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Colin's blog

It took me ages to get round to the idea of setting up a blog, after all, who wants to listen to some bloke spouting his opions to all and sundry? You don't want to hear it over the pub so why would you want to on the web? Maybe it's therapeutic for me, getting things off my chest, whatever the reason, if I can possibly make it even remotely entertaining then I will. We all have strong views on certain subjects and I'm no exception, so if there is anything on this page that is even a tiny bit thought provoking then I will be pleased.

Colin MacDonald

It's what Google Analytics DOESN'T tell you that matters most posted 27 July 2012

I'm a huge fan of Google Analytics as I am sure most people are, I love the maps showing where your visitors are from, the "visitor's flow" chart, in-page analytics, it's just incredible, and free as well. But it's easy to miss a very important point with Google Analytics - it can only report on the data that it has gathered from your server, then present that data in a highly visual way. Sounds pretty obvious and it is, but the point I am making is that it can never tell you the complete picture on your website's search performance, why?

Most people would like more visitors to their website and it's common knowledge that the starting point of any SEO initiative is to determine your keywords and phrases. The Google Analytics "organic search traffic" page tells you how succesful your site has been for various key phrases, but crucially, it cannot tell you the ones that your site was NOT found with, because it does not have any statistics to provide that information. The end result is that there could be a great long list of critical search phrases that your website is NOT being found with, valuable traffic that a competitor website could be getting instead. Google Analytics cannot provide this information because it does not have access to it.

Here's an example, let's say your business is the supply of artists materials and your key product sectors are acrylic; watercolour and oil paints, brushes, canvas and paper etc. Obviously you would like your website to get good rankings in a search for these products, but if your asessment of what people are searching for is wrong, that's when Google Analytics will not help you, because there will be no data for the key phrases you have overlooked. It is common knowledge that the phrases people use to find a product on the web are often very different from the ones we think they should be and the closer you are to the complexities of your product the easier it is to miss this point. To illustrate this point further, "bookies" or "bookmakers", often prefer to call their businesses "sporting investments", well, forgive the pun but I'm going to put my money on "bookies" or "bookmakers" being more popular search terms than "sporting investments". I have no data to back that theory up but sometimes you have to go with intuition.

So there you have it, I'm not saying stop using Google Analytics for one moment, just be aware of the important things that it cannot tell you. Emphasys has years of experience in keyphrase identification so if you need any help please contact us.

Social media - there's a clue in the name posted November 2010

A report says that half of SME's in the West Midlands use social media and that one in ten say it is "useless", more than half had serious doubts and 21 percent said it was "not useful". Put another way, only 3 percent said social media was "very useful" and 19 percent put it in the "useful" category, not exactly glowing feedback is it?

By it's very nature, the IT industry loves the next big thing and for a while now lots of people involved in the web have been extolling the virtues of social media as a means of promoting business. We are constantly being told we all need to be on Facebook and Twitter, but I've got a different take on the whole issue. Just imagine you are at a party, you are surrounded by good company, lots of witty banter, good music, glass of wine, life's good. Then you make your big mistake, you ask the party bore how his business is going. Half an hour later you are still nodding your head in approval, desperate to find a way to get out of this wretched one way conversation.

Now we have the same on the web, Facebook and Twitter are meant to be light hearted banter between friends, if you keep plugging your company and its products people are going to see you as the party bore very quickly. There's a clue in the name, it's social media, use it for business and you pay the price, so perhaps the old idea of not mixing business with pleasure is true after all, even on the web. But I think sites such as Linkedin are fine, there is no deception, it's a network for professional people and everyone is open about their intentions. Is that why I don't get invited to parties?

On page and off page marketing - the great debate posted October 2010

Fact - Talk to ten people about what they believe to be the most important issues in search and you will get ten different answers, so how do you know which one is right? Some of the topics are more hotly debated than others but online marketers have disagreed for years over the biggest issues - the content of the web page versus the links in to the page. I always thought it was pretty important to get both right but many people say that having good quality inbound links is by far the most important.

But unless you are an engineer currently employed by Google how do any of us know for sure? In reality most online marketing people get their knowledge through the web itself, sharing views with others via forums and using their own experiences in helping clients get better rankings. It is well known that Google changes the algorithm regularly and thank goodness it does, otherwise the web would descend into chaos as everybody tried to cheat the system. So this is my understanding of what Google is looking for, relevance and importance. Dealing with relevance first, Google assesses the relevance of the page to the search phrase used from the content of the web page, together with all the associated "meta data", critical information tucked away in the page's source code. But for "importance", first of all let's make sure we understand what we mean by it. You could have a news website - www.fredbloggsnews.co.uk, which could have as much good quality, up to date content as www.bbc.co.uk, but it would still never do as well in the rankings as the BBC site, why? Because Google recognises the huge number of quality inbound links into the BBC site, far more than Fred Bloggs could ever get for his site. Google sees every inbound link to a website as a "vote" for it so the end result is that the huge number of inbound links to the BBC is the reason it has an exceptionally high pagerank value of 9 out of 10, whereas poor Fred's site would have a much lower value, and pagerank is the measure of a website's percieved importance.

So that's my take on it, relevance and importance,but we have all seen websites with low pagerank still do well in search, and sites with high page rank getting nowhere, why? Well, the best pagerank in the World won't get you anywhere in search if your pages are not relevant to the search phrase and conversely, in a competitive sector, if your content is good but the pagerank is low, competitor sites with higher pagerank will always beat you. Moral of the story? Get both relevance and importance right and web domination is yours.

We all pay, unless you are a politician of course posted September 2010

Just the other day I read that we taxpayers have to stump up £250,000 a year for the security arrangements for Tony Blair. As the architect of his own security problem (and ours) shouldn't he be made to pay for it himself?

Oh no, we're suffering from professor inflation posted September 2010

Has anybody else noticed, you can't watch a news programme without a university professor smugly giving his or her expert opinion on subjects ranging from the environment through to why we like eating toast. Time was a professor was a rarity, normally a rather eccentric elderly gentleman wearing a bow tie and a silly hat. Now they all look like Blue Peter presenters, but what concerns me is the sheer number of them out there. How do you get to be a professor? What's the money like? How many professors do we actually need? What do they do apart from appearing on news programmes? Who pays for them? Sadly I only know the answer to the last question, guess I'll never be a professor.

Roadworks, roadworks posted July 2010

Shouldn't there be a hefty fine imposed for every hour a motorway lane is closed with no work being carried out in it? Guess who has just come back from a holiday in the West Country?

The solution for success in the 2014 World Cup posted July 2010

Now let's get one thing straight from the start, even though I do play football regularly you could get my knowledge of it on a postage stamp, but I'm not convinced the supposed experts have got a clue either, especially when you take recent performance into account. There are armchair experts everywhere, in the pub, at work, family gatherings, England is full of 'em and I have never understood a single word they tell me about football strategy. Play deep, play wide, 4 4 2 formation, what the hell's all that about? And the offside rule? Haven't got a clue, I've had it explained to me ten thousand times and I still don't understand it. So if we are all so passionate and knowledgeable about football, then why is England such rubbish on the pitch? And if all the experts are really so clever, who chose a coach that can't speak English? As in business, I should imagine that good communication in sport is vital, so it's hardly rocket science to choose someone who's a good communicator to inspire and lead the players.

So I think its time for some radical thinking (both my sons are now thinking "oh no" as they read this). First of all, the coach, let's get rid of him and have millions instead. Using the wonders of the web and mobile phone technology, all the armchair experts across the country could "vote" online for every decision that has to be made. Why can't we vote for the players we want? A change of formation, moving a player's position, deciding who's on the bench, fitness decisions? Easy, vote for it. Somebody not pulling their weight in training? No problem, vote them out of the squad and get somebody with more determination and a better attitude. How many people around the UK thought Peter Crouch should have played in the second half against Germany? Quite a few I suspect, if so after a few million text messages he would have been there, scoring goals from a great height. On top of this, it will save a few million a year in wages bills.

Mad idea? Maybe, but is it any madder than not using technology to decide if it was a goal or not? And there's another big advantage to my crazy idea - in 2014, if we win, we can all pat ourselves on the back in congratulations, but if it all goes wrong again, we will have nobody else to blame but ourselves.

Why can't life have an undo button? posted June 2010

I've been a keen user of graphics packages such as Coreldraw for 20 years now, it's brilliant, there is still not another package on the market, not even from Adobe, that can match the intuitive, simple, logical way that Corel works, I love it. The problem is, using computer graphics packages for so long has a down side. The other day I was doing some painting round the house and more than once some of the paint did not quite go where I wanted it to go, on glass for instance. Every time it happened my brain immediately and instinctively went for the elusive undo button, believe me, I am absolutely serious about this, it is true. Am I only one who has got the computer bug so badly? It is rather worrying.

Anyway, some time later I started thinking more about this, wouldn't it be great if life really did have an undo button? That driving error, the thing you shouldn't have said, the wrong decision you made in your career, that extra pint you didn't need, just hit the undo button and you just wipe it clean and start again, how great would that be? And you thought this was going to be a sensible blog about SEO? Sorry.

Online marketing rule number one - get real! posted June 2010

I was an IT adviser at Business Link West Midlands for several years and during that time I met some great people, however some were more realistic than others in their plans for setting up an online business of some sort. For example, there was the guy I met who was adamant that his big online idea was going to beat Ebay, well so far I don't think it has and somehow I don't think it ever will. Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing as long as it doesn't blind you to the harsh reality of life online. It is so easy to look at other businesses on the web and convince yourself you can do a better job, maybe you can, but it's a bit like saying you are going to open a general stores next door to Tesco and put them out of business - it ain't going to happen!

So what do you do? There is no doubt that there is less cost involved to set up an online shop for example than a "real" one, but it still has it's challenges. The web favours specialism, you are far more likely to succeed in selling a niche product online rather than a mainstream one and this concept applies to your search engine strategy as well. For example, a worldwide search in google for "music" returns over 1.5 billion pages, yes, that's billion, whereas searching for "Cajun music" returns a paltry1.8million, still pretty popular, but a much smaller number all the same. Can you imagine how hard it is to get to the top of Google when searching for "music"? Don't even bother thinking about it, you would be totally wasting your time. Even if you had millions to spend on search engine optimisation (SEO) consultants you would still struggle to say the least. But more to the point, why would you want to? If you were searching the web for music, would you just type "music" into Google? Probably not, you would normally search for either an actual artist or music by genre or region of the World perhaps. That way Google will return less web pages, but you are more likely to be interested in the ones it does provide, because they are more specific to your particular interest.

So whatever product or service you plan to promote on the web, try to exploit your specialism and avoid the madness of the more general marketplace. You are far more likely to get found on the web because you offer "sprocket valve widgets" rather than "engineering supplies" because the number of pages returned by Google are likely to be so much lower. That's the good news, but then taking a more "product specific" approach to the content of your web pages presents a whole new set of challenges!

Please give generously! posted June 2010

I got talked into doing the Wolverhampton to Birmingham Half Marathon on July 3rd www.bbchm.co.uk so it would be fantastic if you could support the charity, the MacMillan Cancer Support. I saw my mum die of cancer when she was only 58, I really don't want to see anyone suffer that way, which is why this charity is important to me personally.
You can donate online at http://www.justgiving.com/stourbridge Thank you UPDATE: 2hours and 1 minute - damn!

Get real part II - At last! Those in control finally recognise the value of the manufacturing sector posted June 2010

I am of a certain generation, "baby boomers" I believe we are called, that has seen massive changes around the West Midlands region over the past 40 years or so. As a former engineer and metallurgist I have seen huge local employers lock their gates for the last time, because their products could be made abroad for a fraction of the cost. Huge industrial sites raised to the ground to make way for yet more shopping centres. Years of engineering skills, honed over the generations, discarded in call centres. "Manufacturing is dead", we were told, followed by "the smart money is in the financial sector". Well we now know the value of that view, meanwhile there are numerous, smaller engineers and manufacturers across the Black Country and West Midlands region, quietly going about their business, delivering quality products to customers across the globe, and doing their bit more than anybody for the balance of payments. You can just imagine how they have felt, being told by the politicians for years that their sector contributes so little to UK plc.

But now the politicians are praising the manufacturing sector as the saviour of our economy - well done guys! What was painfully obvious to anybody with the remotest understanding of economics has finally dawned on the powers that be. Take a look at Germany, it's a powerhouse of manufacturing and engineering excellence. Look at the number of German cars on the roads, the number of quality German domestic appliances in our homes, and that's only the more obvious products. We can do it though, look at our Formula One teams for a start, they dominate the world and we should all be proud of that, and we still have lots of quality hi tech and manufacturing businesses, we just don't hear about them and what a great job they are doing for the economy.

But in my view, the web will play a major part in boosting UK manufacturing in the longer term. As manufacturers across the globe use the web more than ever to market their products, in time this will stabilise currency differences, so the game of musical chairs played for example by the car manufacturers, moving their manufacturing facilities to countries that offer the lowest wages bills will cease to be an issue, so the UK will ultimately be just as competitive as China in terms of cost. This to a degree is already happening, the standard of living in China is rising so their costs are rising as well. Eventually products will be made in locations dictated more by environmental issues, and that makes sense for all of us. The madness of having products made halfway across the World and shipping them all the way back to the consumer will be consigned to the history books and thank goodness for that.

Welcome back UK manufacturing sector, your time is about to come!

Don't become a keyword war victim! posted June 2010

During my time as an IT Adviser at Business Link West Midlands I was called in by a client wanting advice on how to get higher in search rankings, one of the most frequent requests for advice on the web. It was a fairly common scenario, a retailer supplying products in a 30 mile radius, so his key phrases typically included "Birmingham", "West Midlands", or just "Midlands". This particular client had a local competitor that he hated with a vengeance, made worse by the fact that the competitor nearly always achieved very high rankings for the same search phrases. "Why can't my website be up there?" the frustrated client asked time and again, so we took a look at the competitor site in more detail and it became obvious he was playing the keyword density game to an absurd degree, to the point where the website was annoying to read, it was so chocked full of keywords. After pointing this out to my client he said "That's what we need to do then, let's play him at his own game!". My heart sank, the client's website was content managed so they could change the wording in-house, he was all set to reword the entire site to get similar or higher keyword densities than his competitor. I told him he had to be very careful, for fear that Google might smell a rat if the frequency, or density of keywords was too high, which I believe was the case with the competitor's website. "It works for my competitor, why can't it work for me?" was my client's pained reply. "Well, you can probably get away with a life of crime for a while, but long term you'll get caught out" was the only analogy I could think of at the time. My client looked less than convinced.

We kept in touch over over the months, still on good terms, the client was unconvinced with my suggestion of caution and had ignored my warnings about going too far with keyword density. There was some evidence that in the short term it did have some effect - up till the competitor noticed! I carried on occasionally monitoring keyword density on the homepage of both sites and sure enough, over a period of time the density was increasing on both sites - they were trying to outdo each other, the keyword wars had begun in ernest. It seemed as though every week the density for the precious key phrases was going up on both sites, something had to give and eventually it did.

A few months later both sites vanished from the rankings in Google for the coveted phrase, they had been rumbled. I would like to use a Formula One analogy for this, it's the same as the two front runners in a race taking each other out on the final lap and the man in third place goes on to win.

It depends who you talk to, or which forum you read, but the general view appears to be to keep your keyword density to less than 10% for your prime keywords, 2 - 3% for your "secondary" keywords. Unless you are a Google engineer nobody really knows for sure as they do change the search algorith on a regular basis. Thank goodness they do as well,or the web would descend into chaos. Moral of the story? There is no substitute for well written quality content for your web pages, targeted and structured logically on a page by page basis.

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