In part six of our series on technology in business, we look at how to use SEO and Social Media to your company’s advantage
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
SEO, or search engine optimisation, is a dark art. Search engines like Google and Bing can provide an enormous amount of traffic for your company website – and therefore business. But with all your competitors vying for the same space at the top of those results, it’s tough to stay on top, especially when the finer points of how Google and co decide what order to show websites in are confidential.
It pays to try and master them, though. A study by Compete.com has found that only 47 per cent of Google users click below the first link, while only four per cent click through to even the fifth result, let alone the second page of results. In other words, you really want to be at the top of the page when people ‘Google’ not just your company name but the industry you’re in and the location you’re based in.
That’s where SEO comes in. There are many individual tricks and tips you can apply, as well as things to avoid (for instance, text that’s the same colour as the background colour of your website is an immediate red flag for search engine crawlers), but many of these are specific to your website and the technology it uses. What’s important to understand first, however, are the basic concepts behind it.
PageRank is not the only method Google uses to rank websites anymore, but it is important to get your head around it. Your PageRank, a rating Google gives your site, matters, but it’s largely determined by the quality of the PageRank of the sites linking to yours, something that you don’t directly have power over. If Google’s web crawlers, which search the web checking to see what pages are new or modified, can see that a large and reputable site – a national newspaper, for instance – has linked to your site, the search engine can infer that you’re probably also running a trusted and authoritative website.
This isn’t directly in your hands, but there are lots of other factors (or ‘signals’) that search engines use to give your site weight, and there are some general tricks and best-practice techniques you should watch out for.
In the early days of the Internet, keywords were almost all that search engines like Alta Vista used to determine what pages to show – which meant if you just pasted “Buy cheap electronics” at the bottom of your site a few thousand times you’d end up at the top of the page whenever anyone searched for that phrase.
Keywords are only one factor in weighting pages nowadays, but it’s still an important one, and search engines are believed to prioritise those that use them correctly – and not excessively. You’ll need to carefully deploy popular search terms or phrases that are clearly related to your business so that crawlers will know to show your page when people search for them.
It’s tough to use keywords without sounding like a robot – even tougher when your company’s name or product is an unusual variant of a search phrase, since web crawlers do not understand puns and homophones. Google Trends lets you compare search terms and their popularity for any time period from 2004 to the present day, so spend some time figuring out what phrases drive the most people to websites in your industry and use these throughout the text of your site.
While there are a few basic things you can do to make the text and layout of your website more palatable to crawlers, there’s also a lot that can be done under the hood. Everything from how your site generates slugs (the identifying words/code on the end of a URL for an individual page or post) to how fast the site loads is believed to impact your search result ranking. There are some easy things you can do, such as make sure all images you’re using are correctly named with meta data added, or if you’re using WordPress to power your site, you can install one of the free Yoast SEO plugins. But it will pay to research this properly, as the tools you’ll need will vary depending on the type of site or backend you use.
Be very careful updating your site
There’s a good chance you’ve had a company website for a few years now, or even a decade plus, so it can be tempting to give it a facelift from time to time. And you should. However, you must also plan to make sure it does not damage your site’s SEO in the process. For a start, moving to another domain and starting completely afresh will lose all your previous PageRank and other signals that you’ll have accumulated over the years. You’re much better off revamping your existing site, but be cautious when you do, especially when deleting old pages which may have some value (you never know who might be linking to them) or when changing the URL structure of your site. Above all, you must always ensure 301 Redirects – which transfer your PageRank – are in place to direct people from old pages to their replacements. This is something you should always seek professional help with, as getting it wrong can mean halving your monthly traffic or even worse.
Do great work and the links will come
Knowing that search engines value links to your website from other websites, it can be tempting to try and game the system. Do not do this – if you are caught, you can be effectively punished with a reduced PageRank, which means few will ever find your site again. Instead, focus on providing a great service as a business and look to attract links and coverage that way instead. Don’t ask prominent websites to link to your site, ask prominent reviewers to sample your service instead – if they enjoy it, they may cover it and provide a link pointing to your website in the process. Ask customers to put in a good word for you on local forums – if they’re happy with your work, they often will. Incoming links are acquired in just the same way as word-of-mouth endorsements.
It’s very easy to get obsessed with SEO at the expense of directly reaching your customers by actually talking to them, but social media can help here. Think of it as the Yin to SEO’s Yang, a complementary means of pulling customers online. Luckily, while SEO is often best left to web developers, there’s lots you can do for free to start beating the drum for your business on social networks.
Set your goals appropriately
It’s easy to assume your business needs a presence on every social network with traction, but that’s not always the case. You should pick and choose which to target based on the type of business you run – there’s no point wasting time and money chasing after an audience who could never become your customers.
A Facebook Page can provide a great showcase for your work, and is very easy to maintain, so is almost certainly worth creating for your business. Since so many people are on Facebook, most of your customers will be able to like your page and review it if you ask them. Likewise, if you provide a very visual service (making wedding cakes, for instance), ideas board Pinterest might be worth your time. Image sharing network Instagram meanwhile has a young demographic and can be great at building a brand, but it will send very little traffic directly to your website, since its users do not want to leave the app on their mobile.
Twitter, however, is a very different beast. Updates are short, frequent, and within minutes, often buried and forgotten forever. So while it can help really raise the profile of a brand when used properly – many large companies use it as a customer support outlet, since it beats waiting on hold for a call centre – for smaller businesses, its necessity is by no means a given. If you’re a local hardware shop, you’re likely not going to get any business by running an active Twitter account – people won’t look on Twitter when they need nails! If you’re an event manager, on the other hand, being active on Twitter would be essential. Visitors, speakers and other industry figureheads are all on the service, and communicating with them before, during and after a show, retweeting their comments, will make sure you’re on the radar of anyone looking to do something similar.
Establish a tone and a schedule
Once you know where your business will be active on social networks, set a tone. Will you simply share news and images about your work, or will you engage with your wider industry? Will you be cheeky and irreverent or informative and reactive to customer complaints and queries? So long as you set your remit in advance, and train any other employees you give access to the channels to, you can avoid many of the scandals that have engulfed companies on Twitter and Facebook broadcasting offensive or inappropriate material.
You can post whenever you feel like it but for maximum effect, be sure to experiment and figure out a schedule that works for you and your audience. There are certain times of day that people are more likely to see your posts and tweets and react to them – often lunchtime or shortly after work, for instance. You can also use free services like Twuffer to schedule posts in advance, or pay for more advanced solutions such as Buffer or HootSuite.
Get noticed, get stuck in
You can tweet all you want, but you’ll want to get followers and fans to get noticed. There are lots of effective measures you can take, especially on Twitter where outreach to other people is simple. You can start using relevant popular hashtags to make sure you’re seen, get stuck into a debate with an influential person in your industry, retweet others’ tweets and follow or create Twitter lists (a group of similar accounts) – many of those you add will add you right back. And it never hurts to provide an incentive for your customers in your shop to sign up to your social channels too!
The important thing though is to focus on an audience that matters to you – that might be one interested in your product or industry, or one in the same region as your company. Don’t chase followers just for followers’ sake, and the love will come. In that way, mastering social media isn’t so different from mastering SEO – it all boils down to running a great business first and foremost. Good luck.