Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

SEO for non-experts: what you need to know

Why do so many councils have such a poor online presence? I’ve written before about some of the missed opportunities, such as here, but for me the puzzle is as much “what should a council do?” as “why don’t more of them do it?”

Part of the explanation, at least from the councillor side, is average age. Councillors are on average near retirement (58.3 in 2006), which means not many have either grown up with the modern internet age or worked in firms created by it.

The challenge then for the typical older councillor is to have enough knowledge to know what their council could or should be doing and to have some idea of whether or not its staff and contractors are doing a good job.

In some areas councillors are usually good at this; for example, councillors are often intensive email users and well placed to tell whether or not an email system is up to scratch.

Search engine optimisation is an area at the other end of the spectrum – often over-looked by councillors and often not done well by councils. So what does a councillor need to know?

What is search engine optimisation (SEO)?

SEO means a bundle of work in order to make a particular website come out near or at the top of search results when someone is using Google or another search engine.

Why does SEO matter?

For councils, it matters for two primary reasons. First, people often use Google as their jumping off point to find information. With search results, almost no-one clicks on results that don’t come up on the first page, and even on the first page the number of people who click on a search result declines rapidly as you move down the page. So if you’re not on the first page you miss out on getting people coming to your website.

Second, councils often provide information that the public don’t immediately associate with the council. Tips on how to live a greener lifestyle are a good example, Many councils put a lot of effort in to publicising this sort of information, but most online members of the public won’t think, “I’ll see what the council has to say about saving on my electricity bills”. Instead, they go to Google and look for information generally. If you want the council information to be found and used, it has to come up high in the search results.

What does SEO involve?

Most SEO work falls into a research phase and then three areas of activity.

The research phase involves working out what the key information is that the website wants to get over (e.g. recycling information) and then the phrases that the public use when searching for such information (e.g. do people talk about “waste” or “rubbish” or “refuse” when looking for such information?). Firms such as Google provide very detailed information about people’s aggregate search habits for free, so the end result of this search should be a specific list of topics and terms which the website needs to perform well on.

Tip one for councillors: ask to see the list of terms the site is being optimised for. If it doesn’t exist, then either the website team is neglecting SEO or they are doing it poorly. The list may be informally in several people’s heads, on a post-it note or in an email somewhere. So you may need to add some extra judgement about how methodical the work has been and whether that suits the size of council and the budget given to online matters.

The three areas of work then are technical, copy and outreach.

Technical works means the way web pages are coded and the content on them marked up. Some ways of producing web pages are liked by search engines, other ways hide their content from them. This is perhaps the hardest area for a non-technical person to judge. My to three tips, based on what is most often got wrong if people aren’t thinking SEO, are:

  1. Look at the photos and see whether they have any “alt” text set (this is the text that appears if you hover over the photo or right click on it, depending on your web browser)
  2. Are the headlines on the page marked up with H1 HTML tags? Don’t worry if you don’t know how to check this; it’s pretty easy to do, so just ask someone who is a bit familiar with creating websites!
  3. Do the web addresses for individual pages contain real words or are they long technical strings? E.g. will do less well in searches for recycling than

The next area of SEO work is copy: does the text on the site regularly and prominently use the key words and phrases identified from the research? Pages should still read naturally, but they can be written in a way that uses the key terms more rather than less.

The third area is outreach, or “link building”, i.e. getting other websites to link through to yours. The more links you have, the better the site does in searches – though to stop abuse, search engines give more importance to links from well respected other sites. External tools can be a bit hit and miss in the number of links they list, but try going to Google and search for changing “Islington” to your council. You can then do this for several other similar councils and see how the total number of links Google lists compares.

Improving SEO

Checking these areas should give a councillor a good idea of whether their website team is on the ball at SEO, doing it poorly or just ignoring it. Based on that, an appropriate follow-up at the senior level with council staff can be made.

Senior council staff may or may not understand SEO too! But with these answers both sides of that conversation will know whether more detailed follow up is needed down through the organisation – and how to judge whether any follow up really produces results.

Good luck!

Mark Pack worked for the Liberal Democrats 2000-2009, ending up as their Head of Innovations. During that time he often trained councillors on how to make better use of the internet. He’s now at Mandate Communications ( and blogs about politics, history and technology at He’s on Twitter at @markpack.

Google gives an insight into search

One of the key things for any website is findability – in other words, it’s great having a site packed full of useful content, but it’s pointless if no one knows where it is. So, it’s about having good navigation on your site, but also being search engine friendly. Many people’s first port of call will be a search engine, and more often than not, that search engine will be Google. If you want people to visit your site, then, it’s a good idea to know how your site fairs in searches, and to find out how you can improve its performance.

This stuff can be called SEO, of course, although findability is a nicer, if clunkier term, that doesn’t make you think of black hats and registering thousands of Blogger blogs. There are some notes I took at an interesting talk at WordCampUK on the issue of SEO/findability here – essentially the message is “if you write it (well), they will come”.

To help monitor how well your site does in search engines, there are a number of tools to use, including traditional webstats services such as the remarkably free Google Analytics, amongst many others. Google has just released another, though, which looks like it could be really interesting to use, especially on high-profile, high-traffic sites.

Google Insights for Search is a tool to allow you to track and analyse the use of search terms in Google, allowing you to filter by location, date ranges or categories. So, you can whack in the name of your organisation, and track how many times it has been searched on over a number of years, comparing each year. This is useful because you can identify seasonal spikes – and the reverse – so you can anticipate demand, for example.

You can also compare the performance of two keywords alongside each other, again allowing you to track the two and see which are most popular in the searches people are performing. This is a better bet than using traditional metrics, which tend to show what search engne terms people use to find your website – it’s useful to know what related terms people use to find other website, to see if you can include content to pick up some of that traffic.

As I said earlier, this tool really is best used on sites with lots of traffic, as smaller site searches (like “DavePress” as a keyword) don’t register at all! I can certainly see value here for local authorities and government departments though, to see what people search for within their area of interest.

It will be interesting to see how people put this service to use, and how much value is does add in the end. Anyone tried it yet to track their organisations results?

SEO for WordPress

Here’s some notes from the session at WordCampUK on SEO for WordPress, presented by Nick Garner of Betfair. Will tidy up later with more links and stuff.

  1. you can’t hold your website users’ hands the whole time. SEO can make it easier for them to find what they want
  2. What have you got that others don’t? What do you want on your site? Structure your content for search engines, use analytics and get social with links
  3. Using WordPress with the right plugins helps
  4. Content – useful and entertaining? Can the people writing your content actually write well? Need for enthusiasm. Would you read your content?
  5. Jon Bounds tweets – “ I’d love a discussion about whether or not it’s all a bit vulgar, rather than how to do it.”
  6. Who do you want to visit your site? Motivation: PR, money making or ego? Picture your reader and write for them
  7. Think like a librarian when structuring content: correct titles, categorisation, avoid duplication
  8. When building sites, get metadata in first, then the content. Don’t bury under piles of javascript & navigation stuff
  9. The cost of some sites using ‘traditional’ CMS can make you sob
  10. Security issues with WordPress? Can’t do ‘hard baked’ pages?
  11. Get Google Analytics and webmaster console
  12. If you are getting 90% traffic from search engines, that’s bad. About 60% is probably best.
  13. Gaming search engines gets harder as processor grunt increases. Don’t bother putting your black hat on.
  14. It takes time to get right, but can save a lot of marketing pennies
  15. Journalists are cheap – get them to write your content
  16. Can’t beat good writing
  17. Links: general directories are useless.
  18. Pimp yourself around: comment on related sites with link back to yours, put signposts up on relevant sites, be remarkable/stand out so people want to link to you
  19. Getting pageviews is fine, but to what end? You can generate traffic, but what do these people do when on your site except consume bandwidth
  20. Plenty of content, lots of key phrases
  21. 10% of traffic will have commercial intent
  22. Adsense is horrible (agreed!) If you are going to run ads use affiliate schemes
  23. The fundamental thing is that Google wants to find the sites that people want to see, so it really is just about the content
  24. – find out what keywords a site ranks for

WordPressers – make your URLs readable!

I’ve noticed that quite a few folk who have installed their own version of WordPress (as opposed to those that use haven’t got round to making the URLs (the bit that appears in the address bar of a browser) of their posts ‘human readable’.

In other words, they look like rather than

Why would you want to make your links appear in this way?

  1. It helps in search engine optimisation – if the link says something about the content, Google etc like it
  2. It makes it easier for people to know what they are getting before they follow a link to your site
  3. It probably helps accesibility-wise

That’s enough reasons. Anyway, if you are a WordPress user, changing the way your post URLs – or ‘permalinks’ as they are known – is pretty easy. All the options are in the control panel, just click Settings then Permalinks and choose an option from:

  • Default:
  • Day and name:
  • Month and name:
  • Numeric:

I use the second option, day and name. Once you have made your choice, just hit Save. That should be it.

The only complication because of the way a file is setup on your server, called .htaccess. For WordPress to make the changes to your post URLs, it needs access to write to this file. If it, can’t, it will provide you with the code you need to paste into your .htaccess file to get it all to work. Don’t worry, this is pretty simple and you should be able to do it within your web host’s control panel.

Another thing not to worry about are all those links out there on the web linking to your old, number based, post URLs – these will still work!