Getting visitors to your blog, and measuring them, is the subject of this month’s closing instalment of our guide to blogging in the modern age.
Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO, is the arcane practice of following rules to ensure that what you write gets a good position in search results – that is, within the first few pages for a given search phrase. Few people click beyond the first few ‘o-o-o‘s of Google results. Research proves this, as does anecdotal evidence (do YOU ever click beyond this?).
For example, if your blog features a recipe for Shepherd’s Pie then you understandably want that to be near the top of the results when somebody types “Shepherd’s Pie recipe” into Google.
One of the most basic misunderstandings of those new to online content creation is to believe this kind of thing happens automatically, perhaps because of the magnificent quality of their work. Nope. When you think about it fully, the sheer volume of content online means that could never be a realistic proposition. That’s why SEO is necessary.
In fact, a massive SEO industry exists full of firms who, after you give them money, will get your page to near the top of Google’s search results. Many of them use forbidden tactics, however. They cheat. Google’s pretty good at spotting the tricks. Because it’s your website employing them, it’s your website that will suffer – usually by being demoted in Google’s search results. Google is both judge and jury in a kangaroo court that’s largely automated and so is essentially impossible to appeal against.
So, what are “legal” SEO techniques? Easily the most important is to encourage other sites to link to you. So-called organic links of this kind are what Google uses to judge whether your site can be trusted. Examples of organic links are if another blog mentions your posting, or if they add you to a list of sites they recommend.
This can be why utilising social media like Twitter and Facebook is a vital skill because it gets your content out into the world so people can discover it. If they discover it then they might link to it.
The second big SEO trick is to ensure you mention clearly what you’re talking about. This might sound obvious but it’s an art in itself. For example, in a blog posting about Shepherd’s Pie, do not use a headline like, “A wonderful recipe for those Winter nights!” Instead, use an obvious, clear headline that emphasises why people will want the recipe: “Shepherd’s Pie recipe that’s under 200 calories”. Give Google a clue as to why this piece is useful, and keep it short because Google’s computers have to be able to split it into constituent pieces, and they’re not as intelligent as a human (at least not right now).
SEO can extend even to headings within your piece: one blog I wrote for was run by an international publisher and they insisted on starting each header with the title of the blog. So, a headline for a recipe post might be: “Shepherd’s Pie recipe under 200 calories: Mixing the ingredients”. Personally, this seems to me the kind of thing readers might find irksome, but it does appear to work.
Google tries to help content creators with its Search Console website (https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools), where you can register your site(s) so that Google knows about it and will include all of it in its “crawls” (also known as indexing – the process by which Google constantly “spiders” the web to try and find stuff). Other web search engines have their own search consoles, such as Microsoft Bing (www.bing.com/toolbox/webmaster), but arguably these aren’t as important because Google is effectively a monopoly.
Once you get the visitors via SEO, the theory goes, you’ll need some way to measure them. This is what the field of analytics offers. Aside from scratching your own itches – knowing which blog postings you write are popular, for example – you can present the analytics data to potential advertisers or sponsors. Analytics isn’t just about counting, however. You can measure the quality of your visitors, such as where they live. It might sound offensive to suggest but visitors from the affluent US are considered more valuable than those from a third-world country. Some analytics services even claim to offer demographic data such as gender and employment. The data is built up by tracking users based on what sites they visit, so is at best a guess rather than definitive.
As with online advertising there are many analytics firms out there happy to include your site’s data, but there’s one big player who represents the industry standard and is free of charge to use for the basic toolkit. Yup, it’s Google again. You’ll struggle to find a commercially-oriented website that doesn’t include Google Analytics (https://analytics.google.com) tracking code – although sites often feature several different types of analytics.
The dark side
As a content creator, to use analytics is to join the Internet’s dark side because you’re helping Google track the progress of people around the Internet. Many people have very strong objections to this but there’s (currently) no other way of getting this invaluable data.
The code will take around 24 hours to start working properly, at which point you can view the data at the Google Analytics website mentioned earlier. Clicking Audience > Overview shows you the figures on a day-by-day basis, while Real Time > Overview shows the visitors at your site at the current time. This particular tool can be addictive, however, so use with caution!
Advertisers are most interested in two things: your page impressions/views, which is simply the number of pages on your website that have been viewed by visitors (therefore, the number of times an advert is shown); and the unique users figure, which counts the actual number of individuals visiting your website. The latter will always be lower than the former because you’ll not only have returning readers but they’ll also likely read more than one page at each visit.
Analytics has a serious problem, which is that around 40% of desktop users block tracking code. This is done via those ubiquitous ad-blocking plugins people use with their browsers (admit it – you use one, don’t you?).
Essentially, this not only means these people are invisible – they simply won’t be counted in your visitor numbers – but they’re also blocking your adverts, so therefore stealing your content based on the unspoken deal that your site is supported by advertising (the same agreement that’s been in place with TV and magazines/newspapers for around 100 years).
The chink of light at the end of the tunnel is that mobile phones and tablets not only make up the bulk of people online nowadays – around 60-70% – but the use of ad-blocking and tracker blocking software is limited to around 3% of them. The recent iPhone/iPad update introduced the ability to block ads and tracking code, leading many to prophesise an advertising apocalypse, but this doesn’t appear to have happened (yet).
I blog run a computing blog at http://mackungfu.org and have been trying hard over the last six months to build visitor numbers. It’s a Sisyphean task, but here’s some things I’ve learned. Alas, I haven’t space to explain each, so you’ll need to do homework.
First, ensure you make use of all social media to tell the world when you make a new posting. Those in the know say the most important social media right now are Twitter, Facebook and Google+ but this can and will change as time goes on (note that few people use Google+ but Google considers it important, and as mentioned Google is the god of this world). Sites like http://dlvr.it or If That Then This (https://ifttt.com) can automate the posting to social media based on your blog’s RSS feed.
Secondly, there are many sites that offer to scan your blog for SEO issues. These might be selling something but the basic service is free. Make use of them, and try to fix what they report. Even the strangest things, such as not including a text description in your images and links (that is, an “alt” tag), can affect your position in search results.
Finally, focus on mobile visitors. For reasons explained above, they’re all that really matters. In other words, make sure your site both looks good and functions optimally on phones and, to a lesser extent, tablets. Test on Android and iPhone. When attempting to build visitor numbers, focus only on mobile devices. The desktop is dead.