SEO

“We rank therefore we rock,” said the agency – Beware the misleading ranking claim

Technology WinDisclaimer: This post is not intended as an attack against anyone, so be advised that any keywords/rankings that I go on to mention are purely examples – any correlations between the agencies ranking for them and the way they market themselves is purely coincidental and unintended.

A good measure of any agency can be seen in how they do what they do on themselves. If a PR agency has a bad reputation in the press, a web design agency has a poorly-built website or an SEO agency doesn’t rank for anything then it’s not a very reassuring sign.

So it’s understandable when an web design or online marketing agency that does SEO wants to let people know when they rank for a keyword. “Hooray, we rank! We rock!” Right? Not necessarily. It may sound great on the surface, but dig a little deeper and it may not be that impressive at all.

We rank ≠ we rock (necessarily)

Sometimes on Twitter I come across a web design agency which provides SEO services saying that they rank #1 on page 1 organically in Google for a keyword like, say, “web designers in cardiff”. At first, that sounds really impressive, but think about it for a moment… That’s just one variation of a number of things someone might type into Google. There’s a lot of different things someone might search on in order to find effectively the same thing:

  • “web designer” could be singular or plural: “designer” or “designers” (2 variations)
  • It could be “website designer(s)” instead… (4 variations)
  • …Or you could just call it “design” (6 variations)
  • Although arguably a different requirement, some people are inclined to call it “development,” or might be looking for a “developer” or “developers” (12 variations)
  • They might be looking for one in “cardiff” or maybe “south wales” or “wales” as a whole (36 variations)
  • When typing in keywords containing locations, searchers tend to put the location afterwards, either with or without the “in,” or before, e.g. “web design cardiff,” “web design in cardiff” or “cardiff web design” (108 variations)

We’re now up to 100+ different ways that someone might be looking for a web designer/developer in Cardiff or the wider Wales.

Variations and their search volumes

Not only that but some variations are undoubtedly going to be more popular than others, whether it’s due to searcher’s habits, one term being more renowned or used than another, or perhaps Google Suggest highlighting a particular search term as a searcher starts typing. Just looking at some of the variations using the Google AdWords Keyword Tool can show the difference (which can be used for free and by anyone, by the way):

web design cardiff and variations in the Keyword Tool

According to its results, “web design cardiff” receives c. 2,400 searches per month, while the bottom three keywords – including the aforementioned “web designers in cardiff” – show no data whatsoever, suggesting that search volume is minimal or non-existent. It’s likely that “web design cardiff” has a lot of agencies fighting over it, trying to optimise themselves and their sites for that keyword, simply because of how popular and in demand it is. Likewise, this should suggest that the likes of “web designers in cardiff” will have very few people going for them – after all, why optimise your site for something that no one’s searching for? Therefore, in comparison it should be an easy one to rank for… I bet that keyword sounds even less impressive now, doesn’t it?

How about the website that ranks highly for “web design cardiff” though? Surely that’s a good sign of an agency that knows how to do SEO! Perhaps… While it certainly carries weight to rank for the whale, it may not be a good sign if they don’t also rank for littler fish, either. Maybe they’re focussing all of their energies on just that one keyword? Or maybe they just got lucky?

What’s a business to do?

Someone in the market for an SEO agency may not know all of this stuff, along with how to check for search volumes, and that’s fair enough. If gauging an SEO’s performance on their own rankings, it is wise to check a few rankings in their industry and location(s).

I did a presentation for Liberty Marketing recently and in the Q&A session afterwards I was asked how we rank. Fortunately I was able to say that we do quite well – as I type this, we’re the #1-3 result for searches such as “seo cardiff,” “online marketing cardiff” an even just “marketing cardiff” (even though we don’t provides any offline marketing services whatsoever). We’re also on page 1 for “online marketing agency,” which – with no location keyword involved – means we’re competing UK-wide. Not too bad for a three-year-old agency.

Of course, my advice would be not to go down this route at all. I’ve heard stories of people who have somewhat naïvely recruited SEO agencies by simply typing “seo” into Google and asking the top few results for proposals. Compared to other industries, it’s possible for a site to have gamed the system and used dodgy, black-hat technique to have gotten there in the first place. You could end up hiring someone who engages in dodgy practices which can have long-term damaging effects on your site, or – in the worst case scenario – is simply a con artist.

If it were up to me, I’d work on the basis of recommendations and testimonials. I’d also think about the competition of an industry – a high result in a UK-wide insurance search (likely to be in the 1,000s of searches each month) is certainly going to be a lot more impressive than someone looking for a particular niche product or trade in a small town or city. After all, regardless of the industry, a happy client is what makes a good agency.

[iPhone/thumbs up image credit: Stéphane Delbecque]

The future of music and search?

Love music

Two of my biggest passions in life are music and search engine optimisation. However, one thing that’s always left me a little gutted is the fact that the two really aren’t compatible. People may use Google to look for merchandise, instruments, gig tickets or info on bands they already know and love, but they don’t really tend to put “acoustic music cardiff” into Google to find new local music to check out (at least not many anyway, and certainly no one I’ve ever talked to about it). When I first got into SEO, I experimented with my own music site, the now defunct morgasmic.co.uk (which currently redirects to my MySpace page, until MySpace inevitably goes under, in which case I’ll probably then redirect it here). But of course nothing really came out of that work, except for the realisation that SEO is utterly no good at all for people trying to find new music online.

Well why is that? It’s no mystery how people find new music, and there’s plenty of ways to do so: word of mouth, recommendations from family, friends and colleagues, the radio, TV, magazines, support acts at gigs, all-day gigs/festivals, open mic nights and other showcases, film and video game soundtracks… and that’s just offline. Musicians can certainly optimise their presence online via other alternatives to search: music forums for chatter or Twitter and Facebook (and MySpace, once upon a time…) to broadcast news and attempt to win new fans. But a few things recently have got me thinking. Is there a future for music and online search? Is there a way musicians can optimise themselves in order to be found by searchers? I certainly don’t condone or recommend any of them, but here are a few thoughts I had…

Track/band/album/label name optimisation?

Recently, I’ve been trying to get my music onto Spotify. Supposedly it’s in the process of getting added within the next few weeks, so every few days I do a vanity search to see if it’s on there. There’s already another Steve Morgan on there, whose most popular song on there by quite some margin is called “Ballad for Forest Gump,” which I’m assuming most people have come across when searching for “Forest Gump.” Notice the misspelling as well: a search for “Forrest Gump” brings up a much bigger list, including the official soundtrack, but drop an “r” and the searcher is only presented with a total of eight tracks. Incidentally, I have no idea if Steve #2 has intentionally misspelt the name, or whether it was a typo when it was uploaded, but I bet it’s been found more as “Forest” than it would’ve done as “Forrest.”

Forrest vs. Forest Gump

Admittedly, the searcher was looking for something else, but who hasn’t fallen in love with a band or musician they’ve stumbled across by complete accident? Who knows, maybe my namesake has won a fan or two this way, people who have listened to that one track and then the rest of the album.

Alternatively, what about those who don’t optimise enough? I’m guilty of this firsthand. When I released my second EP, I included a live cover of the traditional Irish song “Whiskey In The Jar.” What did I label the song as? “Whiskey (Live).” I’m a big Jane’s Addiction fan, who once covered “Sympathy For The Devil” but just called their version “Sympathy,” so I did something similar. Of course this wasn’t a particularly smart move on my part, because people looking for “Whiskey In The Jar” would never find my version, even though it is that song. The interesting thing as well is the spelling of “Whiskey,” as it can be spelt with or without the “e.” The spellings generally differ depending on where you live, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people have considered one variation over the other depending on its accessibility and popularity more than its geographical preference. They’d certainly think about it in the business world, so why not in the music industry?

It doesn’t just end with track names, either. What’s stopping someone calling their band something that somebody might be looking for? Or their albums? Have any record labels ever tried it?

Lyrics “optimisation”?

Lyrics pages are like weird word goldmines, where a random mixture of usual and unusual words can trigger all sorts of off-topic long tail search terms. Like the “Forest” example above, it can be another way a musician is found completely by accident.

I saw absolute strangers land on my music site via the lyrics page for all sorts of crazy search terms (I didn’t have Google Analytics installed but Alexa has its own Top Search Queries list). My site once had a few people coming in who were asking Google: “can i go on holiday on parole,” because one of my songs had the word “holiday” in it a few times and another song had “parole” in one line. Aside from alerting me to the fact that travel-loving convicts were finding my website and probably leaving confused, disappointed and with their question unanswered, it highlights the fact that lyrics pages – particularly when lots of songs are all listed on one page – are like goldmines for the accidental long tail.

Length optimisation – shorter songs (but longer albums)?

Not strictly search related, but looking beyond the usual means of getting noticed would be appealing to the likes of Last.fm, which documents the tracks people listen to on their computer, and auto-tweet charts such as Tweekly.fm, which tweets a listener’s Top 3 most listened-to artists on a weekly basis. They work on the basis of number of songs listened to, not the length of time listened, so short pop and punk songs are going to be counted in more volume than 10+ minute progressive rock and post-rock songs.

In other words, if a band decides to write 60 minutes of material, the twenty 3-minute tracks are going to fare better in this instance than six 10-minute epics. It’d be a bit ridiculous if a band decided to base their “strategy,” style and way of songwriting on the off-chance that they’ll be on Last.fm, Tweekly.fm et al more often, but it could work to generating more notice.

Optimisation for the listener – the killer of creativity?

Music is about creativity, emotion, feeling. You give a song a name because it means something to you or your listeners, not because it has more chance of being found. At least that’s what I think, and I bet I’m not alone. But then I was hardly a Gaga or a Bieber in my more regular gigging days (then again, maybe that’s a good thing).

However, in a day and age where thousands upon thousands of bands and musicians try so hard to get themselves heard (pun possibly intended), I wouldn’t be surprised if some budding musicians cotton on to a few of the ideas mentioned above, perhaps come up with a few new ones, and try to get fans by tailoring their music and lyrics to maximise exposure more than through the music itself. Anything to stand out and get noticed.

…Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to form a band called The Lolcat Funny Picture Orchestra and release an album called “Whisky Or Whiskey?,” containing thirty 2-minute songs including “Winning Tiger Blood From Mr. Sheen,” “Lady Gaga’s Latest Crazy Dress” and “(Rebecca) Black Friday.” Keep an eye out for us…

[iPod/keyboard image credit: billaday]