Friday, February 12, 2010

Our search engine optimisation strategy - from two ex-Googlers.

Having worked at Google, Mike and I are often asked for search engine optimisation (SEO) tips and what our SEO strategy is for Shoes of Prey. So we figured it might make a good blog post.

The first thing we should point out is that we're not SEO experts. Google were very open with much of their information when we were working there, but one part of the business that is understandably kept tightly under wraps is what goes into the search algorithms. Even though we don't know what the 'secret sauce' is, to be honest I don't think that matters because there are so many factors that play into how Google and other search engines rank websites that it would be a waste of time to try and focus on gaming any of them even if we knew what they were.

So the basis of our SEO strategy is this (and apologies that what follow's is Google centric, but over 90% of Australian searches are done on Google so that's our focus, plus we liked working there so we're bias!):

Google's mission is to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. In order to achieve that Google ranks websites in it's search engine and it's going to rank websites higher that help it achieve it's mission. Those are websites that give the user the information they're looking for efficiently and quickly, and websites that lots of people find useful.

So we break that general SEO philosophy into 2 parts:

1. What can we do on our website to make it fast and easy for users to get to the information they're looking for?

2. What can we do to ensure lots of people find the site useful enough to want to link to us?

To discuss each of these in turn:

1. An SEO Friendly Website
Often you visit websites and there are lots of ugly links everywhere - and it's just a confusing mess. More often than not this is because the webmaster is a) too focused on building SEO at the expense of the bigger picture and b) disorganised to the point where it becomes a barrier to doing business.

We've taken the alternative approach that we want to make everything as easy as possible. The navigation for our site is fairly intuitive, and the site itself isn't that big. Everything is optimised towards getting the user to understand the concept and start designing a pair of shoes.

In terms of SEO, this almost seems counter intuitive - because we're giving up a lot of opportunities as far as search engines go. However, for us, building an intuitive product is more important because we're ultimately hoping our users will do the majority of our SEO work for us. By building the product primarily for them, and not the search robots, we'll ideally be making our users happy so they'll want to link to us, not to mention boosting our conversions.

That said we still employ some basic SEO strategies on our site. When we started putting the copy together on our website we wanted to determine what were going to be the major keywords for us. So we used Google Insights for Search and came up with some key, common search phrases we thought would be important for us like 'custom shoes', 'design your own shoes' and 'bespoke shoes'. Our website copy talks to those phrases, without going overboard and we try to use them in headings where it still makes sense to a user reading them.

We use Google App Engine for our hosting because it's fast which we assume Google likes. (There may well be faster hosting providers out there and from everything we learnt about Google, there would be no favouritism to Google App Engine users in terms of SEO, other than website loading speed algorithms which would apply to any website). And while we use Adobe Flash for our shoe designer, we didn't do our whole website in flash so the rest of the site loads quickly and there are no issues with search engines accessing the copy on our site.

2. Encouraging Links to Your Website
In terms of getting links to our website, our product goes a long way towards helping this. Following the viral marketing and SEO lessons we learnt from our joke dating site Darwin Dating, we decided to start a custom women's shoe business because we felt it was a buzzworthy idea, a product women wanted and because of this fashion websites and blogs would ideally want to cover us. This has helped bring a lot of traffic to the site and lots of links with minimal effort on our part. Furthermore, we've made it really easy to share your shoe designs with your friends via an Add This button. It's a simple thing, but people are motivated to share their designs and all those links on the web drive us traffic and tell Google that we're a useful site that people like to visit.

Another simple but key part of our linking strategy is our brand name. Google looks at the anchor text of links, along with the surrounding text, to determine what the website being linked to is about. In our case the anchor text people use is usually our brand name 'Shoes of Prey'. A key benefit of this is that Google realises our website is about 'shoes' and that keyword is actually our largest organic non-branded keyword. Had our brand name been 'Zappos' or something non shoe related, we wouldn't get the same benefit. Of course there are negatives to having a generic word in your brand name, as outlined in the brilliant Igor Naming Guide, but one of the reasons we liked 'Shoes of Prey' as a name is that it has both the generic word shoes, and conjures up a strong image, being a play on 'Birds of Prey' so as we see it we get the best of both worlds.

So in summary we don't try tricks like gateway pages, filling pages with boring but keyword rich copy, loading our meta tags with keywords, buying links or link swapping with other websites. In order to fulfil it's mission the engineers at Google are always on the look out for things like this that try to trick search engines. So these SEO approaches can take up a lot of your time and money for little or no benefit. SEO is important and we've made sure we've done some basic, key things, but we feel that the best approach for us is to focus on improving our product. If people love their Shoes of Prey experience they'll write about us and link to us and that's the best thing we can be doing for our SEO.

There are plenty of SEO firms out there that like to charge lots of money for all sorts of SEO strategies which we just don't think are worth the money. An SEO firm can certainly add value when a website is being built to ensure the site is structured in a user and therefore search engine friendly way, but using an SEO firm to gather links to your site or most other strategies pitched to justify an SEO retainer I really don't think add much value.

We'd love to hear your thoughts, do you agree or disagree? Are there particular SEO strategies that you employ that you think are effective, aren't dubious and don't take up too much time to implement?

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