A lot has changed in the world of web design over the last couple of years. When clients approach me these days, there are noticeable differences in their priorities and concerns: wheres before they would mainly be preoccupied with the aesthetics and usability of a website, these days it’s all about search engine visibility.

This is a good thing, in the sense that I no longer have to give a long speech about the importance of substance over style: “It’s not about how good your website looks, it’s whether web users can find it in the first place…”. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had to say this to a client, and it used to be a daily occurrence.

But now the problem is with mis-information about SEO. Everyone realises it’s important, but few people understand enough about it to know what the main priorities should be when approaching a new website build, or planning a revamp.

These are some of the questions I am asked by every client at the start of a new project, along with the type of reply I tend to give – of course my answers are always based on individual scenarios, but for obvious resons I am going to generalise in a major way here.

And before you ask: Q stands for question, A for answer (ahem…).

Q: “I am only after a very simple website, nothing flashy but it’s important that it appears on the front page of Google. Can you make sure of that?”

This is where I generally have to compose myself, take a deep breath and try really hard not to reply with a sharp: NO, which would be the short version of the answer but not very helpful (or polite) indeed. What I do eventually say is more along these lines:

A: First of all, it’s important to identify what you want to be on the front page of Google for. Ok, your company does recruitment. So, what are users going to type into Google that will hopefully lead them to your website as opposed to someone else’s? If you answer is “recruitment”, let me tell you right now – it’s not going to happen, at least not for the foreseeable future. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or deluded. Type that search into Google and look at the results: first of all, the big boys – Wikipedia, a couple of business publications by major newspapers, the BBC. Then, depending where you live, Google will try to serve you some local results (in my case, Glasgow). So, where do you do your recruitment? Let’s focus on some locations. “I don’t want to narrow it down to Glasgow, I can offer my services to the whole of the UK”. Fair enough, but this kind of approach won’t help you one bit. To borrow an old phrase, better to be a big fish in a small bowl. Optimise for local searches.
“Ok, so we’ll optimise for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Scotland, London, Manchester…”. Hold it right there! Let’s be realistic about this – that’s just about everywhere. You are diluting your visibility across ten different, very broad key searches as opposed to concentrating on just a few specific ones. Why not start with Glasgow (much more likely than London), build up your presence there, then expand your visibility one year down the line, once Google has started to take notice of you? And let’s add Scotland as well, but with a bit less focus on it as it’s too generic.
Next: what type of recruitment service do you offer? “All of them”. Great, but again not helpful and probably not strictly true when you really analyse your business properly. It looks to me like you focus on Business to Business recruitment, or B2B. Let’s use that: “Glasgow Business to Business recruitment”, “B2B recruitment Scotland” – now that’s two searches you can realistically hope to conquer.
Having agreed on this point, we usually move onto this type of question:

Q: “So can you put lots of keywords in the code to optimise the site for those searches?”

Another deep breath.

A: I could, but it wouldn’t make any difference. First of all, the keywords meta tag is officially dead. Google ignores it, Bing allegedly only uses it to sniff out spammers. Other meta tags are useful, such as the description and title tags. However, even the importance of these devices pales in comparison with the emphasis search engines place on content. Content is king. Write fresh, relevant content about what you do and how you do it. Explain your services in a clear and concise manner, no sneaky or unnecessary keywords – if you write about the right stuff, the keywords will be in there anyway. That’s what will drive visitors to your site – more importantly, it will be the right visitors, the ones who are actually likely to want your services.

More often than not, this leads to another question:

Q: “I don’t have much content but I trust you to come up with more text. Can you write some optimised content for the site?”

A: I do offer copy writing, but to be honest if your business is highly skilled and specialised, do you really want me to write about it? What do I really know about recruitment apart from looking it up on Google? Only you know about your business well enough to talk about it. Ultimately, building a website should be a collaboration between the designer and the owner – I look after the presentation, you provide the content, which I am more than happy to look at and suggest small changes for the purpose of SEO. If you really don’t have time to write a lot of content, start small and build it up gradually. That’s where a Content Management System comes in handy: I create the first few pages, then you go and create more when you are ready. Just don’t expect your website to reach the Google stratosphere until you have added enough interesting content.

Q: Do I need a blog / Facebook page / Twitter account?

A: You don’t need them, but it helps. A blog on your website will help because Google likes fresh content. Even if you start your website with amazing, rich content, this will only interest search engines for a short while. Eventually, they want to see something new happening on the site. Update your blog evey few days, place links to the latest posts from the homepage, keep Google coming back.
Facebook and Twitter help as long as you can direct visitors from their pages to your website – but be careful, Facebook and Twitter are not meant to be promotional tools (unless you pay for targeted advertising). They are social platforms, so don’t set up the accounts if all you are going to write is: “Check out our website: we offer recruitment in Glasgow!”. Then, after a few days: “We are the best recruitment agency in Scotland!”. And so on and so forth. And why do you think social networks frown at this? Because no one cares about this sort of promotion, it adds nothing of value to anyone’s life, it provokes no discussions, encourages no interaction. Social media is for sharing ideas, for providing something of relevance: something funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, or even downright rude – anything is welcome as long as it makes people want to respond.

If you can engage your audience in this way, if you become a “talked about” item, Google will reward you for it. If you don’t think you can, or you can’t be bothered, don’t open the account in the first place. It’s in fact massively counter-productive to have links from your website to a Facebook page where the latest status update is from three months ago and it states something like: “Looking forward to another week of recruitment. Should be a busy one…”.  Not only is this pointless information, it’s also showing that you have done nothing in the last twelve weeks. Your customer thinks “is this business still up and running?” and probably turns to someone whose Facebook page registers a bit more of a pulse.

I’ll bring this post to a swift close by reassuring readers that I am never as direct and brusque with my clients as I probably sound here. I am extremely patient because I realise that it’s not my clients’ job to know about SEO – it’ mine. I never tire of offering any advice that I can give – and where my knowledge reaches exhaustion, I readily admit it rather than trying to “wing it”. SEO is a vast and complex subject about which everyone thinks they know a lot, but in fact no one actually knows everything – or even half as much as they claim.