SEO 101 for Publishers & Authors – An Interview with Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin

Web technology is playing an ever increasing role in publishing.  Authors use blogs to create books and generate buzz; websites are a key part of publishers’ book marketing and sales strategy.  But your blog or website isn’t much good if no one knows it’s there.  Generally, people discover your site through search engines.  That’s why it is important to learn the techniques – collectively referred to as search engine optimization or SEO – that will improve your rankings in search results and enhance your web presence. 

Jennifer Grappone & Gradiva CouzinI decided to ask two SEO experts to help us demystify search engine optimization.  Search marketing consultants Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin are co-authors of the bestselling book “Search Engine Optimization: An Hour a Day” (Wiley, 2006).  Together, Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin are Gravity Search Marketing, a consulting part nership dedicated to thoughtful and holistic SEO for clients in a wide range of industries. 

FPP:  Could you provide a good definition of SEO?

Google SEOJennifer & Gradiva:  We use a very broad definition: SEO is anything that a website owner can do to improve the site’s presence on search engines. Some use a more specific definition: promotional work or edits to a website that are intended to improve the site’s organic (unpaid) ranks on search engines.

To get a little more specific, when we talk about search engine presence we aren’t referring to rank alone. Sure, it matters that you’re site is ranked well, but it is also important what terms your site is ranking for and how your listings look.

FPP:  In your book, you focus on setting SEO goals for audience and conversions. Could you talk briefly about what that might mean for a blogger?

Jennifer & Gradiva:  A strong foundation for SEO starts with a look at what you’re trying to accomplish with your site. For a blogger, this could be generating revenue via ads or affiliate links, it could be building a reputation to gain consulting gigs, selling a book or other product, or career enhancement. Take a step back and think about this ultimate goal, so you can be sure that everything else you do with your blog is serving it.

A conversion can be defined as a user doing whatever it is you want the user to do. Say you sell impression-based ads – in this case maximum page views is probably a good choice as a conversion goal. On the other hand, if your goal is to build community and credibility so that journalists will call you for quotes, then measuring the number of comments on your blog might be a better metric for you. We even expand the definition of “conversion” to include off-line activities such as phone calls or walk-in customers to a retail establishment. The key is, you must match your measurements directly to your goals.

Once you have your conversions defined and a way of measuring them, you work on tying success back to traffic sources. Which postings and keywords are delivering the highest conversion rates to your blog? Find those mini-success stories within your own blog, and be sure you’re directing further resources (er, time and effort) the same way.

FPP:  Are there special SEO considerations for blogs vs. traditional websites?

Jennifer & Gradiva:  Of course blogs are websites, so certain SEO considerations are the same, namely, the basic tenets of on-page optimization:

  • Keywords in HTML page titles
  • Well written, compelling Meta Descriptions
  • Keywords in page text

However, blogs have some very special considerations. For one, on a blog every posting is a potential entry page from search engines. That means every page on the site needs to have SEO optimization. You might want to set up some basic rules and guidelines – AKA a Style Guide – for your postings.

Next, there’s the important fact that so many visitors to blogs are coming from search engines other than the Big Shots (Google, Yahoo!, MSN). Every blogger should keep a good eye on blog search such as Technorati, Blogpulse, and so on. While traditional search engine listings generally display the HTML title along with page snippets, these blog search engines display various other combos: posting titles, first 100 characters from the post, or other possibilities. They may or may not include the title of your blog.

Another consideration is the constantly changing content on most blog home pages. Your home page is likely to show in search engines, so we always recommend that some non-rotating content (content that doesn’t change) be included on your home page, to help search engines rank and list it properly. A paragraph describing your blog is a great way to cover this one.

Lastly, a major difference in SEO between blogs and traditional sites is what a link-happy environment the blogosphere is. Links to your blog are one of the best ways to increase your ranks in search engines. Yes, it’s a bit incestuous, but these blog-to-blog links work wonders. And the best way for a blog to gain inlinks is to be an active participant in a community of blogs, as well as linking out to other blogs on a regular basis.

FPP:  What are the most important factors to keep in mind when designing a blog, with respect to SEO?

Jennifer & Gradiva:  The major blog authoring tools will generally have an “SEO friendly” option that allows you to manually edit the HTML Page Title & Meta description for each page. Take the time to write a unique title and description for each post.

Then, dig deeper into SEO options. These will vary with your chosen authoring tool, but WordPress for example has many plug-ins that will allow you to improve the search-engine friendliness of your blog. (For some of the best plugins, see http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/2006/11/blogging-how-tos-technical-tips-and-best-wordpress-plugins.html.)  Look for non-dynamic URLs, permalinks for each post, unique HTML Title and Description. Take a hint from the pros and ignore the Meta Keywords tag – it’s mostly a waste of time.

Here are a few basic SEO rules we’ve put together for blog posting optimization:

  • The blog name contains keywords
  • The blog home page includes a tagline or permanent text describing the blog
  • Posts include links to other posts in the body text
  • Social bookmarking tags are included
  • A feed autodiscovery tag is included
  • The posting title describes the content of the post and can be read as a standalone title
  • The posting title contains keywords
  • The first line of the posting (100 – 200 characters) contains a compelling teaser or summary of the post
  • The HTML Title and Meta Description is unique and individually written for each posting.
  • The permalink URL is meaningful and readable and contains keywords
  • Tags/Categories contain keywords (be sure to include a tag for the overarching subject. For example, most Web Analytics blogs forget to include a tag for “web analytics”)

FPP:  Once a blog is launched, are there blogging practices that will help improve rankings in search results pages?

Jennifer & Gradiva:  Certainly, SEO is an ongoing effort and should be on the blogger’s mind with every post.

To summarize, ongoing SEO efforts should include:

  • Optimizing each and every post
  • Monitoring status on major search engines as well as specialty blog search
  • Active participation in the blogosphere
  • A close eye on web traffic and what people are doing on your site (web analytics)

FPP:  It seems that the use of keywords is an important component of an SEO strategy. Do you have some tips on how to select effective keywords?

Jennifer & Gradiva:  Keywords should be on your mind whenever you post. That doesn’t mean you give every post spammy titles like “Cheap mortgages and Cheap Mortgage Deals are Cheap.” Rather, we’re talking about thinking about what terms people might be searching for that are related to your posting topic, and then being sure to include those terms in key locations on your page, within the context of good writing.

If you want to get serious about choosing high-traffic keywords, you can pay a fee for access to keyword research tools like Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery, which allow you to find out the relative search popularity of terms. This is probably a good idea for newbies – within a few months you may even gain a good enough sense of keyword choices in your topic that you don’t need the research. There are also some free options for keyword research – you can find links on our site at http://www.yourseoplan.com/seo-blogs-tools.html .

We’ll quote Matt Cutts, one of the most well-known bloggers in the SEO world, on incorporating keywords into a post he wrote about changing the default printer for Firefox on Linux (for the full post read here: http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/seo-advice-writing-useful-articles-that-readers-will-love/ ):

Notice what I did with keywords. I carefully chose keywords for the title and the url (note that I used “change” in the url and “changing” in the title). The categories on my post (“How to” and “Linux”) give me a subtle way to mention Linux again, and include a couple extra ways that someone might do a search-lots of user type “how to (do what they want to do).” I thought about the words that a user would type in when looking for an answer to their question, and tried to include those words in the article. I also tried to think of a few word variations and included them where they made sense (file vs. files, bash and bashrc, Firefox and Mozilla, etc.). I’m targetting a long-tail concept where someone will be typing several words, so I’m probably in a space where on-page keywords are enough to rank pretty well. I don’t need anchor-text for “linux default printer” or similar phrases; in the on-page space, I’d recommend thinking more about words and variants (the “long-tail”) and thinking less about keyword density or repeating phrases.

To restate this with a little less jargon: you don’t need to repeat words over and over, because each of your posts should target a fairly niche set of 2 or 3 keywords, and there probably won’t be a ton of competition for these terms. Once you have keywords in your mind, include them in various forms throughout your posting text, in the title, and so on as described in the previous bullet list.

One last comment on keywords: thinking of targeting a single word? Forget about it. Single words (unless they’re very specialized) are generally too competitive and not well targeted enough to be good keyword choices.

FPP:  Are there any benchmarks on how much time bloggers should expect to spend on SEO to help establish and build their audiences?

Jennifer & Gradiva:  Well, our book is called “Search Engine Optimization: An Hour a Day” and we based that on a minimum commitment for a baseline level of optimization with a relatively simple website. For a blogger, SEO practices will mingle with the general writing and marketing efforts for the blog. We aren’t bloggers, but we’re guessing that site maintenance, SEO, blog surfing, promoting, and community-building takes up as much time as researching and writing the actual content of the blog.

FPP:  How do social bookmarking and social networking sites figure in an SEO strategy, if at all?

Jennifer & Gradiva:  They absolutely fit in, if your website’s target audience intersects with the Web 2.0 crowd. One big element of our job as organic SEOs is to help website owners add unique and interesting content to their sites. If you’re successful at building truly buzzworthy content, then you can try to use the social web to your advantage. It helps to know what you want to get out of the social web before you put a lot of effort into it: Are you going for pure branding? If so, set up a branded MySpace page or upload your logo-stamped videos to YouTube. Are you trying to be recognized as an expert on an techie topic? If so, seed your content into Digg. Are you trying to sell refurbished drill bits to manufacturing clients? Yeah… Web 2.0 probably shouldn’t be your highest priority.

Probably the biggest consideration with the social web is to make sure that you don’t run afoul of established etiquette. Building traffic via the social web requires you to get the lay of the land for every site you’re trying to seed so you don’t wind up getting bashed, buried, or ignored. If you come on strong with a heavy promotional hand, it could work against you.

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