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Today’s SEO and Online-Marketing News

January 3rd, 2011

The New Year brought a lot of interesting SEO articles and posts over the weekend in the context of the future of online marketing, so here are a few that caught my eye (as well as my additional thoughts).

SEO Content Changes

Bill Slawski at SEO by the Sea — as a former Bostonian who has lived near Tel Aviv as well, I love that name — examines the effect of changes to a website or blog’s old pages on later crawling by search engines. The takeaway: The more often that a site is updated — but not, perhaps, merely changed — the more often that Google will “crawl” it. Slawski had introduced his post by describing how many webmasters will change the copyright footer-text from 2010 to 2011 at the bottom of their websites in light of the New Year.

I can certainly vouch for the principle of changing old content. In my work as an SEO consultant, I actually enjoy telling clients — or readers here — about the mistakes I have made. After all, one should learn from his errors — and the lessons end up helping others. And my major mistakes involving old posts on my Considerations blog, which I started when I was a Boston newspaper editor in 2006.

I had written hundreds of posts at the blog on various topics long before I had known anything about SEO. I had known nothing about search-engine optimization URL tips and the value of keywords in meta titles. (In an earlier post, I discussed how social-media icons and Twitter SEO changed the nature of headlines in journalism.) I had written headlines — which became the meta titles in SEO terms — because they were “punny” rather than because they would use keywords that would deliver traffic.

And then, after moving to Israel to work in the high-tech marketing sector here, it hit me. And, boy, was it painful. Have you ever had a moment in your professional or personal life when you realized that everything you had been doing for years had been entirely wrong and all for naught? Yeah, that was me. I had spent years writing quality content on topics ranging from economics to Middle East politics to dating — but with relatively nothing to show for my effort. I had not even thought to put Google Ads on the blog — but what can I say, I had been an SEO rookie.

So, once I had identified the major problem, I decided to revamp the old content. Despite my day job and consulting work, I aimed to improve ten posts a day at Considerations — even though I had written nearly 2,000 posts by that point. After sorting the posts in an Excel spreadsheet by descending order by traffic, I did long-tail keyword research pertaining exactly to the topic of each post from the top of the list to the bottom. Then, I rewrote the headlines (meta titles) and meta descriptions with the targeted keywords. The XML sitemap I had created lists the posts that were most-recently changed at the top, so Google would crawl them again first. But just to be sure, I resubmitted the sitemap in Google’s Webmaster Tools site after each day’s set had been completed.

It has been a grueling task, and I still have not finished since there are so many articles. But since the posts are sorted in Excel in an efficient manner, I have edited the posts collectively receiving a majority of the total traffic (top to bottom in the spreadsheet) within a few weeks. But after a month of work, the most-popular posts — some years old — are still receiving dozens of hits every day following my keyword-targeting. While a general-interest news blog will rarely earn significant revenue from advertising because the topics that interest news junkies are rarely those that lead to online sales (see: capitalism vis-a-vis supply and demand), the increase in traffic can translate into myriad sales for a website that markets a product or a company.

So, as Slawski notes, it can be very useful to edit and optimize existing content for search engines. Still, my experience always translates into me telling clients that it is important to hire an SEO consultant before embarking on a website redesign or online-marketing strategy (not that I am biased) — after all, no one wants to spend weeks (or longer) improving content that has already been published. It is much more efficient to know what you are doing at the beginning.

Besides, there is only so much that one can do after the fact. Although I could change the headlines (meta titles) and meta descriptions, I could not change the exact URLs for each post even though the presence of keywords in the URL of a page is a significant ranking-factor in search engines. If I had changed the URLs, then all of the “domain equity” — inbound links going to the prior URLs — would have disappeared since the links would have gone to pages that no longer exist.

New WordPress Upgrade

The WordPress platform celebrated the New Year by releasing version 3.0.4. Jonathan Bailey provides the details of the release, which reportedly improves the security of WordPress-based sites that use the platform.

I have little to add to Bailey’s comprehensive post on the technical details except to state the benefits of WordPress in general. (And, no, I am neither compensated nor rewarded in any way by WordPress for my comments. I still apply my journalistic principles to my comments on this SEO blog.)

First, I admit that I recommend WordPress. I use the platform for both Considerations and this blog. It is easy to use for online-marketing novices, and it is very adaptable for SEO experts. I can download, import, and use various bells-and-whistles — otherwise known as plug-ins — to market the sites effectively. And best of all, it is (mainly) free. There are many Internet-marketing companies that offer a content-management system (CMS), but they charge hundreds or thousands of dollars a month — and the benefits, in my opinion, are questionable.

One of the main calculations in any business context is the “cost-benefit analysis” — are the bells and whistles worth the added cost? In my experience, the answer is “no.” For roughly $60 a year, a person or business can register a domain (keyword-based, of course), import the WordPress platform, and customize it as desired. As long as a marketer knows how to use WordPress (and there are specific tactics), the benefits will be the same as those who use a system that is more expensive.

As a rule, I do not criticize other marketers or companies directly — my point in this blog is to give general tips and recommendations. (And, of course, those who disagree are welcome to opine in the comments.) But as a former American journalist, I usually have Fox News or CNN on my television as I do my writing and consulting work. (You cannot take the news out of the news-junkie.) Once in a while, the news programs will feature segments on online marketing — and I have to refrain from yelling at the television as a result.

Most of the time, the talking-heads on the television rarely know anything about which they speak. (This is true in politics and journalism as well as marketing.) They are on television simply because they have hired effective PR machines. For example, I once heard a marketing moron (pardon my Israeli bluntness) recommend that businesses start a free blog on WordPress or Blogger — through URLs like domain.wordpress.com or domain.blogger.com. And that is the worst thing you can do.

Here is the reason. Of course, it is tempting to start a free blog on either of the two sites since they are, well, free. While any blog anywhere will benefit you or your company, the long-term benefits to owning one’s own blog at its own URL vastly outweigh those at WordPress or Blogger domains.

The two general strategies to build a website in search-engine rankings are search-engine optimization (keyword research and placement) and backlink building. Websites that rank highly in Google are those that do both well (in addition to other factors). SEO work to improve a WordPress-owned site benefits WordPress the company rather than you. (WordPress places advertisements on its blogs that are seen by visitors who are not registered WordPress users.) In other words, WordPress will rank more highly, not you — www.domain.com is far better than domain.wordpress.com. Moreover, the WordPress open-source platform — which is free and available to anyone to use — only allows features like advertisements to those who own individual domains.

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to start a blog or website — and if you have not done it already, you are indeed far behind — then it is best to pay a small amount and do it correctly from the beginning.