Things to worry about before you worry about SEO

Very close up of an apparently worried face in black and white

I was at a business networking meeting the other day (because that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I roll). When I explained what I do most people nodded sagely and said “SEO”. Some of them went so for as to say

“yes we do that, targeting keywords, making sure we come up top in search results”

And this made me worry for them. Because, though I’m sure it does them no harm to go chasing search terms on Google there are, almost certainly, they would find would deliver them a return faster.

Here are a few of those things:

  1. Does your website work?

By this I don’t mean, is it there (though that’s worth checking). I mean does it fulfill its purpose. For most businesses its purpose will be to sell things, or to generate leads.

Lots of websites, and I mean LOTS, are really bad at this.

It’s really easy to build websites that don’t work. Much harder to build websites that do.

Your website stats package should help you answer this question. My favourite is Google Analytics and it has powerful tools to help you understand what proportion of your visitors actually go on to buy or to contact you.

2) Does your website work on mobile?

When you visit your website you’re probably sitting at your desk at work. You probably showed it to the directors by projecting it onto a massive screen. It probably looks tremendous.

But your customers aren’t visiting it on a desk (they’re really not). They are visiting it on iPhones cheap and cheerful LG phones and Windows phones (well probably not the latter). They’re sitting in their cars waiting for the kids to finish cubs or in a pub pretending to look up the quiz answers.

It’s not as simple as saying “Oo that looks nice” on your iPad. It has to be incredibly clear and simple to use on mobile. Because if it isn’t, people will go elsewhere, it’s a big Internet.

3) Is it accessible?

Broadly, can people with disabilities use it?

Now I know that for many, many businesses the question of whether your potential blind customers will struggle with your interactions is of very little significance. That’s a moral (not to say legal) problem but that’s not, in fact, my argument.

There are a range of rather geeky things that can really help search engines to understand and classify your site. Proper mark-up (the correct use of HTML) is one of them. Not hiding key information in images and videos is another. All of these are covered by accessibility. So, in fact, by serving people with disabilities you make the site work better for everyone.

4) Is it fast?

How fast?

As fast as it can be.

Consider the sense of satisfaction one gets making a purchase with Amazon. If you have one-click ordering turned on you can go from wanting a thing to the thing being ordered in a very few seconds.

Some of this is down to the fact that Amazon have very big computers driving their site. But mostly it’s because they really focus on getting the job done. It’s in the design, in the way the pages load and in the decisions they make about how to offer you services.

Website speed is actually a fiendishly difficult thing to assess objectively but, again, Google Analytics will make a good stab at it. Under a second page load speed is what I’d be looking for. But even then don’t get complacent. That customer sitting in their car might have an incredibly flakey and slow connection. Your .75 second page might take 15 seconds for them. And the next one. And the next one.

5) Have a retention plan

Most people, even if they are delighted by the speed and simplicity of your site, are not going to buy straight away. They might want to compare prices on your competitor’s site. They might want to talk it over with their partner. They might get distracted by a phone call.

So you need to focus on reaching people who have grazed your site. Encourage them to leave their email for a newsletter (a newsletter that will actually benefit them). Ask them to follow you on Twitter. Run a remarketing campaign so you can target adverts to them.

And reward your existing customers. Give them nice things. Give them exclusive discounts. Make it really easy for them to recommend your products (and services) to their friends and family.

And, inevitably, your favourite web stats package (it’s Google Analytics isn’t it) can give you rich data about what happens on the several visits that people make.

Here comes the SEO

And when you’ve got all that in place. Then it’s time to think about targeting search terms in Google.

My company, Likeaword, can help you with all of this, including finding and targeting the right search terms.

(Photo credit: Worried life blues… by Joe Sampouw used under CC BY 2.0)

Navigating around maps on websites. A guide for local authorities (and others)

Map showing gritting routes

I was supposed to be sorting out the garage. In a desperate act of prevarication, I checked Twitter. Sure enough Dan Slee had posed a gnomic question to the world.

I’m not totally sure what the argument was or who was arguing. But there are some issues that are worth exploring. Though this post has local authorities in mind most of these issues actually apply to anyone using online maps.

  1. Why put maps on your website?

Maps can be useful for displaying (and allowing people to report) lots of information. If the information has a spatial component then maps can be a very helpful way of understanding that information. So if this is information about a specific location a map can help people understand where that location is relative to their location or a third location.

Here’s a map of the routes that are gritted in Herefordshire [disclosure I was responsible for creating this map in the first place though I no longer work for the council].

Maps aren’t suitable for all users or in all circumstances. People who can’t see the screen, who have difficulty processing this sort of abstract information or are unfamiliar with using maps need other ways of navigating this sort of data.

2) GIS and the printing of maps

Usually (though not always) when people sit down to plan gritting routes they draw them on an electronic map. Specialist Geographical Information Systems make this sort of thing easy and make it simple to change routes (when a new school is built for example). And, in principle, this information can be shared with other departments (the bin lorries like to know which routes are going to be gritted for example).

In a local authority, inevitably, these routes will be drawn on electronic versions of Ordnance Survey maps. It’s easy to forget that the Ordnance Survey dataset is amongst the best quality mapping that any country has. Under the Public Sector Mapping Agreement local authorities (and town and parish councils) get to use the OS data for their patch under a licence.

The simplest way to get the gritting routes from the GIS software onto the website is to output a screenshot as a PDF (or a JPEG). Easy but not very useful. PDFs are unusable for almost all cases (reading long reports offline on a mobile phone would be one exception). Either format can’t be zoomed and so, to cover a county like Herefordshire, a large number of PDFs or JPEGs would have to be shoved out.

3) Bring on the Slippy Map

A much more useful concept is to use the awesome power of the Internet to display the mapped data in an interactive way. You’re probably most familiar with this from Google Maps. If the bit you are interested in lies to the right of the map you’re viewing you just reach with your cursor (or finger these days) and drag the map to the right.

Already this is a much better way to display gritting routes. As technology should this, now familiar, approach actually relies on a series of clever and complex interactions.

This is a post aimed at a reasonably general audience so I’ll risk the ire of GIS geeks with a simple description.

In order to get the gritting routes on a slippy map on a council website, several things need to be delivered.

The background mapping has to be available in a dynamic format, so that as you drag the map to the right, a service sends the maps covering the new area. These are just images (called tiles) though they have to be delivered so they can be shown at the right scale and in the right place.

The lines for the gritting routes have to be delivered in a similar way. They form a separate layer and are drawn on top of the background mapping. They also have to be delivered in so they can be shown at the right scale and position.

Then you need a tonne of code in your webpage that will go and get the background maps and the routes and display them, and handle the interaction with the user.

4) Give it to Google

One of the very attractive things about the Google Maps service is that it makes it really easy to do all of the things described above. You can draw your gritting routes in its service, grab a simple embed code and bosh an interactive slippy map.

Here’s Herefordshire Council using Google Maps to display car park locations [disclosure I totally failed to stop using google for this service in my time at the council].

So that’s it then?

Well no. Back in step two we saw that the gritting routes were drawn on top of Ordnance Survey data. The licence the council uses the data under means they can’t give that information (which in this case is incredibly accurate information about where roads are) to Google.

5) So are we stuck?

We most certainly are not. There are a huge range of solutions open and closed source for delivering mapping on council sites. And under the PSMA the council is perfectly able to publish maps.

6) Maps are good. Data is better.

Just supposing you want to drive from Hereford to Worcester. You want to make sure you followed gritted routes. You need to visit two websites: Herefordshire Council for the Herefordshire part of your journey and Worcestershire County Council for the Worcestershire part.

It’s not a brilliant user experience. There is, of course, an alternative. Just supposing you want to drive from West Bromwich to Edgbaston. You could visit the relevant websites or you could visit this map from Mappa Mercia. Which displays all of the gritting routes across the West Midlands conurbation.

Brilliant. Why don’t they include gritting routes further afield? Well they would like to but they encounter the licensing problem. Mappa Mercia is an OpenStreetMap project and OpenStreetMap can’t use data with restrictive licenses.

There are many, many reasons why local authorities might want to support OpenStreetMap but they’ll have to wait for another post.

7) Data is rubbish. Open data is resource.

Imagine a world where the gritting routes the council used were derived in an open way. Perhaps by putting GPS loggers (or as I like to call them “phones”) in the cab of the gritters.

Those gritting routes wouldn’t be restricted by the Ordnance Survey license. They could be used to create Google Maps, OpenStreetMaps (or used in Bing or ESRI or a whole host of other services). WHo knows what use people might make of them.

The local authority would carry on using them against OS data in its back office.

The open and the un-open

This blog post is not complaining about OS licensing restrictions (not least because the OS is, in fact, opening ever more of its data. It’s an issue. It can be worked round. Like many situations where data can be open or non-open there is an imbalance. The way the local authority chooses to collect (and publish – I haven’t really gone into that) its data has real impacts on the use of the data by third parties.

This post will change nothing

To some of us, these downstream impacts are clear and urgent. But to most people it’s abstruse and abstract. We need to find ways to encourage people across public services (and other sectors too) to understand some of these issues. This blog post is probably not going to achieve that. But it has got me out of tidying up the garage.

(Image credits: Screengrab from Mappa Mercia site (c) OpenStreetMap contributors)