Any successful SEO strategy starts with a key premise: that your website/blog/page has something of value to offer to your the people you want to motivate. Applying SEO techniques to a site that simply doesn’t meet their needs (or worse, a strategy that lacks an understanding of who they are) won’t really make a lot of difference.
Whether it be a blog or a web application that you’re building, knowing what value you provide (and what that means to the participants of your site) is a critical piece to the puzzle. While with a blog you may be able to get away with not going to great lengths to analyse your audience and traffic sources etc. some of these principles outlined over the jump can be useful.
In this post-Cluetrain world, the term “audience” is not a suitable description for the people we want to communicate with – this process is a two-way street. Other terms like “users”, “visitors”, “targets” or “consumers” are also problematic. That said, I’m yet to see an adequate term – so for this article and others in this series I’m going to use the term “participants” to describe the people you want to engage.
Inspiration and authenticity
There is no sure-fire way to achieve success online. There are plenty of blogs, books and sites that provide lots of great tips and techniques, from developing content to idea generation and more.
Ultimately “inspiration” is going to play a part. An inspired idea or execution of an idea – something “remarkable” in Seth Godin’s words – will go a long way to getting noticed.
Authenticity is also important. People can see through a fake, especially online. In this day and age if you fake it, we’ll find out. The power of social media and all that…
On that note – some of the ideas I present below may seem a calculated. But coming from the right place – providing value for your participants – rather than working out how you can manipulate your target market, is key. The aim is to use these ideas to create inspiration and to understand what your authentic offering/position is.
Understand your participants
The first step, of course, is to get an understanding of the needs of your participants. The principles of user-centered design should inform such a process: understand and put your users’ needs first, and work out what you can offer of value to support those needs.
Ask first, do later
Whilst the most critical thing is to look at things from your participants’ perspective, in my opinion the best way to find out what these needs are is to ask your participants. This may be through online surveys, contextual inquiry, listening to feedback from the feedback form of your site or from email complaints, one-on-one or focus group interviews – any opportunity you can muster will help.
I was first introduced to the idea of contextual inquiry by Stephen Cox (who is currently working at News Limited) and I was immediately drawn to the concept. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Penny Hagen (whilst she was working with Digital Eskimo) and Natalie from Redrollers on a number of projects to do this kind of study and I’ve found the process to be immensely valuable in gaining deeper insight into participant requirements.
But there are a number of methods for getting into the mind of your participants and responding to their needs – the critical thing is to not make assumptions. You are not your participants. This is really important – it’s much better to ask, even if it’s not a formal process or using an imperfect method, than to guess or assume – even if you understand the problem domain and think you have a handle on participant needs.
Analyse website usage
Another useful method of gaining insight into your audience behaviour is via analysis of your website’s usage data. There are a number of tools for doing this, but by far the most cost-effective (IMO) is Google Analytics. If you don’t already have Google Analytics – or equivalent – setup for your website, I would recommend you arrange it ASAP.
Analysing how people access your site – where they come from, what they search for, which pages they visit – can provide excellent pointers as to what works (or what doesn’t) in participants’ experience of your site.
This is not just about what’s most popular though – thorough site usage analysis can also identify patterns of usage that can give insight that goes beyond “what’s popular”, uncovering the hidden opportunities presented by “long tail” thinking.
Develop a strategy for your website
Once you have an understanding of your participants, you can develop a strategy for how your website is going to meet their needs. This strategy should include opportunities for regular updates to your site – search engines like sites that change frequently. You should envision your site as a living thing that evolves and updates over time – it is not something you can “set and forget” (this is something that I see missed by organisations all the time).
Your strategy may also include provision for blogging and other social networking activities. These can play a role in improving your rankings – such as by keeping your content fresh when you update your blog regularly, for example (search engines love regular updates). They can also give you so much more. I have to echo Stephen’s warnings here – social media/networking is also not something you can “bolt on” and you should get advice from someone who understands the space.
You might be wondering “what’s this got to do with search engines?” Search engines are designed to reward content that people find useful. If your website is not meeting this fundamental goal, all the SEO tricks in the book won’t get you very far in the rankings race.
As you can see, this part of your SEO plan cuts to the core of what your website does – it is not something that you can “bolt on” to your site at the end (contrary to what the term “optimisation” might imply). So it’s important to be thinking about this very early in the (re)development of your site.
Tip of the iceberg
With this post I run the risk of trying to explain an entire design process – so I’ve only really scratched the surface of a lot of what goes into the design of a successful website.
But hopefully the key points – focus on and seek to understand your audience, responding to their needs an inspired and authentic way – have come through.
In the next installment I’ll be exploring ways of making information findable in your site.