Last week I was preparing for a couple of basic presentations on SEO. In the course of that prep, I thought a lot about the way website owners tend to focus on small, specific things. In site owner forums, you can see people debating at length things like how best to sculpt the URLs of outbound links from their websites or the relative merits of underscores and hyphens in their page titles.
Click through to their websites and as often as not you’ll see a rudimentary design, poor content with multiple errors, and such a heavy concentration of ads that most of us would click away immediately.
Why, I wondered,would people focus on the minutiae when they hadn’t done the essentials?
Harold Underdown had an answer:
It’s known as “magical thinking” and humans have always been prone to it. We resort to it in situations in which we feel we are at the mercy of forces largely or entirely beyond our control. The difference is that on the Internet, Google is the god, not Zeus, and we don’t know for sure what the best way to placate him is!
As soon as I saw it, I realized that this is exactly the attitude many website owners take toward their sites.
Search engines work for searchers, not site owners.
Search engines aren’t gods, but the main thing website owners should know is that the search engines work for people who use search engines to find things online, not for site owners.
When Google first came out, I didn’t use it. I did a comparison of its results with those of other search engines (I was teaching schoolteachers how to use the internet at the time) and it turned up ads and porn more often than academically useful sites. I recommended that the teachers in my trainings use other search engines, and I used Northern Light, which was at that time a free search engine.
Once Google cleaned up its act — or, as I now realize, changed its algorithm to foil early black hat SEO efforts — I began using it and showing it in trainings. Through continual, determined efforts, Google has been able to overcome sneaky site tricks and provide consistently good results for most search queries most of the time. They have the lion’s share of the market for search. These two things are not unrelated.
You need a good website.
A search engine would prefer to offer its customers — people searching for stuff online — a superior product every time. A baker provides the best baked goods possible within the parameters of his or her business model, a gardener does the best work he or she can with the available tools and soil, and you provide the best product or service you can. That’s a given for business.
When there are lots of websites that might be a good choice for a particular search — say, your dry cleaner and the other 17 dry cleaners with websites in your town — there are a lot of additional factors that come into play for the search engine rankings of those sites. Your beautiful, well built, informative site with the cool graphics and strong social media presence will be in a better position than the site built for the dry cleaner down the street by his nephew a couple of years ago and never updated.
If there are 14 beautiful, well built, informative sites with cool graphics and strong social media presence in your local dry cleaning community, things like hyphens versus underscores might matter. If you have the only professionally built website with a blog, your competitors can spend all the time they like on those little things and it won’t do them a bit of good.
Are you in business?
If you have a hobby website and you love spending your time sculpting outbound links for maximum impact, go for it. People should have hobbies. If you’re in business, you have no business fooling around. You need a professional website, created by a developer, a designer, and a copywriter. You wouldn’t build your own brick and mortar store (unless you were a construction company) and you shouldn’t build your own website, either (unless you’re a web firm). You probably don’t print your own brochures, and you’d be wise to hire pros to design and write them. Chances are good that you’d also be wise to hire designers, writers, and SEO pros for your website.
Build the cost of your website into your business plan just as you would any other cost of doing business. Identify the parts of website upkeep that your company can best take care of and hire people to do the rest. You’ll find this far more effective than magical thinking.
If you’re determined to go DIY…
When I first learned SEO, I was working for a retail store. I had small children, my previous career in college admin didn’t allow me enough time with my family, and I worked in a teacher store for my mommy job. We had a successful brick and mortar store. We also had an online store and made no money with it — in common with other companies in our field. We had no competition in our town.
We tried to find a professional to help us, with no luck. So I learned SEO. It was my full time salaried job. I had an advanced degree in linguistics and had taken computer programming in college. I already wrote for the web, had a personal blog, and had taught internet research skills. I got quite good at it. So can you, if you have the time and the inclination. There’s a lot more information available now than there was back then, including the blog you’re reading right now, and online info about SEO and web design is much more readable now than it was back when only specialists were expected to be interested.
If that’s the best use of your time, then you certainly can do it, and more power to you. Just don’t look for magic little tricks that will take the place of actually learning and developing the needed skills.
Want to keep your dry cleaning business healthy while you learn? Hire someone. The additional income generated by a good website will more than pay for the cost of having your website professionally built and cared for.