by Steve Cunningham
For those of us in radio and voiceover who are responsible for our own online marketing, or for marketing others via websites and social media, the old Confucian curse “may you live in interesting times” has never been more apt. Just about the time we all got used to “Web 2.0” and Facebook it all changed on us. What’s more, the rate of change has continued to accelerate for the past couple of years (despite a vicious and tenacious recession), and it continues apace.
This month we’ll be diving into deep online territories, some of which used to be inhabited by sketchy internet marketers, in an effort to maximize our visibility online in 2012.
WHAT IS SEO?
Our first stop is SEO for our websites. For those who are new to the subject, SEO is Search Engine Optimization, the process of making sure potential customers find our most effective and controllable outpost on the Interwebz: our website.
Everyone wants their website to appear on the first page of results for a set of relevant search terms. So if your VO branding stresses that you are a “warm and friendly voice,” then you want your website to appear in the first page of results when someone enters “warm and friendly voice” into a Google (or Bing or Yahoo) search. In this case, the “keyword” (or key phrase) in the search consists of the phrase “warm and friendly voice,” along with the individual words that make up the phrase.
SEO is the process of making sure that Google finds the keyword in a page’s content often enough that it gives the page a high relevance score for that phrase. The higher the relevance score, the more likely the page will show up on the first page of search results (aka SERP or Search Engine Results Page). This score is generated by Google’s search “algorithms” which comprise part of the indexing engine that constantly crawls the web.
There was a time not so long ago when all we had to do to be first on the SERP was to use the keywords or phrases as often as possible in a page’s content (aka keyword stuffing), even if it meant turning that content into gibberish. An easy tactic was to post similar articles on the same site, using slightly different keyword variations to boost relevance. It was also good to have lots of outgoing links embedded in the content, no matter how relevant those links may or may not have been. And finally, we were told to post on other people’s blogs, and make sure that our signature contained a link to our website, thereby establishing a large collection of links on various sites that all pointed back to the our site. These sorts of techniques were actually considered best practice as little as two years ago.
Of course, there were abuses and abusers; some used “cloaking” to present different content to deceive search engines into giving better scores. Others built sites that consisted almost entirely of ads and “scraped” content, expropriated from other websites and modified to appear original. A colleague built a site consisting of menus from popular chain restaurants, then loaded it up with pay per click advertising. He drew enough traffic that he and his wife could take a vacation on ad dollars.
Meanwhile, Google noticed that its search numbers were declining, primarily because of the amount of “junk” sites returned by most searches. Beginning in February 2011, they took action in the form of a new set of algorithms collectively known as Panda, and engaging in the aforementioned tactics today can actually get a site banned from Google search engines altogether. So what’s different?
ENTER THE PANDA
Google has always maintained a team of human quality raters, whose job is to evaluate websites and score them based upon the quality of their experience as they look through the sites. Testers rated thousands of websites based on measures of quality, including the site design, amount of content at the top of pages (above the fold), trustworthiness of the content, page loading speed, and whether or not testers would return to the site. The Panda update uses artificial intelligence to mimic the testers’ evaluations, and focuses on thin, stolen, or duplicate content, as well as high ad-to-content ratios.
But wait there’s more: a second class of update was announced in April of this year. Code-named Penguin, this update specifically goes after keyword stuffing and cloaking, irrelevant links (whether incoming or outgoing), and low-authority links. With both the Panda and Penguin updates, sites found to violate Google’s Webmaster guidelines are hearing about it and their position on search results has declined.
So what’s a voice actor or radio station to do to avoid being penalized? You should do the same thing you do every day for someone else.
Be a storyteller. Tell your story, or a piece of your story, and engage your audience.
The most important thing is to create compelling content and post it on the site. If you’re a voice actor, ask yourself some questions. What topics will interest your readers? What questions would they ask you about your most recent work? What can you tell them about how you do business that is unique to you? Are there aspects to your workflow, or your vocal qualities, or your studio, or your studio dog that your readers will find interesting?
Given that American political parties are in a buying mode right now, can you write about that process? If you do political advertising, is there an authoritative article on political advertising that you can link to on your site? Is there a political buzz on Twitter or Facebook regarding a political ad you’ve done? If you do ads for a local car dealership, does that dealership engage in any charitable activities? Are there articles about that charitable activity on a hometown newspaper’s website?
When you write, put your most important keyword first in the title of your post, and make sure you have your brand name in there as well. Remember that the title counts more than content to search engines, because it’s the first thing they look at and tells them what the article is about. Whatever you do, don’t write your content first and then put keywords in afterwards. It will look and sound unnatural. Have your keywords in mind and incorporate them naturally as you write. When you’re done, reread your content. If it sounds sketchy, it probably is.
CLEAN UP OLDER CONTENT
The next important item to look at is your existing content. Does any of it duplicate other content you have on your site? If so, pick the better content and eliminate the other. Read your posts carefully; is the information you presented trustworthy? Is it written in a way that makes you sound like you know what you’re doing, or is it too shallow? If your existing content has any of these problems, you should consider removing it.
It’s also important to examine the number of ads running on your site, if you run advertising. This is particularly important for radio station websites. While we all like to be paid for advertising, it’s important that the ads are not so numerous that they detract from your reader’s experience. Three ads at $10,000 each are better than twenty at $500 each. Also remember that embedded ads can slow page loading speed, and slow pages will damage your Google score.
SEO is not completely dead, but it’s beginning to smell funny. The most important thing you can do to promote your website and stand out among the clutter is to generate good content that is relevant to the keywords that describe your business. If you don’t have a blog as part of your voiceover or radio station website, add one and update it at least once a week. Write and put out a press release once a month. Did you get a new client? Are you speaking at a conference? Are you attending a conference? All of this is newsworthy. Announce your blog post on Twitter and Facebook, and include links going back to your blog. So, blog once a week, Facebook twice a week, and Twitter once a day. The latter two will feed your social standing, while the former will make your website more authoritative.
Creating content will always be the most time-consuming thing you do for your business. But it pays dividends -- real dividends, and you won’t get caught in an algorithm update because you’re providing interesting and unique and real content. Besides, you get to talk about you, and what’s better than that? By the way, if you’re working with an agency and they’re recommending anything from the list of older-and-no-longer working strategies for improving your traffic or position on SERP, you might want to re-consider that relationship.
BECOMING PART OF THE MOBILE WEB
The International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that 1.8 billion smart connected devices will ship worldwide in 2016, of which PCs will comprise just 25% of the total. Add to that the fact that it is expected that sometime in 2014, mobile Internet use should become greater than desktop Internet use. Suddenly our websites will be viewed by a whole lot of mobile devices like tablets and phones.
Yet what percentage of websites are mobile ready today? Of the major online retailers worldwide, it is estimated that fewer than 8% of them are ready to do business over mobile today. Yet one half of all local searches are performed on mobile devices, and Americans spend an average of 2.7 hours per day being social on their mobile device.
So how do you get ready for mobile? At the moment, there are two ways of doing it: a dedicated mobile site or mobile app, or you can have what’s called a responsive website. While most people are familiar with mobile apps and with dedicated mobile websites, they may not be familiar with responsive web. Here are a few examples of responsive web design: http://clearairchallenge.com/, http://sasquatchfestival.com, http://www.cacaotour.com. What these three sites have in common is that when the browser window gets smaller, all of the text and elements on the webpage move around and resize themselves to fit the smaller format. Try visiting one of the above URLs and see what happens as the browser window grows and shrinks; watch the elements move and change. Cool, right?
This is not a parlor trick. It’s done using two new-ish standards for writing code on the web: HTML 5 and CSS 3. These two languages are well understood among most professional web developers, and in the past year dedicated agencies have sprung up who specialize in nothing but responsive websites.
RESPONSIVE VS MOBILE WEB VS APP
So what are the upsides and downsides of each technology? Responsive web has obvious benefits. For one thing, responsive web simply replaces fixed layouts and grids with fluid and flexible replacements, and uses media queries to determine the size and orientation of the display device that is currently visiting the site. So when done properly, a single site will look equally good on a phone, a tablet, and a desktop, eliminating the need to maintain multiple sites. When content needs to be changed, it can be changed on one site only. And because the site makes the content available on a single URL, no matter what size the display device, it does not split the SEO scores between multiple sites (as it would with desktop and separate mobile). However, there is extra code involved for reformatting the elements for each display device, and while the code itself is small, it does add to the download. In addition, some large picture elements simply do not look good on a small screen, even when intelligently reduced in size. While responsive web is still in its infancy, it does appear that development costs are higher than for standard desktop website. Expect to spend 1.5x the cost of a non-responsive site.
A dedicated mobile website is normally served from a subdirectory or subdomain of the main site. Here’s an example of a mobile site in a subdirectory of the main site. To see the main, just delete the /mobile/: http://www.cpventure.com/mobile/. While that can have a negative effect with search engines, a dedicated mobile site is typically quicker to build and deploy and costs substantially less than does a responsive website. Since a mobile website really is another website, development costs can be expected to be the same or slightly less than a standard website, given that some design elements can be re-used.
A mobile app has been shown to have excellent user retention, along with the additional benefit of being able to be used off-line. A well designed mobile app can be highly interactive, and very easy for a user to pick out and launch if they need to use it right now. However, a mobile app can cost as much or more than a responsive website to develop, especially since at minimum it will need to be developed in both IOS and Android versions.
I’LL TAKE DOOR NUMBER ONE
So which of these three solutions is best for a voice actor or radio station? For VO, I would recommend that if the actor is having their site rebuilt or freshened then it makes good sense to invest in responsive web, especially in light of the update once, update all aspect of it. If the actor has an existing website and is happy with it, a dedicated mobile site could be added, although I still prefer the responsive web solution for the hip factor alone. An app for a voice actor seems an unnecessarily expensive option with no better payoff than the other two solutions.
The situation with the radio station is slightly different, in that there is exponentially more content to deal with, and that content should be constantly changing. All that extra content will make the designer’s job of rearranging it for various sized display devices that much more difficult, and consequently that much more expensive. Given the affinity of radio to smart phones, and app seems the ideal solution for mobile use. Stations will benefit from the additional interactivity, and from the immediacy of having a branded app that people can fire up at will on a tablet or smart phone. For very small stations who want to have a mobile presence, the dedicated mobile site attached to their existing site would seem an ideal solution. They will get the presents they need at a price they can afford, and a competent designer can make sure that the most important content remains the most visible content on the small screen.