Christian Heilmann

Ethical search engine optimisation my foot!

Monday, September 26th, 2005 at 12:43 pm

The beginnings

Some month ago a colleague of mine considered it a good plan to start an own company in a market that is very competitive and has a lot of shady characters.

The project was planned as low-budget as possible: Hand coded HTML, no database functionality, no CMS and just a few pages to do. Nothing fancy.

He hired a designer to come up with a corporate identity and he did a logo and went through some Corbis CDs to find pictures of shiny happy successful people and mood-selling baby pictures.

It was my task then to deliver the web site. Of course the money for the designer ran out when it came to developing a style guide for type and screen design, which is why I made up the CSS on the spot while converting the five word documents the original site was planned for.

The site was a flexible, easy to resize and accessible xhtml + CSS solution and my pride and joy, as I wanted to make it an example of how we can deliver and create nice sites quickly. I even promoted it on here and in some forums to help it get the first hits and maybe a fresh perspective from other people (being the developer you are always too close to the project).
Now, some minor changes later the colleague wanted to get a more prominent contact facility, which was easily implemented. Then the millions of clients didn’t come.

Enter the SEO consultant

Out of the blue, an SEO consultant was asked to help the site getting more visitors and allegedly this consultant was very good in ethical SEO and understands what web visitors need and want.
The first step was that we got a presentation on how table layouts have to be amended to be good for SEO, which made me ask if they ever looked at the site as it stands now (it has content first – navigation second – as an accessibility measure, which allegedly is good for SEO and tables only for data display).

After this question made my colleague aware that the first hour of presentation was a big waste of time and money, the consultant got tasked with a competitive analysis and coming up with a list of keywords we should be using.

Meanwhile, lazy developer that I am, I made sure that my colleague and the consultant can edit the title, the meta tags (which according to them was still very valid indeed) and some HTML comments (which I don’t see as a practical measure at all but who am I to judge) via a CSV file on the server. A PHP script reads the CVS file that they can maintain in Excel, and – according to filename – add the appropriate titles and stuff. I thought I was clever and get only work that is really necessary.

Step one – keywords all around

The SEO consultant came back with a list of keywords and some HTML templates which were totally different from the site as it is – copied and pasted in a Word document.
Some of the changes were:

  • Summaries of data tables should feature a lot of keywords – nobody sees them anyways but they are great for search engines
  • Every link needed a title attribute with keywords
  • The alternative text of the logo can be used for keywords and can change from page to page

I drew the line at the table summaries, but the rest got done.

Step two – link as link can

The next step was that the SEO consultant should come up with “landing pages” for different special topics. These pages have the motherlode of keyword repetition and were designed to be linked to by third party pages.

A “useful links” section was planned, which basically should list some of the link partners in between keyword-laden links which point back to this page – as link sharing is good, but god forbid users would leave the page

Furthermore, a “Quick Navigation” was introduced in the footer of the page – remember, the page still was more or less 10 pages in total – which had links with lots of keywords pointing to the same pages the site navigation pointed to.
For that I was able to sell them the idea of my taming the select script to at least not show these links all the time but as a dropdown.

Step 3 – On with the chaos

As the landing pages got linked to by other sites, it now seemed to be a good idea to include them into the main site, and start a new section in the main navigation for them – of course interlinking. The original design had a horizontal navigation and it was fun trying to fit a link that should say “foo bar” but needs to be “foo and bazbarfoo and foo and bar UK” in there.

Another way of adding more links was spotted – a “see also” section, which should be after the main heading and link to different pages in the same site with different keywords – some of them linking to the same page with different keywords.

The last thing we haven’t explored yet was file names. So I was asked to rename all the documents in the site from “foo.php” to “foo_bar_baz_barbaz_foo_and_bar_2005_UK” as that would be “good practise”, too.

Now, as a visitor I get:

  • Ever changing navigation – effectively breaking my bookmarks (although I tried to redirect most on the server)
  • Links promising me more information but at times linking to the parent page of the one I am on
  • A 40 links to 4 paragraphs content to navigation ratio on most pages
  • A “useful links” section pointing to the site I am on

And this was one of the nice playing SEO consultants. I cannot wait for the next tricks I am asked to implement.

If you are likely to get an SEO overhaul of a site you have done, prepare for the following:

  • Make the site independent of file names
  • Make sure your design can fit a lot of links
  • Be sure to keep everything in the template flexible – and don’t think for a moment that you can separate content and markup – you will be asked to add a lot of title attributes.

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