Dummies guide to SEO for small business owners
This post attempts to explain the complexities – and traps – of Search Engine Optimisation in simple terms. It will get technical in several places; I can’t avoid that, so just ignore all the bits that go over your head and take what you can from it.
This post will take around 30 minutes to read. You have to ask yourself this: how much is half an hour of your time worth? If you are serious about SEO, about getting a better page rank for your website, about saving yourself potentially a lot of money, can you afford not to read this and similar articles on other sites?
The main emphasis here is that SEO is a buzz word. It’s ‘street cred’. It’s the ‘Holy Grail’ for your new site, and if you don’t have it, you are wasting your money.
In parts, that is true, perhaps, but also, well, anything you can charge a lot while doing little and making no promises is going to attract less reputable individuals.
If I tell you that I am a clinical psychologist, a doctor, you can check my certificate. You can look up my doctoral dissertation, read peer-reviewed papers I’ve had published, look up my credentials on the BPS website. It’s all evidence-based.
However, if I claim to be a ‘SEO expert’ or a ‘SEO consultant’, it’s just my word. There is no legal requirement, no diploma*, nothing. You have trust I am an expert. There is a world of difference between ‘knowing a bit’ and being an expert. An expert implies you’ve spent perhaps 10,000 hours studying just that one niche area, that you have read hundreds of books, that scores of other experts know you, know your work.
On and off, I have played with SEO for over twenty years. I was fine-tuning sites before Google even existed, active on all the specialist forums at the time. I hassled Google to do better. In short, unlike countless web designers who claim to be SEO experts, I happen to know that I am NOT one. No, you read that right. I said not. While I am knowledgeable, I do not consider myself to be an expert.
I don’t touch PPC because I think that it’s a scam for most advertisers. They will never get a return on their investment. They might as well toss their wallet down a grid. That’s not to say it can’t work, just that – for most small businesses – it won’t. That is your first lesson.
It’s not that I don’t or can’t grasp it; it’s that I do and I can. It’s just not something that I can get into. Rabbit holes and stuff.
Brief guide to SEO categories
Good practices, like keyword research, quality content, alt text for images, meta descriptions.
Bad practices, such as keyword stuffing, stealth content, sketchy links.
As the name suggests, it’s the content you shove onto the page, and it covers, well, all of it, from the number of characters in a title to good grammar. There is a great article on Ughmedia about SEO categories. It actually formed the basis of this section and is recommended reading.
Link building (white hat) (and link repairing), correct use of social media, developing a brand name and trust (word of mouth).
Ughmedia did not mention it, but I would also include any form of off-line advertising. So, van lettering, sandwich boards, flyers, adverts in the local press, business cards, name-dropping when networking. Anything that gets your name about gets people looking you up online, connecting to you naturally.
This is one of my big things. It relates to security, notably having HTPPS, responsiveness and support for AMP and smart devices, link depth, no broken links (especially internal), no bad backlinks (external), CDN caching (such as that offered by Cloudflare, Jetpack, etc.)
Targetting specific countries, zones or languages.
For small businesses interested in footfall trade. This is getting people in your local area to visit your site and be directed to your premises.
A brief word on Google Ads, PPC, PPI, CPC etc.
Sorry, I forgot to use the ‘abbr’. That would be:
Pay Per Click
Pay Per impression
Cost Per Click
The ‘per’ is the important thing here, though it should be noted there are balances and caps these days, certainly with Facebook and Google. You set your budget, and they’ll give you an indication of the estimated effect. They do not promise results; they absolutely do not promise conversions. They just put it out there for you.
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? Google et al. will see that the tree falls – whether folk hear it is another matter.
SEO won’t really help you here; SEO is simply about making your site search engine friendly. Organic growth, essentially.
Ad campaigns, whether on Google, Facebook or indeed in other media like TV and newspaper adverts (paid by the second, by the time slot, by the column inch) are another matter. This is an art, a science, it’s psychology and ‘headology’ and more. It’s about understanding what makes YOUR customers tick.
Furthermore, keyword advertising is both industry and location-specific. Thus, an advert targeting London will be more competitive (more expensive) than one for Haydock.
Quoting an article by Valve and Meter (2020 PPC Statistics – A Comprehensive List of Pay-Per-Click Stats),
More than 40 percent of clicks go to the top three paid ads in search results (Wordstream).
More than 95 percent of clicks go to the top four search results (Blue Corona).
Most of us in the UK (of a certain age) will remember Red Rum. How many of us can remember the horses and riders listed 4th, 5th in those races? I’m sure you can think of your own comparisons.
As another article notes,
Most SEOs have no clue how to get the most from this tool, namely the keyword planner: How to Use Google Keyword Planner (Actionable Guide)
Taking this a step further, in a ‘huh?’ sort of way, some – like Neil Patel – argue, Why Cost Per Click Doesn’t Matter (And Why You Should WANT to Pay More)
Some keywords – in combination – costs pennies; others can and have cost over $1,000. That’s not $1,000 for the campaign; that’s $1,000 every time someone clicks on your Google ad!
Back in the day – when Google shared ad venue instead of keeping almost all of it for themselves – this got abused. It’s one of the reasons search engine companies tightened up. One drug in particular (I can’t remember the name) got hammered. It was over $100 per click and was spammed mercilessly. The pharmaceutical companies behind it, forced to hand over vast amounts of cash, were a bit miffed about all the click fraud and the rotten return on investment.
Targetted marketing removes a lot of that, but it also means your keyword choice requires understanding this.
Suppose you have a hairdressing salon in St Helens.
You pay for an advert for ‘hairdressers’.
The next hairdressers pay for ‘hairdresser St Helens’.
However, the people searching are mostly entering ‘hairdressers near me’.
But, ‘cos fashion, I guess, the new thing is ‘hair braiding near me’.
Me? I’d be looking at the cost of ‘hair braiding salon near me’.
However, have you tried that? Google’s idea of ‘near’ and mine don’t tally, given the top suggestions are Manchester and Ellesmere Port. So:
‘hair braiding salon St Helens’
You get the idea.
So, as you can see already, it’s not just the keyword; it’s the right keyword combination, one that targets the terms your customers are likely to enter.
Job’s done, right? Nope.
That’s just the keywords for the advert (which should tally with your web design content).
Before you get to that stage, you have to decide whether to focus your campaign on contact by telephone, by your site, or by physical location. Then there’s the wording of the advert itself, itself a marketing thing. Then how narrow or wide a location. Finally, your budget.
Below is one I prepared earlier. In this case, given my choices, it suggested I pay £20 a day, which, it suggests, will get me around 280 clicks. Call it 300. Now, what is my conversion rate? There are averages for your industry, affected by first impressions, but really, it average’s out around 3% regardless. So, I’m looking at perhaps 10 conversions a month. 10 orders.
I need to be confident of actually getting ten orders and making £60 profit on each. That’s not paying for premises, staff, overheads, expenses, that’s just covering the advert. That’s what business plans and spreadsheets are for, eh.
In the days before the internet, when the fax machine was king, I wasn’t getting results. So, I tried a new short campaign. It was ‘inappropriate’, especially as the audience comprised big businesses. One of them rang me up to tell me how such a crude and vulgar advert would NEVER get results. He was in marketing, so he knew, he said. I replied, “And yet here you are. So how can I help you?” They bought 30 systems. Sometimes nobody wants to see the message, and sometimes the wrong message is the right message. Advertising can be fickle!
Playing with Google and Facebook adverting
The images below are me playing around; these are not a real campaign. If it were real, I’d have to balance ruthless efficiency with fun. Sometimes they are the same thing, and people never like me doing that. Mostly, if you start hating your business, hating going to work, what’s the point? If you are a small business and all your money is filling up the coffers of Google and Facebook while your overdraft keeps rising, maybe think about this a wee bit longer, eh.
You may want to note the HUGE difference in potential between Google and Facebook for a given budget.
Sharp-eyed people may notice the, err, ahem, yes, the intentional error below. If I were looking for a web designer, that mistake would bother me intensively. If it were a real, live advert, as the advertiser, I would be mortified. Indeed, I am despite it only being a mock-up. Enough that my obsessive nature compels me to redo it, but the logical overrides argue back. “This is perfect,” they whisper. “It reminds people to take more care. Stuff happens. Mistakes cost time and money. Do better.”
Creating a Google Ad, example
Creating a Facebook ads, example
Assuming Facebook’s estimates are correct, a targetted advert for the localised area at £5 a day (£150 a month) can expect to reach around 1,300 people a day (40k a month), with an average of 62 clicks a day on the advert (1,860 a month). Statistically, across all industries, conversion rates are in the 3% ballpark (give or take 2%). At 1%, that would be a ‘sale’ every two days, or about 18 a month in theory.
If you make £10 per transaction, that’s only £30 profit a month, but it’s better than nothing. If you make more, but each conversion takes much longer to complete (as with web design and other services), you need to factor that in.
At £25 a day (£750 a month), that scales up to reaching up to 270,000 potential customers within easy driving distance, perhaps 7,500 clicks going to your landing page. At a 1% success rate, that’s perhaps 76 new customers.
Perhaps try it for a day, see how it works for you.
A word on traffic
I also am not an expert at Google Analytics – despite (on and off) using it since 2005, when, to my delight, Google bought up Urchin and offered it for free. Before then, free analytics, such as they were, looked more like this:
Now, we have options like Jetpack, Cloudflare, G4 Analytics, and more.
SEO is getting ranked, so you get traffic, right? Which is important, right? Otherwise, what is the point?
Wrong. SEO is about getting the traffic you want. It’s about conversions. If you are trying to attract visitors to your site, aiming to have them physically visit your art and crafts shop in Warrington, Cheshire, and get 99% of traffic coming from China, you are getting no worthwhile traffic.
(Plus, your site is probably hacked!)
Woah! Wait! OMG! Ackadia gets over 250,000 visitors a month now!? ?
That’s another lesson for you. If you don’t know what you are looking at, you are easy to con; what less scrupulous people consider ‘an easy mark’.
The 250,000 figure is accurate, though. It shows the genuine number of requests my site gets a month. Requests, not visitors. Total Unique Visitors for the last month was 9,380 or so (between 477 and 711 per day). Of these, 3,404 were from the UK, 2,169 from the US. It’s not important to me. I have other stuff to do. But you must grasp the different values and terms.
That unique visitor’s figure was once 100,000 a month. I took a break. A long break. That’s another lesson. Search engines and searchers alike hate stale sites. If you only write about Rubik’s cubes, well, that market died long ago.
As for Google Analytics, I don’t need it, so I rarely remember to optimise it. Plus, the new G4 interface is an abomination. The developers should hang their head in shame! Back in my day… That was a long time ago, and Google has since added many whistles and bells.
If you are happy to get any visitors, this is overkill. However, if you plan on spending £1,000 a month for pay-per-click and pay-per-impression advertising via Google, Facebook etc., you need to get good with it!
If I’m honest, I forgot all about Google Analytics some time back, possibly years! I moved a time or three and at some point(s) didn’t re-insert the code. It happens. I only realised when my son asked for analytics for his site, and I said, “It’s easy, you just register for free, add the code and… oh BUGGER!” (That being the point I first saw G4 in all its naked glory and realised my own traffic logs were empty).
I actually find G4 depressing, another reason for not looking at it. It tells you everything. I tend you write long, involved articles – like this one – and most visitors arrive and think, “I’m not READING all that, I just wanted to know the answer, in words of two syllables.” My articles are often thousands of words long, can easily take 30 minutes to read, and most of my visitors are like, “OK, 0.3 seconds, I’m done!”
If you have a site with traffic numbering hundreds of thousands of visitors a month, you need this level of detail. If you run the only butcher shop in your village and are happy to get 100 visitors a month, well, not so much.
For all that, if I wanted a site to be well ranked in Google, Yahoo, Bing etc., it would be. Most people, it seems to me, focus on getting the keywords right, which is good but also wrong. Keywords do matter a lot, but understanding users and search engines are more important.
When SEO is not SEO, but really it is
There is a great deal I haven’t covered in this post but may have covered in the past, or will in the future, such as backlinks and social media interaction.
SEO isn’t simply about keywords on your site or followers on your Twitch stream; it is about everywhere you are visible online, everywhere you are not and should be active for your target audience. It’s about offline marketing. It’s also about proofreading and graphics. And much more. You reckon Pepsi relax when trying to take market share from the other fizzy drinks companies?
Pedantic, but here’s an example. I am in a chippy and see one of your flyers. The graphics catch my eye. I note you have a website. I read about “Freds handyman services.” Despite needing odd-jobs doing, I don’t visit your site. Furthermore, when I search and see a list of handymen (handypersons if you prefer!) and yours is near the top, I make a point NOT to visit it.
You just failed SEO because of an offline grammatical error, a simple missing apostrophe that your printer should have picked up on if he was any good, so I furthermore have assumed you cut corners there also! How can I trust you!?
Yes, I am a bit weird like that. In my case, I have an OCD personality disorder that makes such mistakes screamingly obvious and intolerable. Still, any amount of time on social media will tell you the world is full of grammar police and wild-eyed English Language teachers. Is it really worth driving customers away because you (or the people you use) are too lazy, sloppy, or busy to do the job properly?
My post on SEO: Go BIG or go home looks at just one aspect of this and notes how even the biggest companies in the world keep failing at it.
Another post (in progress) looks at Carlsberg’s site and comments that ‘if Carlsberg did web design’ – they would need my help! They probably paid some top agency a fortune, and it took me seconds to make a list of the places they failed – sloppy, thoughtless, even ignorant errors. Carlsberg went right down in my estimations after that.
I am a certified SEO consultant
Actually, that’s just a bold statement, a catchy <h2>header. I’m not – but I could be if I wanted. Impressive, eh! Go on, admit it, I’m awesome. I…
See, before I tell you how incredible I am, how my awesomeness justifies all the money I am about to ask you to hand over for my expert help, there’s the wee matter of ‘full disclosure’.
There are a lot of companies offering SEO training, SEO certificates. Some are free, some costing thousands of pounds. Some takes days, some weeks. None take 10,000 hours, none involve studying hundreds of specialist books and journals. And none are approved by Google! Google do, in fact, offer SEO training, and it’s free. For instance, their Analytics Academy Courses.
I don’t have time for all that, not so far anyway. However, when the mood takes me, I read peer-reviewed papers with titles like ‘Designing a Pagerank-based Prototype Search Engine’, papers those references cite Brin, S., & Page, L. (1998). The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual web search engine.
Or others such as ‘A Study of Digital Customer Journey through Google Trends’ (Karamitros et al., University of Macedonia, 2020).
Perhaps this is more what you are thinking of? The Effect of Queries and Search Result Quality on the Rate of Query Abandonment in Interactive Information Retrieval
Do you want to know why Google do not offer SEO training?
*Leans in close to whisper*
Because it’s a trade secret! They have hundreds of rules, secret algorithms, that decide who appears on page one on a given search – and who gets black-listed.
What is the point of TOP SECRET: Classified ‘for your eyes only’ protection of your multi-billion-dollar industry if you are going to tell all to a bunch of geeks for $1,000 a seat?
See – not happening.
Still, Google does want sites to be SEO friendly, they do offer guides, and they will tell people if they want everyone to do this one thing – such as HTTPS or being responsive.
For instance, Google publish a Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. That pdf is 30-odd pages long, covers all the basics, and links to other resources. Simply studying that document will tell you more about SEO than most people on the internet will ever know – (including many self-styled experts!)
If you want to get into SEO, search. There are good sites – like MOZ – and others. Well, if they are any good, they will be highly ranked, so it shouldn’t be hard to find, eh.
*Returning a moment to Google certified, while you can’t be certified for SEO, you can be certified as a Google partner. However, this is particularly niche and refers mostly to Ad campaigns. It extends to Google Premier, to Microsoft Ads, to Facebook Partner statuses.
As you can see, I am a Google Partner.
I have to be certified and consistently place over $10,000 a quarter in ads to keep just that one wee badge!
OK, I fibbed, again. I just lifted the logo from Google. Just as anyone can. Notice how I said I “have to be certified”; I didn’t state that I am. Semantics.
SEO and Google ad support from the big guns
This section is seen from my pedantic perfectionism; it is not a reflection of the companies mentioned. I have never used them and will never compete with them. They were chosen simply because they managed to be highly ranked in Google.
Take clicky.co.uk for instance. They claim to be a ‘Premier Google partner’, but I would argue that perhaps they are not! This is not terribly fair of me, as it seems a thoroughly reputable company and fairly local to me. So, why am I questioning their credentials? Well, if you been following so far, you’ll appreciate that I’m a perfectionist, obsessively so, and I’m paranoid. Clinically so. If someone says, “I want your money, trust me, I’m an expert”, I tend to have questions. I don’t trust companies whose websites are less than perfect. It’s a character flaw, I know.
Still, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak: About the Google Partner badge formats.
The dynamic badge shows your company’s name and specialisations when someone hovers over the dots in the right-hand corner. The dynamic badge must be used on your website and the additional domains that are listed on your Google Partners company profile. You’ll add the badge to these websites using a code snippet.
Google Partners only looks for the unique code snippet — and not any other code that may be used on your site — when displaying the badge. Note that Google Partners follows Google’s privacy policies when collecting and using information.
The static badge lists the specialisations that your company has earned at the bottom. The static badge must be used in all marketing materials, and can’t be used on your websites. You’ll download a .zip file with the badge assets.
Here’s where it gets interesting and – in my expert opinion ? – makes Google look like idiots. It also makes Clicky look shady – at least to me.
Firstly, Clicky does not have a dynamic badge. According to Google, they MUST have it. I see that as a problem, a concern.
Secondly, with something like a Thawte secured seal on an eCommerce site, I can click and check if they are ‘the good guys’. You can’t do that with Clicky’s badge. Nor can you go to Google and ask, “Hey, are Clicky still one of your premier partners?” because they don’t offer that information. You have to take it on faith!
Taking on faith with a SEO expert (well, Ad expert). One that needs to spend thousands of dollar a week with Google to keep their status.
However, if I hop over to another company, say Smarter Ecommerce GmbH and click on their Premier link, I can check them out.
This now leaves me in a quandary. Either Clicky is lying about their status or employing sloppy web designers, don’t check, and don’t pay attention to their agreements. Even if they convince me of their status, giving me a link to their id page, convincing me of their skills, the fact I am forced to pursue such checks means I am triggered. How can I still trust them!?
However, neither are Smarter Ecommerce playing exactly by the rules. Yes, their link directs you to the correct place, validating their claim, but it’s not dynamic.
SEO complexities and the little guys
Really, it’s horribly complicated and – as far as I can tell – most of the people claiming to be SEO experts have a vested interest in keeping you in the dark about it. I’ve written about this before, and most of it is a scam. Not (always) the self-styled SEO experts themselves, but Facebook, Google, etc., ultimately control SEO. Why do you think Internet tech business are the richest companies on the planet! Plus, as I said, it’s complicated.*
The best SEO is natural. You write good stuff, the search engines find you, people find and link to you, it grows. If you balance the page content with keywords, then search engines take more notice. But if you overdo it, they punish you. If you get paid links to your site, they punish you – unless you pay them (e.g. you pay for Google AdWords)!
For PPC, the more popular the keywords, the more it costs. ‘Hairdressers’ is more valuable and costs more than ‘Cobblers’.
On top of this, hundreds of rules and algorithms are hidden, known only to senior staff at Google, etc. True, many are known or strongly suspected, but they also change over time to stop SEO experts from taking advance of them. It’s a cat and mouse game.
Focusing on DIY and on WordPress plugins, the Yoast SEO (lite) plug-in is free, while the premium version is £89 a year, plus vat. The Diib (lite) service is free, the full service is $30 a month ($360 a year) plus VAT. As you can see, it starts to add up. That’s before you begin to think about advertising, keyword optimisation, competitor analysis, PPC/PPI campaigns, social media optimisation etc.
*Suppose you pay an expert £2,000 and they manage to get you ranked on page one in Google for “Hairdresser St Helens”. Great, eh. Money well spent, perhaps? Well, if there were only five hairdressers in town, you’d probably you’d get there naturally and have just wasted £2,000. However, if there are 50 hairdressers in the area, all trying to get on page one of Google, can you afford to keep paying so much for the top slot?
*Now, suppose you can! You are paying £2,000 a month, and all your competitors are seething, one especially. Rather than use ‘white hat’ techniques, their expert suggests ‘black hat’ techniques and pays to promote YOUR site (i.e. their competitor). Sounds great, eh! Your main competitor is paying to advertise you! How dumb are they!?
Except that the companies they are paying to promote you are known to Google, and Google does not like them. Google REALLY do not like them. Google – and they are hypocrites – hate anyone taking money away from them and, as a result, will drop your rank because of these ‘bad backlinks’. You can even be blacklisted for them.
Now your SEO expert has to ensure that you and they are aware of any such problems and actively disavow them. Which means monitoring for such tricks.
*On top of all this, Google has rules about freshness. It hates stale sites. If it visits and finds new posts, it’s happy. If you haven’t added anything since the last visit, it will wait longer before returning. This affects your rank, your SEO. If it returns in 3-months and it’s still stale, it drops you further and may not return for 6 months.
Getting a good ranking is not hard – keeping one is. Then you get into the nitty-gritty cost of acquisition.
Where are my visitors coming from?
How long are they staying?
What are they using to connect?
Are they returning?
Are the visits converting to sales?
What’s the cost?
No, I am less inclined to monitor all that for you, thank you, find a specialist. By specialist, I mean a long-establish developer that only does this and is accredited, not some ‘web designer’ that claims to be a ‘SEO consultant’.
Better understanding SEO
SEO is a buzzword. It implies that if you pay for SEO, people will flock to your site if you get SEO right. That is, in turns, both true and a complete crock… ?!
To better understand SEO, you need to understand how people use search engines – and how search engines use you!
Chrome incognito is supposed to be that – incognito. But as soon as you go to do a Google search, it needs you to agree to their conditions. Goodbye incognito. You can try and get around this with VPN, but you want to apply SEO to your site, you want regular folk to search and find you. Regular people do not search using obscure browsers and obfuscated IP addresses. Regular people ‘Google’ things.
So I searched – incognito – for ‘printers’. It threw up my friends printing business in position 3. I didn’t ask for printing businesses. I asked for printers. But Facebook knows I know the guy, and Facebook shared incestuously with Google. Google know who I am, where I live, who I know, and ‘telepathically’ knew I was looking for them. He should not have been in my search results at all.
Now, I do the same search with DuckDuckGo – who do respect your privacy – and got a list of printer-related links from Amazon, Currys, Ryman’s, Canon etc.
If I use the Ecosia search engine, or Yahoo, or Bing, I get similar results to DuckDuckGo.
Google offers up Masterprint UK.
Understanding Google (as a corporation)
Remember this: Google spy on everyone. That’s not just paranoia. It is literally their corporate ethos. They believe you should have nothing to hide, that it is their right, their duty, to know everything about you – and sell that information to the highest bidder. And if you try to hide, they assume you have something to hide and want to know what it is.
They are on record saying that if you don’t want them to find out what you are doing, don’t do it. That is Google in a nutshell.
This was Google CEO Eric Schmidt, speaking to The Atlantic’s James Bennet, back in 2010:
There is what I call the creepy line. The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.
Google’s CEO: ‘The Laws Are Written by Lobbyists’.
Eric Schmidt on the power of lobbyists, a Google “implant”, and how China resembles a big business,
Derek Thompson, Oct 1, 2010
However, when Schmidt was asked about the possibility of Google developing brain implants, the reply was:
I would argue that implanting something in your brain is beyond the creepy line, at least for the moment, until the technology gets better.
Understanding searching and search results
In practice – beyond the nefarious predations of Google – search engines already know roughly where you are from your IP. Them asking if you are ‘here’ is them being polite while subtlety telling you, “We know anyway, we just want you to admit it.”
When a normal person Google’s – especially if they are logged into Google, or Amazon, or Facebook (a truly incestuous trio) – the amount of data they already hold on you is staggering. Right down to the size, brand and probable colour of your underwear levels of digging. They know what device you are using, what browser, where you are, who you are friends with, everything you looked at or searched for recently and possibly ever…
Clearing your browser history erases the history on that browser, on that device only, it doesn’t erase the history you sent you the ‘unholy trio’, or other platforms, or their partners, affiliates and associates, nor people that in turn hacked any or all of the preceding vagabonds.
You seriously need to understand this, especially concerning Google. When you search for a term, it has little to do with the term and everything to do with what Google knows and wants to know about you. You might want to search for articles on ‘targetted advertising‘ or ‘surveillance capitalism‘. (From an SEO point of view, you might want to note the filename of the Guardian article.)
You might also want to search for “What does Google/Facebook/Amazon know about me?” You get results like this one, from CNBC (2017), How to find out what Google knows about you. Google even knew what time he went to bed from monitoring his smart apps. Google will spout rhetoric like “it’s all about improving your ad experience.” No, it’s simply that your personal data is valuable to them, and the more private, the more targetted it is, the more it is worth – to them.
Are you curious just how Google see you?
Want to know just how much data they admit to having on you? Follow the Alices rabbits down the hole into Google’s Wonderland: How your ads are personalised.
Ads are based on personal info that you’ve added to your Google Account, data from advertisers that partner with Google and Google’s estimation of your interests. Choose any factor to learn more or update your preferences.
There are rather a lot of items on that list, over 170 entries!
Some were obvious, several were wrong. Interestingly, I know why they are wrong and when they got it wrong. I write, a lot. One of my recent blog entries used BMW’s in an analogy. I had looked at the series 7. Boom! Added to my interests.
Another of my interests, apparently, is Manchester. I had posted a comment on Facebook (nothing to do with Google) to the Manchester Evening News, I think. Facebook straight away handed that nugget over to Google like a good little puppy.)
This is not your absolute rank with Google for any given term. Your rank with Google is based upon what they know about the person searching for the keyword (they want to profit from).
If this is only one cobbler in your village, they will be highly ranked for people in that area. If there are 50 cobblers in the village, only ten best-ranked pages make the front page – and they are listed below the cobblers that paid Google to appear.
You need to be listed equally high in all major search engines – including the likes of DuckDuckGo – to know your SEO strategy is (probably) working.
How is all this (link) RELevant?
<a href=”#somelink” rel=”nofollow”>some link</a>
Google and the other search engines keep changing the rules to try and keep ahead of spammers and the likes.
There are ways to add it automatically, but I wouldn’t trust such a system unless you have a massive site, better to do it properly, manually.
So, what’s all the fuss?
Your external links are worth money to the people they link to. You might be surprised just how much money. They are valuable to the search companies, but only if they are relevant and make said search companies money. Google are notorious harsh with offenders. I think it’s their corporate ethos. They feel like you are taking money out of their grannies purse. And they want grannies money.
Think of it as politics.
If you link to a site or article relating to ‘Vote Aunt Sally for President’ and you have a small site with little to no traffic, that vote is lost in the masses.
However, if you get a million unique visitors a month and promote Aunt Sally, that is akin to Keanu Reeves and Henry Cavill coming on TV and saying, “We believe in Aunt Sally. She has our vote.” People sit up and notice. It changes things.
In SEO terms, Google wants to be damned sure that Messrs. Reeves and Cavill actually, truly believe in the worth of Aunt Sally and aren’t just saying it because they were handed a sack of gold, or perhaps some influencer offered to toss a coin to your Witcher.
Suppose, despite support from Henry Cavill and friends, her campaign failed, and evil Uncle Sam becomes President (of the PTA, forgot that bit, sorry!) Having lost, Aunt Sally allows her domain to expire, at which point, being evil, Uncle Sam grabs it and either load nasty things there or redirects all the traffic his way.
Aunt Sally won’t know – she abandoned her domain. If you also don’t know this, if you don’t check, then you are now telling all your visitors, “I endorse evil uncle Sam”. Your visitors may not understand what’s going on. Google just won’t care. They’ll see you are pointing to a ‘bad’ site and downgrade you for it.
Now it’s like having a big poster in your front windows saying, “A vote for Sam is a vote for decency.” And the neighbours are like, “OMG, wasn’t Uncle Sam the one that… What the heck, man? Why are you still endorsing this sleazeball?”
So, along with thinking about what a link says, where it ends up, if it stays there, about backlinks and so forth, there’s this.
Between pages on your own site, having no relevance statement is the default and recommended format for internal links.
(There were others, like ‘prev’ and ‘next’ but Google cast those aside).
The default and ‘normal’ action for external links are also simply that, to link. To tell the search engines, “Hey, go there too, I like this”. This is the entire basis of page ranks.
However, as I pointed out, search engines take links seriously.
rel=”nofollow” used to be an instruction, now it’s merely a hint.
rel=”sponsored” states ‘this IS a sponsored or affiliate link’. It says, “I got paid to say this”, and is treated by search engines accordingly.
rel=”usg” means User Generated Content. Typically a comment, for instance. It says, “Look, I never wrote this, maybe don’t trust the link.”
You can stack the instructions using a space or comma, as below. Google list this under ‘advanced SEO’, here: Qualify your outbound links to Google.
This is handy to know for backwards compatibility and supporting the search engines that aren’t Google and haven’t supported these new rules yet.
With Ackadia, if you look at my advertising page, I make it very clear that any paid advertising will be flagged accordingly.
Similarly, they are held and manually appraised for comments, spam is dumped, and links either removed or edited, as appropriate.
Knowing what’s coming!
If you have ever played World of Warcraft, you’ll know the following quote. Google offers up 737 million results for it. It goes like this:
YOU ARE NOT PREPARED
Obviously, if something is new, it is a closely guarded secret until it is dropped on you, fair enough. How could you be fully prepared?
But sometimes, through news releases, they will say, “This is coming. Be ready.”
In the case of Google, they have quirky, friendly-seeming names like Hummingbird, Penguin and Panda. Really, some think, they should have more honest names like Death plague, Zombie Apocalypse and Flatline. True, the folk most likely to be thinking that were generally the ones that were leaning towards the dark side, liked wearing black hats and were, in fact, the ones responsible for any new draconic rules being implemented.
Not being bitter here, my dislike for Google relates to their greed and sharper business practices rather than any engine rules. I am obsessive about page structure and clean code, so their updates never bother me – much. I saw them for the ruthless bastards they are a long time ago!
Sometimes, for instance, they’ll say something like, “We recommend you use HTTPS.”
To the average person, that’s a reasonable suggestion. To those whose business is SEO, they hear it in Don Corleone’s voice. They make the offer; you kiss the ring. Or else.
I upgraded my server the next day!
Really, in my case, I don’t have to take notice of Google; I do because of obsessive perfectionism. I rarely bother with adverts, and if I put them in (e.g. Google Adsense), I usually rip them out again within a week or so.
I don’t make money from sites or web design; in fact, they consistently cost me a lot to run. I’m OK with that; it’s an interest, not a business. I also don’t greatly care about traffic as I write for myself because I enjoy writing. Great if people actually like what I ramble on about, find it useful, but 100-odd comments in 20 years say most isn’t read.
And yet, I am nearly always prepared. The only update I am behind with is the AMP changes. Mostly they are OK but manually validating thousands of pages is not a quick job.
This takes me neatly to the next upcoming suggestion: Search Engine Journal: Google Page Experience Algorithm Update Launching in Mid-June.
The polite request is eloquently wrapped in silken phrases such as “using page experience as part of our ranking system” and adding flavour to the mix.
The axe-wielding version goes like this:
A URL MUST have no mobile usability errors in order to qualify for Good status.
Any security issues for a site disqualify all URLs on the site from a Good status.
(I’m with Google on this one!)
A page must be served over HTTPS to be eligible for Good page experience status.
A site must not use advertising techniques that are distracting, interrupting, or otherwise not conducive to a good user experience. If a site is flagged as having a bad ad experience, all pages on the site are considered as having a bad page experience.
In real terms, it goes like this:
1) We developed AMP, we give it freely for you to use. We have made you an offer you can’t refuse.
(But fine, if you use another method that passes muster, fine. No, nothing’s wrong. It’s fine. This just makes it easier for us, but ok, whatever! We just cook and clean for you, don’t mind us. AMP is Open Source anyway. Peasant.)
2) Keep it clean. This is not a request.
3) HTTPS: have a valid certificate. This is not a request.
4) Adsense is good. We suggest you consider it, rather than any competitors offer. This is at our discretion. We have made you an offer you can’t refuse.
To be fair, 4) will have caveats because such a monopoly would have Amazon and many others howling. That’s not a fight Google can win.
Still, their house, their rules; there are other search engines if Google blacklists you completely. You maybe don’t want to test Google’s resolve on that. Ask Interflora.
Google’s official document is here: Understanding page experience in Google Search results
You might want to pay attention to the first one on the list of theirs, it carries a big axe. It relates to Core Web Vitals, page load, etc.
All good stuff. Hugely recommended. I am 100% behind it. I am totally ready. Some of the niche hosting companies are up for it. Some of the specialist web designers and theme developers are too.
But – I suspect – if you are running a shitty theme or some god-awful page builder on a budget host and have all the whistles and bells like Facebook integration and sliders, you will get crucified!
I saw this coming a mile off, wrote about it too, nearly a year back. Got a new server, made a lot of changes. If you scroll down to the footer of Ackadia, you’ll see something like this:
So, if you wander over to the Google Search Console, you can see how good your site looks or if you need to work on it. Ackadia looks like this:
The Core Web vitals and other checks for Ackadia are similarly healthy.
However, it was not so pretty this time last year. I had to work on it. I wrote about it in this post: Improving Site Load Sites
What, you may wonder, has any of this got to do with SEO?
If the Google bots do not like your pages, they will make it known – by dropping your site off a cliff. Goodbye, page rank. Goodbye, all the time, effort and money put into SEO.
Google are actually pretty clear on what they consider good, and most of the Internet is not prepared! See next.
The following signals are important for delivering a good page experience in Google Search:
Core Web Vitals
The page provides a good user experience, focusing on loading, interactivity, and visual stability.
Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): (ideally to) occur within the first 2.5 seconds of the page starting to load.
First Input Delay (FID): Measures interactivity. (ideally ready in) less than 100 milliseconds.
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): Measures visual stability. (ideally) have a CLS score of less than 0.1.
Google, 2021, Understanding page experience in Google Search results
In short, if you are running a bloated web site (strike 1), on a slow budget host (strike 2), and your site is not completely smartphone friendly (strike 3)…
If your page hasn’t loaded by the time you read this line…
Actually, that’s over 3 seconds of reading. You only had 2.5 seconds to make a first impression.
That is not a good user experience. You will be judged and found wanting. If your cheap-arse web design/host also hasn’t sorted you a padlock (for free!), that’s another strike.
I know sites like this. Charity sites where they trust their ‘web designer’, and being nice people, well, they’ve been with them for years, they don’t want to upset them. It’ll be fine.
No, it won’t.
Google make the rules. Their bots, their A.I.’s, enforce them. There is no ‘nice’ involved here.
Figures vary, but you may assume there are 1.2 to 2 billion websites, of which some 400 to 500 million are said to be active. All of which, given a choice, would like to be well ranked, please.
Even without all of this, people these days are insanely intolerant. Two seconds and they are drumming their fingers, three and they are ready to leave. It’s a rare person that will wait 10 seconds for a page to load unless they really, really want it.
Ain’t nobody got time for that!
See also: SEO: SomeLongUselessName
(If I remember, I’ll dig out some of the essays and articles I wrote and add those to the site too. The one on photo metadata especially.)
If you are curious why…
… I’m less well ranked, …
Well, there is a reason, several actually. I always busy, you see. I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say ‘hello, goodbye,’ I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!
I may be one of the smartest people you will never meet, but I’m mad. Quite bonkers! Ask Alice.
Also, for your enjoyment, Jefferson Airplane with ‘White Rabbit’.
If you are curious why…
… you landed here – when you were looking for Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter – well SEO ?.
Images for the Alice in Wonderland composite taken from Pixabay users Please Don’t sell My Artwork AS IS, OpenClipart-Vectors and from Aline Dassel. Two are lifted from old books, the other, the White Rabbit, is from Disneyland Paris. (For some reason the only photo I have of that has some random woman in the way!)