A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory
seo

Some SEO Advice You’ll Actually Understand

For those just starting out, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can be daunting. The algorithms engines like Google and Bing use are complicated, with hundreds of factors determining the rankings for searches. And due to the complexity of the algorithms there are hundreds of things you can do to optimize your site for search engines.  There is almost too much information out there.

To make matters worse there are tons of unethical consultants out there that pray on the confusion, trying to to sell clients on services and products that will have little impact.  I know I get unsolicited emails from these folks on a daily basis.

As a result of all this, beginners often grow frustrated and end up doing nothing.  They know SEO is important and have a desire to improve their rankings, but aren’t sure where to start.  This post is an attempt to provide beginners with a starting point for their effort to improve search rankings for an existing website.

(1) Choose Your Keywords

The first step in any Search Engine Optimization program should be to identify the keywords you want to target.  I would start out by making an exhaustive list of every keyword combination that you want to appear in the results for. The list should include obvious things like brand and product names as well as more general concepts.  Brainstorm keyword ideas with co-workers and friends, as you would be surprised at how differently people use search.

Once you have your initial list, run your terms through the Google Adwords Keyword Tool, which will provide you with information regarding how often the search term is used and how competitive the environment is, as well as suggestions for other, similar keywords you may not have thought of.  Here is a sceenshot showing the kind of information the tool provides, using the phrase “website development washington dc” as a sample phrase.

keyword_tool

Use this information to refine your target keywords.  How you refine your list is more of an art than a science.  In picking keywords to target, I typically ask myself the following questions:

  • Does the keyword get enough volume that it is work pursuing?  If a keyword has extremely low volume you probably should focus your energy elsewhere unless if is absolutely critical to your organization.  Spending a ton of time getting the number one ranking for a keyword that isn’t going to drive traffic doesn’t make sense.
  • How competitive is the environment for the keyword?  On the opposite end of the spectrum, you also don’t want to focus on general keywords that are likely to be really competitive.  The Google Keyword Tool mentioned above will give you a general overview of how competitive the environment is.  You should also take the time to assess for yourself how competitive the keyword environment is by performing your own searches.
  • Do I have content on the keyword?  When we ask clients to put together their initial list of keywords, you would shocked at how many of them come back with lists of keywords that they don’t actually use on the site and/or don’t have any content on.  If you don’t actually have relevant pages on your site for the keywords you are targeting that is a good sign that you need to either rethink your content or keyword strategy.  For your SEO campaign to work, your keywords need to be a natural extension of the content on your site.

(2) Optimize Your Page

Once you pick the keywords you want to target, the next step is to pick what page or pages on your site you want to appear highly in the results for searches for the keyword.  You should have at least one page target for each keyword you are choosing.

Using our Brick Factory site as an example, here are examples of pages we would target for various searches:

Once you have paired your targeted keywords with your site content, you’ll want to optimize the page to improve results.  There are tons of things you can do, but here are some quick, high impact ways to improve a pages ranking:

  • Make sure you use the keyword in the text of the page.  This can be a bit tricky, as you’ll want to use the keyword liberally on the page but not so often that the page reads awkwardly or search engines penalize you for keyword stuffing.  My advice is to work the keyword in as best you can, but to always write for humans and not search engines.  Keep keywords in mind when writing pieces, but not so much that your content reads awkwardly.  Note that extra weight is giving to words within documents that are in header tags or bold.
  • Use the keyword in the page title.  The title of the page is one of the most critical factors in search rankings.  Spend the time to come up with a page title that includes relevant keywords and makes people want to click.  Also keep in mind that you are writing your headlines for Facebook and Twitter in addition to Google.
  • Use the keyword in the URL of the page.  Similar to the page title, search engines give extra weight to pages that use keywords in the actual URL.  For a search for “Todd Zeigler”, this URL – http://www.thebrickfactory.com/our-people/todd-zeigler – is going to do a lot better than this one – http://www.thebrickfactory.com/node/11.

While there are a ton of other steps you can take, simply using keywords intelligently in your site content will go along way towards improving your rankings.

(3) See How You Are Doing

Once you have set your targets and optimized your pages you’ll want to start tracking your progress.  If you prefer to do this on your own, create a spreadsheet with your chosen keywords once a month and see where you rank.  I would track the following information:

  • Rank.  Where does your site rank for the keyword?  Which pages are appearing in the results?
  • Traffic. How much traffic is being driven to your site by the keyword each month?  This data is easily available in Google Analytics.

While it should be fairly easy to track this manually, tools such as SEOMoz provide an affordable way to automate the tracking and reporting.  It also provides you with tips regarding how you can improve your results.

Use the data from these reports to optimize further and tweak your strategy to focus on keywords that actually drive traffic.  While it would be great to be the first result for all the keywords you are targeting, the reality is that resources are limited so you’ll want to pick your battles.

newspapers and responsive

Are newspapers embracing responsive design?

I was born and raised in San Antonio, TX so for years I’ve visited the website of the city’s largest newspapers, the Express-News, every few days.

This hasn’t been a particularly pleasant experience, as the Express-News has long pursued an ill-advised portal strategy and made its content available through the hideous www.mysanantonio.com. As someone who builds websites for a living I would sort of hold my nose as I read stories about my high school and my San Antonio Spurs on My San Antonio.

A few months ago the San Antonio Express-News got a much needed divorce from www.mysanantonio.com and launched its own website.  And, pay wall aside, it is kind of awesome.   Easy to use.  Lightening fast.  Attractive.  Fully responsive so it works well on phones and tablets.  Design-wise I would put the new Express-News site up there with any newspaper site out there.

The use of responsive design in particular impressed me.  While responsive design has been around for a long time, it has only really become common place in the last few years with the explosion of mobile.  Planning and implementing responsive designs is difficult and time consuming, so you have to tip your hat that a site the scale of San Antonio Express-News was able to pull it off so well.

The Express-News site got me thinking about how newspapers are adapting to the new mobile world.  Traditionally newspapers have optimized their sites for phones by creating design themes that are specific to mobile visitors.  So instead of having the site respond based on screen resolution newspapers have designed a completely different version of their sites for mobile visitors.  The use of responsive design on the Express-News site got me wondering whether this was the exception or the rule.  Are newspapers abandoning mobile themes and moving towards responsive designs?

After analyzing the sites of the top 100 newspapers in the United States the answer is that it is probably too soon to tell.  This graph summarizes my findings:

graph_todd

Frankly, I’m not sure these findings tell us much.   I’m not sure totally sure whether the 10% figure represents an embrace or rejection of responsive design.

While I don’t have concrete data my guess is that the 10% figure represents a significant increase over what I would have seen a year or two ago.  And as more time passes I would expect the number of newspapers that go with a responsive design strategy to increase dramatically.  I suspect the current, relatively low percentage is a reflection of the relative newness of the trend and the massive amount of time it takes to implement a responsive design on a site the scale of a newspaper, rather than a rejection of the strategy.

Interestingly, none of the sixteen largest papers in the country have implemented responsive designs.  The largest newspaper to have a responsive design is the Tampa Bay Times.

You can view a Google Doc of my research here.  I’ll update my research again in the future to see how things are evolving.

Note: The Express-News is a Hearst newspaper.  I later found out the design of the new site is a template that is also used by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Content First

I’ve been building websites for a long time.  What that means is that I’ve made a lot of mistakes, some more than once.

One seemingly small thing that can actually ruin a site’s design is the disconnect between what content looks like in concept versus what it looks like in reality.   Web design is often done with critical text in placeholder form (the ubiquitous “lorem ipsum” text).  Wireframes and design comps are often reviewed and approved with this “lorem ipsum” gibberish still in place.

Sometimes this process works fine,  but just as often it doesn’t.  The problem is the text that actually gets written often doesn’t match the designer’s idealized version of what it will look like.  Two sentence branding statements end up becoming three paragraphs.  Blog headlines end up averaging ten words instead of four.  Intro blurbs end up needing to be 200 characters instead of 100.  As all these littler differences add up, the end product can often seem like a pale imitation of the pixel perfect comps that were shown initially.

We’re in the process of redesigning our Brick Factory site, so I wanted to use the comps we are currently working on as an example of how things can go sideways.  Below is a comp of the top part of a new version of our homepage.  The concept is to have a really cool piece of Brick Factory artwork be the initial visual, with a complementary mission statement to orient visitors.  In the comp below, the mission statement is in “lorem ipsum”.

 gomepage-redesign-blog-post1-a

I love it.  So far so good.

But what happens when the actual text is 3-4 times the length we are planning for?  You end up with something like this.

gomepage-redesign-blog-post1-b 

You can’t even see Freddy’s awesome illustration.  Kind of a mess.

If I had already built this website by the time I got the copy, I would be kind of screwed here assuming the text is sacrosanct.  I would either have to spend a bunch of time reworking the design to fit the actual text or just end up with a site that never looks quite right. 

There is a really simple way to prevent this problem from happening.  Write your critical content before starting your design process.  Always have your design team work from real content.  If you aren’t at a point where you can provide copy you probably aren’t at a point where you should be working on your site design.

If you follow this content first process, you’ll end up with a much better end product. 

That’s what we did on our new Brick Factory site, which is shaping up really nicely I think.

gomepage-redesign-blog-post1-c

tabs

Did Gmail Tabs Just Kill Email Marketing?

A few weeks ago Gmail rolled out a new inbox optimization feature called tabs.  I have too many miles on me to get overly excited about new features in Gmail, so I made a mental note that tabs was coming and continued living my life.

Two days ago I got access to tabs through my personal Gmail account and started using it.  Pretty much immediately, tabs changed the way I read my email. 

Let me back up. 

Gmail tabs automatically categorizes your email into five main groupings – Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums – that are presented along the top of the page.  The Primary tab houses all your emails from actual people while the rest of the tabs consist of emails from marketers and various notices you get automatically from social networks and sites you have accounts with.  Here is what tabs looks like on my account, with the Promotions tabs selected:

gmail 

For me the impact of tabs was dramatic.  Within hours of getting access to the tool I stopped reading any email that weren’t sent by an actual person.  I stayed in the Primary tab all day along and ventured into the other tabs for a quick glance maybe once or twice a day.  I rarely opened any emails that weren’t in my Primary folder, although, somewhat embarrassingly, you can see a “Juicy Burger Day” Groupon grabbed my attention (As an aside, great use of “Juicy” in the subject – no way I open this email if it just says “Burger Day Deals”.) 

This is a significant behavioral change for me.  Previously all these marketing emails made it into my main inbox.  I certainly didn’t open or read all of them, but I definitely saw them as they came in.  I had to sort through them to get to my emails from my friends and family.

For email marketers, this means I have gone from a sucker who would occasionally get distracted and click on random marketing emails to someone that has stopped reading this stuff all together. 

For all you Getting Things Done nerds I understand that there were already ways to accomplish this kind of sorting.  I have a pretty robust system for filtering my work email and have played around with productivity tools like Mailbox.  But for whatever reason I never made any real attempt to optimize my personal email account.  Gmail tabs just did it for me.

I think Gmail tabs is going to take email productivity mainstream.  Three reasons:

  1. It is dead simple.  It would have taken me hours to create rules to do what I’m able to do in tabs by simply setting up the feature. 
  2. It works.  In two days I have yet to see an email get categorized incorrectly.
  3. It is a core feature in Gmail.  Tools like Mailbox are like a cool indie band that only hardcore fans know about.  Gmail is the Rolling Stones.  Over the next few months everyone will get this feature.  And Gmail’s primary competitors will roll out their own versions of tabs to keep up.  This will become the default interface for email.

If my usage patterns are any indication, Gmail tabs is going to seriously disrupt email marketing.  As the feature gains widespread use I would expect a further drop in the open and click through rates for marketing emails.   People are only going to open and read emails from companies and organizations that they really care about.  Perhaps more importantly, peer to peer email marketing is likely to become even more effective as people are able to filter out all email communication from people they don’t actually know. 

What do you think the impact will be?

Drupalcon Tweets

Five Tweets from Drupalcon

I went to Drupalcon in Portland a few weeks ago and am still processing everything I learned.  I hope to have time to write a few longer posts in the coming weeks on some of the larger themes from the conference.  While I procrastinate I figured I’d highlight some of the more interesting tidbits from the sessions I attended.  Since I was on Twitter, these are going to take the from of tweets from myself and others.

(1) The Problem with Wireframes

I believe this was a quote from the Design Smarter, Not Harder session by Ken Woodworth.

This is obviously a bit of an overstatement, but in my experience around half of clients simply aren’t going to be able to provide you with good feedback on wireframes.  Wireframes are intended to separate the form from the function, and some folks can’t make that leap.  Wireframes are simply too conceptual in nature for some folks.

(2) Working Software Wins

I believe this is from the Designing on Purpose session featuring Jared Ponch.  There is a place for specifications and planning and process, but the best feedback will come when you have something tangible to play with. Processes that give users things they can touch and feel sooner are what is needed.

(3) The Role of the Designer

This is another one from Jared Ponch.  He compared designers to architects.  Architects ask clients what they are hoping to achieve, not what their technical approach to the project should be.  Web designers should follow the same process.

(4) The CMS Market

This tweet came from Deane Barker’s presentation on Why the CEO Matters More Than the Developer.  Simplifying greatly, his point was that content management is no longer a point of differentiation during the sales process.  Instead, firms must “sell” products and services that move their clients bottom line through increased sales or increased efficiency.

(5) Visual vs. UX Design

I don’t really remember which panel this quote came from, but it really struck me.  Web design is a big field and different jobs require different kinds of skills. The person who can create beautiful illustrations for an interactive piece may not be the one you want designing your forms.