Branded3. 'It’s likely to get your site kicked out of Google and you will struggle to get back in unless you’re a really big site.'
Google is essentially looking for signals that your site will be one its users want to see. That means it takes into account not just content but also design and other technical factors. If your website doesn't load quickly or it's difficult to navigate then Google will penalise you. Just this week the search engine has also began ranking websites based on whether they are easily readable on mobile devices.
While packing your site with keywords is no longer the answer, getting the descriptions and labels on your website right is still key. 'The first thing the business needs to think about is who are my customers and what search terms are they likely to be using,' says Peter Hawtin of marketing agency Brand New Way.
That includes generic words like what your business is and does ('butchers', 'florist', 'search marketing') but should also include where your business is based and operates and any specific areas of expertise. Everything on your site, including images and videos, needs to be clearly labelled so that Google can understand what it is. A web developer or web marketing company should be able to help you with this.
Get the word out
'Traditional' link-building may be dead, but Google still considers links from reputable sources as a good sign of a website's value. 'You have to engage with influencers in your area,' says Girdwood. 'So if you are a plumbing company you have to think "what can we do to that will get other relevant websites talking about us", especially with the goal of linking to you.'
Being active on social media helps too. Grice says Google doesn't specifically rank links based on how much they've been shared on Facebook and Twitter, but the more people who see (and search for) your site, the better it will perform in the long run.
Review your SEO regularly
Google's algorithms change quite frequently, so it's good to keep up to date with the latest SEO zeitgeist. You should also keep an eye on what your opponents are doing. 'You can’t do SEO and say ‘job done’ and walk away from it, it’s a constantly evolving thing because you’ve got new competitors coming on board, developing new websites, new content,' says Hawtin.
At the end of the day Google is just trying to find the results that will please its users the most. Grice says the search engine applies the following logic: ‘If we rank you number one in our results, and somebody clicks on that website, how long does it take for that person to return to Google to refresh the search or to click on one of your competitors?'
If people don't find what they're looking for then they are likely to leave your page sharpish – and Google will penalise you accordingly. When it comes to SEO, there's no substitute for providing good content that people actually want to see.