About two months ago I built a new website for a wedding planner in Houston. This client also happens to be a friend of mine from high school. Knowing what I did for a living, she reached out for some help improving their website and building a more professional & consistent online brand. Of course, I was happy to help. When I began the project their existing website didn’t rank in any search engine for any keyword term other than their exact brand name.
As is the case with many small business websites these days, there were many opportunities for improvement. From titles to text content to the development of a strong site architecture and internal link structure, the site was in need of a head-to-toe overhaul and a facelift. The old site was pretty basic, didn’t incorporate much text content and only had a handful of pages. Not only did the site not perform well in a keyword search at that point, the original design also had some usability and branding challenges to overcome.
I couldn’t let that continue and not long thereafter my friend and her business partner had a shiny new website that, if I do say so myself, is something they can proudly rely on to represent their brand online. I know what you’re thinking, “But, Alysson…it doesn’t matter if it’s pretty if no one can find it.” You’re absolutely right. I couldn’t have said it better myself. As I mentioned before, prior to the redesign/relaunch the site had no rankings for any targeted keyword terms. None. Zippo. Zilch. Nada.
Gleaning Information From Competitors
I’ve obviously been offering my friend a great deal of advice along the way regarding what needs to be done moving forward. Knowing how bright she is and how likely she is to actually pursue the avenues I advise her to pursue to further improve the site’s rankings now that they have a strong foundation, I knew she’d be doing a lot of investigation and poking around on her own.
She recently sent me an e-mail containing a links to two blog posts that really stuck in my craw. While the focus of the posts obviously seems to be relative to the advantages of blogging – though that doesn’t really come through as the main topic of the articles at all, there were some statements made in those posts that really got under my skin.
“I am a firm believer that all you need is a website, a properly hosted blog, and a bit of patience in order to build up a business…”
Wow. I bet the 80+% of small businesses that fail would have appreciated knowing that. A website, a blog and some patience…that’s all there is to it? Damn. According to the marketing bible of a former DJ turned SEO who describes himself as someone for whom, “…reading and writing have always been the hardest things for me to do ever!“, EVERYTHING ELSE that successful start-ups do is a waste of time, effort and resources. Someone should really tell them that concentrating on small business website design, usability, online reputation management, branding, etc. is just unnecessary fluff. Pfft! Comprehensive SEO strategy? I don’t need no stinkin’ strategy. I’m not sure I even know what “comprehensive” means…
Look, that’s one of the most ignorant oversimplifications I’ve ever come across. It’s like saying all you need to win a Superbowl is an offense, a defense and a properly inflated football.
“With some minor tweaking to her site, a few off-site optimization techniques, and some Search Engine Optimization to her website, only a month later, on April 24th, 2009 to be exact, was already indexed by Yahoo, MSN Live and Google.com…”
<sarcasm>HOORAY!</sarcasm> I’d like to know what this “minor tweaking”, “a few off-site optimization techniques” and “some Search Engine Optimization” entailed. First of all…these “minor tweaks” are often not minor at all and are part of an overall strategy. You can’t refer to “minor tweaking” and “some Search Engine Optimization to her website” as separate things. Well, I guess you can…but you wouldn’t, if you know what the hell you were talking about.
The “tweaking” to which he refers is actually called “on-site SEO” and it includes making improvements to titles, descriptions, text content, headings, site architecture, text navigation, internal link structure, ALT attributes, image optimization, improvement of page load time, etc. Dumbing down on-site SEO to nothing more than “minor tweaking” is a ridiculous and dangerous oversimplification of on-site SEO that will lead to problems down the road for anyone who accepts such ignorance as fact.
Here’s where it really gets to be fun. It you were to take a look at the tables included in each of those posts, you’d see that all but a couple of search terms are not disclosed. Really? You’re trying to prove how awesome you are and how easy SEO is by reporting how crappy a site’s rankings were before your “minor tweaking” vs. how the rankings improved a month later. I call shenanigans. And by “shenanigans”, I mean BULLSHIT. For all we know you’ve improved the site’s ranking for terms that no actual human being would ever use in a keyword search. Kudos on your transparency.
While I’m sure anyone who publishes a supposed case study without actually publishing the terms being targeted would say it had something to do with confidentiality, again…bullshit. If you can’t publish the terms, don’t publish the post as a supposed case study. Not doing so makes the individual rankings and ranking improvements utterly meaningless because there is no way to compare the ranking improvement on a term by term basis. What appears as “Hidden Wedding Marketing Keyword” in row 3 of the first table may not be the same target term that appears as “Wedding Marketing Keyword” in row 3 of the table in the follow-up post.
For example, if you compare the original ranking report (before any optimization was done) to the “month after” ranking report, the “Hidden Wedding Marketing Keyword” that appears in row 12 ranks in position 83 on the original report, yet the “Hidden Wedding Marketing Keyword” in row 12 of the follow-up report shows the site is “Not Ranked”. So a month after the “minor tweaking” was done the site actually went from being ranked in the 83rd position for an unknown keyword to not ranked at all. Hmm…curious.
Since the Redesign/Relaunch of My Client’s Wedding Planner Website
Her new site launched on July 7th, 2010. Initially I focused my attention on creating optimized, keyword targeted text content for a handful of the target terms within her niche that generate the greatest search volume. While there are 25-30 terms we want the site to rank well for moving forward, my main concern at the outset was to improve the site’s ranking for the following terms:
- [wedding planners houston] – about 320 searches per month
- [wedding planner houston] – about 320 searches per month
- [houston wedding planners] – about 260 searches per month
- [houston wedding planner] – about 260 searches per month
- [wedding planners in houston] – about 210 searches per month
- [wedding coordinator houston] – about 170 searches per month
- [wedding planning houston] – about 110 searches per month
And let’s not forget that the site wasn’t ranked AT ALL for any search term aside from the actual business name. In the spirit of transparency, here are the ranking results for the site just 9 days after the relaunch (July 16):
[table “1” not found /]
About 6 weeks after the relaunch (August 15), the site was ranked as follows:
[table “3” not found /]
Keep in mind I changed everything from the platform the site was built on to where it was hosted to the URL structure of the pages. Literally everything that could be changed was changed. And those results are based on absolutely no off-site effort on my part whatsoever – these results are based solely on the proper implementation of a comprehensive on-site SEO strategy.
A Half-assed Approach vs. A Complete Strategy
The ranking results being reported for the phantom keywords in parts 1 & 2 of the aforementioned case study were comparisons over a 6 month period…6 MONTHS – from March to August.
Basically what was accomplished with “minor tweaking”, “a few off-site optimization techniques” and “some Search Engine Optimization” in that case study over a period of 6 months, I accomplished with on-site SEO alone in 6 weeks. THAT is the difference between the results from a “see…it’s SO easy” novice and an experienced SEO who actually understands the big picture. SEO is much more than a laundry list of tasks that can be carried out by any trained monkey with a keyboard. It is a little bit of art combined with a touch of science. It takes experience. It involves understanding not only the individual ranking factors, but how those factors work together and how their cumulative impact affects a site’s ranking.
This statement is particularly nonsensical and misleading:
I started to believe what other people were saying. I was believing Ignorant people that stated that the only way to rank high for Google was to pay someone to do it for you… Can you believe that? That’s the most absurd thing I had ever heard… first thing is how would you pay someone and second is why would Google do that? It made no sense to me at the time and it makes no sense to me now.
Why it DOES make sense: the ability to achieve better results based on the on-site SEO efforts alone in 6 weeks. While hiring a professional may not make sense to him, it does make sense to real small business owners. Measurable results in 6 weeks. Not 6 months.
A comprehensive strategy is essential to the long term success of any small business website. Ranking well is only part of the equation. Conversions are really where the rubber meets the road. In a niche with little competition it may be possible to rank well for some target terms without incorporating every aspect of on-site SEO, but why wouldn’t you do it anyway?
The ranking factors are not created by search engines without rhyme or reason. Well-written text content serves to inform site visitors. Proper site architecture makes the site easy to navigate. ALT attributes make it easier for the visually impaired to browse a site thanks to the use of software like JAWS. Internal links help visitors find the information they need more easily. Optimized images help pages load faster. Faster load times get users where they want to go faster.
Virtually everything the search engines incorporate into their algorithms as a ranking factor is specifically intended to improve the user experience. Search engines want to lead people to the websites that offer the best user experience. And you should want your website to offer the best user experience. Whether a site ranks in the #1 position or the #300 position, if it isn’t user friendly, doesn’t convey the right message and isn’t visually appealing people will go elsewhere. A complete SEO strategy takes into consideration how A will impact B, how B will impact C and how A+B+C will cumulatively impact both ranking and user experience.
This is why the SEO industry suffers from such massive reputation problems. A little bit of information in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing. Ignorance has its own unique opportunity cost. Egregious oversimplifications hurt everyone.