by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
What do farmers need to know about search engine optimization (SEO)? Plenty, according to Mike Vysocka. He presented a recent webinar, “SEO 101: Building Digital Impact for Your Business,” hosted by the Business of Food & Farming. Vysocka is a business and technology application specialist in Extension information technology with North Carolina State University.
SEO is how search engines rank websites when users look up information. Google is one of the most widely used search engines.
Writing a blog or website with SEO means that people can find your website more readily. “You may have a site and a template and some content,” Vysocka said. What a website owner wants is to appear at the top of a search, not on the third page. “There is a lot of black magic and shady companies out there. The second you register a domain, you get a lot of emails and postal mail about how they’ll help you rank at the top. Some over-promise and aren’t doing the fundamental things you should do.”
While it may seem complicated, Vysocka said many website owners can do much of this work themselves; however, “you may get to a threshold where you need professional help.”
As for what Google cares about, that’s up for debate. “If Google told us it’s ‘X, Y, Z,’ everyone would do it,” Vysocka said.
He estimates that about 20% of what Google wants is known and that’s what he focuses on. “The big thing is the fundamentals,” Vysocka said. “There’s no magic bullet or smoking gun that will send you right to the top. Don’t try to use too many wrenches and bolts to make it rank well.”
Since Google is a program and not represented by an actual person, websites’ appearances are not that important to the search engine. Google tries to analyze what the website is about so that it can rank it on the returns when a person searches using the same words. It may seem like including those keywords is a good idea; however, Vysocka said, it’s not. If that block of text includes the keyword too many times, Google knows that it’s being overused.
Instead of stuffing a paragraph with 30% keywords, 5% to 10% is more natural-sounding. By using more synonyms or closely associated words, the text sounds more natural – and will include more keywords.
“Any time you think you are outsmarting Google, you are probably not,” Vysocka said. “They’ve seen hundreds of tricks people are trying.”
Choosing keywords is very important and has a big impact on your SEO, Vysocka said. He noted that some words are regional, such as “pop” in the Midwest, “soda” for the coasts and “Coke” for the South when referring to carbonated soft drinks. “Your audience may have another word in their head,” Vysocka said.
One way to help know what keywords are appropriate is to use Google Analytics, a tool website developers use to find the most effective words for helping their website turn up at the top of search results.
“If I’m looking for content on industrial hemp, I might type in ‘Why does hemp’ and a space,” Vysocka said. “Others are Googling things like this. This could be a title for a post. It can give you ideas.”
Reviewing trends.google.com can also help web development since it shows what’s popular in searches.
Vysocka said it’s important to “not get cute” with the domain name. Misspellings with a double meaning may make it difficult for people to find the site. Names that are hard to pronounce will cause constant problems when spoken over the phone.
“If you have to, you can get multiple domain names to direct them to your site,” Vysocka said.
When developing a site, the placement of words in the headline, paragraphs or links also affects how the page ranks.
“What would Google do to make sense of this page?” Vysocka said. “Take the words in the headlines to give them more weight compared with the words in the paragraphs.”
A common mistake he has observed is when web content developers lack structure in their pages. One huge block of text is hard to read for visitors to the site.
“Google can assess that it’s only one paragraph,” Vysocka said. “It won’t make it seem that high quality. More paragraphs makes it more usable to readers so Google will think it’s more approachable. You can add some subheadings and images to make it better.”
Using keywords in those headings helps Google rank the site more highly as well.
Long-winded headlines aren’t a great idea because at about 55 to 65 characters, it gets cut off. Headlines should also be meaningful and specific. For instance, “Fall Plant Sale” is much too vague.
“Which year was it?” Vysocka wondered. “When was the fall plant sale? Where was it? A two to three word headline is too vague.” Around eight to 10 is about right.
Phrasing headlines as a question can aid in making the site rank higher because that’s how some people will search online.
“Don’t make every title a question, but if it does feel natural and it answers a question, this will help,” Vysocka said.
On “About Us” pages, business owners should make it about the business, not themselves. Ego tripping can reduce the SEO.
Making good links with other sites can extend the reach of your site; however, Vysocka warned against “link farms” since Google frowns on them. Link farms are pages that SEO companies use to list links instead of allowing linking to happen organically.
“If you’re a farm and North Carolina State links to your site, that helps your score,” he said. He also said instructing site visitors to “click here” using hyperlinked text is less helpful than using the actual words for the page or download you mean, such as “Download our Tall Fescue Management Guide” rather than “If you want our guide to tall fescue management, click here.” The former tells both Google and the user what the link is about. Plus, when people search for the phrase you use, “that helps your reputation,” Vysocka said.
Many people use plenty of photos and illustrations on their websites. This can make the site more attractive to users; however, Google doesn’t recognize photos. It knows that users want photos, though.
Vysocka also said people building their websites should accompany photos with text to caption them or an Alt tag or both for accessibility reasons. Software that reads screens cannot read photos. “Alt text won’t show up in the design,” Vysocka said. “Only a screen reader or Google can see it.”
Google also reads photo file names, so using a descriptive name instead of picture1.jpg helps improve the page’s ranking.
“Use a hyphen to separate words,” Vysocka said. “Google sees it as a space. The same is true of page names.”
Google also cares about how fast your site loads, since slower sites provide a poor user experience. The site design must allow mobile users to easily access the site. For example, buttons too tiny to tap with a finger means a poor mobile site.
Google recognizes how often you update the site and whether or not it’s appropriate for the type of business you operate. For example, a seasonal business wouldn’t need to update as often as a year-round type of business. Site maintenance is important too.
“If you have broken links, it looks like you don’t take care of your site,” Vysocka said.
Google also pays attention to how long your site has existed.
“This is interesting because a lot of people think they can buy the name, do all these things and jump to the top of the results,” Vysocka said. “It’s out of your control, but if you’re thinking about a business, it’s better to get yourself out there with a page and then build it. You won’t climb to the top overnight. It ranks billions of webpages across the globe.”
Vysocka recommends setting up a Google Business listing. This may result in receiving a physical postcard in the mail that bears a code to enter. The postcard verifies your physical address.
Vysocka said that websites should never copy any content from other sites. Not only is that unethical, but “Google does have a duplicate content policy,” he said.
NCSU’s tool for increasing SEO is at go.ncsu.edu/seo-starter.