Recently we have spent a lot of time working with Search Engine Optimization.  We have a very busy client site that suddenly has dropped dramatically in its ranking with organic search results, and it really matters.  So we have been trying to figure out what went wrong.  Its results are by no means awful… just awful compared to where it was.

SEO involves a lot of snake oil… and some of the SEO specialists out there are pretty much snake oil salesmen.  SEO these days mostly means trying to do well in Google searches.  There are still other search engines out there, but  Google is the big one.  And the way the big G scores sites changes from time to time.  What Google tries to do is return the most relevant search results, and the most relevant results should be pages containing the search terms that are current, frequently updated, often linked to and so on.  So the easiest way to get a good search ranking is to have that sort of site.  I think this cartoon sums it up rather nicely.

There are some external ways to get a better search ranking.  Some of these are pretty dodgy.  You could for example hire a bot network to hammer a site with page requests.  I think Google is on to that one now.  And that is the problem with that sort of approach.  There was a scandal a while ago where  YouTube tightened its view counting algorithm and people artificially inflating the count so as to make money for pay for view sites were complaining about it as if they had been robbed.  Seriously – YouTube figured out that anyone visiting a site for 5 thousandths of a second probably was not a real visitor.  Go figure?

We don’t know a huge amount about the Google algorithm.  We know the sort of things it likes… and the sort of things it’s designed to look for.  We know some ways to influence its results… some of which are ok and some of which to put it mildly are morally questionable.  For example we know that spamming  a site will up its ranking – for a bit.  And there are a few other pretty dodgy techniques.  And we know that some time a couple of months ago there was a major change that hit one of our sites pretty hard, even though that site seems to deserve a pretty high ranking.

With Plone sites typically we add a module called SEOptimiser which allows control of most on site SEO issues.  In its automated mode this module does pretty well.  And manually it allows us to put the code in the same places as if we were editing the HTML directly, (although Plone only has generated HTML that it shows to the world… not real HTML).  This was a Plone site…  and so recently I have manually spent a lot of time doing keywords for 51 pages, and optimizing descriptions and doing the other things that are supposed to help Google and thus improve rankings.

Another trick is to add a sitemap to help Google trawl the site.  Of course this site already had a sitemap.  Building one is pretty much due diligence in setting up SEO.  But one of the changes I made to this site is to install a sitemap building module (that we will use in future on all Plone sites).  It’s capable of building mobile device specific sitemaps too which is  a nice feature.

What we are supposed to do of course is make the site more relevant and interesting and linked to.  That’s really the secret.  Google looks for high quality relevant and current results.  Giving them exactly that is the best policy.  This one is a bit of a problem, however, as it does meet all those criteria – yet still has taken a bit of a dive.  The mysteries of SEO.

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