5 key lessons from Smarter Planet SEO efforts
As you may know, one of my many hats is the search lead for IBM.com Smarter Planet content efforts. I was assigned the project midway through the roll out of the 22 topics. It was a tough project for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the topics are highly competitive, though not in the typical way for IBM campaigns. Many of our traditional competitors do not have the ability to serve in the way the IBM can for smarter planet initiatives. They don’t have the breath of products and services, nor the global reach to participate in solving these problems in the end-to-end way IBM can. But other companies and governmental organizations are working on these problems–perhaps not end-to-end, but bit-by-bit. For IBM to develop the credibility it needs to gain organic ranking in these areas–for which it’s brand is not traditionally recognized–takes time and patient partnering. That, in part, is the subject of my last blog post.
Still, I took the challenge head on and started working on it. When I started, we had had an agency helping us with SEO, so all was not lost. But a quick audit found a lot of issues. After a one-month assessment period, I made more than 150 specific recommendations for how to improve the search effectiveness of the pages. As we implement these recommendations page by page, we are starting to yield results in the form of better search rankings, more sustainable organic traffic and higher engagement rates for visitors. When I started only one topic ranked on the top page in Google for the chosen keyword. Now seven do; and many more are moving up. Our traffic has steadily increased to these topics. And our engagement rates from organic search are pushing 50%.
I have distilled the five most important smarter planet search recommendations into one blog post for easy reading. If you do nothing else with your pages from a search perspective, consider these five things and you will see improvement.
1. Err on the side of relevance over demand in your keyword research
I did a deep analysis of our keywords and I found relevance issues with many of them. The agency had suggested high-demand words that seemed relevant from a cursory perspective. But the writers didn’t always agree with the words they chose. The gulf between the writers and the agency was instructive. The agency was listening to the writers and the writers were speaking their minds, but somehow the words that came out of the keyword discovery process didn’t pass the relevance test for the writers. I suspect keyword demand–the number of search queries on a keyword in one month–was driving the ultimate choice of the word more than relevance–the degree of change the content makes in the minds of the audience divided by the effort needed to process it (that’s how we define it in our book).
The goal is to find the right balance between those two things. If you don’t have enough demand, optimization doesn’t help much. But if you don’t have enough relevance, you’ll never rank well anyway. The very process is one of compromise. But if you err, err on the side of relevance. Why? Well, if your keywords are not relevant to the audience coming to your site from search engines, they will bounce. Not only is this a bad user experience, but Google counts bounce rates on your pages and will penalize you for high bounce rates by knocking your page down in the rankings.
We were erring on the side of demand, and I needed to change our decision criterion to err on the side of relevance. Once I did that, we pulled new keywords for more than half of our topics, in some cases painstakingly reworking the content to ensure that the writing is tightly relevant to the words. The whole exercise was liberating for the writers, who felt more able to tell the real story than one seen through glasses colored by keyword demand. As an editor by trade, it made me feel especially proud because I had used keyword research to improve the content, not just to drive traffic to it.
2. Create meaningful URLs
With some 4 million marketing pages on ibm.com, URL strings can get L-O-N-G. Even if you put the the keywords in your URL, if it is eight levels down the directory tree from the root, Google will not give you credit for having the keywords in the URL. So my second recommendation was to change the URL structure to get the keywords in the fourth position after ibm.com, for example, http://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/healthcare_solutions/…. Here the keyword Healthcare Solutions is in the fourth position from the root, and Google gives us a lot of credit for that.
3. Build a search-optimized architecture for your topics
The hard parts involved working with colleagues in IBM who have complementary pages and developing strategic linkages with them. Starting with the Home Page, where we inserted a persistent link to Smarter Planet in the masthead, and going down through our strategic relationships, we have developed a lot of internal links to smarter planet topics. We still have a long way to go to get all the links we need with related ibm.com content efforts. But the governance model of working with these colleagues is in place and will bear fruit in the form of link juice (and a better user experience) as we continue to build out our topics.
4. Implement a social media strategy
We devoted a whole chapter of our book to this, so I have been vocal in my recommendations for Smarter Planet here. The whole point of this is to develop collaborative bonds with experts and other influencers both inside and outside of IBM around smarter planet topics. If ibm.com/smarterplanet can become a hub of authority, through which experts can connect and share ideas and information on relevant topics, link juice will follow. They will link to smarter planet topics, smarter planet topics will link to them to support our content. The whole experience will become a prettier version of Wikipedia, where a community of experts (IBMers and non-IBMers) contributes to a body of knowledge. That’s the vision, anyway. We are working to make that vision a reality.
The first step is to optimize the Smarter Planet Wikipedia page. I have a lot of work to do yet. But I cleaned it up, updated it and fixed the way we make link attribution. The next step is to get others (partners and non-IBM experts) to begin to contribute to it as a neutral site where they can honestly talk about their roles in building a smarter planet, not necessarily IBM’s role in building a smarter planet.
When I start building these relationships on Wikipedia, I want to show them spaces we are building within ibm.com/smarterplanet where we give users perspectives on the conversations happening all over the world about the Smarter Planet agenda. Hopefully I can help influence them to contribute to these conversations and can curate the conversations to help the audience understand their relevance. That is the vision. We are building these spaces now in the form of the Conversations tab. It’s very much a work in progress, but you have to start somewhere.
We’ve also built spaces on Twitter, LinkedIn and tumblr. We’ll build spaces in other places as well depending on the target audience. But we want to minimize the noise and maximize the relevance. And that’s the lesson I want you to take away from this. Start with the obvious: Wikipedia. And move to more fluid spaces to connect with the influencers related to your topic. Eventually they will give you the credibility you need to get link juice. But if you try too hard, the whole effort will seem false and you could end up doing more harm than good.
5. Don’t underestimate the power of the brand
I said this in my last post, but optimization only gets you so far. Google counts branding quite a bit as well. One way or another, you need to build your brand. Starting with paid placement and continuing with other more traditional ways to build your brand (banners, YouTube commercials, TV, dead-wood media.) (Aside: Avoid radio if you want to drive people to your brand’s Web assets. Humans don’t associate auditory media with visual media very well. Radio is an auditory medium. The Web is a visual medium. The disconnect is significant.)
I can’t emphasize enough that Google indirectly gives you organic credit for paid placement. This is what I said last week:
Two pages with similar optimization and link equity will be ranked according to what their user test subjects do. Pages with higher click through and lower bounce rates in their A/B tests climb the rankings. If brand value influences click throughs and bounce rates (which Google claims), pages with higher brand values will climb the organic rankings. If paid listings lead to higher brand value (which Google also claims), paid listings result in higher organic ranking.
The upshot is, if you’re trying to develop an association between your brand and some keywords, it won’t happen overnight. It makes sense to start with a paid placement campaign while you optimize your pages for organic. Even after you have good organic position, continue to buy position for those pages that you care about. It can only help with your organic ranking.
James Mathewson is editor in chief of ibm.com and Search and Social Media strategy lead for the IBM Smarter Planet digital presence. He is a co-author of Audience Relevance and Search: Target Web Audiences with Relevant Content from IBM Press.