As a copywriter working for a content marketing agency I’ve long been sceptical about the dark arts of search engine optimisation (SEO) – if you’re really interested you can read a post I wrote on the subject here. If you’re not so interested, the short version is that for years, in a quest to help their clients scramble higher up search engine results pages (SERPs), SEO practitioners stuffed keywords into web pages, seemingly at random at times – often mangling the beautiful copy crafted by dedicated wordsmiths such as myself in the process.
Thankfully for us sensitive creative types, Google and the other search giants have got wise to the ways many SEO companies have been gaming the system, and in the last couple of years they have been taking steps to eliminate what has traditionally been known as ‘black hat’ SEO. These Google updates have created a little bit of a stir, with some major internet players dropping right out of the SERPs for seemingly minor infractions, so it’s vital you make sure your site isn’t going to fall off the face of the world wide web.
I try to remain philosophical about most things in marketing, so below I’ve collected some top tips from Socrates (the ancient Greek philosopher, not the Brazillian footballer) that should help you avoid falling foul of the latest Google updates.
1. Forget what you think you know about SEO
“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”
This is perhaps Socrates’ most famous quote, and while there isn’t space here to debate the full implications of his statement, as far as SEO goes, I’d say it’s bang on.
The reason you can’t trust SEO techniques, is that every time Google changes the way that pages are ranked in its SERPs, what used to be perfectly acceptable ways of improving your search position can turn into the worst possible thing for your page. Google’s updates are all geared towards stopping people from ‘tricking’ their carefully constructed algorithms, so it’s likely that eventually all those search performance-enhancing tips and tricks are going to backfire in spectacular fashion. It pays to be flexible and not get stuck doing the same old things.
For more on Google’s fickle nature check out this article posted earlier in the month for an example of how previously acceptable public relations practices have suddenly turned into SERP poison.
2. Don’t mislead, write for a reader not a robot
“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”
Strong stuff from Socrates here, and in SEO terms he’s right again. Trying to boost your ranking by using keywords that don’t relate to what you’re saying can be as harmful as not using keywords at all. With its Panda and Penguin updates Google (and by association other search engines) has placed an onus on webmasters to ensure the quality of their content, which means being relevant. Very relevant.
Gone are the days when a short 100-word piece of copy that was stuffed with keywords, but did not really tell the reader anything, could shoot onto the first page of Google. Now it’s all about how much time people spent reading, where they went next, and whether they bigged you up on social – as a result longer articles are usually seen to perform better in search.
Another thing of the search-page past is ‘anchor’ or ‘linking’ text, which used to be a big factor in where your page would rank. In days gone by, if ten websites linked to your site using the phrase “yellow buffalo” as the anchor text, the chances were your site would rank highly for that phrase. The logic of this way of doing things is clear – if people are talking about you in relation to a topic, the chances are you’re talking about it too.
Unfortunately, those rascally black hatters got wind of what Google was doing and literally thousands of link farms sprang up around the web, where nefarious webmasters could pay for backlinks with their chosen anchor text. To stop people gaming the system in this way search engines have since reduced the impetus placed on backlinks, and placed more weight on social likes and shares.
3. Don’t do duplication
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.”
Sorry Socrates, you’re wrong on this one. When it comes to Google the rule is, ‘if you can’t create original content, don’t create content at all. Nothing tanks your search ranking quicker than deadly duplication’.
Google’s ferocity on this issue might have to do with events following the launch of its Panda update – news sources reported that in some cases sites featuring ‘copied’ content were ranking higher than those producing their own original material. Obviously this was a little embarrassing for Google, which has since come down on these rip-off merchants harder than a ton of proverbial bricks.
Many smaller brands often curate content from other sources as a cost-free alternative to creating their own, and while this is an effective way of fuelling your content engine – curators have to be careful of not simply reproducing others’ work. If possible put your own stamp on repurposed material, tell your following why it’s relevant to your brand, and more importantly why it’s relevant to them. Alternatively if you do want to repost a piece from somewhere else, make sure you add your own thoughts, to create a debate among your following.
4. Quality content counts
“Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.”
What the first three points all add up to is expressed perfectly once again by the old man from Athens (just swap the two uses of the word “life” for the word ‘content’).
The best way to prevent your site from falling foul of both current and future Google updates is to ensure you produce quality content that answers a real audience need. If you focus your efforts on this single goal, you won’t need to rely on flash in the pan techniques like backlinking, keyword stuffing and duplication (which may end up hurting your site in the long run). More importantly, it will make people like you your brand, and have them coming back for more. Search isn’t everything after all.
Next week*: Archimedes and the art of the e-mail subject line