"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: How to Keep Your Website Optimized for Google: An Interview With Simon Heseltine by Penny C. Sansevieri

I spent a bit of time recently with Simon Heseltine. He is the director of search engine optimization for AOL and Huffington Post. I met Simon at an event a few months ago and I have been eager and looking forward to this interview. 

PS: I was talking to you before we started recording about an article that you wrote about making sure your website is up to snuff, and doing what it needs to be doing. A lot of us build our sites, and then forget about them. If somebody had a site up for about a year or so, what are the kinds of things that need to be done? Things that we may not look at enough on a regular basis?

SH: Well, Google makes so many changes to the algorithm on a regular basis. In 2010, it was over one per day. Now, some of those you are never going to notice, it is moving the strength of a certain element from .01 percent to .015 percent; but some of those really big ones you do notice. Last year we had some huge updates that really did hit a lot of different websites. If you are not really taking a close looks at your website and not looking at the analytics on a regular basis, you will not notice the impact some of these smaller ones have had on your site. You could be getting pecked away at piece by piece if you are not continually looking back to make sure that you are in fact up to date with your search engine optimization efforts. Then of course you have the issue of your competitors out there; they are building links or modifying their sites. You need to make sure that you are on top of that and can identify with what is going on with them. 

PS: Business owners are out there listening to this saying, "Yeah, I get it, you're right." With Google changing their algorithms, I remember there was a time when it was once or twice a year. Now, if a month goes by and they don't do it, it is surprising. How does a business owner know what to do with their site to keep it up to par?

SH:There are many different sources to read to find out about the latest news. Google Webmaster blog now puts out a monthly report that gives you a high level overview of some of the changes in the previous month. It is not going to give you in-depth details, but it is going to let you know that they have made modifications. It will give you an idea of what kind of things you need to look at.

PS: Please talk more about what is in your blog; you mentioned "search yourself." How is that useful when you are trying to figure out if your site is still up to snuff?
SH:Well, when you go out there you do need to take a look every now and again to see what people are seeing when they search your key terms. Is it the brand or the key terms? Now more often than not you are going to be focused on those key brand terms, you have got to be focused on whatever it is you are trying to sell, or the title of your latest post. You might forget to go and take a look at your brand itself. It is possible that something may have atrophied on your site. Some plug-in may have failed; some code may have been inadvertently pushed-out there. Suddenly you have lost your description tag. Suddenly what is being shown in the search results is not a good call to action. Or it could just be that your site links, which is when somebody searches for you, they get six to 10 different blue links directly below your name that link to specific pages on your site. Google considers them to be good pages on your site, but they are not always the best pages on your site. They are not the pages that you are trying to direct traffic to; so you want to go in there and see what ones you don't want in there. You then have the ability to go in to you Google Webmaster tools and say that I do not want that particular site link in there.

PS: The other piece on your blog was "Eat your own dog food." I love that phrase! Please talk to us about what you mean about that. 

SH:Every now and again go through your order process. Order some of your own product. Figure out if it is as intuitive as you think it is supposed to be. Have somebody on your staff who is not involved with development, go in and place an order for your product. Watch them, see how it goes with them, and see if anything has changed. It could be that something is not as intuitive as you think it is. In my past life as a developer, I knew how the users were going to use the site. It didn't mean they were going to use it that way, but I knew how they were going to use it. So you do need to go through and actually eat your own dog food. Run through your entire process yourself to make sure it is as intuitive as it needs to be. 

PS: That is such a good idea. We try to do it once a quarter and I am horrified when I see the "404 page not found." The other issues are the plug-ins. A lot of people are using Wordpress as a platform. Our site is built entirely in Wordpress and plug-ins sometimes give us a lot of issues with the loading of the site and what not. 

SH:The thing about relying on a third party is, are they reliable? Is that plug-in going to give you what you need from it, is it going to be there, or is it going to fail? Is it going to continue to be up-to-date with the newest versions of wordpress? 

PS: Have you been seeing a trend with virus issues? Not necessarily getting hacked, but last week we had a situation where someone loaded our site and something came up that said there is a virus. Somehow it embeds itself into the site. Have you been seeing that?

SH:Yes, I have been seeing a bit of that. In fact I did an article in February on Search Engine Watch. It talked about somebody who had been running for state senate, her wordpress site had been hacked and displayed information on Canadian pharmaceuticals. When I did a search on some of the key phrases I found on her site, I found a large number of sites that used the same version of wordpress that her site was using, and they had the same issue. They had been hacked and the Canadian pharmaceutical stuff was embedded, you could not actually see it on the page, but links were hidden in the background of her site. If you are using Wordpress, you need to make sure that you are using the latest version. They will let you know when they are having security issues, so make sure you have updated as soon as you can. 

PS: What is the best way to inspect yourself? Going through page by page? How do you recommend somebody do this?

SH:There are different crawlers out there that allow you to do a crawl on your website, they will come back and say what the issues are that they found. Whether it is broken links or incorrect links, missing descriptions or multiple tags, they will come back and let you know what these issues are. You can then determine whether or not they are worth fixing. One tool that I use is Microsoft's IIS SEO toolkit; it is a great little tool. You run it and it crawls up to a million pages, and then gives you a list of errors on the site.
I will tell you a little story about inspecting your site regularly; there was someone that I was talking to the other week who was having an issue with their site. Their rankings started to drop off and they could not understand why. I took a quick look at their site and found that every page had no index on it. This tells the search engines to not put this page in to their search index. They were telling the search engines that we do not want to be found, and that is why their rankings were dropping. This impacted them quite heavily, and it was not them that did it. There was a third party that was hosting their website. That is why you need to keep an eye on things, look at your analytics regularly with daily or weekly reports. 

PS: What do you feel is the best analytics program out there?

SH:There are all kinds of different ones. I am from Yorkshire where we are careful with our money, so you know Google Analytics is a very good price at free. 

PS: After speaking to various people who have said that they do not know how to read their analytics, the better question is "Which analytic is easier to understand?

SH: It comes down to comfort really. Getting in there and playing with them and seeing which one is more intuitive. I have worked with Webtrends, Omniture, and Google Analytics, Clicktracks and WebSide Story, there are lots of them out there. It is a matter of which one you find works the best for you. There are other tools that you plug on to the analytics that can present the data in different ways for you. Again it is a matter of your own comfort level.

PS: Two more quick questions on analytics. What is the most important number to look at on the analytics? The second question, what is a reasonable bounce rate? That tends to be pretty confusing for a lot of people.

SH:To the first one, a really good answer is "it depends." It depends on what your business is. If your business is e-commerce ,then what you care about is your conversions. Then you will want to look at the whole conversion funnel, see exactly what percentage you are getting through, what your click rate is coming in, what your conversion rate is on the end. See if there are ways to funnel more people through. If you are not an e-commerce site, but purely a CPM-based advertising site, "it's about getting bums on seats." It is about getting the eyeballs on your site, getting that traffic there and that is what you are looking for. You are looking at your page views, you are looking at your organic traffic and that is what is most important for you. 

As far as bounce rate goes it depends on the type of site and page you have. Obviously anything that is 85-plus is not good. I had somebody ping me about a site they were working with that had 100 percent bounce rate -- which is not good at all. It does depend on the site and content on that page. It is possible to have a page with a high bounce rate that is still performing well for you. If the terms the people are coming to that page for are really broad, then potentially you are hitting that percentage of the traffic that did want to find you. In that case you need to look at the keywords that are driving the traffic to that page, and really tighten that page up so that it is more focused around those particular keywords, and you can ignore the rest of the stuff that is not driving your traffic or conversions for you. Or if you do want to grab that broader traffic as well, then create another page that is targeting that more specifically.

PS: It is an important number for business owners to look at when they are trying to figure out how effective their site is. Not just pretty, but actually working for you.
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