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.