The Mysterious Art of SEO | BTalk Australia

Last Updated Jan 28, 2009 1:01 AM EST

Podcast

The Web world is littered with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) companies offering to "optimise" your website so you rank higher in search listings. Whilst most offer an excellent service for customers there are some that will try and beat the sarch engines at their own game. In this edition of BTalk Australia Phil Dobbie speaks to Google's Adam Lasnik who explains how the tricks these companies use can do more harm than good. He also provides tips on what you can do yourself to lift your website's ranking.

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  • Today's Transcript
Phil Dobbie: Good day, I'm Phil Dobbie. Welcome to BTalk. Today: making sure your company's website appears where it should in Google search results. Now the web world is littered with companies offering to optimise your website so you rank higher in search listings and some can use unscrupulous means to try and beat the search engines. Is this fair game or can it do your business more harm than good? Well, of course, Google dominates the search market and we're joined by Adam Lasnik, who's Google's first search evangelist (as he describes himself), working to improve communications between webmasters and Google. Adam, is it worth actually hiring one of these companies that offers to search engine optimise your website or is a good search engine ranking just a symptom of a well-designed website?
Adam Lasnik: You know, there's really no easy answer to that. It certainly depends a lot on both the person and on the company. It's like many things in life: sometimes you have the interest and the ability and the time to do stuff yourself and other times, particularly when you have more complicated situations, you do want to call in the experts.

Dobbie: Are there a couple of things that are obvious that you should be doing on your website though?

Lasnik: Yeah, absolutely, and one of the most fundamental things is to focus on original and compelling content. There are no substitutes for that. And then the second thing on top of that is you want to make sure that that content is accessible. Not only to users on any type of browser or on a phone, but also to Google bot. Because if we can't see it, we can't index it. And working on those two core components, the content and the accessibility --- those are great things that webmasters can do on their own.

Dobbie: One of the ways people used to do not so long ago was to try and cheat on the content --- they made sure there was a lot of verbiage, a lot of words. You saw websites where a lot of keywords were stuck at the bottom of the screen. Your bots are not fooled by that these days?

Lasnik: No. Definitely not. I remember those days actually. Before I was at Google I was doing a lot of webmastering myself, but nowadays it's sort of like putting on too much makeup. You really can see through it and so can Google bot. So it's really not likely to do you any good and it actually, it can end up hurting your site in Google.

Dobbie: Right. The other thing you mentioned was making sure Google was able to understand the structure of your site. What's preventing from happening? What are the common things that people are doing that are making it hard for you to understand the structure and content?

Lasnik: That's a great question and unfortunately we do actually see a lot of times where people have taken great content, but they've put it in a format that makes it really hard for a Google bot to understand. So for instance, they might take a lot of information about their company and put it all into a flash video or put it into another type of video and while that can be really interesting and compelling for users, the Google bot really can't parse through that. It can't even necessarily understand the text and links within a Flash movie for instance.

Dobbie: So what should they do? Should they make up a transcript of their video for example?

Lasnik: You know I think that's, that's one great idea and not only is that going to help Google bot of course, but there are people that are often times browsing through your content on low-bandwidth connections. They may be on a train or they might be on their phone. They might also be sight impaired. So it's easier for them to use a screen reader for instance to read through your content. And so in that type of instance, in fact in general, it's great to have a lot of textual content. I liken this a bit to the way a great cook just doesn't cook with sauces and spices, but works a lot with vegetables and meats, and in the same way I would say the same thing is true with websites. It's all about really great textual content and then using the picture, the photos, the videos, to spice that up. But not to have that as your primary content.

Dobbie: I never thought I'd get into a discussion about website design, then suddenly start feeling hungry in the middle of it. Links are important on a website as well, aren't they? You guys look and say, well ,OK, there's a lot of people linking in and out of this site, obviously this, this is content that people are interested in.

Lasnik: Links definitely are still important to our algorithms, but what's really important to understand is that it's definitely more about the quality of those links, instead of the quantity. One of the misconceptions that I see people stumbling over, unfortunately frequently is,"Oh, we have to just go and get a lot of links. Let's go add our site everywhere, to this directory and that free site and so on. But when it really comes down to it, you're much better served by creating that great content, those compelling tools and then people on the web are bound to discover it, to share those pages and then they're going to naturally link to your site and typically they're going to do so in a way that helps describe what that site is about. So the key here again is links that are relevant, links that are natural and links that come from other quality sites.

Dobbie: Now I get a search engine optimisation company to look after my web site for me and they, I guess, I think the term is over-optimise. They're trying to use some unscrupulous means to try to cheat the system --- to try and rank us higher. Does that happen a lot? How do companies like Google react to these situations?

Lasnik: First, one thing I do want to say is that the SEO industry is pretty much like any other industry in the world. There are some outstanding, really skilled people and organisations that can definitely help webmasters optimise their site to make it more accessible for people and for Google bots. But yeah, certainly there are those bad apples out there. One way to actually spot those folks who are more likely to do your site harm than good, is they may be apt to describe their services with guarantees. "We guarantee you a number one position in Google" or "We offer optimisation with great secrets". "We won't tell you what we're doing but we'll do great things for your site". And that's when I would say, Wow, run in the other direction. Really good SEOs are those that are open, that help explain what they're doing to make your site more accessible, to shine that great content so that more users can see it and that still give you full ownership of your content. They're not making pages that you can't touch for instance. One other really core piece of advice here, particularly for folks who are deciding whether or not to get some outside help, is to not overlook the type of help that Google offers webmasters for free. One of the new features and the hubs that we've put here since I've come on board is called Webmaster Central and if you go to Google.com.au/webmasters, there is a whole assortment of tools, documents with help and advice and guidelines and even a discussion board where you can talk with Googlers and with other experts in the field. So I think using that, either alone or in conjunction with quality SEOs, is really a ticket to having a successful site.

Dobbie: Now there're always amusing stories that come out of search engines, aren't there? I don't know whether this was true or not but if you typed in miserable failure, until recently, you'd find a link to President George W. Bush. Is that, is that still the case on Google or is, has there been subsequent miserable failures that have outranked him?

Lasnik: You know, that's actually what has been colloquially called a Google bomb and it actually really didn't do any measurable harm. Because if we take a step back and look, what is the right answer for miserable failure? It's not the sort of thing that people are naturally going to type in looking for specific content. So it was really more of a silly gag and a prank than anything else. But we realised that a number of folks were actually offended or disturbed or puzzled by that. So a whole bunch of folks, including one really cool fella that I sit next to, put into play some algorithms that really do try and help Google avoid getting duped by those pranks. But you know, again, it really never, thankfully affected anything substantial in search quality and you really don't tend to see that sort of thing much anymore.

Dobbie: Now we've just started BTalk here in Australia and if you search for BTalk, at the moment, and I'm sure over time as, as we generate more content it'll change, but at the moment there's also a BTalk which is a gay bear podcast from Minnesota. So if my mum searches for BTalk she's going to be surprised that I moved to Minnesota, at the very least. And so what can we do to, what can we do to try and get BTalk higher in the search rankings and beat the guys from Minnesota for Australian listeners?

Lasnik: Yeah, I'm guessing there's not a whole lot of content overlap there.

Dobbie: No.

Lasnik: I can definitely see why you'd like to distinguish yourself. We see this also occurring with people that have common names. I once was dating a very nice woman who said, no I am not that actress who was in that horrible movie. So if you do Google me, make sure you don't get me mixed up. But there are definitely some things that folks can do and companies can do. One of the best strategies is to --- and I think you actually highlighted it yourself --- continue making good content and to build out your site. The more pages you have, the more quality content you have, the more Google bot can see and the more Google bot can understand what your site, what your company is about. So particularly when people type in BTalk Radio or BTalk Technology, I would hope and assume, particularly with that type of search, that they would be absolutely out to get your site and not the other site in Minnesota. But even so, just typing in BTalk, over time as you build up your site, Google is much more likely to better understand people want your site and not the other one.

Dobbie: So the changes over time is what's important. I mean, are there, are there any quick wins other ways we can get to the top of our ranking quickly?

Lasnik: You know, it's very much the way I see finance and stocks. There really are no quick and easy answers. No quick wins. No get rich quick, in fact. Slow and steady definitely wins the race. Having great content over time, building it up slowly but surely, that's going to be the great answer for the long haul.
See also: Get Your Website Right