Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The relevance of search (and how to improve your rankings)

Search, search, search - it's been a popular topic for years but most people I talk to still only pay lip service to ensuring that their website is appropriately findable on the web, or that their own website and intranet's search tools work effectively.

With the large number of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) companies around, it can be difficult to distinguish the good from the bad and personally I've avoided using any of them at all.

However I do spend a lot of time thinking about search. It is important for my agency that our customers can find us online. It's even more important that they can find relevant content when they reach our site.

So how important is it to rate well in search engines?
The graphic below (courtesy of RSS Ray), is derived from accidentally leaked AOL search statistics from Google searches in 2006 and provides an insight into the relevant importance of the top ten search terms in a results page.

The first search result in Google accounted for over 42 percent of clicks through to the AOL site, with the 2nd and 3rd results counting for another 20 percent.

After this the share drops rapidly. In total, 89.82 percent of clicks were from the first page of search results.

What a top google search ranking means to your bottom line - the value of search engine optimisation

So clearly being at the top of search results is extremely important if you want to attract attention, and you do not want to be out of the top ten results.

For intranets it's also a productivity tool. If staff can find information faster it means they can complete their task faster. If your agency sees 60,000 searches per month and can save 5 seconds of scanning results for each search, that equates to a saving of 83 hours per month - or 1,000 hours per year. That adds up.

For which terms do you want to be findable?
It's fine to search for your organisation's name (and acronym) and find it is at the top of a search engine's results. That's quite common for government agencies because of how results are weighted. In fact if you are not the top result for your own name you do have a major issue to address.

Common search behaviour is task-based, not category or organisation based.

Most people don't think 'I need to get rental support' and then search for 'Centrelink'.
They look for 'rental support'.

Therefore your organisation needs to place well for all tasks and services for which your customers might search you.

Think of all the services your organisation provides and test them in Google, how well does your organisation rate?

Ways to boost rankings
Once you've established how well you rank the next step is how to improve rankings.

There are a number of simple ways to do this without involving specialist consultants or questionable tactics.

The first step is to ensure that the text on your pages contains the appropriate keywords high in the page, and in titles and subheadings as appropriate. If the page is about rental assistance, then make sure it is titled 'Rental assistance' and mentions this again in the first paragraph.

The second step is to ensure the page HTML code uses appropriate tags for headings and subheadings. Most search engines treat a <> as more important than text that is simply 18pt and bold, and so on down the chain.

Also ensure that appropriate ALT tags exist for images (except for decorations). These also assist search engines understand the subject of the page and its contents.

Next, make sure that links throughout your site are well-formed. Any linking to the rental assistance page should include 'rental assistance' in the link, not simply 'click here' or another meaningless phrase. This also ensures the links are WCAG compliant.

You should also check that appropriate meta data is in place - this is not that important for search engines these days, but is still within your control to influence.

Finally, make sure that you have put a Google sitemap in place. This helps Google know which pages are most and least important in your site and how often they should be 'spidered' or reviewed by the search engine.

It also helps to have other people link to your organisation's site - with appropriately named links - however this is less under your control and link swaps are generally only beneficial when swapping with an organisation with a high level of trust - such as another government department.

What about website and intranet searches?
Much the same philosophy applies to website and intranet search - people are likely to click on the top results, so it is in an organisation's interest to ensure that the link they want people to click to is at the top - it saves time and frustration and can have a direct (positive) impact on productivity.

You also have ways to influence the search order by tweaking the search engine - possibly by setting up 'best bets', 'feature pages', 'like terms' or by adjusting how the tool weights different aspects of the page (meta data, headings, content, links, etc).

These vary so widely between search tools that it's hard to provide a basic approach.

We use feature pages in our website search, for instance for calculator searches, where a featured result appears at the top.

In our intranet we also use spelling correction and synonyms to help people find the right pages, and recently introduced category-based searching. I'll blog more on that after our next intranet satisfaction survey.

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