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10 tips to boost your Google ranking

This is the first talk I gave at the recent Create Conference (November 2009), which is all about improving the organic search engine results rankings for your website. I thought I’d reproduce it here for those who were asking me about it afterwards, and for anyone else for whom this might be useful. You can also view the slides (below) and on Slideshare. I’ll say up-front that there’s nothing ground-breaking in this presentation, but it’s intended to be a primer for anyone who wants to get started in search engine optimisation. It’s also tailored a bit to church websites.

Short version

You can view the slides of the presentation below:

Wave your hands in the air

Years ago I was down the front at this concert in Canberra, it was near the end and the guitarist strode up to the front of the stage and got ready to toss his pick out to the crowd. Now, who knows how he would choose where he’d throw that pick – or who to – but I jumped up and down and waved my arms around like a total git, as much as I could, to get his attention. And it paid off – he threw it right at me, and I caught it!

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is EXACTLY like that – it’s all about getting your website to wave its arms around to say hey! Here I am! Click on me! The 10 tips will focus on SEO (rather than search engine marketing (SEM)) and cover the three areas of SEO: your website’s code, your website’s content, and your website’s link popularity.

The top 10 tips

OK, so strap yourself in, here we go.

  1. Ask the tough questions first. Why do you want people to come to your website? This seems pretty obvious at first, but really breaking this down will help you be strategic in your approach and efficient with where you spend your time. Church websites usually aren’t selling products and services like commercial websites, and they tend not to be in direct competition with other church websites, but they do tend to promote the church’s meetings, events and resources such as sermons and Bible studies, and of course presenting the gospel in various ways. You might find there are specific answers that come out, like:
    • Your church is the best one to go to for a certain area of suburbs
    • Your church is passionate about holding local community events
    • Your church has great worship music, or kids’ groups, or outreach nights… and so on.
  2. Pick an SEO-friendly CMS. Now here I’m assuming that you will manage – or are managing – your church website using a content management system (CMS). If not, that’s fine, the same principles apply (and you should still consider using a CMS). But if you are looking to use a CMS, here’s a bit of a checklist to bear in mind:
    • Does it publish your website using standards-compliant code? It’s very nerdy, but it does matter.
    • Does it allow you control over code that’s relevant for SEO, like meta tags, especially on a page-by-page basis, or is that part locked away?
    • Does it allow you full control over all of the text on each page?
    • Does it allow for website links (or URLs) that you can use specific keywords (e.g. http://www.yourchurch.org.au/drummoyne-events/) rather than something like http://www.yourchurch.org.au/?xid=9875&y=8&z=wonderwhatthisallmeans?

    I would recommend: WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, or Typo3.

  3. Do your keyword research. Find out the sort of words people already use to get to your website. Your website traffic reports might tell you this, or if you have Google Analytics plugged into your website it definitely tells you this. Ask around your church membership; odds are there are people at your church who found out about it online by using Google. And remember that the sorts of words you use may not be the ones others use. Use online keyword suggestion tools like the Google Adwords Keyword Tool: https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal.
  4. Write really good keyword-rich content. Use your keywords throughout the text of each page, especially in text headings and sub-headings, and link text (e.g. Download Mark Driscoll sermons rather than click here). Use most (all if you can) keywords on your home page, and one main keyword per content page.But be careful of keyword density, i.e. the percentage a particular keyword is used in a page compared to all text on that page. Anywhere from 2% to 8% is fine; any more and search engines may drop your website. It happens. Using a free tool like Link Vendor’s Link Density Check tool is the best way to check.Most of all, don’t try to contrive text to be full of keywords; if it’s relevant and engaging to your readers, it’ll be relevant and engaging to Google.
  5. Optimise your code for SEO. Remember to ensure your keywords are used well in <title> tags of each page (e.g. not just ‘Home page’; more like ‘Family-friendly church in the inner west – Drummoyne Presbyterian Church’), and meta tags, including meta description and meta keywords. Most people say these tags don’t count for much, but I like to think it makes good sense to categorise your pages like this – a bit like in a library – and I reckon meta tags will have their day again, just you wait and see. You can get help generating them with this tool: http://www.webmaster-toolkit.com/meta-tag-generator.shtml.When it comes to the Alt attribute in image tags (img alt=”...”) try to make it more meaningful, e.g. Not just ‘Church front door’, but ‘Front door of our church, replaced after a fire in 1948′. Don’t forget about all the searches people do on Google Images.Sitemap XML file – this is a text file stored as part of your website to help search engines index your website better. It’s really only for very large websites, though. You can generate these for free at http://www.xml-sitemaps.com/.
  6. Work keywords into the URLs. If you can, register domains that contain your primary keywords and point them to your main URL, e.g. drummoynechurch.com. See if you can make the URLs to specific pages keyword-rich, like http://www.drummoyne.org.au/drummoyne-church-events.html.
  7. Submit to directories. It goes without saying, but having said that, Google will find you by itself. It just does. But it’s still sort of worth registering your website with the gazillions of other search engines and directory websites out there. I’m not going to spend much time on this one, because I don’t think the effort pays off nearly as much as…
  8. Reciprocal linking. Work hard at getting other websites to link to yours, whether or not you link to them too, to increase your website’s link popularity. Search engines heavily consider how relevant your website is depending on your inbound links, so it’s like votes in an election. But linking is not a true democracy, that is: not all links are equal. Google’s PageRank is a measure of how important Google thinks a particular page is compared to all other pages; a number between 0 and 10. You can see this PageRank score either by installing the Google toolbar.How is PageRank derived? I’m no expert at this, but it’s roughly from the number of inbound links to the page, as well as the PageRank of those pages that have the inbound links, relevance of words searched for on those pages, and actual visits to that page. e.g. a PR9 web page that links to your website has more ‘value’ than a PR3 web page.So how do you get all these inbound links? Here’s some ideas:
    • Talk to owners of websites in your community – like schools, daycare centres, libraries and so on – and see if they’ll link to your website if you link to theirs
    • Encourage your church members, if they have online presences like Facebook and Twitter, or their own blogs, to link to their church website
    • Donate content to other websites, like opinion pieces, Bible studies and other resources, provided they link back to your website
    • Tweet like crazy!
    • Leave comments on other people’s blogs and respectfully include (where appropriate and relevant) a link back to your church website
  9. Get your SEO serviced. SEO is like a car: it needs regular tune-ups. One thing you might want to regularly check on is what websites are linking to yours. You can use link popularity online tools like this one, or Google Analytics, or if you feel you must part with case, use something like Raven SEO Tools. The rules of the game change slightly from time to time, and the nature of the content on your website will change over time too, so it’s worth the effort.
  10. Get someone else to do it! Yes, if it’s all too hard, you can get someone skilled in web development, standards-compliance and SEO to assess your website for you, and/or optimise it as a one-off, or agree on a regular schedule. This definitely includes SEM: if you’re interested in investing money in pay-per-click campaigns, unless you’re experienced I would definitely advise taking on an experienced professional for SEM. Trying to do PPC campaigns yourself is time-consuming, distracting, and you could be throwing good money away – it may not be good stewardship of funds.

Well that’s my top 10 tips. SEO is a complex art and science, and I don’t pretend to be an expert, but hopefully this is a good introduction for you. Very happy to hear if you think anything here is erroneous or could be improved.

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Turn your website inside out!

I have the privilege of sitting next to some smart gents this Saturday as part of the Arriving and staying on the web panel session at the Create Conference 08, and one of the ideas I’d like to throw out there is the idea of turning your website inside out.

What I mean is this: say you were after a copy of the Rolling Stones’ Flowers album (hey, it’s got Ruby Tuesday on it, what a great song). Where would you go to get it? These days you might shop at iTunes, or Amazon, or countless other online avenues. Or you might scour some second-hand music stores. No doubt you would go to where music is available for sale.

Now say you had a copy of that album to sell. Would you keep it on the shelf and hope someone will knock on the door and ask to buy it? Unless your house is a famous music museum, you’re probably going to take out an ad somewhere where you know people will read ads for music to buy. Or maybe you’ll take it to the second-hand music store to sell. The point is: you would go to where people are who would want to buy it, to tell them about it.

Obvious? In my line of work, I often find that people build websites assuming that others will knock on their door to buy that album, then (understandably) get discouraged when it doesn’t sell.

Go to where people are

We should be taking the content of our websites to where people are already congregating, not just ads to try to get people to leave what they’re doing and visit our websites. There are so many websites around these days that thrive on communities sharing their content with each other. Whether it’s for fun, like photos and videos on facebook, MySpace and flickr, or to make a coin, like on Etsy or Threadless.

There are loads of opportunities for creative thinking to take our websites’ content ‘out of the house’ and into the street to where people can see it, engage with it, share it, have a conversation about it — be it to promote events, news, topical articles, relevant services and products — whatever you and your business have a passion for.