When you started optimizing your web site, you probably read a number of articles that urged you to think like a search engine. We’ve published several of those kinds of articles here at SEO Chat; I’ve even written one myself recently. There’s nothing wrong with these articles, but they don’t quite give you the whole picture.
Most of these articles mention at least some of the following points:
- Search engine spiders can’t see images and video, so you need include alt tags with a concise description and keywords.
- Keywords must fall naturally; do not stuff them. Include them strategically in titles, headers, and content. Search engines judge relevance based in part on keyword content.
- Search engines love fresh content; if possible, update your site regularly (here at the Shed, we shoot for at least three times a week).
- Search engine spiders choke on dynamic URLs; use static ones whenever possible.
- Get other sites to link back to your site with your keywords to indicate to the search engines that your site is relevant for that topic.
Speaking of relevance, Jacqueline Dooley wrote an excellent article for us a while back that really illustrates the way a search engine spider "thinks." It touches on all of these points and more. If you can handle getting put down by the Google spider, figuratively speaking, you will learn a lot.
And if you don’t like getting insulted by an automated program, even in the imagination and for educational purposes, cheer up. We’re about to insult that spider back. So let’s assume you know all about thinking like a search engine. It’s time to step outside the search box.
Sometimes when we optimize our sites to do well in the search engines, we forget that the Googlebot and even Google itself is just a tool. Searchers use them to find what they’re looking for, and ideally we’re using them to let searchers know what we have on our sites. But if we’re building and optimizing our sites for Google’s eyes alone, we’re only doing half the job. Sure, Google might see that our site is relevant for a particular search, but how do we get that across to the searcher on the other side of the box?
It’s not just our position in the SERPs that does it. If that were true, searchers would always click on the first link on the first page and the rest of us wouldn’t stand a chance. I don’t know about you, but as a rough guess I’ll click on that first link only about half the time, maybe even less. Google thinks it’s relevant – but I don’t.
How do I decide that? Well, let me give you an example. Here’s a screen shot of a search I did recently in Google for costume patterns. Sure, it’s only April, but Halloween is just around the corner if you think like a costumer (to say nothing of Renaissance festivals, science fiction conventions, Star Wars Days at Disney and other possibilities for dressing up).
This is actually a pretty good example; I’ve performed searches where the top link featured so much keyword stuffing in its description that it made me crazy. In this case, I’d skip the first, third and fourth links, not because of stuffing, but because I’m pretty familiar with those resources. Simplicity and McCall’s are well-known pattern companies. But look at Simplicity’s listing: there’s nothing in the description that says anything about costumes. If I didn’t know anything about them, how would I know they were relevant, aside form their placement at the top?
McCall’s listing is better. At least you can see the word "costumes" in the links. But it isn’t the best listing. Not by a long shot.
Take a look at the description under the second link. "Free costume patterns for kids and adults. Create special effects make-up, make Halloween masks, wigs, fangs, hats, prosthetics and more." Now that is pay dirt for a costumer. Or look further down, at the fifth link. Not only does it explicitly include both of my keywords in the title, but it describes the page’s contents concisely: "Links to companies which offer commercial costume sewing patterns for Halloween, dancing, skating, re-enactment and more." It sounds like an excellent resource. Oh, and look at the sixth link, almost below the fold – it’s clearly something for historical costumers. If I’m trying to make something that’s historically accurate, I’d probably click on it (though if the truth be known, if I’m trying to make something historically accurate I’ll probably use more specific keywords).
You may be thinking that you don’t have a lot of control over the description that appears in the search engines for your site. Actually, you have more control than you think. Check out this Google Webmaster Central blog entry for more information on when Google pays attention to the meta description tag, and how to write a good one.
The take-home lesson is that your description matters. There is next to nothing in the descriptions for the links to Simplicity and McCall that tells me they have costume patterns, and absolutely nothing to tell me what kind of costume patterns. KnowledgeHound and About both do better jobs of telling me what kind of information I can get by visiting their web sites. With specific, concise descriptions, they’ve piqued my interest – and earned a visit.
Do you know what keywords searchers use to find what you offer? Fortunately, you can find that out. If you’re signed up to use Google Webmaster Tools, you can get a very useful report that shows you the most searched terms vs. the most clicked terms for a page of your site. Look for it in the Statistics menu; it’s called "top search queries."
Say you have a page that turns up frequently for the search term "plus size clothing" but doesn’t get a lot of click-throughs for that term. The page is underperforming. Why? That’s what you need to find out. It’s quite possible that your page titles and descriptions aren’t enticing enough to searchers.
While we’re on the topic of keywords, though, let’s back up a moment. You’re not surprised that your web page turns up for "plus size clothing" because you optimized it for that term. But are you getting fewer searches for that term than you expected? Could it be that the searchers you’re hoping to reach don’t use that term anymore?
This brings up an important issue. If you’re going to reach people, you have to do it in their language – and that’s especially true when they’re looking for you. This is where keyword research comes in. Many SEOs use WordTracker to help with this. While you have to pay for full access, you can sign up for a free trial of the tool. One of the most useful things you can do with the tool is enter a general term, like "clothing," and watch it give you a list of related keywords, ranked by popularity.
If you don’t want to sign up for WordTracker’s free trial, it also offers a free keyword suggestion tool. Put in a keyword and it generates up to 100 related keywords with an estimate of their daily search volume. Here’s a screen shot (cropped to fit, of course) of the result I received when I put the word "costume" into this free tool:
The list goes on, of course; "superhero costumes" shows up at the bottom of the list, with 96 daily searches. Now if you search for superhero costumes in Google, you’ll find 188,000 results – not too much competition, comparatively speaking. Time to stock up on Spandex, perhaps?
Google also has a free keyword suggestion tool. It covers searches on Yahoo for the last month. And it will give you suggestions that are different from WordTracker’s, or at least in a different order.
You probably want to do more than just increase your site traffic. You want to increase conversions, whatever that happens to mean in your case (sales, newsletter sign-ups, course subscriptions, ebook downloads, etc.). It’s unusual for someone to go to a web site and make an instant purchase. It’s not impossible, mind you, but most of the time a visitor will want to poke around a site for a while to see who you are and what you offer so they can decide whether they trust you with this transaction.
One way you can raise their trust is by having lots of good content. I know you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. Look at it this way: would you be visiting this site if it didn’t feature lots of content about a subject of interest to you (SEO)? Then why should someone visit your site, let alone stay for a while, if it doesn’t have content of interest to them?
When you create content for your web site, you need to keep it focused. Searchers are often trying to find out something specific or accomplish a particular task. You can appeal to them by making sure your pages give them what they’re looking for. If they got to your web page because they were searching for "superhero costumes," they’re not going to be interested in hearing about your exciting line of Renaissance garb – or not in that particular session anyway.
If you don’t have content that interests a visitor, they’ll just click away. Before you get discouraged from checking your site’s log files and seeing lots of "bounces," consider that there may be more than one reason for a bounce. Barry Mills, chairman of Netstep, an Internet agency that offers SEO and Internet marketing services (among others), made a pointed observation about bounces. He thinks there are two sides to them.
"I have seen bounce rates go up and conversion improve simultaneously after a redesign," Mills noted. "My theory…is that lots of people research shortlists – they click through SERPs, check out the site, and when they’re sure it is one for the shortlist they bookmark. If they’re sure it isn’t, they leave, and if they aren’t sure either way they might look at a few more pages." He suggests that a better tactic would be to track return rates of bouncing visitors – by IP address, perhaps. A true "bounce," then, might be a visitor who doesn’t return in 30 days.
I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Here’s one final tip. Next time you go online to search, watch your own behavior. You might get some valuable clues to help you attract more visitors and turn them into customers.