“How do I get Google to show my website first?”
I get asked that question a lot. The quick (if dull) answer is: pay for a sponsored listing. But of course that’s not really what people mean. They want to know how to get good placement without paying for an advert.
Unfortunately, nothing that I’m about to suggest will guarantee you the top spot in a search engine results page, or even a listing on the first page (you should distrust anyone who claims to be able to do that without a paid listing). However, it will help.
1. Understand what the search engine is trying to do
To understand how to improve your search rankings, let’s look at this from the other side. What do you want when you’re using a search engine? It’s simple: you want answers.
(OK, that’s not always true. Sometimes you just want to find a hilarious kitten video, but let’s assume for now that we’re talking about information seekers).
You might want quick facts, like the name of the Prime Minister of Japan, the price of a hotel in Paris or which grapes are used in Champagne. You might want to find more in-depth information, like how to crochet, or what ‘dark energy’ is. Either way, you’ll type something in the search box and hope that Google or Bing or Yahoo or whoever understands what you’re looking for, and can provide the answer, ideally without making you click through 30 links in order to find it.
The search engine wants the same thing: to deliver the best possible results for your search query.
Search engines don’t care how much you want your website at the top of that list: they only care whether it answers the question.
2. Provide good content (and answer questions)
Why would people come to your website? What do they want to find out? What can you tell them that others can’t? If there’s a question that your clients always ask, then your website is a perfect place to put the answer (for example, my first blog post attempted to answer the thorny question of how much a website costs).
Sometimes it can be difficult: perhaps you don’t want to give away the tricks of the trade or to start throwing out prices without knowing more about what that (potential) customer really wants. It’s absolutely fine to keep some information up your sleeve, but if you have some expertise you’re happy to share, great!
If the idea of suddenly having to produce loads of new content for your website sounds daunting, don’t panic. There is no need to do it all in one go. In fact it can be very useful to drip feed new content, as each new page gives you an opportunity to publicise yourself and say “Here’s something new”.
Blogs are currently a popular way to do this kind of content creation. My core website says pretty much everything I need to say about my business, but my blog is more conversational. Over time I hope that it will show more about who I am, what I know and why that might make me the right person to help a potential customer.
However, don’t add new content just for the sake of it. Always ask yourself: is this useful? How is it different to what others are offering? If your website is the only place, or the best place, to find a piece of information that people want, that’s exactly where the search engines will want to send them.
3. Use their words, not yours
I could have named this article “SEO enhancement techniques” but that’s not what most people would type into a search engine. They’re more likely to search for something like “how to get good search rankings” or “search engine tips”. By talking their language and, if possible, using the very words or phrases that they use, I increase the chances that my page will ‘match’ their search.
Think about what your customers might want to know, whether that’s about your business or about the wider industry. Look for opportunities to use those keywords and potential search terms within your pages or even as your page titles or headlines. However, it’s very important not to go overboard with this. Search engines are good at spotting “keyword stuffing” and will actually penalise you for it.
If in doubt, always write for people, not for search engines.
4. Help the search engines understand your pages.
Let’s assume you’ve got great content and it uses all the right buzzwords for your audience. But how does Google know that? There’s no way that they can get a human being to read every single page on the internet and decide what it’s about. Clearly there are far too many pages for that, so search engines use automated programmes, known as “robots” or “search bots”, which scour the internet and try to work out what each page on your website – and every other website – is about.
There are a number of ways that you can help the robots to understand your website. If you’ve already thought about the words your customers use and the content on your page reflects that, then you’re half way there. But there’s also some behind-the-scenes stuff.
You may have heard of ‘metadata’. These are bits of code that describe your website’s content. There are three main parts: meta title, meta description and meta keywords. In the early days of search engines, these were hugely important ways to tell search bots about your pages. Nowadays, they carry less weight, particularly the keywords, as these are far too easily abused to manipulate the rankings. However, your meta title and meta description will help to reinforce the content on your page. More significantly, these may well be displayed in search results pages so it’s important to think about what they look like. I’ll talk more about this in another blog post.
The key things to remember are that the metadata for each page on your website should be unique and, if possible, it should give the searcher a reason to click through to your website.
Now look at the URL (web address) for each of your pages. Could you guess from the URL what the page is about? Or does it say something like www.strugglingwebsite.com/page_id=47? It’s not hard to guess which the search engines will prefer.
5. Show that you know what you’re talking about
Another thing that search bots do is try to work out how reliable the information is. After all, I could claim that the grapes used in Champagne are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay – but how would Google know whether that’s true?
The search bots will recognise that my website is not generally about wine, so is it a reliable source of information about Champagne? Possibly, but it’s certainly not as authoritative as a website for, say, a vineyard, wine merchant or wine reviewer.
Bots will also look at what other websites link to my website and what I link out to. Are these websites related to this particular topic? Again, when it comes to the Champagne question, no. This makes it even less likely that this is the best place to find that answer.
The practical upshot of all this is that, whether I’m right or wrong, this website is not going to appear very high in the search results for that question – and I hope you’ll agree that’s a good thing.
When writing for your website, always think about what outward links would be helpful to your users. If you mention a different organisation, link to them. If you mention a question that you can’t answer, try to link to somewhere that does. It can be tempting to think that once you’ve got someone on your website, you should try to keep them as long as possible, but that’s not the way the internet works. If they’re interested, they’ll come back. If they’re not, then nothing you can do will make them stay.
Links from other websites to yours are much trickier as you will generally have very little control over these. Consequently, they carry more weight with search engines. The quality, not quantity, of these links is very important. There are lots of companies who will offer to sell you thousands of links to your website: don’t! They may give your rankings a short-term boost but once the search bots notice, your rankings will plummet and it may take months to re-build your site’s reputation. Even big brands are not immune to this: Hugo Boss’ rankings in Germany recently plummeted because of a paid link network. Interflora UK once got removed from Google listings altogether! It’s ok to ask other websites to link to you, but make sure that they are good quality websites, and that the links are justified. If you have unconnected websites linking to you for no obvious reason, the search bots will spot it and you may be penalised for it. It’s far better to have authoritative websites linking to you because your content is good.
6. Be patient.
Of course, you want your website to feature in the search results straight away – but it takes time. Search engines may not find your website straight away. It takes time to build a reputation, particularly for popular keywords and phrases. This can be really frustrating but be patient. Think about the flip side: once you’ve got up there, you know that it won’t be easy for someone else to come along and steal your thunder overnight!
7. Once you get there, make sure you look good!
Once your website starts getting close to the top, you want as many people as possible to click on your link. There are some ways you encourage them to do so, but that’ll have to wait for another post.