Dramatic changes for SEO are only just beginning

I have a client who’s starting a comprehensive website update. Talking with him last night, I realized that he’s still back in the old days when you could win at the search rankings game by conducting SEO analyses of keywords and then stuffing your site with lots of pages with all the right words.

Of course, things have changed. Google continues to tweak its algorithms to give top rankings to sites with rich, organic content that is frequently updated. New products. Blog posts. Links to and from other highly regarded websites. Length of visits to the site. Video. Mobile-friendliness.

You can’t fool Google any longer.

And now there is another search system to take into consideration — this one’s for the proliferation of app content.

photo of Emily Grossman
Emily Grossman, with MobileMoxie, is an applications marketing expert.

A series of articles by Emily Grossman at Search Engine Land (which I found via Moz.com) takes a look at a whole new way of organizing web content — via app. It follows that if the content that people are trying to find online is organized differently (within apps rather than on pages) people are going to need different tools to search for that content.

That’s why Apple (lots of apps) has jumped into search (Google’s game) by creating a search API (application-programming interface) to organize app content for search. Google is hot on the trail with its own API.

Apple’s system is call Apple Search. Users will recognize the front end as Spotlight and Siri. Google, Apple’s system gathers online content using a web crawler (called “Applebot”) that finds and indexes information.

Grossman’s articles are aimed at programmers who are going to write app screens (the corollary of web pages) to be indexed by the Applebot. Thus, these articles are highly technical.

But if you are a content owner who employs programmers to create app screens (as well as web pages) you’ll want to:

  • Know this is out there, and picking up speed
  • Start considering your strategies for creating screens that are highly searchable

Have any of you started down this path? I’d love to hear about it.

Businesses: To Facebook, or not to Facebook?

Should your company set up a Facebook presence? Yes, if a high percentage of its customers are already active Facebook users and…

I’m still on the fence about the value of a Facebook presence for businesses.

Most companies have not yet begun to harness the power of their websites, blogs, and Twitter accounts for social media and search engine optimization (SEO). They’d be crazy to set up a Facebook page where they could make a spectacle of themselves doing yet another mediocre job of social media.

That said, there are some companies for which Facebook pages are ideal:

  • A very high percentage of their customers are already active Facebook users.
  • They have more sense than to beg or buy Facebook “Likes.”
  • They have time and resources to monitor the Facebook page 24/7, to post frequent content updates, and to respond personally to comments (no generic “autoreplies,” please).
  • They have a strategic plan for what they want their Facebook presence to accomplish and what content they will roll out on Facebook to accomplish that goal.

If you’re using Facebook, Jim Belosic of ShortStack has some great tips for writing Facebook posts with good calls to action. These tips also work well for Twitter.


When corporate blogging makes no sense

Once you start treating a company blog like a PR vehicle (posting twice a month, filling it with self-congratulatory press release material, and saving time by ignoring the SEO tools) it quickly becomes ineffective as a marketing tool.

Corporate blogging makes no sense — from the viewpoint of traditional corporate public relations. In fact, if you look at blogging through a traditional PR lens, it’s absolutely counter intuitive.

I raise this point because I frequently talk with public relations professionals who are getting ready to scuttle or let die a corporate blogging program that was established by a previous communications executive or outside consulting firm. To many traditional PR folks, devoting resources to blogging makes absolutely no sense and they can’t imagine why the company started doing it in the first place. They point out that there are much better ways to get out your story to the media and investors — such as the traditional press release or media placement, Twitter, or the company’s Facebook page.

And they are completely right.

However, they are also missing a key point. Corporate blogging is not good PR. It’s good marketing.

Odd as it may seem from the PR viewpoint, business blogs are only secondarily about telling the story. They are primarily tools for helping potential customers locate a company online. Done right, over time, a corporate blog can be as effective at attracting website visitors as paid online advertising. A skillfully done corporate blog lets potential customers know that a company can provide the products and service they’re searching for.

So, here’s a quick guide for my public relations friends who are puzzled by corporate blogging, focusing on why it’s done differently than PR communications:

Frequency. Unlike press releases, which go out when there’s news about the company, blog posts need to go out on a regular basis. Google’s search ranking algorithms continue to reward fresh content. Blogging frequently (a least twice a week) is a great way to get links to a website to appear near the top of search results.

Keywords. Unlike public relations, which is all about getting your own name out there, marketing blogs are all about getting the generic keywords out there — on the web, you already “own” your company name. Suppose a company called Thompson Metalworks sells bakeware to large bakeries. The important keyword phrase is not “Thompson Metalworks” — it’s “bakeware” — or perhaps “baking sheets” “industrial baking pans,” or “non-stick bakeware.” (NOTE: Keywording is not intuitive, even if it looks as though it should be. A good SEO firm can run analyses that show what keywords and keyword phrases people are using when the look for a company in the context of its industry, its region, and its competitors.)

Timeliness. The best way to get a blog post — with its links to a your website — high in the search results is to post about a breaking news story that’s related to your products or services. This does not mean issuing a full corporate analysis, vetted by experts and attorneys, a week after the news event occurs and people have stopped talking about it. It means issuing a simple, innocuous blog post (without any need to insert a corporate spin or go through legal review) within 24 hours of the event occurring. A great example (for our friends at Thompson Metalworks) would be a blog post about music fans baking a 6-foot-wide cake and delivering it to a pop star’s hotel. Or a quick mention of a Wall Street Journal article about an industry trend, such grocery stores expanding their bakery sections.

Use of sophisticated SEO tools. Notice how in the PR world, online press release services have begun including SEO tools in their packaged services? They learned this from marketing. Effective corporate blogs make use of SEO keywording tools (such as excerpts, titles, edited permalinks, tags, and image names) and social media tools (such as links to and from partner sites, and publishing to Twitter and Facebook). This is why crafting a blog post involves more than simply writing and copy editing it. Learning these tools, and using them correctly, takes time.

Basic common sense. Only a small percentage of the visitors attracted to a corporate website by a blog post actually read the blog post itself. Many click quickly through to a product page. Of course, the post still needs to be well written and informative. But, unlike news releases, the ideal blog post is as much about the reader’s interests as it is about the company writing it. Again using our friends at Thompson Metalworks as an example: A post could cover the benefits of registering products, provide information about a sale on a discontinued product line, walk readers through a how-to for upgrading a company product, or simply point out some interesting bit of industry news (such as the Wall Street Journal article mentioned above).

The irony of PR’s disconnect with corporate blogging is that once the corporate communications department starts treating a company’s blog like a PR vehicle (posting twice a month, filling it with self-congratulatory press release material, and saving time by ignoring or misusing the SEO tools) the blog quickly becomes ineffective not just for PR but for marketing as well. At that point, of course, devoting company resources to it…makes absolutely no sense.

Swatting the social media buzzwords

Here’s a quick guide to some good glossaries of social media and SEO terms.

Is there a skyscraper on your SERP?

Possibly. In SEO-speak, a “skyscraper” is a long, narrow ad that runs at the edge of a web page. “SERP” stands for “search engine results page.” Easy — once you know the buzzwords.

Jargon and buzzwords are proliferating among social media and search engine optimization practitioners, and they serve the same purposes they do in other realms: They provide shortcuts for insiders and they exasperate just about everyone else.

If you’re wondering about things like “link farms” and “splogs,” here’s a quick guide to a few good glossaries of social media and SEO terms:

Social Media Glossary on Socialbrite (“Social tools for social change). Here are the words and phrases used by the professionals and policy types, from “API” to “YouTube” with a convenient hyperlinked index at the top.

The Ultimate Glossary: 101 Social Media Marketing Terms Explained posted by Kip Bodnar on the HubSpot Blog. Here’s where you’ll find explanations of services like Gowalla, Kyte, and MyPunchbowl (but no Evite? Hmm…)

25 Social Media Buzzwords…Explained by Jim Tobin of Ignite Social Media. A two-part article.

SEO jargon busters — a comprehensive list from DailyBloggr. Explains, among other things, latent semantic indexing, an important concept in SEO keywording.

Social Media for PR (a presentation)

You don’t necessarily have to “do” social media — it pretty much goes ahead and does you. The question is how much you want to try to shape what it’s doing.

For those of you who weren’t at the presentation at the University of Washington last night, a little explanation: Every year I give a short talk to a PR class at the university about social media as it’s used in the PR field. As you might expect, this talk changes rapidly as trends in social media change (Remember when Twitter was the hot, new thing?). This year I nearly entitled it “Social Media for Facebook.”

I promised the class that I’d post the slides from the talk, so here’s the link to the slide presentation in full-size PDF form.

This being a “new-style” presentation, the slides are meant to be used in conjunction with a talk that is pretty much counterpoint: questions for the audience, stories, and case studies. Molly Haas, head of PR for Northwest Folklife, joined me this year and she walked through the slides of Northwest Folklife’s social media presence (2010 contrasted with  2011), talking about what social media had been crafted by her team and what had “just happened.”

This slide deck is illustrated with examples of Northwest Folklife’s social media presence, but I’ve done customized decks for several of my clients and for prospective clients interested in “getting into” social media. As the presentation points out, you don’t necessarily have to “do” social media — it pretty much goes ahead and does you. The question is how much you want to try to shape what it’s doing.

How you will know if it’s real SEO

For the majority of small businesses, and most mid-size businesses, an effective SEO program is not cheap to develop. Here’s why.

Nearly every day there’s a query on one of writers’ lists I follow asking for the name of someone who can “do” search engine optimization (SEO) for websites. It’s apparent that the person thinks that “doing SEO” involves producing a list of keywords so the web producer can stick the keywords on the client’s website.

Soon thereafter, I hear that the writers and producers were rather miffed when the better SEO practitioners quoted them a stiff price. C’mon, how expensive can a list of keywords be?

Admittedly, there are a number of small business websites for which a fairly simple list of keywords will suffice. (I’ll be talking about this in a small-business SEO seminar I’m developing.)

But for the majority of small businesses, and most mid-size businesses, an effective SEO program is not cheap to develop. Here’s why:

  1. You’ve got to start with good data analyses. You need data analyses of not just the client’s site, but the competitors’ sites as well. Knowing what keyword searches are taking customers to competing websites is crucial to deciding what keywords to put on your own site.
  2. You need an expert to recommend how to use the keywords on your site. Some sites need keyworded blog posts, while others merely need keyword-rich content. Others (based on their names and their industries) can’t be helped much by keyworded site elements. These folks will  need to buckle down and buy some Google ads. A good SEO practitioner can provide valuable guidance on creating and testing a Google ad campaign.
  3. You need to set up a web analytics program  — before any SEO work is done. It’s critical that you know the baseline of your site’s web traffic. That way, after you fix the site, or buy ads, you can immediately see and quantify the differences, and measure the effectiveness of the SEO program.

There are a wide variety of SEO firms out there, some good, and some bad. How do you find the right one?

  • Go into it with a budget. You’ll drive away the better SEO folks by expecting their solutions to be cheap.
  • Start by asking: Can my business be helped by SEO, and, if so, how much? Listen carefully to the answers. Some businesses can get enormous benefits from SEO; for others, SEO is nowhere near as cost-effective as improvements to print advertising, signage, word of mouth, product quality, or customer service.
  • Be wary of one-size-fits-all SEO solutions. An SEO solution needs to be customized to match your business needs and your capacity and willingness to spend resources on a social media or SEO program.
  • Don’t be intimidated by SEO practitioners who say their analyses and strategies are too complex for you to understand. If they can’t explain SEO to a client, they have competitors who can.

What’s your name?

There’s no “right way” to name a business. But Seattle entrepreneur Chris Rugh’s article in Octane magazine provides an excellent overview on issues to consider.

iStock_nametag color 2Seattle telecom entreprenuer Chris Rugh has an article in the new issue of Octane magazine about one of the burning issues in branding: Naming a business.

Of course, there’s no “right” way to do it. Working in PR, marketing, and non-profit development, I’ve been involved in several projects in which the stumbling block was an organization’s name. I’ve fretted over clear, memorable names that no longer described an evolving organization. I’ve struggled to make vague or complex names somehow vivid and memorable. And I’ve seen people lose their companies (and a lot of money) trying to hold onto a name that was difficult to trademark.

Chris’ article is informed by years of experience in buying and selling businesses and their assets, and in creating several companies of his own. If you’re starting a business, or developing a product, and are in the naming phase, “It’s All in a Name” will give you a very good idea of what you’re getting into.

Another excellent Seattle resource on business naming is Christopher Johnson, the linguist who blogs as The Name Inspector. Check the blog to find out more about his current experiment: Special prices on business name consultations, in-person or by phone.

From an SEO perspective, a business or product name is a fascinating double-edged sword. Name your company “Sandy’s Organic Soap” and you’re competing with a tsunami of search results for soap purveyors. But get cute with a name like “Sandy’s Sopes” and list your products as “sope” on your site, and the folks who are looking for a soap company in Portland (but don’t know or can’t remember the name) will have difficulting finding you using the obviously keywords “Portland” and “soap.” (There are SEO techniques you can use to compensate in either of the situations — and you’d want to deploy them.)

FTC disclosure: I have provided web content services for Chris Rugh’s 1-800 numbers company, Custom Toll Free.

Who you gonna call? Ghost bloggers.

I sit down with clients and figure out what they really want to get in return for the time they put in — or the money they spend — on a business blog.

Haunted by your business blog? You know, the one you were going to write posts for two or three times a week, but which hasn’t been updated since  — oh dear — Valentine’s Day?Ghost Blogger

Call me. I’m a ghost blogger.

I sit down with clients and figure out what they really want to get in return for the time they put in — or the money they spend — on a business blog. We start with these questions:

• Is the blog there simply to provide the fresh content required to move the site up in the search engine rankings?

• Is the blog’s purpose more complex? Is it a component of a vigorous, structured search engine optimization (SEO) plan, intended to get important keywords on the site for the search engines to find, and to generate links to and from other strong websites?

Either way, I can usually help. If the business has particular SEO issues (it’s a newcomer in a crowded, competitive field, for instance), I’m likely to recommend that the client work with a professional SEO analyst to make recommendations for keywords. This will focus the blogging effort and can also be applied to the rest of the client’s website.

Once we’ve established the blog’s objectives, I draw up a list of two dozen or more blog topics for the client’s approval, and write a sample blog post or two. (How do I find those topics? Aha! We’re into my secret ghost-blogger voodoo here.)

If the client’s happy with this preliminary work, we then decide if I will coach someone at the business to write the posts, or if they’d prefer to contract with me to write posts for them.

I’ve just completed Phase I of a ghost blogging project (topic list and sample posts) for a client and am hoping they’ll bring me on to write the actual posts. It’s a highly colorful business with dozens of juicy topics. I pride myself on being able to write about nearly anything, but it’s always nice if the subject matter meets you half way.

Way beyond blogs

A year ago, Peggy Sturdivant, a Seattle neighborhood news blogger, invited me to do a joint presentation for a PR class (the PR Certificate program) at the University of Washington.

We’ve been invited back to present again this year, and, as I’m putting together my notes, I’m discovering two things:

1. That the role of blogging in PR (and in several other areas of business and professional communication) has changed fairly dramatically in the past 12 months; what were emerging trends in January 2008 are so established as to be taken for granted today. (More on this to come.)

2. That the way information is presented in a classroom is pretty much light years away from how I communicate online. It’s slow, it’s boring, it’s cumbersome. Classrooms need presenter computers connected to a large-screen TV or projector screen. In reality, they have nothing but whiteboards or a non-functioning setup that theoretically allows a presenter’s computer to be connected to a screen, but which, in reality, never works because some cord is missing or some software isn’t compatible. Sigh.

Anyway, on to the actual presentation.

Most of what I’ll be presenting tonight are short tips that students can explore later by clicking through to these following links on this blog. Tips are likely to include:

1. Online PR has gone way beyond websites and blogging.

Suggested reading:
Barry’s Hurd’s “Social Media Demographics and Analytics 2008-2009” in which Barry comments that “such things as reputation and brand impact will be occurring real-time 24/7.”

2. Fortunately for those of us who do PR, a much more realistic attitude now exists about blogging. It’s been demystified; is no longer viewed as a magic bullet.

Suggested reading:
Darren Rouse’s post on getting fast traffic to a blog.

3. Unfortunately, the new “magic bullet” that CEOs read about in airplane magazines and decide their marcom folks must create immediately is “community.” That’s simple but difficult to create and maintain. Instead, you need to participate in robust existing communities, a behavior that is antithetical to old-school corporate behavior. (“But is has to have our name on it!”)

Suggested reading:
Barry Hurd’s “PR is killing itself and it hurts to laugh

Chris Pirillo’s YouTube video on creating community.

4. SEO is now the “hot new thing,” a PR essential for blogging and websites.
• Basic SEO is easy.
• More sophisticated SEO is not for amateurs and should always start with analytics before you throw money into implementing SEO.
• Gray-hat (shady) SEO is not as smart as the people telling your company to do it thinks it is. It can, and will, turn around and embarrass you.
• Make sure you understand “social bookmarking” and “tags” of all kinds. You may not need to use them, but you need to know if you need to use them.

Suggested reading:
Boing Boing’s post “Motorola, could you please tell your viral marketer to get out of our comments?

5. Twitter PR is free and powerful, but not easy. (Hint: It’s not advertising, it’s information.) And, watch how closely it’s linked to blogs. Think of it as a headline for your blog posts or for your comments on other blog posts, plus a way to create the credibility that will bring others to your blog.

Suggested reading:
Sign up for a Twitter account and follow:
• moniguzman (Monica Guzman, writer of the P-I’s big blog)
• hrheingold (Howard Rheingold, social media theorist and professor — you’ll get links to his class materials)
• joehageonline (Joe Hage is putting social media principles into action, right in front of you, in his work as a MarCom director at a major corporation, and then explaining it on his blog)
• UDistFoodBank (excellent use of Twitter by a non-profit)
• chrispirillo (Chris epitomizes the concepts of branding and communication; watch how he uses Twitter to drive traffic)

Think before you shrink

Web 1 Marketing has a great post on how shrinking a URL (using services such as TinyURL or BudURL) works and how it affects SEO. Turns out there are two different types of redirects at work, and one is preferable to the other. If you are shrinking URLs for SEO work, you’ll want to check this out.

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