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Word to the Wise About SEO, PPC and Other Acronyms

April 30, 2010

I thought I’d add a few thoughts about search engine optimization to the class blog since (for better or worse), I’ve completed training seminars in so-called “ethical SEO” in order to set better baseline standards for my employer’s Web site.

The first thing everyone should know is that you cannot buy SEO. Search engine optimization refers specifically to techniques that improve your “organic” search result rankings. You can pay for placement in the Sponsored Links section of a Google search result page (SERP) by running pay-per-click (PPC) advertising campaigns, but PPC ads do not affect your site’s rankings in natural searches. PPC is a different practice than SEO, although the two are interrelated as components of Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

The general rule of thumb with PPC is to use it only as a stop-gap measure when SEO is inadequate or non-existent. Large companies like Geiko treat PPC like they treat print ads; it’s all about impressions and awareness. It could be argued that Geiko’s strategy worked, since they are practically synonymous with discount car insurance. But smarter companies who use PPC strategically ALWAYS focus on the Cost Per Click–the goal is to spend the least amount of money to get the highest clickthrough rates. This is where the concept of the Long Tail comes in; there is an infinite abundance of keyword phrases you can purchase PPC ads for. The largest companies spend their time fighting over the top 10% most popular keyword phrases (“car insurance”), which drives up the price of those keywords. But there are plenty of other, less competitive keyword phrases you can run ads against (“discount car insurance provider”). These keywords typically cost less than half as much, and yield more than half as many clickthroughs as the super-popular terms.

For a library, I would say the only value I can see in buying PPC ads is to promote a specific event or limited-time offer using search as your billboard. A PPC keyword phrase such as “SLIS Job Fair” would probably cost pennies to bid for since no one is competing for that term, and would almost certainly show up as a sponsored listing on relevant search result pages, even if the organic search result doesn’t appear on the first page of results. And typically, PPC includes access to much richer reporting and analytics tools so that you can measure the results of each keyword phrase “campaign.”

But I digress; back to SEO. As Derek mentioned, content is king when it comes to search result rankings. But rankings are only indirectly related to the content on your site; the core Google algorithm (which is really a collection of several hundred algorithms) is designed to rank search results based primarily on the terms that other sites use when linking to your Web site. Another, more jargony way of saying this is that rankings are based on backlink anchor text. As mentioned, each backlink counts as a “vote” for your site; the more websites link to slisweb.sjsu.edu using the term “SJSU SLIS”, the higher your rank.

This is not to say that content is not important to SEO. Quite the opposite. Site structure, heading structure, div order and meta data all help Google spiders index your Web pages properly; in fact, good structure enhances your Google listing. Notice the search result listing for SJSU SLIS also contains sublinks for Current Students, Admissions, etc.; this is a direct result of content-driven SEO that allows Google to analyze the site’s structure and deliver shortcuts to what it interprets as the most important or heavily demanded pages and directories.

If you produce enough content on a frequent enough basis, other people on other sites around the web are more likely to link to you as a subject matter expert. And as your site gains prestige, your PageRank goes up. PageRank is not something to obsess over, but it is a general indicator of “expertness” and does affect rankings. How? Google gives more weight to backlinks from “expert” sites than they do to “non-expert” sites, so getting a backlink from, say, the American Library Association, counts way way more than me linking to SJSU SLIS from this blog post. I guess you say that in this regard, the Googleverse is one big circlejerk, which is actually not too far off from Larry Page’s concept of Backrub (the original name for the Google search engine).

But regardless, your level of expertness so high from backlinks that you become the defacto subject matter expert in the eyes of Google’s search algorithms, and at that point, it is possible to appear as the #1 ranked result of a query for a term, even if that term does not appear on your site. So if, for example, millions and millions of people use the term “miserable failure” and link to George W. Bush’s bio page on whitehouse.gov, then that page could appear as the #1 result for “miserable failure.”

I could go on and on because this is a very rich vein of discussion and I haven’t even touched on server-side SEO or Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO. But for most librarians, I highly recommend approaching SEO as you would with usability and accessibility; optimize your web site to ensure that people can find the pages they are looking for. And not just on Google, but on internal search engines as well–this is a huge mistake that many companies make because they optimize for queries on Google instead of for queries performed within their site using their engine. I’m always shocked to see web pages where all the important text is rendered as images, and it is definitely important to make sure that if your Web page is about XYZ, then your title, description, headings and body text all mention or focus on XYZ. People don’t realize that these practices make their information impossible to find!

In the end, the best place to learn about optimizing your site for Google…is Google Webmaster Central. They’ll tell you everything you need to know so that you can optimize your site without falling prey to snake-oil salespeople.

One final factoid: the meta keyword tag has no affect on search rankings, at least not in Google. Google does not use the keywords meta tag in their web search. They said so themselves.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. amigosito permalink
    April 30, 2010 8:38 am

    One thing I love and hate about blogs is the “alert” mechanism…you can edit a blog post after you’ve published it, but if your blog sends out emails to subscribers when you post, you can’t take your words back!

    This poses problems for people like me who have Joe Biden disease. I’m constantly editing behind myself as you’ll notice if you compare this blog to the version that got emailed out when I originally published it…so just to be clear: Google does (probably) index meta keywords; they just don’t use them to rank search results.

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