Prior to joining Parliament’s Digital Service, I worked in marketing in the tourism industry. It was a cutthroat world. Huge amounts of time and effort were spent on pushing our website higher up the search results in Google using search engine optimisation (SEO).
I’ve witnessed all sorts of tricks when it came to SEO. Using eye-catching ‘clickbait’ headings that entice people to click from one website to another to make a site appear more popular. Stuffing keywords at the bottom of a page to ‘fool’ a search engine about the site’s content. Changing the font to white for keywords on part of the page so that they still register with the search engine but are invisible to the reader.
Rankings in Google seemed to be the only thing that mattered. Thankfully, the days of the ‘dark arts of SEO’ are gone. Websites that still use the techniques will be penalised and fall down the search rankings.
Today, websites are rewarded with higher search rankings when they create a positive experience and outcome for their users. I’ll go into more detail about how to achieve this later.
My SEO epiphany
I currently work with colleagues in PDS to consider our approach to SEO, analysing how parliament.uk is performing in search results, and how we can ensure our users are fully engaged and satisfied with the important content we publish.
From doing this work, and after years of scheming to jump up search engine results pages, I had an epiphany: our work is not about tricking Google, it’s about working with them.
It's this shift in mindset that made it clearer for me about how to approach creating content.
Fact: Google matters
Here are some statistics that show why we should care about SEO:
- In 2020, organic search traffic (traffic that comes from search engines) accounted for 62.2% or nearly two-thirds of referrals to parliament.uk.
- A referral tells us where parliament.uk’s traffic originates from.
- Of the 62.2% organic referrals to parliament.uk, a whopping 93% of those come from Google.
Google is particularly instrumental in directing users to our content. This means we need to take SEO seriously if we are to continue to have a large section of our website audience directed from search engines. There is another reason why SEO is important to us.
Better user experiences
We shouldn’t optimise our websites with search engines in mind. We should focus on our users by creating brilliant user experiences.
Google does not want to send users to websites that don’t answer their questions or that give false or inaccurate information because that would reflect badly on them.
If a webpage is poorly written or difficult to read, users are less likely to engage with it and Google will pick up on this, so they won’t send users there.
Likewise, they will not send people to a website that is technically poor, so websites that take an age to load, have lots of internal redirects and broken links won’t perform well in search either.
But what can Parliament’s content creators do to have their pages sit atop Google’s results page?
How we improve our rankings
These are the ranking factors that are regarded as essential in creating a positive user experience:
- Create content that is meant to be read by humans, not search engines.
- Write content in the language of your users.
- Think ‘mobile-first’ – more people are interacting with websites on mobile devices, and Google rewards websites that adopt a mobile-first approach to design and content.
- Insert SEO keywords/keyphrases.
- Break up text using clear headings and paragraphs.
- Remember alt-text on images as Google prefers sending users to accessible content.
The good news is that the approach that Google rewards closely matches our content principles, so our editors should already be doing much of what is needed to create content optimised for search.
Spaghetti or pizza?
SEO keywords and phrases are what users type into a search engine when they are looking for something.
As content creators we can include them in our content to signpost to Google what our webpage is about so they can accurately match it to a user’s query.
We can find these all-important keywords through keyword research. It’s a major part of the work I’m doing with my team.
This brings us on to another very important element of SEO – ‘user intent’.
User intent is the consideration of what a user intends to find when they search for something. There shouldn't be any surprises. If you type in ‘Spaghetti Bolognese recipe’ you don’t want to be shown recipes for a Hawaiian pizza.
That’s why we need to use the right words and content on our pages and accurate search terms that match a user’s intention.
SEO is not a bolt-on
SEO shouldn’t be seen as something that’s bolted on to content just before the ‘publish’ button is pressed. Good SEO does not get in the way of producing great content. They work hand in hand.