I recently had a chance to sit down with Aimee Wheeler (CUNY SEO Blogger) about getting results with SEO practices, processes, and strategies. This transcript has been provided below for the benefit of our newsletter readers and blog visitors.
1.) Hi David, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Can you start out by describing for us the difference between SEO and SEM for our readers?
A.) Certainly. SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. It’s the process of getting a website ranked in the major search engines for the keywords you are looking to rank on. SEM means Search Engine Marketing; it revolves around purchasing ad space in the search results pages, Google Adwords being the best example. They are considered ‘sponsored listings’. When used together, however, they can be quite effective in tandem since SEM can both test and drive your sales until the SEO work gains traction. When that happens, it allows businesses to back off their associated SEM costs, usually comprised of PPC or pay-per-click ads.
2). What SEO tools do you use in your methods, and how does the process unfold?
A. A variety of solutions are employed, some of which are automated. We always begin manually by hand, starting each client with their own “virtual garden”. We simply ask for their URL and ten keywords they wish to rank for. We assess their request, provide an estimate in cost and time, make recommendations and revise to their wishes. To further explain the term virtual garden, this simply means a satellite network of websites that we design and build to support their main site.
For example, a network may include EMD’s, or exact match domain websites, web 2.0′s, article directories, profile links, micro-blogs, blog and forum comments, social networks, bookmarking sites, etc. Initially, we start with the website overview and assessment. This will include the use of keyword tools for SEO factors such as on-page, off- page, and competition analysis. We will check for links already indexed to their site, any associated page rank indicators against the competitors, any local SEO parameters within a geographically targeted area, and what keywords if any might be bringing in the most traffic. We’ll also target specific keyword trends depending on the niche, whether it be during a certain time of year, month, or day. A comprehensive strategy is then developed and further testing is performed in order to define the best course of action. Our success is due in part because we take the largest precision ‘snapshot’ possible in advance before engaging in any of our SEO work. We aim to ensure that our clients receive a realistic level of success.
3). Have you designed and/or created any SEO tools yourselves?
A. In fact we are in the process. At this point in time, we have developed our own proprietary software for in-house use. We also have a few smaller projects that might be combined as a bonus for our clients in the future. We also have full access to a variety of effective SEO software solutions that have been custom tailored to suit our needs.
4.) I’d like to know a little bit more about your techniques with competitive analysis, can you elaborate?
A. Sure. Comparing websites in the same niche, especially those which rank highest, are a crucial part of our SEO research. Sometimes it will even spur great ideas and uncover new resources, but primarily it is used to discover competitor weaknesses in their on or off-page SEO. We then use the knowledge gained to our client’s advantage.
With that said, I should add an important note on competitive ethics. In my experience, if you know what you are doing, you will never have to use tactics like politicians do with their ‘hit’ ads when it comes to SEO competition. There is a myth that still permeates SEO companies to this day that they should do ‘whatever it takes’ to get their client on top.
However, this mentality is flawed. A genuinely successful SEO company will never have to cross the line and harm their client’s competitors. We focus on our client’s business first – find out their strengths and patch up any weaknesses. We then apply our findings into the web development process, promoting those strengths, along with their USP - unique selling proposition – into all resulting web content, including EMD’s, articles, etc, and using latent semantic indexing when necessary. If that’s not enough, we’ll turn up the heat with social media buzz and viral campaigns.
There is always a better way. The point of focus should always be on the strengths of your clients, and using good on/off page SEO. The analogy we use here is that ‘sunlight’ is the best disinfectant. Building your client reputation is just as important as ranking them from my perspective. You want to increase their business longevity in the form of repeat customers … happy, paying customers who openly praise their service and products and spread only good news far and wide. It far outweighs just getting ‘traffic’ to visit a website.
5.) Well said! Ok, what do you think is most important in regards to organic rankings?
A. Best place to start would be your on-page text. The search engines look for text only when returning search results, and Google ranks pages first and foremost. The keyword phrases you wish to rank for should be found everywhere from your URL, page title, H1/H2 tags, “alt” image attributes, body content, meta tags and keywords, and site navigation. Often over-looked is the www. vs. non-www issue as well. In the latter case, you’ll want to pick one of them, and stick with it. This way, you’ll avoid appearing like 2 different sites in the search engines.
6.) Do meta tags still matter in this current day and age?
A. Even though it’s a debate that’s been going on for years, it doesn’t hurt to use them in my opinion. It’s best to use meta tags and keywords for both your home page and individual page descriptions. The search engines still make use of them, but normally the page title and body content text will tend to outweigh them.
7). Can you explain the Google PageRank (PR) algorithm?
A. Yes, Google will use the total number of inbound links (IBL) to a page to understand how relevant and important a page or a post is. In our experience, page rank helps to denote authority as well as user behavior; it also helps in how quickly a website can be indexed after a new page or post is created. Others may disagree on this point, but our experiments have shown this repeatedly.
8). How important are sitemaps, and should a website use XML for them?
A. They are extremely helpful when considering a variety of websites, especially flash websites. Although the pages of a site can be indexed without a sitemap or site index, they are beneficial for SEO purposes. It has been argued that site indexes – which list your website contents alphabetically – are better, I disagree. The XML sitemap gives a top-down view, and when the site grows larger, it retains a clean, neat structure and helps to aid in navigation.
9). Would you consider excluding pages/posts from search engines with a ‘robots.txt’ or a ‘meta robots tag’?
A. Typically, I’ll use a robots.txt to keep the search engines from indexing the entire website directory. For example, directories with administrative functions or those which contain scripts, plugins, uploads, etc. You’ll want the robots to only allow indexing on that which you WANT the search engines to find. For even better security, I’d recommend a website owner learn how to properly secure their .htaccess file since a lot of security options can be integrated into it.
10.) What’s the best way to move your website safely to a new domain?
A. First thing first … start by updating your old site with permanent redirects to every new page, and make sure they correspond with your previous pages. To complete the transfer so that the search engines are updated, you’ll also need to remove all of the old domain content from the search engines; each has their own set of instructions for doing so.
11.) If I wanted to migrate my website to a new CMS platform (like WordPress), what’s involved?
A. It’s often performed on a case by case basis, but many clients tend to switch over to WordPress for the SEO benefits. Sometimes it can be done easily without any major modifications depending on the programming and specific CMS tools available for transfer. We will usually start with an analysis of the client’s website content, find out exactly what they wish to retain or modify, and then let them know of any expectations or alterations as a result of the conversion. After they are satisfied, we will proceed with rebuilding their site either offline or on a dummy domain which is blocked from the search engines. Afterwards, we will verify all website functionality and test links, etc. before making the final switch to the new CMS.
12.) What’s your perspective on buying links?
A. Well, it depends on the links you are buying. Since the link market is very broad, and a bit saturated, you need to have good knowledge of the link value first, and sometimes if you’re buying lists – you might be taking a gamble. If you are interested in buying links for traffic value with respect to paid advertising, then this is one avenue. If you are looking for paid links with respect to SEO, then it can be quite another. Watch out with SEO link lists, since you might end up with a list that has been spammed to death, and provides no value! When it comes to local advertising and SEO practices, it is wise to combine both.
13.) How important is social media when it comes to SEO?
A. Very important! Since the recent PANDA update of 2011, we’ve been finding social media and other news sites (like micro-blogs) are doing very well in terms of ‘link juice’. Link juice, by the way, is simply a term for the amount of value the search engines place on an outbound link from one site to another, especially without reciprocation. In other words, one way back-links to your main site are very important for ranking. Usually, the harder the link is to get, the more valuable. When we take a look at social media, this also includes social bookmarking – and these sites are bringing in some very valuable ‘link juice’. I should also mention social media further increases the potential of viral marketing, like facebook in particular.
14.) What are some SEO practices to stay away from?
A. That’s a good question, especially since I just mentioned the PANDA updates. Going into 2012, it’s best to stay away from sites that look like blog and link farms. I’d also advise against link wheels and pyramids that are cross-linked, they can usually be detected when they get too big since they can leave footprints. Another point on linkwheels, DON’T close them up, they must be broken if you are still using those. Also, don’t bother with any form of “spam” like unsolicited emailing, blatant affiliate advertising ‘scam/review’ sites, keyword stuffing, or websites which re-direct traffic, it could end up hurting you in the long run.
15.) Is there a situation where you should use nofollow on internal links?
A. In fact, yes. If your site has a shopping cart or member login I would use a nofollow. To reiterate a previous point, admin functions are not a part of the website content, so they don’t need ranking let alone indexing!
16.) Have you heard of Latent Semantic Analysis (LSI Indexing)?
A. Yes I have, and I’ve used it personally in past projects. LSI indexing is actually a way to save time when it comes to “literal” search term matching. For example, if someone is searching for “Ugg Boots New York” a literal search would end up only matching the words as a phrase … as opposed to the individual words like “Ugg”, “Boots”,etc. What LSI does is give the searcher more customized results, which tend to retain a greater degree of relevance. Both the word usage and context are actually used to determine the intent of the searcher.
17.) How about Phrase Based Indexing and Retrieval?
A. This would be a method that engines like google use to calculate relevance of a page or post. It’s based on the phrases used in a document. If I were to take a page, let’s say about sky diving, well the search engine would realistically come up with relevant phrases like “sky diving rentals”, “how to skydive”, and “best places to skydive”, right? Well using related phrases like this tend to add to the relevance of the page you’re trying to rank … as opposed to unrelated phrases that decrease the relevance. Google often uses this technique to filter out the “spam” sites.
18.) What’s your recommendation on web analytics and related tools?
A. I use a couple different tools for that, and I normally recommend Google webmaster tools and analytics tracking. However, I’d also recommend an alternate service for comparison checks, and as a back-up stats monitor. In addition to AWstats commonly found in your Cpanel, if you are running WP (WordPress) I’d recommend the WP Stats Plugin, which conveniently adds another level of tracking right into your main dashboard. Such data becomes super critical as your site develops and traffic increases. It really becomes the basis to help refine your overall SEO strategy. I’d also recommend looking at the amount of time each visitor spends on your site.
19.) How many keywords do you usually target for a main website?
A. I recommend no more than 3-5 well related phrases. Keep in mind effective optimization revolves around relevancy, and not what you or I may consider relevant – but mainly what Google does. When you search Google, take a look at the instant search and what other terms come up. This is your best indicator for ‘relevancy’.
20.) Can you explain the difference between organic search visitors vs. a type-in visitors?
A. Yes, a visitor that comes to your site via organic search usually has never seen the site before … or may be browsing for something in particular, like a product or another topic of interest. Thinking about your own browsing tendencies, when you do a search you’re looking for a site most relevant to your query. A “type-in” visitor loads the phrase right into the address bar, and one can assume their interest is specifically targeted. Your phrase or URL may have been discovered somewhere other than the search engines. Often times, they are simply past users coming back to visit.
21.) Let’s say if you’ve done about six months of SEO work on a website and haven’t seen any improvement; how would you go about fixing it?
A. This is an interesting situation that I will often sum up with one word – back-links. We can branch off to 3 areas, which would be consistency, quality, and velocity, in reverse order. Velocity is the daily amount you are increasing over a period of time, quality being the types of sites and their associated page rank, and the consistency is maintaining the building process indefinitely until you reach your goal…and even then, a virtual gardener must continue tending their garden. One might want to consider adding periodic articles to their sites that increase the relevance to the terms that their main site is looking to rank for. If the main site is indexed and is having trouble reaching page one, then we might look into careful modification of areas such as page title, content, and descriptions. In the worst case scenario where a site has somehow been dropped from the index, then the process may require re-submission and re-building of rankings. From past industry experiences, it appears that attempting to contact search engines themselves about indexing issues will NOT result in any success. It is ultimately up to you or your SEO provider to rectify these issues if they occur.
22.) I’m curious as to why Google always ranks certain websites higher, like Wikipedia?
A. Large mainstream sites, like news outlets, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia are what we call established authority sites. Since they are referenced in countless numbers of other documents, and given the sheer amounts of relevant text they are associated with; they’ve earned a behemoth status in the search engines.
Aimee: David, thanks again for your time, I appreciate it. David Hegi is a Senior Manager at Neugardens, LLC, a start-up web development firm now offering their services at a discounted price for the holidays. You can inquire about them at http://neugardens.com
David: I also appreciate the opportunity to speak with you, thank you.