SEO Secrets for Business Sites with Ann Smarty
By Virginia DeBolt on August 04, 2010
BlogHer Original Post
In the first BlogHer interview with SEO expert Ann Smarty, we talked about how you can improve your search engine rankings and build your traffic as a blogger.
Rhiannon Wilson left a comment on that post, saying,
I think these are great tips for bloggers. But like she said, blogging is more network focused, but as for us eStore owners, search engines are our lifeblood. We get 80% of our traffic directly from search engine searches. I would love to hear her tips for eCommerce websites.
I contacted Ann Smarty about the idea. She said she would be willing to do another interview with me, this time more focused on business. I sent her some of my own questions and a few I got from a quick email exchange with Rhiannon.
Q: Does the type of business make a difference in the SEO approach?
A: Absolutely. The type of the site, niche and the content it has -- these are decisive factors when it comes to developing an SEO strategy. Blogs build links on their own (therefore, I usually recommend starting a blog at the same domain as the ecommerce site) while commercial websites are harder to both optimize and build in-coming links.
I usually evaluate the future SEO approach on a case-to-case basis: how easy will it be to promote? Will I be able to take advantage of my existing connections or will I need to build new ones? How strong are the competitors? Which platform does the site runs on and how hard will it be to optimize it? Which SEO tactics did the site implement previously? Does it have any entertainment/educational/other value to get people link to it? The questions are plenty!
Q: What's the most important factor in business success in terms of SEO?
A: Time. You should never hurry when it comes to organic rankings. When you have a new site and start changing everything actively or building links, you may raise a red flag. Once you're suspected of shady tactics, you may find it hard to get rid of the bad association for a long time. And that may result in years of forced lower rankings no matter how hard you may be trying.
Therefore my first advice to new businesses (or those businesses that are just coming online) is to take it easy to be safe.
Q: What are some common mistakes you see people make when trying to create a successful ecommerce site?
A: Bad navigation which results in a bad user experience and hard work for search crawlers trying to access deeper pages. Creating a clear structure has never been easy, especially for sites with lots of products hidden deep below the top category pages. I did a post once on how Amazon has been changing its navigation menus over time, which demonstrates how difficult the process really is: Amazon Navigation Menus Evolution.
Pagination is another thing that makes the deep pages hard to find for people and search engines. Besides, pagination creates some duplicate content problems because all the pages have the same title tags and only differ in numbers.
That being said, the absence of clear structure is the most frequent problem eCommerce sites come across.
Q: Are there other common mistakes you see people make when trying to create a successful ecommerce site?
A: First is trying to do that on their own. Please don't think that I'm overestimating my profession here. I have honestly stated in my previous interview that blogs almost never need SEOs. But eCommerce sites do. The structure is too complex and the amount of content is too huge. Chances are that you will need an SEO consultant to guide you through the whole website development process.
The second one is neglecting new trends in HTML, coding, web development, etc. There are so many template-driven eCommerce websites that have no new trends implemented. For example, nowadays, we have Microformats and RDF. Those get integrated by Google and help it better understand the site structure and contents. Here's some basic info for you to better understand what I am talking about:
Q: Can social media contribute to an SEO campaign? If so, in what way?
A: For sure. Social media marketing has greatly evolved. Three years ago, social media sites were used to mainly drop links via bookmarking and voting tools. Now, it's about building connections. People link to you because you are in the same social media community. It's about mutual interests, benefit and collaboration.
Besides, Google has been actively implementing social media in the algorithm. For example, it has included "real-time" (Twitter) search in its search results as well as the results from your social media circle. That being said, Google should be already implementing social media mentions, links, etc in the algorithm and will soon do that officially.
By being "socialized," you and your brand get visibility. So that social media presence affects your search standing both directly and indirectly.
Q: I see advice that keywords should be inserted into a site in an organic way so they make sense to human users as well as search engine indexing. What's your opinion on that?
A: Absolutely. I have never believed in keyword density. Making the content useful and readable to human readers is the priority. Besides, Google is getting much smarter and soon will easily spot and filter out artificially "SEOed" content. To some extent, it is already doing that.
You may think about keyword prominence though. This is putting your keyword in the most prominent places of the page: i.e. title, tag, headings, etc. Those help Google to identify your important keywords and help the user to quickly scan your pages and understand what they are about.
Q: Rhiannon asked how you identify the best keyword phrases to target.
A: The best sure-fire way is to judge from experience. Of course you will need some initial research to get started. I suggest using Wordtracker (paid), Wordstream (paid & free) and Google's Adwords (free) tools for that.
But after your site has been live for some time and started getting some search referrals, it's (almost) all about watching and adapting. See which search referrals start getting traffic and enhance those (maybe add content and links). Then watch again: identify new keywords that start driving traffic, compare your search referrals among different search engines (e.g. Bing versus Google), etc.
You may be REALLY smart at researching keywords, but even with research, you can't 100% precisely predict which word is going to perform how until you actually test it.
Q: Rhiannon's also interested in links. Are reciprocal links still a good idea? What's a good link building strategy -- especially if you're just a one-person operation and don't have a lot of time or money?
A: They still work no matter what you may hear but I wouldn't focus on that. If you only build reciprocal links, you may look suspicious. Variety is the key to looking natural. Write useful content and guest post with it (linking to your site), create social media profiles linking to your home page, do press releases: get engaged in various link building activities and you will see the results.
Q: The last question from Rhiannon is about article marketing. Should you submit articles to directories (and how many directories)? She asked about "article spinning." I don't even know what article spinning is. Could you explain what it is and tell us whether you think it's a good idea or not?
A: Article marketing can still be used, but it is outdated. "Article spinning" refers to (often automatically) changing the order of sentences and wording to make content look "unique" to Google. I say, this is a bit of a dirty tactic. I see it as trashing the web with useless articles. It won't drive much benefit. You can watch this video for some info on how this all works and how it may not be worth your time.
My rule of thumb is simple and straightforward: if you want to benefit from something, contribute first. You need to give to get. This is my idea behind My Blog Guest as well. Guest posting looks much nicer to me: you share your expertise, you contribute a well-researched piece of content and let the blog owner benefit from it, and you get a nice permanent unique link from the niche authority. You also get reputation and brand awareness. Here's a nice post we once had on how article marketing is different from guest posting.
Thank you to Ann for this great information and for the previous interview. I learned a lot and I think BlogHer readers will too.
Ann's last comment on her advice is,
I tried to keep things simple but some questions were so HUGE that I couldn't help mentioning some boring stuff. I still hope my replies will turn out to be useful!
Where to find Ann Smarty.