SEO: Lessons Learnt The Hard Way

Even a cursory look at our web statistics for the last two months reveals a point where our Google traffic flatlines. Against our main targetted keyword "Business York", the site can no longer be found. As web design specialists, it could be tempting not too shout too loud about this. However, our assessment and analysis of the likely causes revealed some issues that other site owners would benefit from understanding. Also, particularly if you've ever thought of taking up a SEO company's guarantee of page 1 ranking, there are some useful warnings about pushing too hard on Search Engine Optimization.

First, a little background on Google's indexing and page ranking system. Once Google becomes aware of your site, either from a new link on a currently indexed site, or following submission of a sitemap from the webmaster on a new site, they will periodically include that site when trawling the web. Their search robot will visit the site and try to assess the content of the site and its potential relevance to keywords being entered by users of their search engine. Their algorithms, which are kept secret to discourage manipulation by site owners, will then assess all the sites that may be relevant to a search, and decide the order in which they should be ranked.

The implications of dropping down the rankings are more than the simple impact on traffic. Sites with lower rankings will be visited less often so new content (that might improve ranking) may take longer to be noticed. Also, lower ranked sites may find that less of their content is indexed. Amazon might have a million pages but all of them will be indexed. On lower ranked sites, the robots might follow the first ten links they come across, index the content on those pages, then move on without digging any further. All the potentially valuable content on those ignored pages won't have any immediate effect on the ranking of the site.

Covering good SEO practices would fill a book or two but the key areas are:

  • good, regularly updated content that other sites will link to. Each link counts as vote for your site.
  • using metadata and headings to clearly define what the site is about.
  • Tweaking content to reflect keywords that users might type into Google. For example, you could change the heading on your About Us page to reflect keywords that might be searched for in Google, like "Our York Web Design Team".
  • Providing alt tags that provide textual descriptions for images on the site, as the search spiders can't read them.
  • Use keywords in the URL and the links on the site.
  • Make sure that styling and scripts are separate and external to the content as these might prevent the robots from identifying the content on the site.

So what did we do wrong? Without meaning to, we overdid it. All the articles, business listings, categories in the site are stored in a database and the links to that content are generated dynamically. By adding our preferred keywords to most of the site links, we suspect we have fallen foul of defences against what is known as keyword stuffing. On the homepage of the site which contains all the key navigation links, there may have just been too many instances of the same strings and this has been perceived as an attempt to hijack the ranking sytem. So if your SEO company promises to get you on the first page for your desired search terms, be mindful of the danger that they push this too hard.

The solution? Firstly be patient. Make the changes so that your site's content reads naturally. The next time the site is indexed, these changes will be recognised and hopefully search position may improve. The algorithms change all the time and grow more sophisticated. Mostly this is a good thing but it does mean that your current good positions are not guaranteed to last forever. Keep an eye on things, make minor changes if you drop and test the impact of the changes. If Google is slow to respond to your changes, you can ask them to reconsider how your site has been indexed.

Email the author: Neil Ferguson