Last month, I started a new series: Sunday Spotlight, a monthly interview (Q&A format) with an expert who I think can help you kick some butt in business. Be inspired, make a connection, learn. Either way, they are here to help you grow and market your business. It's a work in progress so if you have any suggestions or ideas or questions, please contact me.
Today's Sunday Spotlight is with Amanda Bernard, a Search Engine Optimization and Internet Marketing Strategist based in Portland, Oregon. Amanda and I first met during a couple of years ago now at a gathering for Portland area women in web. We reconnected at a mutual friend's party where we got into a bit of shop talk and geeked out for a bit. Since then, we have partnered to bring her expertise to you. I value her experience, her professionalism and her passion for helping businesses reach their marketing potential and goals.
[ Q ] For those who may not fully understand SEO (Search Engine Optimization), can you share your brief description or explanation of what SEO means; what it encompasses?
AB: When you use a search engine to look for information, the results you see are determined by the search engine’s algorithm. Although each search engine’s algorithm is a secret, a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) professional understands how search engines work and the key factors included in their algorithms. SEO is the process of enhancing a website so that these key factors are addressed, from both a technical and marketing perspective. Implementing SEO techniques helps the search engines to find all of the information on a site and have a clear understanding of what the website is all about, in order to rank the website’s pages appropriately. SEO is also an important Search Engine Marketing (SEM) tactic that allows you to customize the messaging seen in your website’s search results listings, giving your site an opportunity to display information that will compel a searcher to click on your listing instead of the other 9+ listings on the results page.
[ Q ] What is the difference between SEO and making a website “Search Engine Friendly”? Is there any significance in the relationship?
AB: Typically “Search Engine Friendly” means making a website accessible to search engine robots so that the pages on a website can be crawled and indexed by the search engines. This term is frequently used by web developers and designers who create websites that include some of the technical best practices of SEO such as validated XHTML code, external CSS, techniques for fast page loading, and site maps. Search Engine Optimization, on the other hand, addresses all aspects of SEO and includes Search Engine Marketing (SEM) tactics, not just the technical back-end optimization stuff. SEO includes keyword research, writing custom page titles and meta tags, content optimization, and more. Think of “search engine friendly” as addressing the technical elements of SEO, and full-on SEO as concentrating on both the technical and marketing elements.
[ Q ] Part of our practice of building websites at Cococello is to take SEO into consideration before we begin the design and development of a website. When should a website owner begin to think about Search Engine Optimization and why is this important?
AB: A website owner should always be thinking about Search Engine Optimization (or pay someone else to think about it for them), because it is an ongoing process due to the dynamic nature of the web, search engine algorithms, and search behavior. But when designing and developing a new website, it’s not only important but also more cost effective to include SEO from the very beginning. Adding an SEO expert to your web design and development team will prevent you from experiencing significant drops in search engine traffic, searches engine rankings, and the loss of external links after launching your new site. Launching a new website without taking SEO into consideration can come back to haunt you, especially if you are changing domains, adding new web pages with new URLs, deleting or replacing existing web pages, and not using proper redirects. There are a lot of things to plan for, to avoid losing the equity your site has built up within the search engines, let alone the advantages of launching a new website that is fully optimized.
[ Q ] As an SEO expert, what are the top three to five qualities a website owner should look for in a web designer/web developer?
AB: It is common for the design to dictate the user interface and functionality of the website, so a web designer should know how to present your content in a way that speaks to your desired audience and gets them to take the action that you want them to take. A thorough understanding of how to use conversion points and how users interact on the web is a must. A web designer should also understand what can and cannot be “read” by search engines. If your designer wants to put all of your text in images or build your entire website in Flash, then you should probably look for another designer. It’s also important for a web designer to have the skills and capabilities to create a shiny new website with Web 2.0+ features and functionalities so it doesn’t appear to be seriously out of date in a year.
If your designer wants to put all of your text in images or build your entire website in Flash, then you should probably look for another designer.
A web developer should know some basic SEO best practices like how to make pages load quickly, create permalinks and “human-friendly” URLs, and develop clean XHTML and CSS code. A developer should also care about the user experience, and understand the importance of having sound information architecture and a proper file naming system.
[ Q ] Cococello works with a lot of photographers and creative businesses. Not that long ago, Flash was the base for almost all of their websites. Many Flash developers/designers and companies who build sites using Flash claim Flash portfolio sites can rank just as high as any Standards based XHTML/CSS website. What do you think?
AB: It is true that a Flash website with some basic SEO enhancements can rank just as high as an HTML site…but only if there is little to no competition for the keywords you want your site to rank for…or perhaps if you have owned your domain for a really long time and have a lot of popular websites linking to your site. Otherwise, Flash websites rarely ever out-rank HTML sites. Here’s why– Flash sites use the same URL throughout the website, which prevents search engine robots from being able to crawl and index your interior Flash pages. Less web pages in the index means fewer opportunities to have a listing appear for a search query. Also, it is nearly impossible for external websites to deep link to the internal pages of your Flash site, which has a negative impact on your website’s visibility in the search engines.
One of the biggest problems [with Flash-based sites] is the search engines’ fundamental preference that the robots be able to “see” what a human sees on a website…Google is especially sensitive to this. Google Webmaster Central explicitly states that Googlebot may crawl and index an HTML version of a Flash website but Google won’t consider the content found in the HTML version to be part of the content of the Flash site.
What many Flash developers do is they create a clone of the Flash site in HTML and then direct the human visitors to the Flash version of the website while directing the search engine robots to the HTML clone site. I know this sounds like a smart solution, but there are several problems with this approach. One of the biggest problems is the search engines’ fundamental preference that the robots be able to “see” what a human sees on a website, for fear of being deceived and inaccurately indexing information. Google is especially sensitive to this. Google Webmaster Central explicitly states that Googlebot may crawl and index an HTML version of a Flash website but Google won’t consider the content found in the HTML version to be part of the content of the Flash site. Another problem is the fact that the search engines will be indexing and ranking a version of your website that receives very few links from other websites, which is a major factor in obtaining high rankings. Since you are directing visitors to the Flash version of your site, this is where they will link to instead of the HTML version of your site, which is the one being indexed and ranked by the search engines.
Apple sold over 3 million iPads and nearly 8.5 million iPhone just in Q3 2010, so with a Flash site you are restricting tens of millions of people from viewing your website right out of the gate.
Putting SEO aside for a moment…web site owners should think long and hard before spending money on an all-Flash website. First, think about your potential site visitors. People are spending more and more time viewing websites on devices other than their desktops and laptops. This means people want to be able to search for a website and view it on the go via a smartphone, iPad, etc. Apple has been very vocal about the fact that all of their mobile devices do not support Flash, and they don’t plan on creating devices that support Flash…ever. Apple sold over 3 million iPads and nearly 8.5 million iPhone just in Q3 2010, so with a Flash site you are restricting tens of millions of people from viewing your website right out of the gate. As a website owner, this also limits your personal choice of mobile devices. If you want to be able to pull out your iPhone or iPad and show a potential client your amazing photography portfolio, you won’t be able to if your entire portfolio is in Flash. I’m all for adding some Flash elements to a website, but I strongly advise against having an all-Flash site.
[ Q ] There are thousands of CMS (Content Management Systems) options out there for businesses, website designers, developers to choose from. I’ve heard many claim that WordPress gives better SEO than other CMSes. I disagree with that statement and would like to know what you think.
AB: This is an ongoing debate among SEOs and developers. As far as I know, there is not one CMS that the industry has deemed as the best for SEO. Most professional recommendations come down to opinions, personal preference, and experience working with the CMS (this usually applies to recommendations from developers too). The CMSes that get recognized the most frequently as being the best for SEO are the big 3– WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. Do a Google search for “best CMS for SEO” and you’ll find millions of articles comparing and debating the SEO benefits of the big 3 along with all of the new and lesser-known CMSes that are available.
Make sure you have the ability to add and update text, page titles, meta tags, and text links through your site’s CMS.
If you are trying to decide between WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, ExpressionEngine, etc., then I would focus more on what each CMS can do to power your website and handle your content in the best possible way and not worry so much about which one will give you the best SEO results. Any CMS is only going to get you so far SEO-wise because there is much more involved in SEO than just the technical back-end optimization, as we discussed previously about the difference between “search engine friendly” and SEO. Just make sure you have the ability to add and update text, page titles, meta tags, and text links through your site’s CMS.
[ Q ] We’ve all heard social media and blogging are great ways to increase visibility and help with SEO. Do you have any quick tips for businesses who feel a bit overwhelmed by the myriad of marketing tools? Or perhaps how it can be used strategically?
AB: My advice is to only take on what you can handle based on the time and resources you have available. It is better to only have a blog or just a Facebook Page and share really great information with your audience on a regular basis than have a Twitter account, Facebook Page, blog, and LinkedIn Group that you barely use. An abandoned or infrequently updated blog or social profile can actually be more harmful than not having one at all.
I recommend doing some recon to figure out which platforms are most popular with your target audience. Don’t forget to check out what your competitors are doing. I’ve found that within some industries, one or two platforms will be more popular with a specific audience so you can learn a lot by seeing what’s working or not working for your competitors. Once you’ve done your research, choose the platform that you are comfortable with and most likely to use on a regular basis.
[ Q ] Many people place site rankings as their number one priority / goal when hiring an SEO specialist. I’ve heard site rankings isn’t as important as understanding the relationship between analytics and marketing tactics. What do you think?
AB: Ranking reports used to be a great way to show the progress of SEO efforts and most clients still put a big emphasis on rankings. Of course people should care about where their website ranks for their target keywords, but any SEO professional that is heavily relying on ranking reports to demonstrate a site’s search engine performance isn’t painting the whole picture. Many people don’t realize that when you go to Google and do a search, the results displayed are based on your personal search history. You don’t even have to be logged in to a Google account; the search history can be found in your browser. In fact, if you don’t want Google to provide you with personalized search results you have to disable this setting in Google, because customization based on search history is now the default. I can run keywords through a rank checker tool and provide a list of your website’s rankings for those keywords, and the rankings wouldn’t include any personal history bias, but people actually searching on Google could see your website ranked in a totally different position depending on their personal search history.
Any SEO professional that is heavily relying on ranking reports to demonstrate a site’s search engine performance isn’t painting the whole picture.
My preference is to measure the effect of SEO efforts using Google Analytics (or any Analytics tool). Google Analytics allows me to show my clients the actual amount of traffic coming from the search engines and, more importantly, the keywords that are driving the most qualified traffic. Analytics gives insight into the real impact of your SEO efforts but ranking reports are still useful for monitoring keyword rank, if viewed as qualitative data and not an exact measurement.
[ Q ] Can you tell us a bit about (or explain a bit more depending on the above question) personalized search and what that means?
AB: Personalized search results take some control away from SEO professionals and webmasters who are trying to get to the top spot in the search engine results, because we can’t control what a person searches for and we can’t control which listings they click on (although we can influence that part). But at the end of the day, if you have a website with really good content and your site is optimized for maximum search engine exposure then people will find your website, regardless of personal search history.
[ Q ] Local search is hot right now. Generally speaking, it seems more important for a business to optimize for local. For people who aren’t familiar with this concept, what exactly does local search mean?
AB: The top-tier search engines realized that delivering search results containing only the most popular or authoritative websites didn’t make sense for a lot of search queries. People had started using the search engines like the Yellow Pages, to find local businesses and information relevant to the searcher’s location. So the search engines started delivering local search results along with the “universal” results. This change definitely helped level the online playing field for local businesses.
The purpose of Local SEO is to send signals about the physical location of a business to the search engines so the engines will index the business’s website for keywords associated with geographic terms as well as product/service keywords. Optimizing a website for local search is done by adding these signals to the business’s website and to external business listings and local directories across the web.
[ TIP ] Add your business to Google Places.
[ Q ] I’ve heard stories of many brick and mortar businesses who feel they do not need to be online or can’t really see the benefit of a website. What might they be missing?
The biggest risk associated with not having a website is this: people are searching 24/7 for your goods or services, maybe even your business name, and instead of finding you they are finding your competitor.
AB: I agree that not every business needs a big, expensive website. But I do think that every business, especially a brick and mortar business, needs a website. Even if you own a brick and mortar business and you don’t sell anything online, people will still search for your business to find your location, phone number, hours of operation, driving directions, and more. People are more likely to Google a business name than pull out the Yellow Pages. You could just set up free local business listings in the search engines, but with no website to confirm the information in your listing, your business would only show up for searches related to your business name so you would still be losing out on visibility for searches related to your product/service offerings. But the biggest risk associated with not having a website is this: people are searching 24/7 for your goods or services, maybe even your business name, and instead of finding you they are finding your competitor.
[ Q ] There are many claims that businesses do not need to hire an SEO expert; that building a “Search Engine Friendly” website is enough. Budgets of course are a big factor as well as resources. What do you think?
AB: For any business, it is essential for people to be able to easily find your website online. More and more people are turning to the internet and mobile web to find every good or service imaginable. And with search engines as the gatekeepers of information, it’s hard to ignore the importance of making your site stand out, among millions of other websites, as the most relevant for search terms related to your business. Having a “search engine friendly” website is usually not enough to get to the top of the search results, but it’s better than nothing. However, if your website isn’t showing up on the first 2-3 Google search results pages then you should really consider hiring an SEO expert. SEO is an investment, but luckily we can track and measure the results of SEO to demonstrate the return on that investment (ROI).
Thank you Amanda!
If you have any questions about Search Engine Optimization or internet marketing strategies for Amanda, please leave a comment!
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Amanda Bernard has over 6 years of experience in multimedia marketing and advertising including online marketing and traditional media. As co-owner of a graphic design studio in Los Angeles, Amanda oversaw all marketing and advertising for the studio. She then headed to the East Coast to join an advertising and PR agency as Media Manager, where her role was to create and implement multimedia advertising strategies and work closely with media representatives to negotiate advertising contracts for clients. But Amanda was once again drawn to the West Coast and she was immediately hired as a Paid Search & SEO Account Manager at a search engine marketing agency in Portland, Oregon, where she solely managed all aspects of PPC & SEO campaigns for some of the agency's top clients. Amanda has recently moved on to working as a full-time freelancer and she is currently developing her own search engine marketing client base as well as partnering with other agencies to provide internet marketing services. Amanda is passionate about search engine marketing, search engine optimization, social media marketing, and developing cutting-edge internet marketing strategies. She is also the senior editor of the blog, Thoroughly Modern Marketing.