How much SEO is too much?

Net Effect: Plus 10 tips on boosting your site's profile

Net Effect: Plus 10 tips on boosting your site's profile

You want your website to be noticed - but not without sacrificing quality. Stewart Baines weighs up the pros and cons of search engine optimisation.

In my previous column on search, I explained the basics of how search engine optimisation (SEO) - the art of raising your reputation among the billions of pages that search engines scan and index every month - works.

SEO has become de rigueur for anyone who does business online.

You would be a fool not to employ best practice in site design and content creation for your website, leveraging all the tools available such as Google Analytics, Trends and AdWords to find out what people are actually searching for.

But how much SEO is too much? When does it go from a help in gaining audience and customers to a distraction from the job at hand?

The danger is that you take compelling content and undermine it by the rush to optimise the entire site.

What's good for Google isn't necessarily good for me, the reader. Google might like keywords repeating, I would like a readable page. Hidden pages (with possibly hidden text) containing variations on the main search string may be bending the rules a little too far, but it does go on even by reputable companies, and many are on a head long rush to gain inbound links to their site.

Of course Google's dominance may not last forever. A short gaze into the future and we may find the current search engine technology in demise, replaced by a natural language and context aware engines that can find what we really mean.

If the nascent Wolfram Alpha is an embryonic sign of things to come, we may not need to optimise sites at all for search engines. Simply write for your audience, in a simple honest way with specifics about what you do, and the engine will find it.

And some users don't use search engines at all to access their favourite sites. The evidence from a survey of 1,000 ecommerce users performed by Maxymiser, a firm that offers website measurement tools, suggests that most people go directly to their favourite websites (63 per cent) rather than searching for new sites with a search engine.

With many of these abandoning a purchase half way through, maybe firms would be better placed spending some of the marketing budget on conversion rates rather than climbing search engine rankings for new customers.

Web design guru Jakob Nielsen certainly thinks so. As he wrote on his website back in 2006: "I predict that liberation from search engines will be one of the biggest strategic issues for websites in the coming years. The question is: how can websites devote more of their budgets to keeping customers, rather than simply advertising for new visitors?"

The answers are tools already in the armoury of marketers such as email newsletters, discussion groups, affiliate programmes, newsfeeds and micro-blogging tools such as Twitter.

Neilsen advocates reinventing the concept of stickiness: he argues that it is not about trying to keep users on your site for hours, it's about ensuring they come back.

With this in mind, any company solely focused on generating new leads through SEO will struggle with conversion and retention.

Your site should not be optimised for search engine friendly keywords: instead it should be optimised to deliver the services and products that your customers want time and again.

Popular companies have popular sites and readers want interesting and frequently updated content. It really can be that simple... (continued on page two...)

Click here for 10 top SEO tips...

SEO tips

Compiled below are 10 tips that form the basic principles of SEO that all companies can draw upon…

  • Use the analytical tools available (Google Analytics, AdWords, Trends, Webmaster tools) to look at why people are coming to your site, when they do it, and what they are looking for in general. Look at the competition for keywords: is it better to pick a less popular search string but feature on page one of a search?
  • The more times you repeat a keyword in a page does not equal higher ranking and you are in danger of being seen as spam. Ensure just one search string is reinforced per page.
  • Relevant meta data - ensure the meta data which describes a page's contents actually reflects the page's contents. Search engines are quite good at recognising when it's not the case.
  • Avoid Java navigation, again hard for the search engine to see.
  • Use URLs that relate to what's on the page, and where possible correlate with keywords.
  • Leverage the data from in-site search, particularly within ecommerce sites, to get a more accurate reflection of what people search for.
  • Use 'long-tail' search terms - these keywords can be higher converting than commonly used or seemingly obvious search terms.
  • Create compelling content - a page of keywords with mumbo-jumbo written between them is not going to getting many inbound links from other sites, so as well as annoying readers, Google will ignore the page.
  • A no-no: search engines can read Flash if it is well coded, but most isn't, so sites built entirely in Flash don't tend to feature well in search rankings.
  • Another no-no: if an SEO consultant offers you what amounts to keyword stuffing, hidden text or content scraping, walk away.

Thanks to my sources: Yann Gourvennec (Orange Business Services), Anthony Marechal (Viaccess), Hedley Aylott (Summit Media), Shaun Ryan (SLI Systems), Judith Lewis (i-level), Jon Smith (Aedgency) and Taylor Crosswell (EMC Consulting).

Stewart Baines is a director of Futurity Media, a leading technology marketing consultancy. Stewart's background is in journalism and industry analysis with expertise in collaboration, communications and green IT. Over the past 10 years, Futurity Media has worked with some of the biggest names in the technology business. Futurity Media's philosophy is simple: take complex technologies and make them accessible to a business audience. To find out more about Futurity Media's approach, go to www.futuritymedia.com.