Monday, February 22, 2010

The Naked Truth About Search Engine Optimization

I had a fascinating week with individuals contacting me about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for my website business.

1) A gentleman contacted me on LinkedIn, inviting me to take his sales call. He wanted me to buy into his SEO services and then charge my customers for them. I asked what he provides in his paid service that I don’t already provide to my customers. His boiled-down answer was a “link farm” to generate inbound links, otherwise nothing. I didn’t take the call.

2) A call came into my office one afternoon from a very young gentleman who tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade me that he was a potential customer. A couple of minutes into the conversation he confessed that he was selling SEO services. I told him getting my clients’ web pages ranked highly isn’t a problem for my company. The call ended abruptly.

3) In the space of one week I received two phone calls and three emails from companies asking me to “partner” with them in providing SEO from data centers overseas. The time these inquiries consumed was so great I had to put a disclaimer on my website that says I don’t outsource any of my work to any other firm, foreign or domestic.

The people I encountered in these scenarios had a few things in common. They knew the programming “tricks” of inserting keywords into the code of a website that would get a search engine to rank it. They probably didn’t know how to persuade a customer to buy the product or accept the message once they got to the site. Most of all, they probably didn’t care.

Whenever a new technology becomes popular, self-styled “experts” pop up like mushrooms after a rain. But how do you tell a real SEO “expert” from a hustler riding the buzzword wave?

Search Engine Optimization is only one small part of creating the content of a website. It actually has more to do with paying attention to the programming details after the content has been crafted. A true SEO expert is a word craftsman. The first step is always – ALWAYS – to write copy that appeals to the target customer and persuades them to take the desired action. A copywriter for websites has to know who the audience is: the age range, gender percentages, geographic location(s), and educational levels all play a part in how the text is crafted. Keywords, words that one would expect website visitors to type into a search engine to find the site come out of this research.

What salespeople commonly call “SEO” is the second step in the process. Out of the text crafting and audience research come commonly-used words: titles or adjectives mostly. When it becomes clear what individual words from your text are going to resonate mostly with your audience, you choose those for your SEO strategy. “Strategy” is almost a misnomer; it’s less a procedure and more just paying attention to details. In addition to the text on the page, there are places to “hide” text in ways that put them in plain sight to search engines. Page titles, “alt” tags in images and “meta” tags are the most common and the most useful. The more your most effective words are repeated consistently through your site’s readable text and “hidden” tags the greater attention Google and other search engines will give them.

The final step in the SEO process is generating “inbound links”: links from other websites to the ones you’re creating. There are all kinds of techniques to accomplish this. Back in the day (ten or so years ago) the hot technique was “website awards”: a graphic badge on the site declaring the site “cool” or “hot” or whatever made a splash. The “award presenter” linked to your site if you displayed the badge.

Those awards have gone the way of the dodo but the principle remains. You can try a link farm but if one of the human observers for a search engine company catches wind of it, you can bet on your rankings plummeting. I use and recommend online press releases. Again, the word craftsman comes to the fore. You can issue a press release online with anything on it and a link, and you’ll get inbound links. But if the story is picked up and displayed in any news agency you have the added bonus of convincing visitors to see the site, even when they’re not actively looking for it.

When a fly-by-night SEO salesman comes along, they’re usually only focused on the second step with absolutely none of the research and effort that goes into crafting the site content itself. They’re selling a “get top-ranked quick” mentality that may work in the short term for getting search engine rankings, but probably won’t translate into sales or other action. Any copywriter knows there is no such thing as a quick solution to good copy. It’s true in print media and it remains true on the web.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Who Crowns the King? The importance of website design in reinforcing text content

I'll never forget the first few weeks of serving on the Internet Advisory Committee at M. D. Anderson.  The idea of promoting any kind of health information on the web was still new.  We were promoting very cutting edge therapy, including clinical trials, and our hospital's name was world-renowned for decades.  All we thought we had to do was follow the practices we did in our research labs and clinics:
  • Take our technical protocols and translate them into everyday-speak for the general public.  The same thing we did when writing informed consent forms for our patients entering treatment.
  • Make sure that any claims we made followed the US FDA and FTC guidelines To. The. Letter.
  • Don't miss any details.  Be ready to answer any questions.  Follow up with everyone we met.
Pretty simple, right?  After all, "Content is King".  As long as the text was straight, eveything else was secondary.  "Just details."

Then at one meeting we were presented with information gleaned by one of our consultants, a group called "Hamilton Interactive".  These consultants were surveying our visitors determining how they found our site, what they were looking for, did they decide to subscribe to our services, etc.  The primitive version of web audience research made easier by Web 2.0 and other technologies today.

The results were shocking.  When it came to those website visitors that wanted to be M. D. Anderson patients, they made their decision based on appearance.  They chose the hospital's programs because of how the website looked. 

No one on that committee slept for at least a week.

We had utterly no doubt that our medical information was the best there was.  But using our name and putting out that information wasn't enough.  The public and potential patients had to believe it.  That was a critical step that, until then, we had taken for granted.  That's the part that the appearance played.

There are four steps to distributing information on the Web. 
1)  The website is live and visible on the Web, and can be found by visitors.  (This is a joint effort between the webmaster, the ISP, and the search engines)
2)  The visitor reads the content that the webmaster has placed on the site.  (That content is what the webmaster can directly control.)
3)  The visitor accepts and believes the content to be true and accurate.  (The webmaster can influence this choice, which is the subject of this blog.)
4)  The visitor acts on the information they see.  (This can also be influenced by the webmaster.)

So you hire your webmaster, you consult over content, back and forth creating and reviewing and editing until it looks just right.  You go over it one more time to make sure the words you want your visitors to use in a search engine are included.  But the design, the aesthetics, have to underscore the content, convey the feeling that the text is trustworthy and the interactive features are worth using. 

I've heard some folks ask, incredulously, "Do people really make their buying decisions based on a graphic logo?  Or colors?"  The answer is YES!!!  That's why ad agencies can charge a fortune for 30-second commercials.  Colors and graphics and designs are the persuasive part of your web communications. 

Here are some items your webmaster should consider when designing your site:

Color:  Color conveys emotion.  The message it conveys varies between men and women, and in various countries.  Your webmaster should discuss with you who your audience is, who you expect or want to visit your site, as much as what you are promoting.  Then use color accordingly.  There are analyses of this concept all over the web but this is a good one to start with:

Layout and Shapes:  Men and women perceive shapes and layout differently. 
Men respond to straight lines and orderly rows and columns.  This is easy to do in a square- or rectangular-shaped computer screen.  Bold.  Simple. Straightforward. 
Women respond to designs that are asymetrical, or involve curved lines, and random or detailed embellishments.  If you think I'm exaggerating, take a trip to the Womens' Center at Northside Hospital in Atlanta.  Look at the floor:  there's not a straight line anywhere in that linoleum pattern.  Some of the walls in the main entrance are curved as well.  In addition, exam and L&D rooms all have flowered borders decorating the top of the walls.  In the Atrium outside the coffee/snack bar, there is a plaque that goes into deep emotional detail about the color choices in each section. 
(Here is a slideshow of some of the elements I just described.  Ironically, the womens' center website has a more masculine aesthetic - except for color - in spite of the largely female audience.  Go figure.)

The old adage is still true:  "Content is King".  You could edit that to say Usability is King too.  But Design and Look and Feel are what put the crown on his head.  You can't have one without the other.  The greatest text in the world won't sell your product or deliver your message unless your website visitors believe what you say.  The website's text is the message, the apperance is the persuasion. 

Work with your webmaster to make sure your message is being delivered and received at all levels.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Four MORE Signs Your Website Needs an Upgrade

There was such a great response to my last post about upgrading your website that it's time for a second chapter.  If any of the following apply to you, talk to your web professional or contact SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions for a consultation.

1)  Your email address does not match your website address.

Companies will often spend lots of time on getting just the right catchy, snappy name for their website URL.  It's hip, it's happening, all of the customers love it.  Then the contact emails consist of "" or "", etc.

Take the time to complete the presentation.  Almost all web hosting companies, even bargain ones, provide some email accounts with your service.  If your emailsays "throwaway", that's what your customers will think of your company.

2)  "ImageReady Slices"

What is ImageReady?  And what is a slice?  About ten years ago, as web design became more complex and intricate, it was difficult to download these gorgeous new images.  They took forever to appear in a browser.  So a technique was created to split up big beautiful pictures into "slices" - like squares of sheet cake - so the image would download faster.  It worked!

But that was ten years ago.  Today elements can be "layered" on top of each other like transparent sheets of paper which not only makes it easier to create beautiful designs but also makes it easier to translate your web images into your print materials.  Ask your web professional how they created your design.  If the word "slices" comes up, either your design is outdated, or the web professional is!

There is one exception to the above rule:  if your site visitors are using older browsers (like Internet Explorer version 6.0 for example) you may have to generate your site using an older technique.  Your site statistics (provided by your hosting company) can tell you what kind of browser your visitors use most.

3)  The Search Engines Can't Find You

Your site has been active for months, even years, and yet when you type a phrase in a search engine related to your site, you're nowhere to be found.  Welcome to "what's the point".

Your site will get more visits if the content that visitors can read or the functionality that they can use is always fresh and updated.  That takes some time and effort, but so does all kinds of advertising.

Many older sites used a piece of code called "meta tags" to help search engines find them.  They are pieces of text not visible when you view the website, but search engines and browsers can read them.  There was a time when less-than-scrupulous designers would pack the meta tags with all kinds of garbage just to attract search engines, even if it wasn't relevant to what the site was about.

Google and all other search engines got wise to this trick.  Meta tags are not seriously used to rank sites in search engines anymore.  The search engine reads the text actually on the page.  So when deciding what you want to say to your customers, use words that you want them to find you with on a search engine.

4)  The Copyright Holder Notice on Your Site is Not You

This is not just an issue of effective Internet market, it is a core issue for any business.  Make sure when your website is created that the contract clearly states that you own your own content!  If it sounds obvious, it's not.  There were many conflicts early in the growth of the Web whether the website designer owned the content created, or if the business contracting their services did.  Older websites may have a copyright notice indicating the web company owns everything you gave them for the web.  Which will put you in a real bind should you want to make changes, or if you're competing with another company for customers.

All sites created by SDOC Publishing are owned by our clients.  We only reserve the right to credit for creating it.  Our clients own their content, including any graphic creations, and they hold ultimate legal responsibility for it as well.  That point is always clearly stated in our contracts.  \

If you're ready for a current, state-of-the-art effective web presence for your business or organization, now is the perfect time to contact SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions.