404 and more...

These days your website is your shop front, the face of your business, basically the centrepiece of your entire business being so it's critical that your website not only looks good but performs as an optimum channel.

So let's start with the big old engine of the web SEO - Search Engine Optimisation. Most people these days will know the term and I would hazard a guess that many understand the basic premise of it but the burning question is - how do you achieve good SEO on an ongoing basis.

Some basic errors on your website that can hurt your SEO performance
So you've spent hours, days, maybe even months writing perfectly aligned, interesting and relevant web copy for your site. Obviously this is massively important to make sure your SEO performance is as good as it can be on the terms you want to win on.

Although it's been hard you are the kind of professional who likes copy writing and messaging so it's also been enjoyable.

Now for the science bit.

Not every marketer or business owner has a technical as well as creative side. What I found when working in depth on analysing the performance on my site, was that, as one of the latter minded ‘words and pictures above numbers’ type of people, there is an astonishing array of further activities requiring varying levels of web and IT ability that were still necessary to make my site perform better.

It’s the marketing equivalent of painting the outside of the house in beautiful shades but neglecting to fix the leaky roof tiles and dodgy wiring. When someone interested comes and starts to look deeper (and when it comes to a thorough examination, Google is the ultimate inscrutable and fickle buyer) it’s the little technical elements, many of which are easy to fix, that can undermine your efforts.

Web Search Measurement

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Anyone reading this far understands the importance of competing and winning on search terms that are vital to their business activity, so let’s skip straight to how you measure and benchmark if our effort is paying off. Of course you need to determine which terms you are trying to win on.

This should be done by a combination of;
1. Looking at Adwords keyword functions to see who what terms people who found your ads actually used
2. Using  Google trends, a useful tool to track the relative popularity of terms over time
3. Using Google console and tools to examine keyword traffic – you may need your web company to guide you on this
4. Asking your customers what they searched for to find you, but also how they refer to your services, this may be on feedback forms, via email, or even adhoc verbally

It’s the last item that many often forget to do, even those who aren’t under the spell of web analysis. But it’s critical, as it’s impossible to cover every angle digitally and your customers are the ones who do the searching.

It should be your goal to achieve a top 3 ranking on all your key terms – however long it takes to get there. Clicks drop exponentially to single digit % share once we go too much below the middle of page 1 (so start off looking to get in the top 5), but top 2 or 3 is the ideal.

Search assessment– an algorithmic moving target
If you want to measure where you are ranking, it’s not going to work by simply searching on Google and taking print screen shots. This is because Google varies results via location, time, your own user preferences etc. Even going to an ‘incognito window’ (a service Google offer as a cookie free insight into what results a search might bring) will mean you will drive yourself mad with the day to day variances in search results.
There are plenty of free and paid for tools that will provide a cleaner assessment of your performance, with various filters, for all the keywords you value. Here's a list of handy search assessment tools. We will use a couple of the most renowned ones shortly.

Most of them look at your site for content AND technical proficiency. They then quantify that by a site equity or quality score that allows you to look at a relative and competitive performance via a rating out of 100.

So let’s go through the technical ways you can boost your score,
Although the exact priority that Google assigns to all the elements of its search algorithms remain as closely guarded a secret as Colonel Sanders’ ‘special blend of herbs and spices’, there are a few here that can gain very great benefit for relatively little effort, combined with some careful thought. In relative order of importance, here goes…

1. Page title tags

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A few years ago there was a World Wide Web shake-up as fundamental as Trump or Brexit. It was when Google announced the release of a new way of measuring site equity, using a number of measures that placed the emphasis on a much wider range of factors, and giving quality content a much greater importance over content tagging and traffic measurement. As well as scoring down sites which were paying click ‘bots’ to give the appearance of traffic, an art that hopefully doesn’t apply to many virtuous readers here, it seriously de-emphasised the importance of tagging pages of content using content management SEO tools in users websites themselves. So entering ‘School Jumpers’ in the tag section of every half relevant article on WordPress for an educational outfitters (as an example) became virtually worthless almost overnight. This prompted many anguished outcries from web warriors about how the democracy of the Internet was being threatened as the little guy’ would lose out if he/she couldn’t benefit from signposting their own work.
Others claimed google was doing this and placing more importance on factors such as its own Adwords to gain revenue It has never been proved that having a decent paid presence on Adwords boosts your SEO. Google would deny it. I’d argue that, shall we ‘subtly say, it doesn’t hurt to be £££ active on Adwords...

…Not at all!! (in my humble opinion)

Whatever the merits of the tagging debate, one thing it has done, I think, is to take some people’s eyes away from the sheer importance of title tags. And they are free!
These are different from article or other ‘in site tagging. They still matter and in a big way.
Google wants to bring up well indexed and flagged content and the main tag of the site AND key menu header page are critical to that.
This sounds simple, but as ever with SEO, you have to be concise and relevant. You have around 6 or 7 words to sum up what you do. That sounds simple, but for organisations with multi-faceted activities that can often be harder than it seems. An example from a recent colleague could help here, they provide help to couples and families and there are lots of seemingly interchangeable way its services were described. They offer counselling, sexual health advice, parenting support, psychotherapy as well as training to adult couples and individuals. That doesn’t fit. Wanting to win on couple counselling most, they realised that the exact term wasn’t in the main heading. A quick change brought a rapid rise from a risible rating of 45 on Google to the page 1 in weeks,
Each major page should have bespoke tagging in this way and it should be easy to find on your CMS.
An absolutely critical thing here is that the terms you chose should be aligned to headings and copy on those pages themselves. So your content writing effort pays off here!

2. Superlong URL's
When search gurus examine any site this is one of the first things that gets them tutting

As we have said previously, Google is an indexing computer. Computers like things to be precise. Add to that the fact that as humans we like things simple and a long string of possibly related words do not good indexing make.

If we take things back to a plain old fashioned metaphor, each page URL is an address. It is a public signpost, designed so folk who are looking for you can find you easily. And search engines are the postman, trying to deliver billions of letters. Having a very long URL for a page is like placing a 25 word first line of the address on an envelope, so it sprawls over to the rear and is therefore at the back of the queue when trying to be delivered by postie in a hurry.

In case the point has not been laboured enough then, cramming lots of very important keywords into your URL will reach a point where it is counterproductive.

When we get down to exact parameters, the maximum length of a URL officially, all in (including www.etc) is 2,083 characters. But you don't want to be sailing anywhere near those kind of choppy, word filled whirlpools of search disaster.
For an individual page address, after your main URL, eg http://www.mycompany.co.uk/our-bestselling-products

The characters count in red should really be no more than 70.
How do you control this? Most CMSs allow you to create a page name, for example in Joomla, this is called an alias. You can trim it down while you are creating the page, but be careful as in most CMS’s once you save and publish you it gets messy going back and change that item.

3. Double Trouble – Duplicate content
Harking back to the days of the ‘spammers’, Google is still traumatised by websites stuffed with keyword laden pages appearing everywhere. If you have two pretty identical pages on your site - a common thing for large organisations that post lots of news items and then publish the same also as press releases, for example - then you must take action. Purely and simply, you must delete the least viewed or required copy and if you still need a page there place a short piece of copy there instead., with a link to the full text of the original article.
It is hard to define what level of duplication is deemed as undesirable but work on the basis that anything over 40% duplication is to be purged.

Next we’ll look at some of the fundamentals under the bonnet, site speed, the dreaded 404 and more…as promised in the title.  Watch this space.


Written by John Fenna, Head of Marketing,Communications & Digital at Tavistock Relationships