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DIY SEO? Yes, you can.

It’s a lot easier than you think.

“I don’t care what it takes, as long as it gets me to the top” said the woman with the big hair and the satin blouse, jabbing at me with her glass of sauvignon blanc.

Networking was never so much fun.

I took a precautionary step back to give her room to express herself. And just in time, as her glass described a wide arc, narrowly missing my Sunday-best jacket.

She was in full flight. But she wasn’t talking about career advancement: she’d already reached the top in her profession. Instead, she’d set herself a new mountain to climb.

Search-engine rankings.

She wanted to be number one on Google, she said, with steely-eyed determination.

Who doesn’t?

I let her expatiate a little more.

“Keywords!” she barked, like Archimedes in his bathtub. “Keywords are the key.”

I surreptitiously drained my mineral water into a pot plant. Then, wiggling my empty glass, I quickly made good my escape.

The next day, I couldn’t get that phrase out of my head: ‘I don’t care what it takes’. For that pretty much sums up some people’s approach to SEO. That and keywords, of course.

Bung in those keywords, then add a few more. Then, one for the road. And maybe just another teensy little one for luck.

Then, get your web people to hack away at the back end so you’ve got every chance on your side. And hey presto! It works. People come to your site.

But quickly leave again.

Why?

Because spiders aren’t people. Search-engine spiders, that is. While we’re all sleeping soundly in our beds, those virtual arachnids are running all over our sites, seeing how they square up to the Google algorithm of interestingness.

Bingo, they say. Lots of keywords. Let’s move this up to number one.

Damn, they say (the readers). Lots of keywords. Let’s close this site and go somewhere that doesn’t insult our intelligence.

You see the problem. And it’s just the first of many when it comes to search-engine optimisation.

Think of a number – any number

Search-engine optimisation isn’t a science – it’s an art. And as such, it’s priceless.

A while back, a client of mine shopped around for some quotes on SEO. £300 a month, he was confidently told by the first company. That’ll see you right.

Not bad, he thought, when he worked out that he could lop it off his substantial advertising budget.

He continued his round of calls.

£3,000 a month, said the next. £950 said the one after that. Then £1,650.

And finally, £175.

All for the same service: putting him on page 1 of Google. He decided to take a break and consider his options.

So which one did he go for in the end? The most expensive? The cheapest? The one in the middle (the classic choice)?

None of them.

Instead, he climbed online, found a free course, and optimised his site on his own. Saving himself almost three grand. Or 175 quid. Whatever.

The point is, it wasn’t that difficult.

Years ago, I heard the boss of an airline answering an interviewer who’d asked him what he attributed his ‘Best airline to the Far East’ award to (the latest in a string of six straight awards). What was it that set him apart from the rest?

“It’s not one thing we get right,” he said slowly and deliberately.

“It’s all the little things.”

From little acorns

And that’s the story of SEO too. Cramming your copy full of keywords will keep our multi-footed insects happy, but put off your potential clients. So make it just part of your search-engine strategy – and use it sparingly.

Get all the other little things right, and you’ll be flying high in the rankings too.

And here’s the scoop: you can do a lot of those little things yourself.

There’s no definitive, must-follow, sure-fire, one-size-fits-all recipe for SEO success. But here are some of my top recommendations:

  • Content: add more copy regularly. Search engines love sites that change and develop. Sites that are static will never bring readers back, so make sure your site grows, expands and adds value (through blogs, forums, articles, news stories).
  • Inbound links. These show how popular you are out there in cyberspace. Ask people in your network to link to you. You’ll be surprised how many will say yes, especially if you do the same for them.
  • The nuts and bolts. Freaked out by the prospect of looking ‘under the hood’ of your site? Don’t be. Technical doesn’t have to mean scary. Get in touch with your inner geek – you might just enjoy it. And once you’ve learned about Alt tags, filenames, titles, descriptions and keywords, you’ll be able to fine-tune your site like a pro.
  • Divide and conquer: don’t try to cram everything into one page. Subdivide your site. Create pages that are optimised for a specific search term rather than trying to use one page to cover all products, services and client types.
  • Be patient: if you want to be top of the pops by next week, you might as well not start. If you’re thinking longer term (3-6 months) then you’re far less likely to give up. Going up the listings takes time.
  • Never stand still. Congratulations! You’ve got to page one of Google. Now get back to work. Yes, really. SEO is not a destination – it’s a journey. If you stop when you’ve reached your goal, and everybody else keeps moving on, you’ll be left behind before you know it.
  • Think like a reader. What do you like to find at the top of the Google list when you search for a specific term? And why should a potential reader be any different? Give your reader relevant copy, with enough – but not too many – keywords. Write for them first, and our furry six-legged friends second. People buy, spiders don’t. Never forget it.

Happy optimising.

(And next time you’re at a networking event, if you see a woman with big hair, a satin blouse and a love of keywords, make sure you stand next to a pot plant.)

Find out more:

  • Class act: don’t miss this free SEO course run by Mississippi-based J. Walker (aka ‘Cricket’). An absolute must if you’re serious about doing your own SEO. Sign up here.
  • Seek and you shall find: before you start SEO’ing, make sure you know what keywords people are searching on. The Google AdWords Keyword Tool and Good Keywords v3 will  tell you everything you need to know.

The Next Big Thing on the web

Big ideas, small minds and ‘database hugging’

Remember that great idea you had – the one you took to your boss? The one that was rejected out of hand? The one you’re still convinced is a great idea?

Well hang on to it. It might just be the Next Big Thing.

Hanging on to it is just what Tim Berners-Lee did 20 years ago. When he wrote a memo in 1989 on a great idea he had for a hypertext system, his boss was less than enthusiastic.

18 months later, the boss gave him the go-ahead, but on the strict understanding that Berners-Lee was to do it in his own time, as a side project.

And thus was born the World Wide Web.

Years later, when Berners-Lee’s boss died, the memo was found among his personal effects.

Vague but exciting, he’d written in the margin.

20 years on, Berners-Lee has been giving his vision for the next phase of the internet – what he calls ‘the huge unlocked potential’ of the web.

Linked data, he says, is the way forward. Not just hyperlinks to pages, but data with relationships that make it interesting, exciting and useful.

His 16-minute talk to TED last month is a fascinating insight into where the web has been, and where it’s headed:

Find out more:

Three things you shouldn’t do

…unless you’re absolutely sure about them

three things you shouldn't do

1. Use Latin if you’re writing in English

I’ve just been reading a blog post by one of my favourite bloggers.

He’s witty, intelligent and often makes me laugh out loud. His writes things I can’t find anywhere else (the Holy Grail of blogs) which is why he’s always on my must-read list.

And one of the things I really like is that his spelling is impeccable. Or at least, it used to be. Because his latest post contains a glaring error.

Homo sapien.

It brought me to a juddering halt. In my mind’s ear, I could hear Mr Watson drumming his thin, bony fingers on the blackboard.

“Sapien, Mr Walsh?” he’d intone. “Sapien? Be so kind as to tell the class what part of speech that is.”

Just thinking about it sends a chill down my spine.

And more so because sapien isn’t any part of speech. It’s just a common-or-garden mistake. I can see how he got there, though. If homo sapiens means ‘men’, then you just knock off the ‘s’ to mean ‘man’, right?

If only life were that simple.

This blogger used the Latin term because he wanted to appear just a touch cleverer, more educated and…more superior?

It didn’t work.

[Note for Latin lovers – or even lovers of Latin: homo sapiens is singular; the plural, never used, would be homines sapientes. Thanks, Mr Watson.]

2. Make fun of people (unless it’s yourself)

Oh dear. Hell’s Pizza has done it again.

I’ve written about the New Zealand pizza chain before. They like a walk on the wild side when it comes to marketing.

They’re the ones that created a pizza called ‘Lust’ that shipped with a free condom. And they ran an advert with Hitler with his arm outstretched with the line ‘It is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell’. (Jewish groups were outraged and the ad was withdrawn.)

Well last week, they crossed the line again.

This time, it was a Halloween promotion that had three dancing skeletons: Sir Edmund Hillary (the first man to climb Everest), the actor Heath Ledger, and the Queen Mother.

Hillary’s family said it was “in very poor taste.” (The campaign, not the pizza, you understand.) It too has been withdrawn.

Rachael Allison, Hell’s Pizza marketing director said the company was known for its controversial advertising, and that a lot of people loved it. She went on to say:

“Interpretation of this is always up to individuals and we are always mindful of that and always keep an eye on our tone of voice and try to keep on top of that.”

A little too much sauce, I think.

3. Assume that technology works

Your website’s got an e-commerce function so you never have to talk to people. It just runs itself, right?

Wrong.

I recently (re)discovered this when I tried to buy a USB pen drive. I dropped it into the basket, then clicked ‘Next’ to enter my details. Then ‘Next’ to go to the payment screen. I filled in my card details, and hovered over the ‘Pay’ button.

And that’s when the little seed of doubt sprouted into a green shoot and pushed through the soil.

Had I ordered the 2GB or the 4GB drive? I was pretty sure it was the 4GB one. But here’s the thing: I couldn’t go back, forward, or anywhere else. I couldn’t view the basket. It was ‘Pay’ or nothing else.

So I opened another browser, brought up the website again, found the contact number, phoned them up, got them to pull up the (pending) order and check that it was 4GB. It was, so I clicked ‘Pay’.

Not an example of technology at its best.

It’s also important to remember that technology is logical – ruthlessly logical. The sort of ruthless logic that caused AOL and Google to blacklist the northern English town of Scunthorpe as an obscene term (think about it).

The sort of logic that meant Google Alerts I set up a few months ago never reached me. Why? Because they were blocked by the Google’s Gmail spam filter.

The bottom line is this: technology is only as clever as the people who design it (not to mention the people who use it).

And that’s a pretty scary thought.

Find out more:

Everything’s connected

I’ve seen the future – and it’s big. Very big.

I remember it well.

It was 1994, and I was trying to explain the enormous potential of the internet to a sceptical friend.

I could barely contain my enthusiasm.

“It’s big, it’s global and it brings everything together,” I burbled. “Just imagine – shopping online, finding information, making bookings. Think what it’ll be like when everybody’s there. All the things you’ll be able to do.”

My friend stared at me blankly. He looked back to my PC screen, and frowned. Then he delivered his verdict.

“Personally,” he said, blinking uncomprehendingly at a web page, “I can’t see any practical application for it.”

I often remind him of it. Wouldn’t you?

That was then. This is now.

5,000 days. That’s as long as the web’s been around as we know it. According to Kevin Kelly, that is. He’s publisher of the Whole Earth Review and executive editor at WIRED magazine.

And I’ve just been watching his talk to last year’s TED convention about where the web’s been in the last 5,000 days and where it’s going in the next 5,000.

It’s fascinating.

He does look a little like an Amish grandpa – but the similarity ends there. He starts with what we thought the internet was going to be (‘TV, but better’ – we were wrong) and ends up with convergence into what he ominously calls The One.

He reckons that by 2040 the total processing power of the web will exceed that of humanity. And long before then, we’ll become ‘co-dependent’ with technology.

Visionary stuff indeed. Enjoy.

Here’s the link: Kevin Kelly: the web’s next 5,000 days.

(I’ve just sent the link to my friend. It’ll be 1994 all over again.)

Selling the invisible

If you can’t understand it, you can’t write about it

selling the invisibleOver the last six months, I’ve noticed an alarming rise in two things – and they’re not entirely unrelated.

The first is spam, of course. It’s now reckoned that 80% of all email sent in Europe is spam.

Cialis, Viagra, uppers, downers, hot stocks and sexy shares — the torrent continues day after day.

The second, though, is more intriguing. It starts with a phone call.

“Hello. Is that Kevin? My name is Joe. I’m looking for somebody to write a sales letter for me.”

Now I know sales letters. I’ve written sales letters for everything from holiday homes to fish tanks, from bouquets to business services.

So I ask for more detail. What is Joe selling?

“An internet marketing programme,” he says.

“Marketing what?”

“DVDs”

“Right. And what are the DVDs about?”

“Internet marketing.”

“Yes, but what are you actually marketing?”

“DVDs.”

“I see,” I say, but only out of courtesy. If I’m honest, I don’t see at all. So I ask what he needs from me.

“A sales letter – one that I can send out and put on my website. But it’s got to be at least 16 pages long.”

At this point, I usually politely decline. The brief, as I can understand it, is to write a very long sales letter about DVDs that show you how to market on the internet using DVDs. Apparently, Joe tells me, you can make a lot of money doing it.

I bet.  But I have some simple rules when it comes to writing copy – and especially sales letters.

First, if I can’t understand what’s on offer, I can’t write about it. Imagine how long Joe’s elevator pitch is. He’d struggle even in the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Second, I don’t do long sales letters, or long web copy. My rule is simple: take as much space as you need. But no more.

It’s not that long copy doesn’t work. It does. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t write it. The idea is to address every single objection that a prospect has.

By the end, they give in, and buy whatever is on offer. So goes the theory. In fact, fans of long sales copy say it has a much higher conversion rate than short copy.

Maybe. But I’m not convinced.

My third rules clinches it: I don’t write what I wouldn’t read myself. And when I see a never-ending web page, or a long sales letter, I switch off and move on.

Joe and Co. are always convinced that longer is better. Well almost always. Just a few days ago, I had a call from Malcolm. The conversation started out predictably enough: internet marketing, DVDs, sales copy.

And then he surprised me.

“I’m told long sales copy works best,” said Malcolm. “At least 16 pages. But personally, I’d never read that. Straight in the bin, chop chop. [He was a military type] Two pages, max.”

So I took the job, right? Wrong. You see, I have a theory that this sort of hard sell works only with long copy. It’s such a nebulous offering that you need 16 pages to talk your way to a sale. It’s the copy equivalent of foot-in-door selling. And that’s not my style.

So I made my excuses, and left Malcolm to his quest for long copy. Meanwhile, I got back to cleaning up my spam folder.

Just 359 and counting.

[NOTE : names have been changed]