Beginner’s guide to SEO

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Beginner’s guide to SEO

Search engine optimisation is still a great way to boost visitors to your website – if you avoid the traps. We help you get started.

In the previous feature in our series on digital transformation, we explained the basics of what you need know about web design and hosting. In this instalment, we look at search engine optimisation (SEO), the practice of making particular web pages show up at or near the top of search results.

Given its potential business benefits, it’s not difficult to see why, historically, SEO was associated with all sorts of sneaky tricks – such as putting irrelevant but frequently-searched words on a page with the same background and foreground colours so they were read by search engines' spiders even though they were invisible to human visitors.

However, Google – still the overwhelming leader in search, and therefore the one every site owner is concerned about – has become smarter over the years at detecting such ‘black hat’ practices. And the search giant has introduced big penalties to offending websites’ ‘page rankings’, which affect where their pages appear in search results.

Still, there are still plenty of things you can do to improve your site’s search results.

To outsource or not to outsource?

If SEO is important to your business, you should engage a specialist, according to frontend designer and developer Hope Stewart. But she warns that most people who have registered a domain name will be approached by a lot of unscrupulous people offering SEO service (not to mention domain renewal scams), so she suggests they only use SEO specialists that have been personally recommended.

Design agency Artful owner Nick Sibbing goes even further: “People should be deeply sceptical about SEO [services].

“I’m deeply sceptical about ongoing payment SEO plans... I think most of them are just a scam” on a par with selling underwater Queensland real estate, said Sibbing, who has been running Artful for nearly 20 years and also serves as a Small Business Victoria workshop leader.

Small businesses can generally take care of SEO themselves, he said, although Artful does offer “Google tune-ups” for businesses that don’t have the time or resources to put into it.

Finance company Hodgestone Finance realised its site was in need of SEO and decided to outsource, choosing digital marketing agency Supple to do the work. “They knew their field,” said processing officer Alex Treherne, and they quickly came to terms with the finance market.

The changes Supple made significantly increased the number of leads coming from the site, he said. The company subsequently had Supple redesign its site, which led to a further improvement. Importantly, the conversion rate from leads to customers was good, making the whole exercise cost-effective, said Treherne.

If you plan to engage an SEO provider, see our guide, Five questions to ask an SEO provider, although as Sibbing says, it is very feasible for small businesses to it in-house.

Next: DIY SEO

Doing it yourself

Longevity is a “huge” factor in SEO, so it takes time for a site to establish itself,  according to retailer Kick Push founder Darin Gersbach. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve the SEO of your web pages, and there are two aspects to this.

First, your website’s code should be optimised, so, for example, certain HTML tags are used for better results, and it’s mobile-friendly (because Google now penalises sites that aren’t).

This starts with selecting a good platform for your website, said Gersbach, whose company uses Neto. Since the rules used to determine search rankings keep changing, you need to know that the operators of your chosen platform are taking care of it, he said.

Alternatively, a good content management system (CMS) such as WordPress offers features, design templates and plug-ins that can help you optimise your site.

Second, your website’s content needs to be optimised. That starts with identifying the phrases – not individual words – that potential customers might use when searching, and then using those phrases in page titles and headings. “It's that basic,” Gersbach said.

You can guess likely phrases (such as “accommodation Bendigo” or “luxury B&B Bendigo”), but he says it can be helpful to ask your customers “what would you type into Google to find us if you didn't know our name?” If they give one-word replies, dig deeper by asking “And if that didn't work?”, he advised.

Once you have a list of phrases, Google's Keyword Planner can indicate how well they are likely to perform.

Is it even worth it?

Do bear in mind that SEO might not be as essential as some people would have you think. “It's not important for everybody,” said Stewart.

If a site is basically “an extension of their business card” it may not greatly matter whether it is highly ranked, so it is unlikely there will be a payback from putting a lot of time and money into SEO – although you’re building a new or revamped site anyway, it could be worthwhile getting the code and content optimised as part of the process.

Of course, if your company gets a lot of business through Google – or if that’s part of your business strategy – it is clearly important to be near the top of relevant search results as the potential gains are so significant.

For more do-it-yourself SEO tips, see our guides, How to win more customers through SEO and Are your SEO efforts being sabotaged? Also see Google's Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide.

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