Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Key facts about keywords

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

There is still much uncertainty about keywords and it’s not surprising: because keyword “science” is not — and probably never will be — settled at all.

The temptation is to “stuff” content with as many relevant words as possible in the hope that they will match the sorts of words that people are searching for. That was how Search Engines used to work and it’s a simple concept: pages with lots of keywords will be relevant to more people and so appear in more search results.

The problem with this approach is that the search result is more often than not completely irrelevant.

It is also susceptible to spamming because one way to get lots of people to your site used to be to cram as many different keywords into a piece of text as possible. Spammers work on very small margins: send out a thousand fake emails and even one click is worth it – especially when you’re actually sending a million!

That’s why today’s search engines are much more sophisticated. Their business is to produce relevant results, which makes them trusted (and more popular), which in turn means that their advertisements get seen by more people.

That requires an accurate search result to come from a very few words, even if those words aren’t the ones used by the searcher.

Actually, we all use a host of words for a single concept – for example: rooms, hotels, accommodation, stays, beds, auberge, boarding house, caravansary, dump, fleabag, flophouse, hospice, hostel, hostelry, house, inn, lodging, motel, motor inn, public house, resort, roadhouse, rooming house, spa, tavern – and modern search engines realise this.


It gets more complicated because sometimes we say one thing and mean another, or we don’t know what we want but we expect the search result to tell us what it is, or … our spolling is simply not up to scrotch.

Search engines know this …

And because we’re not always forthcoming with our search queries, Search Engines also use other signals to decide exactly what is the best search result for the supplied phrase.

For example, if you’re signed in to any Google service, your previous search history will be used to tailor your current results, meaning that if you regularly search for any term or terms — like ‘hotels in Town‘ — your results will be affected by this. If yours is a regular search, it’s likely that your results will differ significantly from those of someone else who has used that query for the first time (perhaps a potential customer).

Your results are also affected by geography: a search at London Heathrow’s departure lounge will return a different set of results to the one you carry out in the arrivals lounge at JFK using the same tablet computer.

And this “tailoring” can happen even if you’re NOT logged into to a Google account.

One of the big SEO talking points of 2012 has been tracking users — and their marketing preferences — using methods that do not require cookies or other overt tracking solutions, even down to the profile of their hardware. This is partly because of new EU rules which require sites to declare their use of cookies for privacy protection but also because Google (and others) are witholding search data from end users like us: the infamous “data not provided”.


However, Google have been doing something similar for a long while: when Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt told a 2010 keynote at the IFA in Berlin that “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” he wasn’t being Orwellian, just hinting at better search results.

What all this means for Organic Search is that the days of “stuffing” and “keyword densities” are over.

While we might not have reached predictive perfection – although predictive search results are physically changing the way people use keywords — we can finally concentrate on producing good, insightful, useful, informative and engaging content instead of worrying that we haven’t used the word “hotel” often enough in the first paragraph.

In fact, early in 2012, top Googler Pierre Farr, told the London Search Marketing Expo (SMX2012) that overusing “key” keywords such as “hotel” were almost intrinsically seen as spammy in sites whose core business is hotels.

That’s not to say that you can be lazy about content — a page about a hotel should be full of hotel keywords — it’s just that you should concentrate on presenting good information in an engaging way.

All the major search engines are now following Google’s lead in downgrading “over-optimised” websites. The major tool being used by Google is the Penguin updates, the latest just two weeks ago. These effectively downgrade sites with suspicious levels of poor-quality in-bound links, anchor text which optimises high volume keywords, or thin content.

Another recent update to Google’s algorithm is aimed at sites using keyword-rich domains and little relevant content; these include hastily-constructed affiliate-style sites which pretend to deliver important information but are actually just link farms pumping visitors to third-party sites. A particular favourite topic here is travel keywords.


To sum up, here are some simple guidelines for content, based on Google and Bing guidelines, as well as empirical data from our own (and industry) sources …

  • Do be aware of keyword volumes but use them as a guideline for the sorts of things you should be writing about
  • Do consider your end user and write content which will engage with their needs using local phrasing, information in depth and written in a readable way
  • Don’t keep using the same word so that the text seems stilted and robotic; use synonyms, alternatives, other ways of saying the same thing.
  • Do keep your content relevant to the subject of the page; drifting off to other topics will dilute its effectiveness. One topic, one page.
  • Don’t repeat yourself, say something new.
  • Do use short paragraphs
  • Do make your content readable, understandable, interesting and a call to action!
  • Don’t worry about keyword densities or getting as many keywords into the text as possible; if the page is relevant, you ARE effectively covering keywords!
  • Don’t repeat yourself! (this is important).

Finally, if you’ve managed to reach this sentence, you’ve seen how even vaguely interesting content can make people read on past the first paragraph.

And the longer you can engage the visitor the more chance you have that they will convert, as well as providing more keyword opportunities to bring more potential customers to the site.

You say potato and I say potato – the language of SEO

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Scotland — and the world — lost a whole language last week.

Retired engineer Bobby Hogg, the last native speaker of a dialect originating from a remote coastal village in northern Scotland, died aged 92 — and so did the dialect he spoke, Cromarty Fisherfolk, a mixture of old Scottish and military English from the soldiers that used to be stationed nearby.

It also appears to be the only Germanic language in which no “wh” pronunciation existed — so ‘what’ would become ‘at’ and ‘where’ would just be ‘ere’ — and the only Scots dialect that dropped the “H” aspiration, “heavy” became ‘evvy’.

Linguistics is important for SEO –- queries are what it’s all about — and while one may not want a website that caters exclusively for Cromarty Fisherfolk, there is scope in using language which may only make sense within a distinct region. Wikipedia details at least 40 different types of English, and that doesn’t include the variations in dialect between counties and states.


One bugbear of many British English speakers is “Americanisms” — language deemed to have come about from the power of American (mainly US) culture on the wider world.

There are even words about feelings about Americanisms: Amerilexicophobia means “fear of American words” while worse still is Amerlixicomania, craziness about American words to the point where you lose all rationality.

Some Brits go around changing every “ize” they see at the end of a word to “ise” — like “standardise” instead of “standardize” — but it turns out that it was actually the English who changed the spelling, stealing the “s” from the French, while Americans kept to the standardized form. It’s a similar story with “autumn” and “fall”. I recommend Bill Bryson’s “Made in America” for lots of revelations about how US English is sometimes more traditional than Amerlixicomaniacs give it credit for.

The problem with running a global website is that you have visitors using all types of English — from Maltese to Mancunian, and Harvard to Harare.

One solution is to use an “international” English, using words which are generally understood wherever the reader is from. There is a similar dilemma when it comes to variations between German spoken in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, or Spanish in Medellin or Madrid.


The problem for users of that approach is that Google and the other search providers are going the other way, taking account of all the regional and local variations in speech to offer a search result which they feel meets the needs of local end users.

And as search becomes increasingly targeted and localized — especially with mobile searches — the pressure for us to similarly localize our pages can only increase too.

Hidden text that works for everyone!

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

So hidden text on the web is a BAD THING, we all know that. Gone are the days when it was considered cool to stick loads of words on a page — usually at the bottom — in the same colour as the background, possibly in 5px type.

Of course the search engines got wise to this “keyword loading”: it contributed nothing to the content of the page, after all. It got dumped into that category of “Blackhat technique”.

Good content is all about value to the reader and every word should count, so stuffing lots of “invisible” text on a page is simply wasted pixels. If you want to increase the keyword densities of your pages, simply write more (or at least write better).

But hang on. Never say never. There is a very good reason for including “invisible” text on your page, and not just the correct use of alt- and title-tags.

Those with a visual impairment rely on the text on a page completely: pretty pictures make no difference to them, so make the page work for people who can only read text. That means fully explaining text links and adding blocks of text to substitute for images.

This is all achieved using the CSS attribute display: none;

Create a style called .accessible (or .ted or .jarvis or whatever, it’s not important) thus …

.accessible {display: none;}

Now, any time you want to add “hidden” text, you can do it simply by wrapping it inside this class.

That means that the phrase …

The <span class=”accessible”>cat sat on the </span>mat

renders to an ordinary browser as …

The mat

but to a screen reader as …

“The cat sat on the mat”

Of course it’s a frivolous example but you might use this technique to improve a list-based navigation.

One site I worked on had a left nav where the code was a horrible table-based affair …

<table width="180" border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0"  class="bgrleftmenu"> <tr> <td width="20"> <img src="../images/default/spacer.gif"width="20"   height="36"></td> <td colspan="2" class="headerleft">Menu</td> </tr> <tr> <td colspan="3"> <img src="../images/default/spacer.gif"width="20"   height="8"></td> </tr> <tr> <td>&nbsp;</td> <td width="13"> <img src="../images/default/spacer.gif"width="4"  height="7"></td> <td width="147"> <a id="ctl00_LeftUserMenu1_LeftMenu1_hlinkHome" class="linkyellow12"  href="default.aspx">Home</a></td> </tr> <tr> <td>&nbsp;</td> ... <td>  <img src="../images/default/spacer.gif"width="4"  height="7"></td>  <td> <aclass="linkyellow12"   href="../en/help.aspx">Home</a></td> </tr> <tr> <td colspan="3"> <img src="../images/default/spacer.gif"width="1"  height="12"></td>
 </tr> </table>

However, the Semantic alternative was not only much more elegant, it worked better in terms of accessibility AND in terms of SEO!

<h2><span class="accessible">Site </span>Menu</h2> <ul>
 <a href="./." title="Go to the Home Page"> <li> <span class="accessible">Go to the </span>Home<span class="accessible">Page</span> </li> </a>  ... <a href="../en/help.aspx" title="Need Help? Get it here!"> <li> <span class="accessible">Need </span>Help<span class="accessible">? Get it here!</span> </li></a> </ul>

In a common or garden web browser both of these would produce a standard vertical navigation …

:: Home

:: Help

But via a screen reader you get ..

:: Go to the Home Page

:: Need Help? Get it here!

“But what’s the point of all this?” I hear you cry. “Are you just being nice to blind people?”

Well, yes — and remember that a MAJORITY of the world’s population has some sight impairment — but there’s one “blind” individual that’s important to everyone interested in content and SEO: your local search engine.

Search engines, whatever flavour (but we’re all thinking Google, aren’t we) are effectively “blind”. That text-light, image-heavy page may look good to humans with perfect eyesight and a true sense of colour dynamics, but to Google it’s just a load of source code.

Make your site more accessible to those with a visual impairment and you also make it more accessible to the search engine spiders, but use a technique like this and you actually get more keywords on your page with no penalties!

The Bikini Effect

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

I discovered an interesting post on SEO Blog the other day, although it dates back to July 24.

Headed “So what if you give most of it away?: The Bikini Concept“, it discusses the thorny question of free content in an original way.

Put simply, a bikini displays almost all the vital assets of a beautiful girl (or an even an ugly one) yet despite this giveaway concept, it remains more exciting than a less revealing one-piece exactly because of what it doesn’t show.

Lure on a G-String

It’s easy to apply this to content. Give almost nothing away and your reader is likely to become frustrated and drift off. But the more you give the deeper he or she is likely to go. Draw them in far enough and they are more likely to buy the bits they cannot see because they can see the quality that’s on offer.

However, there are differences too. Unlike the bikini, there is scope to hide more content than you reveal and still achieve the same results, as long as what is on show is of the highest standard. The issue is having enough quality content to show to all comers.

The Bikini in Action

Once again the message is to create as much quality content as possible: write often and write soon.

I’m often asked why I produce this site when all I’m doing is giving away content trade secrets for nothing! The reality is that all this site will practically achieve is to whet the appetite of people needing content answers. When they appreciate just how much I know about the subject, they are more likely to ask for a private opinion on how their website could be made better. The bikini effect in action.

And that’s just as well, because it’s probably the only time I’ll experience the bikini effect myself!

News from The Front

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

I’m still amazed at the number of people who ask for a “splash page” on their site: preferably something with lots of animated gifs “because they look nice”.

It’s become almost a mantra with me that home pages must provide a reason for the visitor to come back. (Actually, all pages should give the visitor a reason to come back because it’s just as likely that they’ll parachute in as a result of a link from StumbleUpon or Facebook or some search engine.) So your homepage should feature fresh content, perhaps even some random call to action, to keep it interesting.

This was all confirmed by a reread of Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. And then it dawned on me as I looked over the homepage of this very site, it too was a splash page. One visit was enough to know everything it said and there was precious little novelty: no reason to come back.

Needless to say, I’ve begun a rewrite of the JWC home page. There’s still some way to go — I will be adding some live updated content in the form of RSS too — but there’s certainly lessons to be learned.

They include:

  • Never be afraid to re-examine your content
  • Never be complacent about your site, and
  • Take your own good advice

Good Lessons

Don’t Make Me Think was first published in 2000, but almost all of it is still relevant. I’ll be regurgitating much of it in the coming weeks, with some more up to date insights of my own.

But usability is a vital part of good SEO and you neglect it at your peril. It’s not just a question of hard-to-use web sites not being “sticky” (actually, studies show that people will persevere with an inaccessible website because they fear the alternative won’t be much better), a usable site makes for better SEO because it is attractive to humans and robots.

The Case for Web Content Planning – Part 1

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

If you’re new to the wide world of the web, or even considering the relaunch of an existing site, then you should really be giving some thought to a strategy for content.

A lot of sites around today happened without a content plan: they simply grew organically from the germ of an idea and the basis of a design. That’s all right for hobby sites, but when it comes to content for a purpose wishy-washy organic won’t cut it.

Obviously, you want a richly-populated, deeply interesting site; one which will attract those all important back links from popular sites because it has something interesting to say. Like a novel, every good website content needs a plot. And while that plot may develop over the coming years, it should always fit perfectly with your business objective at any point in time: there should be no gaps, no awkward pauses, no pages that are hinted at but just aren’t there.

So from the get go, you should have a plan for web content so that as your business grows, the content grows with it. Get it right and within five years you’ll have a huge resource on your hands with a minimum of effort. Get it wrong and you’ll be left with a nightmare of time-consuming revision, rewriting and damaging contradiction.

Back-Breaking Back-Links

And there are great SEO benefits in well-planned and seamless content. Right now you’re probably thinking about cross-linking campaigns and not looking forward to the prospect. It’s a laborious enterprise and more trouble than it’s worth, not least because the websites most likely to reciprocate are those with the smallest page-rank and hence the least clout SEO wise.

But, if your site is full of interesting joined-up content, there’s more chance that sites with good page rank will link to you automatically. You don’t have to be a TIME, Wikipedia or a BBC to be interesting enough for TIME, Wikipedia or the BBC to link to you: you just have to be relevant, original and authoritative.

Why Content is on the Rise

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

This may not yet be the Golden Age of Content, but it IS coming. Getting those all important search engine places has, until now, been a matter of juggling organic search elements.

These include keyword factors like good meta tags, keyword density in text, internal links and even the domain name itself, domain registration age and history, good backlinks and relevance to the topical neighbourhood, the age of links and the quality of the sending domain and metrics such as the time spent on pages and the number of searches.

Google’s current algorithm certainly has some direct analysis of content beyond keyword densities, and there is some speculation that further content endorsement comes from good old human beings (search specialists will also tell you that a good route to prominent Google placement is via the The Open Directory project — –which is entirely human-based).

Google’s own comment on their search algorithm is simply: “Google’s complex automated methods make human tampering with our search results extremely difficult”.

Google watchers say the algorithm changed last year to the detriment of many existing sites using the arsenal of so-called “White Hat” tricks such as keyword density and Long Tail. One way of regaining SEO that seemed to work was increased pagination: more content. It seems as if Google (and other search engines) have good, relevant and interesting content in their sights.

But isn’t that what search engines were meant to be? Somewhere people went to find readable pages relevant to their interest.

You should take note of this now. Don’t abandon White Hat, but be aware that your site should be more than a series of search engine algorithm tricks. Content is king.