As part of the ongoing coverage of ad:tech Chicago 2006 Online Marketing Blog is doing for the ad:tech blog, here is the first installment on the sessions about SEO that I was able to attend. Above is a photo of (L to R) Dana Todd, Bruce Clay and Fionn Downhill. Bruce is actually wearing a tie!
While there was no fireplace, there certainly was a good share of chatting in this session on organic search engine optimization. Introductions were handled by Fionn Downhill of Elixir Systems (I love her accent) to a room that was surprisingly 1/2 full. Perhaps search marketing is losing some of its luster with the ad:tech crowd? The need for SEO certainly hasn’t abated as Dana Todd of¬†SiteLab and Bruce Clay of BruceClay.com were able to attest in this mostly Q and A formatted session.
Dana started things off with a poll to gauge the audience: How many in the audience are technical? About half of the audience responded. How many in-house? About half responded. More and more control over search marketing is coming in-house.
Dana mentions that there are political and organizational aspects to SEO as well as the code that marketers need to consider. Dana’s background with SEO has been more focused on content optimization while Bruce Clay is more technical.
The presentation begins by identifying barriers to getting web sites indexed by search engines.
One of the first things to do with a new SEO campaign, is to identify whether the web site is “digestible” to search engines. An example is provided where one client had over 1 million pages and less than 1% was indexed. When such an investment is made into content, it makes sense to ensure that content is indexed by search engines.
Dana to Bruce: “What do you think about services that will crawl your dynamic site and output a mirror site that is HTML and more easily crawled.?”
Using a car analogy, Bruce replied that if you optimize your site properly, you’re “driving a race car” and can compete better in situations where there are hundreds of millions of search results. If you use a third party tool rather than optimize your site, then you’re driving a “production car”, which is workable for less competitive situations.
Google will identify duplicate content so the duplicate pages created through third party tools is unlikely to be displayed. Bruce advised to work on your site, not another version of it in order to gain the best opportunity for great rankings.
Four main areas of SEO according to Bruce: Technical, expertness (linking), copywriting, environment (hosting, url structure, sitemap)
Question from the audience: Cold fusion site (dynamic site) having issues with indexing. Can’t get search engines to follow links to detail (product) pages.
Bruce: How many are using dynamic urls? About 1/3 of the audience responds. The url structure of a product specific url (with parameters) can get pretty long. Google used to say keep parameters to 2 or less and variables to 10 characters or less.
The most common problem Bruce sees is that the sites are not themed. Example: A site about white marbles is pretty focused. In a shopping environment, all sorts of variations on the topic are introduced. Most sites have a tendency to put “all the marbles in the same jar”. Ideally the site is architected so that the content is categorized according to themes. Bruce gives an example of a Ford Mustang/Jaguar comparison page where “Jaguar” was mentioned more often than Ford Mustang, where the actual site is about Ford Mustang. The search engines would get confused that the page is about Jaguar.
Bruce also mentions Latent Semantic Indexing and how Google looks at other words to infer meaning of the page, besides specific keywords.
80% of searchers are doing research, so if a search engine cannot understand the content of your website, it is unlikely the site is going to serve the needs of the user. Search engines will not reward that.
Dana mentions she often gets questions on theming of this sort: “I have 40 domains, how do I use them. Microsites, sub domains, etc”. The current environment says not to do that. However, some people do it in a clever way. Hosting on different servers, mask domain ownership, etc.
Audience: What do you think about MicroSites? Dana likes them for advertising, but they usually don’t have enough content to compete against larger web sites with more content and authority. Microsites can be helpful, but they are not the “be all end all”.
Audience: What about sub domains? Bruce. Agrees with Dana. Microsites can help theme a site. However, spammers used to use multiple domains and sub domains and it worked well. Now search engines are triggered when a certain number of these are detected. It may invoke a manual review to determine whether the content is indeed unique. If so, it’s ok. If not, there may be a penalty.
If a microsite or sub domain are for legitimate purposes, they’re fine. If a sub domain is used solely for search engines, that is perceived as spam. The alternative would be directory urls which still carry a lot of weight.
The next topic deals with source code optimization.
Bruce: How many people have a program focused on creating content according to themes? A few respond.
The most important tags are: Title, Meta Description and Body (page content). The initial content on the internet was academic with a structured format and citation of sources. Search engines still reward those characteristics. You can help search engines understand your web site by properly using tags.
Dana: What if I need to use a unique font and use a graphic rather than text. Will using alt text with the image carry the same weight as H1 formatted text?
Bruce: No. He mentions a tool I didn’t catch, that will allow the use of unique fonts without using graphics. Says he’s using this on bruceclay.com.
Dana: What if all the text on my page uses h1?
Bruce: Can you spell spam?
Audience: What’s the difference between theming a site and a page?
Bruce: First you want a page that is focused that also contains links to supporting pages (a silo).
Dana: What if you have a small site? How do you make a small site themed?
Bruce: Small sites don’t normally rank.
Dana: I see small sites rank well.
Bruce: Links can influence a small site to rank. Gives “miserable failure” example. i.e. Google Bombing.
What is going to satisfy users, a small site or a more robust site with lots of content?
Audience: Asks if it makes a difference whether bullet points are right under the heading or not?
Bruce: No. He has been running experiments that place text high up towards the opening body tag and is not seeing a difference. Simplicity will often win. Gives example where a site’s opening body tag didn’t appear in the document until line 2000+.
Audience: Are bullets ok?
Bruce: Not really. Bullets can make a page seem more complex.
Audience: Is alt text important?
Dana: Use alt text for people. Gives example of surfing pages with a PDA and how frustrating it is when sites do not include alt text. Also, the Americans with Disabilities Act and usability requirements were brought up.
Audience: What do you think about the Google AdWords quality score changes?
Dana: Shaking fist, not happy with that. Client pages were very much affected. Described a domino effect. The idea was to filter out AdWords/AdSense arbitrage sites that use automatically generated landing pages. This affected many legitimate advertisers. Mentions that Google will turn an ad off because of a poor quality score, but will turn it back on if you raise the minimum bid.
Audience: Why are some sites ranking really well on Google and not on Yahoo.
Bruce: Google has a unique population of pages focused on research. Yahoo has a different universe of pages with a focus on shopping. Visit http://mindset.research.yahoo.com to see a beta tool that will show results twice. A slider bar will bias the search results more or less towards shopping versus research. Differences occur as a result of the perceived intent of the pages: research vs. shopping.
Dana: If you having problems getting into Yahoo you can use Paid Inclusion.
Next topic: Content optimization including on-page optimization and keyword placement.
Dana explains the difference between on-page and off-page optimization. You might be actively getting links, but it’s important that the sites you’re getting links from is also getting spidered properly.
Dana: Any questions about sandboxing? How do you get out of the sandbox?
Bruce: I don’t believe there is a sandbox. Sandbox is the notion that new sites are filtered out. Bruce believes that new sites are seen the same as any other site until they do something out of line.
The chatting now turns to issues of redesign. A redesign must be managed properly or your rankings can be affected.
Dana: If you have 10,000 pages, do you have to do a 301 redirect for each one?
Bruce: Yes, and 301s are fast. Although, out of those 10,000 pages there are probably just a few hundred that matter.
Dana: How long do you keep 301s?
Dana: We used to see massive shifts in search engine ranking algorithms. How “algoholic” should we be?
Bruce: How many people know what a keyword density analyzer is? Many respond.
Bruce: How many have used my keyword density analyzer? No response.
Bruce: Then you don’t know what a keyword density analyzer is. Audience laughs.
I don’t think hitting a certain keyword density is the silver bullet, but you should shoot for a certain target. Depth of content makes you an expert. It is important to strike a balance between links and content.
Audience: Have you heard of Hit Tail or long Tail marketing? It’s sort of the opposite of focusing on specific phrases.
Dana: Should you focus your efforts on ranking high for very popular and competitive phrases? It doesn’t hurt to go after the brass ring? IF that doesn’t work for you, set your goal towards something more achievable.
Long tail might be more important in PPC. It’s less about tail than strategy.
Bruce: Client site is relevant for “cars”. Very popular. Click through rate is low. High traffic and low clicks. A more specific phrase like “ford mustang” gets a higher click through rate.
The session wrapped up with Dana and Bruce answering additional questions in the cyber lounge.
For more coverage of ad:tech Chicago 2006, visit the ad:tech blog.