October 14, 2011

An SEO guide for Wineries Part 6

posted by mark in Winery SEO Guide

Last time, we explored the basics of HTML, the behind-the-scenes language of the web. Let’s talk a little bit more about search engines and how they read websites.

How Do Search Engines Read Websites?

In part 3 of this SEO guide there are two fairly short sections on engines and robots reading your site. I’d like to explore more about what the engines are looking for, so we can dig a little deeper on what you can do to help robots, and users, understand your message.

Because the rules of how websites are set up are fairly well defined, robots tend to behave like extremely thorough users. Let me explain – any website is made up of pages of HTML and links between those pages. Some websites today have additional functionality that allows the pages to animate, or to change as you use them, but in general the basic web contains pages of HTML, with links between those pages. As a user of a website, you visit a site, you read the content, and you find a part of the page that references a topic that you want to know more about. Assuming there’s a link to a page deeper into the site that has information on that topic, you follow that link.

You are unlikely to follow every link on the page. There are probably too many, or you’re too busy, or not every link is relevant to what you’re looking for. A robot is not so picky. Its only task is to visit a page, then find every link on that page and follow it. Each link leads to a page, which the robot will then visit and find every link and follow it. And so on. As it does this, it stores a copy of the contents of each page so that the algorithms the engine has built can analyze those copies to figure out what they’re about.

Two things may be apparent here, given what is happening. If for some reason when a robot visits your page, there is no content (for example if your site is down or if in some cases the page requires a user to complete an action to read the content), then the page will have reduced its ability to rank. There is no content. Most engines are pretty forgiving here, and they’ll come back to visit again, so it’s not a terrible worry if this happens. Also, and much more importantly, if you have a page that is not linked to on your site, the robot cannot and will not find it.

In general, the first page that an engine will visit on your site is your home page. It will follow the process above, and if you have created a page but not linked to it anywhere, the robot cannot find where it is. It will not have the ability to rank because it is effectively invisible to the robots. Note that robots also follow links that go between sites. In fact, links between sites are very important for SEO (review the Site Authority and Links section of part 4). If you have created a page on your site, and you do not link to it from anywhere on your site, however another site does link to it, in general it will be found. I say in general because the other page must have already been found (linked to).

The important point here is that, after you write all kinds of great content, it’s important to link to it so that it can be found by users of your site. Ultimately, that also means the robots can find it, and that could potentially lead to more users from the engines directly.

August 12, 2011

An SEO guide for Wineries Part 5

posted by mark in Winery SEO Guide

Last time, we explored how search engines rank websites. I spent a bit of that post talking about links. We’ve all clicked on links before, but let’s dive into the language of the web a little, to demystify the building blocks.

HTML is The Language of the Web

1. What is HTML?
If all content is not created equal, at least all web pages are. They’re created using a language, just like English, French or Italian. That language has a syntax and a grammar, and rules for how it should be written. That language is called HTML. Fortunately for us, it’s much simpler to learn to write in HTML than it is to learn a spoken language.

HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language. I happen to love acronyms, but I realize they’re fairly techy and you certainly don’t need to remember what it stands for to use HTML. The reason I bring it up is because it helps to remember what HTML is trying to do. Hypertext is web-activated text. So HTML is for working with hypertext. Markup is a lot like it sounds. Remember in school when you wrote an essay, and the teacher would Mark Up your work with red pen, adding strikethroughs, squiggly lines that signified that two letters were reversed, and so forth? Believe it or not, that’s all Markup is — you’re writing out some red lines that the web browsers will use to figure out how to display text. The L in HTML of course just means it’s a language.

2. The building blocks of HTML
If you right-click on this page and choose the option to “View page source”, you’ll see a bunch of text surrounded by small words enclosed in less-than (<) and greater-than symbols (>). That’s the Markup in HTML. If you remember back to my example of the teacher with the red pen – there were symbols that were used to signify what was to be done with the text. HTML doesn’t write on top of the text to mark it up however. HTML consists of a collection of symbols that surround the text. These symbols are called “tags”. Confusingly, these are not the tags you might use to describe your content. Let’s look at a tag.

<strong>This text should be bold</strong>

Let’s break down the tag – it begins with <strong>. <strong> is an “opening tag”. That tells the web browser that whatever comes next should be in bold. You may wonder when the browser would know to stop bolding text. The browser will bold all text until the tag is “closed”. We close tags using a slash after the less-than symbol. </strong> is a “closing tag”. It tells the browser to stop bolding the text.

That’s basically it – all of HTML from here on out uses these tags to tell the browser what to do with the text that is between its opening and closing tags.

3. There are many HTML tags
Here are some more examples.

<em>This text should be italicized</em>
<p>This text is a full paragraph</p>
<a href=”http://www.wine.com/”>This text should be linked to wine.com</a>

Hang on – see what happened there? Sometimes an opening and closing tag is just not enough information for the browser to know what to do. The “a” tag is also known as the “anchor” tag or the hyperlink or just the link. Why do we need 4 names for it? I don’t know.

Anyway, see the href=”http://www.wine.com/” part? That’s called an attribute. All attributes follow the same form. They appear in the opening tag, they begin with the name of the attribute (href), then an equals sign, and the value of the attribute is enclosed in double quotes afterwards (http://www.wine.com/).

In this case, a link tag needs to know where to link to. The href attribute defines where to link to. You can have multiple attributes as well.

Let’s try to relate that to wine. Let’s say the link tag were a bottle of wine. One of its attributes would be the closure, which might be cork. It might also have a vintage, say 2008. It would also have a name – the “Weak Example Cabernet Sauvignon”. If there were a bottle tag in HTML, it might look like this:

<bottle closure=”cork” vintage=”2008″>Weak Example Cabernet Sauvignon</bottle>

So maybe that wasn’t the best example – and there certainly is no bottle tag in HTML, but hopefully it shows that HTML is flexible, powerful and not too terribly scary.

Ready to move on? Proceed to Part 6: How Do Search Engines Read Websites?

July 29, 2011

An SEO guide for Wineries Part 4

posted by mark in Winery SEO Guide

Last time, we explored the search engine process. At the end of that post, I commented that, should you do a great job of “being an authority”, “you have a fighting chance of ranking against your competitors”. Let’s explore what that means.

Express Your Authority

When you use a search engine you may not think about the results that are returned or the order they’re returned in. You may be surprised to see how important the top few results are. Although this article is from 2006 and the numbers may have changed slightly, you can see how powerful a top ranking can be. The fact is, people rely on the engines to give them the most relevant and best information on their search in the top few results, and rarely go hunting lower on the page or on page 2. They’re more likely to rework their search if they don’t see what they want.

This puts a lot of pressure on the engines to be certain that users are served within the top few results. After all, the goal of a search engine is to be beneficial to their customers. They want to provide the best, most relevant information available. This requires that the engines analyze the pages their robots crawl from many different angles – there’s no silver bullet when it comes to finding the best result. At this time, Google uses over 200 signals to rank websites for a given search. Some of those signals are well known and some are kept secret by Google, after all the last thing they want is for people to be able to “game” their algorithm. Let’s explore some of the ones that the SEO community knows about.

1. Relevance
This one is an easy one. If your page is not relevant to the searcher’s search, you will not be able to rank. For example, if a searcher is looking for “best cabernet in napa” and your page is about different types of soda, there’s no way you would be able to rank in their search results.

To improve relevance, you should choose the topics that you want to write about and make sure you provide a page for each with plenty of good quality text on it.

2. “Brand” Relevance
A branded search is a search that includes your brand name in it. These searches are very important for you to rank for. You want your fans to find you in the engines when they search for you. Fortunately, there are signals in the engines that will help your site rank for branded searches. The engines look at signals such as the URL that your site has, the title of your home page, the amount of times your brand is mentioned on your site, and the number of other sites that refer to your site using your brand name.

Here’s a tip: It is a good idea to choose a domain name that includes the name of your brand. At the time of this writing, engines are still using the presence of your brand name in your URL as a relevance factor. So, if you are the owner of the Seven Eagles Winery, you will want to seriously consider putting your site on seveneagleswinery.com.

3. Site Authority / Links
A very strong signal to the engines that your site is a valuable member of the Internet community and therefore should rank higher comes in the form of links to your site. Each engine keeps track of how authoritative a site is as a whole and how authoritative each page on that site is individually. As sites begin to link to you, because they love your writing or because they love your wines (or because they love your site!), you will begin to gain authority. The more authority the site that links to you has, the more authority you will gain from that link. As I mentioned, authority is gained on a full site level and on a per page level. If you have many links to a single page on your site because that page is incredibly good, your site will benefit from all of those links and secondary pages will enjoy some benefit. Naturally it’s better to have many links across many pages of your site. It is also good to have a diversity of domains linking to your site. Many links from a single site are not as good as one link from several different sites.

I like to think of a link as a positive vote for your site – the site that links to you is vouching for your quality. As in real life, if Robert Parker vouches for your quality, it’s much better than if, say, Mark Angelillo does. Robert Parker has much more authority than I do. On the web, a link from CNN.com is much better than a link from awesomewines.net.

After reading this, it might seem tempting to try to go get links however you can. Please note that it is not a good idea to buy links or trade links with sites that are of low quality. In fact it is expressly against the quality guidelines of the major engines. Google has a good page on this and other quality guidelines. The reason this is such a good signal is that it is hard to fake people being interested in your wine or content. You can’t control that, and attempting to get around this might risk your site getting reduced in the rankings or worse, being banned from the engines.

If you focus on branded searches first, choose your topics wisely and write relevant articles about those branded topics, you’re much more likely to see increased rankings in the engines.

Ready to move on? Proceed to Part 5: HTML is The Language of the Web

July 21, 2011

An SEO guide for Wineries Part 3

posted by mark in Winery SEO Guide

Last time, I spoke about the different types of web content. It’s time to talk about the search engine process, from building a site to getting users from an engine.

Understand the Engines

Let’s talk about each step in the search process and how it relates to you and your site.

1. You build a site.
It’s harder to be found these days if you don’t have a site up on the web. It’s an exciting and potentially daunting process, but there are many resources out there to help you in this process. You’re going to have to make some choices while doing this, some of which you won’t feel informed enough to make. Ask questions and be prepared to change your mind a few times before you decide what you should do. As I said this is an exciting process, and it’s also a fun one. From a search engine perspective, you should think about creating content on the site that speaks to your audience in a way the engines can understand. That means good, well written text, multimedia and video help. Avoid Flash where possible – the engines have a hard time with it!

2. Someone alerts the engines about your site (this can be you).
This is an easy one. After you launch your site, someone might link to you. I’ll talk more about links later – they’re important. Assuming the engines know about the site that linked to you they’ll follow that link and find your site. If you’d like to expedite this process, I suggest you sign up for Google’s Webmaster Tools, Bing’s Webmaster Tools, and submit your site to Yahoo. They’ll lead you through the process.

3. The engines send robots to read your site.
This part is pretty hands off for you. Sit back and let your site be read. Actually, while you wait you should write some great content to add to your site.

4. The engines decipher your message and decide what their answer is going to be if someone asks them about a topic (known as a keyword in the SEO biz).
How are the engines going to decipher your message? What is your message? Which topics are you approaching? A list of potential topics for your site: “My Winery Name”, “My Winery Name History”, “Contact My Winery Name”, “My Winery Name Hours and Location”, “My Winery Name Wines”. Each of those topics should have a page on your site that addresses that keyword specifically. Here’s a little tip – Google Autosuggest is your friend for discovering keywords. Let’s say I was to build a site for Robert Mondavi Winery. To get some keyword ideas I’d go to Google and start typing in the winery name. Google will use their search keyword history (a list of what people are searching for) to try to predict what you’re searching for.


google-autosuggest1.png

5. After a period of time, a person asks the engine about that keyword.
With few exceptions, you can’t control when this happens. The most control you have is over which topics you write about – write about topics that people will search for. Let’s say I have a winery site and I write about an obscure clone of the Riesling grape called X54J that 10 people have heard of. Let’s say I call the article “Growing the X54J Clone” My potential audience is 10 people. Let’s say I called that same article “Growing Riesling Clones”. That’s better – maybe there are 100 people who are interested in growing riesling clones, including the X54J people. Let’s say I decided I had more to say about riesling and called my article “Growing Riesling”. I’ve just broadened my reach to a potential 1,000 people, say.

6. The engine gives the person the answer.
If you’ve done a great job of being the authority on a topic, you have a fighting chance of ranking against your competitors.

When building your site you should anticipate the needs of your community. I always get a good laugh from Never Said About Restaurant Websites. Nothing is more frustrating than wanting to know when a restaurant is open or if they accept reservations and only being able to download a PDF of their menu or listen to some house music. You have the power to combat this. Know your audience and address their needs with your site. The search engines will reward you with more exposure and your users will reward you with more praise.

Ready to move on? Proceed to Part 4: Express Your Authority

July 21, 2011

An SEO guide for Wineries Part 2

posted by mark in Winery SEO Guide

Last time, I spoke about clearing a path for robots to reach your site. Before we clear that path, let’s dive deeper into the fundamentals of great content, and what we’re clearing a path to.

Not All Content is Created Equal

As a winery owner, you’re already pretty familiar with this idea. After all, you’re a content creator. Your content comes in the form of the delicious fermented grape juice that we all love to enjoy. It may seem silly to think of it as content, and I agree that concept is a stretch. With that in mind, I think it’s pretty easy for us to agree that Google’s robot is not going to be able to taste your wine and tell someone searching that it’s really damn good.

At least, not yet. When the robots start tasting wine I’ll finally be able to retire.

Taking things a step closer to web content, what about a picture? From a human standpoint, it might be worth one thousand words, but to a robot it looks like a bunch of colored dots organized into a box. It’s very hard for the poor robot to understand the picture, let alone pass it along to another human being who is searching for “beautiful vineyard shots”. Two caveats:

  • We’re getting closer to machines being able to read and understand images, but it’s still not perfect science.
  • When I search for beautiful vineyard shots in Google I get pictures like I would imagine. To create this experience, Google uses a lot of signals, but the strongest one is the text around the image and in the code. It’s actually a pretty strong signal when done correctly. It’s a part of good SEO and I’ll get more detailed about this approach after the introduction.

Video is even harder and more complex for the robots. You can think of video as a series of pictures with an audio track, all of which are difficult things for a robot to understand individually, let alone when put together. YouTube does a great job in the engines because of the great tagging signals they add, similar to my example with the images above. Also, sometimes people are legitimately looking for videos. If I search for “muppet show swedish chef clip” – I am signaling the engines that I would like to watch a video clip. They’re only too happy to oblige.

For most websites, the best, surest shot to having great content is to write. Great, original posts and commentary are like delicious candy to the engines. When working on SEO, it’s important to remember that you are building a site that humans will love. Build your site for humans, but make it accessible to the engines. Text is the greatest way to serve both humans and engines.

I’m not suggesting that you throw away all of your great photos and videos. Far from it — that’s great content too. I’ll talk about optimizing your content for the engines in a future post, but next, let’s talk about the search engine process.

Ready to move on? Proceed to Part 3: Understand the Engines

July 21, 2011

An SEO guide for Wineries Part 1

posted by mark in Winery SEO Guide

So you want to SEO your winery’s website

That’s absolutely fantastic! You’re bound to get increased traffic and visibility in the search engines. Making it easier for your fans to find you is a noble goal, and it doesn’t have to be mystifying or difficult. Let’s start with one simple rule: When you publish content on your website, first make sure that a robot can find it and can understand what you’re trying to say.

What’s a robot? A robot (in search engine terms) is a piece of code that reads through your website looking for great content. Every search engine has its own robot, and depending on the size of the search engine and website, sometimes the robot can be fairly active. For example, the Google robot visits an average of 570,000 pages per day on Snooth.

As I said, the robot is looking for great content, but it needs your help to find it. If the robot can’t find your content, then you have no chance of ranking in search engines when users are searching for you. If you focus on clearing a path for the robot, then you have a fighting chance to rank in the search engines. Read on and I’ll explain how.

But I don’t want robots scraping my site! That makes sense to me. You worked hard to create your website and your content, and at first blush the idea of a robot coming and stealing it seems horrible. If you want to, you can block robots from visiting and reading through your site by following the instructions on the robots.txt site. Personally, I recommend a change of heart. The content that’s out there on the web belongs to everyone. It’s public because it’s posted and hosted publicly. The best thing for your brand and your business is to get credit for all of your great content. “Credit” comes in the form of increased audience and reach. Sharing content is what the web is all about. Sharing strengthens your brand and helps you build a larger following. If I’ve convinced you or I’m preaching to the choir, great! Let’s get your winery’s website SEO ready.

What will follow in the coming weeks is a step by step guide to address any issues that might exist on your current site. It’s written specifically for a winery owner, but the techniques are useful for other websites as well. I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments as well. This is, after all, about your site and growing your business. I’m hoping we’ll have the chance to do a few case studies on winery websites, so if you’re interested in having me take a look you can post that in the comments as well (Hey, who doesn’t like free advice!).

Structure of this Guide
This guide will end up being composed of around 20 posts. I believe that SEO touches on so many fundamentals of building great websites that in order to do a great job of explaining it we need to start at the basics and work our way up. To add some context I expect it to break down like this:

Parts 1-8: Understanding the fundamentals of Search Engines and Websites and Users
Parts 9-15: Let’s roll up our sleeves and talk about concrete steps to SEOing a winery website
Parts 16-20: Site audits – let’s look at some sites that are already out there and talk about what they could do better

Again, if you have any questions for me please don’t hesitate to ask!

Ready to move on? Proceed to Part 2: Not All Content is Created Equal