Exploring the Dark Arts of SEO: Search Engine Optimisation Part 1

November 11, 2012

Image of Lord VoldermortSEO, otherwise known as Search Engine Optimisation, has had a bad press. Google the keywords “SEO Dark Side” and you will get two million, eight hundred and ten thousand results. SEO has a reputation for deviousness, manipulation and downright fraud, trying to underhandedly ‘trick’ the search engines into giving something for nothing – in other words putting a web site near the top of its rankings when it doesn’t deserve to be there in terms of the value of its content. Common strategies include paying people to link to a site, using text the same colour as the background to stuff the apparently blank areas of the page with keywords and spamming forums such as open Yahoo Groups with links.

Such tricks may pay off temporarily – a Cornell University study has found that search results on the first page of Google receive 87.5% of all clicks and that if your web page is listed on page 2 of a Google search, it will receive less than 1% of all clicks. Being on page 1 is crucial. However, Google and its Microsoft rival Bing have sophisticated algorithms that can detect such SEO ‘Black Hat’ techniques and sites using them can be relegated or even de-listed.

Google and Bing work by sending out automated programs known as ‘crawlers’, ‘bots’ or ‘spiders’ to find web pages, scan through the content and index the pages on the their databases. The other element to these search engines’ role is to use algorithms – complex mathematical formulas that determine how relevant to particular key words the web pages are. Back in the early days of the World Wide Web – around the mid-1990s – these used to be fairly simple, based on what the web site claimed it had content about and how many people viewed it. These days though, due to the ‘Black Hat’ techniques, Google and Bing’s algorithms are enormously more complex, involving hundreds of factors. Their algorithms are proprietary, top secret and constantly evolving so SEO is to a certain extent a guessing game. However, there are straightforward tried and tested methods that good, clean ‘White Hat’ SEO uses which usually has really good results. These methods are probably easiest to implement in the planning and design process of a web site before it is published, but with a bit of work existing non-optimised sites can be ‘retro-fitted’ to maximise their rankings.

OK, so here are the steps that you’ll need to follow in order to implement good-guy SEO:

  1. Decide who is the target audience for your web site. What information are they looking for?
  2. What are the most common key words they will be using to find the kind of content your web site has?
  3. Create or amend your site so that these words are included in the title, headings, description, images, body text and – if possible – the domain name.

Key word research is really the cornerstone of all SEO. Keywords are groups of words or phrases that people will input into Google or Bing to find the information that is on your website. Search engines work by mapping web pages to key words. Knowing which key words your target audience will use is critical so that they find your page first!

So how do you carry out keyword research? The first step is to brainstorm for likely key words, then go online to research connected key words that you may not have thought of before and find out how often they are being  used. Refine the list so that all the key words are relevant to your site. Concentrate especially on key words that many people are using but are being under-used by rival sites.

This process is best illustrated by using a real-world example, so I’m going to take a site that I designed a couple of years ago and still currently manage – www.drummedup.org – and see how I can optimise it for ranking in Google and Bing.

Drummed Up home page

Drummed Up is a West African drumming group that I regularly go to, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. Because I know the name of the group, whenever I wanted to find the web site I just googled ‘Drummed Up’ and there it was, right at the very top of page 1 in the Google rankings:

Because of this, as far as I was concerned up until now, the site was doing really well in the search engine rankings and people must be finding it very easily. However, the key words I was using to find the site aren’t going to be the key words that people who don’t know the group exists will be using to try and find out if they can get involved in African drumming in the north east of England. They’re much more likely to use a keyword phrase in google.co.uk such as “African drumming north east.” Lets try that one and see what we get:

Ah. Not quite as good as I thought. My site is down at number 9 in the listings. According the the Cornell University study I mentioned earlier, this means that the page is getting only 2.5% of all the clicks that occur with this keyword phrase. And even if people do click on the page, it’s not even the Drummed Up home page but one that advertises all the other drumming groups we know about in the region and not Drummed Up itself!

Now would be a good time to do a brainstorm of possible key words. I’ve already got some to start me off, as when I was designing the site I put some key words into the code. I made a very common mistake at the time though of believing that all I needed to do in order to optimise my site was to put a few key words in the “keywords” metatag in the head section of the html code:

As I’ve later discovered, perhaps this was the case in 1997 when search engine algorithms were very basic, but in 2012 it’s generally agreed that this keywords metatag is either not used by Google or Bing at all, or if they do use it, it is given very little weight in their algorithms.

Below I’ve listed the keywords I brainstormed a couple of years ago when I designed the site, plus new keyword phrases I’ve brainstormed now both from the top of my head and from looking at the keywords metatag on other West African drumming group’s web sites that are out there.

West African drumming
Djembe drumming
Dun Dun drumming
West African drumming tuition
Djembe drumming tuition
Dun Dun drumming tuition
African drumming north east
African drumming north east UK
African drumming north east England
West African drumming Newcastle
West African drumming Newcastle upon Tyne
Djembe drumming group
Community drumming groups
Djembe drum group north east

Now the task is to do some online research to find connected keywords that I may not have thought about but people are using in real life to find the kind of information that my site has. To do this, I can use a great free tool from Google called the Google Adwords Keyword Tool which will analyze up to 100 keyword phrases.

In the ‘Word or phrase’ box put all of the brainstormed key word phrases for your site that you have come up with. (As my site is already on line I could also put in the URL in the ‘Website’ box and the keyword tool would automatically use the keyword it finds there). Change the ‘Match types’ from ‘broad’ to ‘Exact’ so that the tool returns exact matches to the keywords you’ve entered and so the results are more accurate. Also make sure that the ‘Only show ideas closely related to my search terms’ box is clicked to add to the accuracy of the results.

Once I ran the search I looked through the results for the ‘Keyword ideas’ underneath the list of search terms.

Some key word phrases, such as ‘African bongo drums’ or ‘African conga drums’, didn’t relate to what the site was about, so I excluded those. I was surprised though by some of the obvious key word phrases that I had not thought to include in the site, such as ‘African drum music‘, ‘African hand drumming’, ‘African drum lessons‘, ‘how to play African drums’, ‘African drumming classes‘ and ‘African drumming workshops‘. I was also surprised that some of the key word phrases I had previously given importance to in the site, like “Community drumming groups” or “Dun Dun drumming” didn’t even feature in the list of search terms.

When I’d excluded all the key word phrases that didn’t relate to the content of the site, I input all the keyword phrases that I felt were relevant into Excel. This allowed me to work on them for the next step, which is cross-referencing the relevant key word phrases with the number of web sites that have these phrases in their page titles. Again we can use Google for this. It involves searching for the keyword phrase in quotes after the term allintitle, for example:

allintitle: “west african drumming”

The aim of this exercise is to find the highest number of relevant keyword search phrases per month on Google with the lowest number of web sites that contain these key words. I judged that any combination where there were more than 25 searches on that keyword phrase per month but less than 3,000 sites optimised for the keyword phrase was a fairly good ratio in terms of competition, so I have highlighted them in green on the spreadsheet:

The list threw up a curious result in that the keyword phrase ‘African drumming workshop’ is only searched for on Google on average 28 times a month while 10,200 web sites contain that phrase. However, if we take the plural of that phrase, ‘African drumming workshops‘ then this is searched for on average of 91 times per month – three times as much –  and only has 1,560 sites that contain the phrase – around only 10% of the sites that contain the singular version. ‘African drumming workshops’ would be an excellent term to optimise my web site for so that it gets higher in the Google rankings.

Other terms that I will be optimising the site for are ‘African drumming music’, ‘African drumming rhythms’, ‘African drumming lessons’, ‘African hand drums’, ‘African drumming classes’, and ‘African drumming instruments’. I’d concentrated on the term ‘tuition’ in the web site, assuming this was what people were searching for, but this keyword research has shown me that they are instead using the terms ‘lessons’ and ‘classes’ so I need to change the wording to these. The popularity of searches for ‘African drumming for kids’ also needs optimising on the site as people are welcome to bring their children to the group (as long as they are supervised by a parent or guardian) and it didn’t occur to me to mention that at all. I’ll also be putting ‘African drumming workshops for schools’ into the page on the web site about our teacher Mark Barfoot, who specialises in this kind of work.

Another curious anomaly that came up from this key word research was that on doing several general searches on both Google and Bing I discovered that the home page of my web site rarely came high in the rankings. The reason for this is that its mainly comprised of images, which Google and Bing’s web crawlers cannot index. All they have to index on the home page are the links and the text in the footer, of which the words ‘drumming group’ and ‘Newcastle upon Tyne’ are really the only relevant parts. I liked the ‘clean’ look of the home page with just the images on it, but now I realise that I am going to have to put some very optimised and relevant text on the front page under the main image so that the home page starts to get pushed higher up the rankings more often.

So I now have my list of key word phrases that I need to optimise. In the next post I will explore exactly how I can apply these to various elements of my web site in order to push it higher up the search engine rankings and get noticed more.

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