Monday 27 January 2020 15:50
A friend asked me yesterday if I could help her with optimising her own blog for better visibility in Google, with a view to her finding ways of making money from it in due course. As a prelude I pointed her towards some sound and very up-to-date advice from someone whose business it is to advise on this very thing, but it set me thinking about how things used to be, and indeed just what my own aims are for this blog.
WARNING: I’m brain dumping here, my friends. If you have no interest in Search Engine Optimisation, or in a broad history of it and my personal encounters with same, or why it’s giving me so much cause for thought today, then feel free to skip this post. It’s long; very long...
Many many years ago, when this internet thing was quite new, I started building my own websites. My business was “Applications Training” – ie training users of computer applications such as Microsoft Office. Windows 95 had just arrived, and companies of all sizes were buying their office staff computers and software that was intended to revolutionise working practices. Email was in its infancy. Connecting to the internet involved “dialling up” – a very noisey and indeed costly process – and “always on” connections were still rare. Home computers were almost unheard of, so employees needed training in-house, and companies were prepared to pay whatever it took to give their staff the skills required.
My first job, after qualifying as a teacher of adults specialising in computer skills, was for a very large international hotel chain. It was fun, involved a lot of travelling, carting around eight laptops and a printer to hotels around the UK, where I got to stay for free and deliver training to staff over the course of several days. After a few months the intermediate company who I was directly employed by went under (in a big way and involving some shady dealings by the owners). I found myself losing out financially for work I’d completed but not yet been paid for. Suddenly the “risk” of starting up on my own seemed less scary.
I’d tried taking the “safe” route of being an employee and look where that had got me; at least working for myself I would be in control and have a chance of rectifying things if they started to go wrong. Working for myself though, meant I was also responsible for marketing (and sales, and accounts, and creating teaching materials, and buying and maintaining equipment…), which meant, among other things, learning how to build a website.
Building a website in those early days involved either learning to code in html, or the use of a Microsoft program called FrontPage, which claimed to do the coding for you. I took the apparently easy route… and soon regretted it. FrontPage was awful! Yes it turned ordinary text formatting and positioning into html without the author needing to know anything about it, but when I did begin to learn a little bit about it I soon realised the code it threw out was a mess! Coupled with that, web browsers weren’t standardised and were also rapidly changing as new versions came and then were quickly superseded themselves. FrontPage would render a website readable by the current version of Microsoft’s own web browser, but try to open the site in another browser, or an older version, and the mess became very apparent, with text positioning and sizes gone haywire. It was time to find out more of what was really needed, and do it myself.
As well as learning how to build a website properly by writing the code myself, it was soon clear to me that I needed to ensure it was found. Search engines at that time were also in their infancy, but were already popular as a way to find help – for example to search for a “plumber” in “Birmingham” (although early on searching for information about a topic could bring less reliable results). The complex algorithms employed by Google nowadays were for the future – as indeed was Google’s dominance, it was one of several players, and by no means the biggest at that time. Keywords were the thing, and links. Put simply, link to and from as many other sites as possible, and make sure your site incorporated the sort of words and phrases that people might search for if they were looking for what you were selling. Oh and you could cheat a little.
If you were offering a service and were based in Hampshire, but wanted to ensure your site was up near the top of the results, even if someone searched for the same service but in another county, you simply put every single county in the country into what became, for those who didn’t understand, a rather puzzling footer. It was frowned upon but it worked, for a while, although it was so obviously wrong that the search engines eventually got wise and started to punish sites doing it by listing them lower, if at all.
Again, early on, alternatives to search engines by way of “online directories” were springing up like daffodil’s in March, and getting yourself a free listing in them was a huge help as it gave your site credibility (rightly or wrongly); it also meant you got listed twice (or more): once as your site, and again as your entry in their site. A vital and time consuming part of SEO was to fill in the forms on as many as you could find, to submit your own site’s details. Many of them, because they would be touting for ad upgrades at a cost, would actually find your site themselves and add you, which was even better. The more links to your site the better, and offering “reciprocal links” – you link to mine I’ll link to yours – to all and sundry helped too.
So search engines from the start broadly ranked using the principal of matching “keywords” entered into “meta data” – data that the search engine robots scan but that isn’t visible to the site visitor – the site’s meta data title and description, and actual words and phrases included in the content itself; coupled with counting the number of links to and from it that were assumed to indicate popularity. Things haven’t changed completely – the above still holds good – but the number of websites out there has of course gone through the roof, and people’s searching has become more targeted, and Google’s results more personalised.
Nowadays if you’ve always previously chosen to view results from one particular town when searching for plumbers and builders in a certain county, Google will very likely stop showing you results from other towns, even nearby ones that might be suitable. This is the power of Google to steer you where it thinks you want to go; even if you don’t. It may be an inevitable consequence of just too many potential results, but even so, Google is doing what Google does best, manipulating its users, and as a site owner you haven’t got a hope in hell of fighting that.
So as a site owner, how do you at least try to be found? Now, as then, one thing to bear in mind is how important is it to be found anyway? Early on it was fairly simple to get a website advertising the services of, for example, a plumber, covering a specific area and offering specific services, to the top few results; especially if there weren’t many plumbers in that particular area, or offering those particular services. A site offering services with no specific location would need to be more targeted with the services or unique selling points it offered, but nevertheless, with still not that many companies having their own websites, competition wasn’t that fierce. Nowadays it’s a whole different story. Do you need to bother?
First and foremost, if you want someone to find your site you need to be very, very clear what it is you’re offering, who it is you want to find it, and why. (In fact first and foremost you need to decide whether you’re even bothered about showing up in search results at all. If you are publicising your site in other ways to the specific people you want to view it, then your jobs done. No need for SEO; you can even block Google completely, as I’ve done thus far with this blog.) If you do want your site found over and above the audience you’ve already informed, then you need to ask yourself some questions. What are you offering? Are you selling or just informing? About products? Services? Are you wanting people to join your organisation? Are you wanting to inform people? For free? Of a certain age? Gender? Political persuasion? Do you want site visitors from all over the world? Or is what you’re offering only relevant to people local to you? Are you hoping to steer them somewhere else? Somewhere online? Or a real world place? And so on.
Once you’ve answered all these questions and more, you need to work out what words or phrases people are using to find what they’re searching for. I always used to tackle this along the lines of, “If I was looking for me, what would I type in to the search engine?”. Try it (and take a look at the results that Google comes up with while you’re there – those are your competitors in the game of SEO). One thing you will see nowadays is a section telling you other searches that people use that are connected; look and learn.
Now what all this is leading to is the final step, if you like, in good SEO, and that tends to be referred to as “Giving people what they want.”. If you are keen to get as many people viewing your site as possible – for now let’s say for whatever reason – then you have to dish up content that is currently popular and being searched for. With lots of links, in and out. And short sentences. And pictures.
And therein lies the rub. You may sell particularly specialised widgets for thingumybobs that haven’t been manufactured since the fifties. When one of the only forty remaining owners in the world is looking for a replacement widget, be sure that – unless you’ve effectively hidden the purpose of your website behind lots of popular current and entirely irrelevant gobbledygook – when they search for a supplier they will find you; and if you’re charging a small fortune for each widget, you will have the result you need. By this I mean, if what you’re offering is only very rarely going to be searched for, then all the keywords and appropriate content in the world isn’t going to get people hammering on the door of your site daily wanting to buy what you’re selling.
You may sell the best beefburgers in town, but if the entire population is vegetarian, then you’re going to have a lot of quiet days.
Which brings me back to my friend and her wish to find out about SEO in order to get more people to her blog with a view to monetising it.
Her question made me think about my own purpose in writing this blog and whether I have any wish to ultimately try to make money from it. My immediate reaction was an emphatic “No”, certainly not if that means turning it into something that “gives people what they want”. But then again…
I think the whole point of this blog is in part simply to tell my story (hopefully on the whole more entertainingly than in this particular post!), to record the ups and downs of the journey towards finding a new means of making a living at an age when I feel I should more suitably be retiring. Without a doubt too, it’s also to seek encouragement and support along the way when it all gets too much. Then again, I want people to want to read it, and I would like to think that some of the time it will include information, inspiration and encouragement that’s helpful to others too…
It’s just that phrase “give people what they want”, that doesn’t sit right. It’s the Great Hack again isn’t it? It’s “telling them what they want to hear”, in order to make money…
Or is it?
All I do know is, I’ve just spent an hour writing a post that I’m starting off with a warning to people not to read because it’s so long. Hah! How’s that for “how not to SEO”. (Hmm and yet the only positive that the SEO checker has to offer is that it’s over 2,000 words..!)
I think I’ll delay making any decisions for now, and just keep writing.