BlogHer 2007: Building your audience

Friday, March 30, 2007

Last week, I spoke at BlogHer Business about search engine optimization issues. I presented with Elise Bauer, who talked about the power of community in blogging. She made great points about the linking patterns of blogs. Link out to sites that would be relevant and useful for your readers. Comment on blogs that you like to continue the conversation and provide a link back to your blog. Write useful content that other bloggers will want to link to. Blogging connects readers and writers and creates real communities where valuable content can be exchanged. I talked more generally about search and a few things you might consider when developing your site and blog.

Why is search important for a business?

With search, your potential customers are telling you exactly what they are looking for. Search can be a powerful tool to help you deliver content that is relevant and useful and meets your customers' needs. For instance, do keyword research to find out the most common types of searches that are relevant to your brand. Does your audience most often search for "houses for sale" or "real estate"? Check your referrer logs to see what searches are bringing visitors to your site (you can find a list of the most common searches that return your site in the results from the Query stats page of Webmaster Tools). Does your site include valuable content for those searches? A blog is a great way to add this content. You can write unique, targeted articles that provide exactly what the searcher wanted.

How do search engines index sites?

The first step in the indexing process is discovery. A search engine has to know the pages exist. Search engines generally learn about pages from following links, and this process works great. If you have new pages, ensure relevant sites link to them, and provide links to them from within your site. For instance, if you have a blog for your business, you could provide a link from your main site to the latest blog post. You can also let search engines know about the pages of your site by submitting a Sitemap file. Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft all support the Sitemaps protocol and if you have a blog, it couldn't be easier! Simply submit your blog's RSS feed. Each time you update your blog and your RSS feed is updated, the search engines can extract the URL of the latest post. This ensures search engines know about the updates right away.

Once a search engine knows about the pages, it has to be able to access those pages. You can use the crawl errors reports in Webmaster Tools to see if we're having any trouble crawling your site. These reports show you exactly what pages we couldn't crawl, when we tried to crawl them, and what the error was.

Once we access the pages, we extract the content. You want to make sure that what your page is about is represented by text. What does the page look like with JavaScript, Flash, and images turned off in the browser? Use alt text and descriptive filenames for images. For instance, if your company name is in a graphic, the alt text should be the company name rather than "logo". Put text in HTML rather than in Flash or images. This not only helps search engines index your content, but also makes your site more accessible to visitors with mobile browsers, screen readers, or older browsers.

What is your site about?

Does each page have unique title and meta description tags that describe the content? Are the words that visitors search for represented in your content? Do a search of your pages for the queries you expect searchers to do most often and make sure that those words do indeed appear in your site. Which of the following tells visitors and search engines what your site is about?

Option 1

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Option 2

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When you link to other pages in your site, ensure that the anchor text (the text used for the link) is descriptive of those pages. For instance, you might link to your products page with the text "Inigo Montoya's sword collection" or "Buttercup's dresses" rather than "products page" or the ever-popular "click here".

Links are important for a number of reasons. They are a key way to drive traffic to your site. Visitors of other sites can learn about your site through links to it. You can use links to other sites to provide valuable information to your visitors. And just as links let visitors know about your site, they also let search engines know about it. Links also tell search engines and potential visitors about your site. The anchor text describes what your site is about and the number of relevant links to your pages are an indicator of how popular and useful those pages are. (You can find a list of the links to your site and the most common anchor text used in those links in Webmaster Tools.)

A blog is a great way to build links, because it enables you to create new content on a regular basis. The more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it. Several people at the BlogHer session asked about linking out to other sites. Won't this cause your readers to abandon your site? Won't this cause you to "leak out" your PageRank? No, and no. Readers will appreciate that you are letting them know about resources they might be interested in and will remember you as a valuable source of information (and keep coming back for more!). And PageRank isn't a set of scales, where incoming links are weighted against outgoing ones and cancel each other out. Links are content, just as your words are. You want your site to be as useful to your readers as possible, and providing relevant links is a way, just as writing content is, to do that.

The key is compelling content

Google's main goal is to provide the most useful and relevant search results possible. That's the key thing to keep in mind as you look at optimizing your site. How can you make your site the most useful and relevant result for the queries you care about? This won't just help you in the search results, which after all, are just the means to the end. What you are really interested in is keeping your visitors happy and coming back. And creating compelling and useful content is the best way to do that.