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Search-Engine Friendliness, Local SEO, and Qualitative Data: An Interview with Shari Thurow

Shari Thurow makes for candid and insightful commentary on search engine optimization

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Note: Portions of this interview (between myself & Dev Basu) originally appeared in 2009. Since this was one of my favorite interviews, I kept a copy of it and updated my answers to reflect the current web-search environment. Enjoy!

Shari Thurow has been in the search marketing industry since the very early days of the Internet, when having a website was a big deal. Hi Shari, can you please give us some background info on yourself and tell us how you started out in search marketing?

Thurow: Hello readers. Some of you might know of me already, since I have been a search engine optimization “expert” since 1995.

My area of specialty is search-engine friendly website design, since I began my web career as a designer/developer. From the outset, back in 1995, I have designed search-engine friendly websites.

I still am a designer/developer. I see how search engines and users interact with various types of web pages and websites on a daily basis.

I do not only design, write, code, script, program, etc. websites for search engines. I have always designed, written, coded, etc. websites for people who use search engines, both the commercial web search engines and site search engines.

I have authored three books: Search Engine Visibility (1st and 2nd editions) and When Search Meets Web Usability.

So even if you haven’t heard of me personally, believe me, almost everyone in the search marketing industry has been influenced by my research and work since 1995. I very much enjoy what I do, and will continue working in the field of search marketing.

A plethora of businesses who had their initial websites designed pre-mobile are finally considering complete site overhauls. As a site owner, what does one need to be aware of now in order to build a search-engine friendly website?

Thurow: Honestly? Truthfully? I would say that the vast majority of self-proclaimed “experts” in search-engine friendly website design are not experts at all.

A strong foundation needs to be present BEFORE the design is even created, regardless of the new technologies that have evolved or have been created in the past 10 years.

Search-engine friendly website design is based on 4 building blocks. These building blocks have not changed in over 10 years, and they are not about to change in the next 10 years.

Search engines spiders index text and follow links.

Therefore, to make your website more search-engine friendly, pages must contain the words and phrases that people type into search engines, and the pages need to appear somewhat focused on those words.

Keywords + Aboutness + Context

In my opinion, content should communicate aboutness in the proper context. Machine-learning algorithms, as well as human users, want to know what your pages' content is about.

So make aboutness clear at the top of your web pages. Don't make human users have to scroll to determine what a page's content is about. If you do that for humans, you are aiding artificial intelligence (AI) as well.

Architecture + Navigation + Accessibility

Search engines will not access and analyze that text unless you give them access to that content.

So you have to provide user-friendly access to that content in the form of information architecture, site navigation (including supplemental navigation), archiving, and URL structure.

Search-engine friendly design is designing a site for people who use search engines.

Notice that I emphasized the phrase “user-friendly.” Remember, search-engine friendly design is designing a site for people who use search engines, not throwing out every site navigation scheme a computer program can muster.

These two things? I haven’t changed these items since I first became a web developer in 1995.

People still don’t “get” these items. Doesn’t matter that you know responsive design. Doesn’t matter that you know jQuery tricks. Doesn’t matter that you know IP delivery. Doesn’t matter that you know URL workarounds.

If you don’t “get” these two items, then as far as I am concerned, you don’t “get” search-engine friendly website design.

I know those are bold statements, but I stick to my guns. I think it is very sad that the #1 mistake I still see is the lack of attention to a strong infrastructure.

Local search has been gaining much prominence for generic searches such as lawyer, dentist, sushi, etc. What are some best practices to use, when building landing pages to serve local customers?

Thurow: It’s all about users. What does your local target audience wish to know about your company when they call? When they walk in for that first appointment? When they call you again for more products and services?

Contact information and physical location is EXTREMELY important to local searchers. What is the best way to contact your company? What are your business hours?

Omni builds comprehensive sites for local businesses.

Products and/or Services. People want to know the main products and/or services your company offers. List and describe them. As we say in the usability/UX industry, "Use the users' language" to the best of your abilities.

Customer Support. Prospects and customers always have questions. So an FAQ (frequently asked questions) or a Customer Service section should always be a part of a local website.

Benefits and Testimonials. Why should people do business with your firm? A Benefits and/or Testimonials portion of a website really helps, especially since most local companies get more business via word-of-mouth referrals than websites.

Physical location. We always try to give extra instructions on how to get to a business’s physical location – driving directions, nearby parking garages (if the business is located in a large city), etc.

The main physical location should always be emphasized on the entire site, usually in a footer and via other means of optimization.

Here are a couple of quick-&-easy tips for your local search profiles:

  • Display photos of your entryway (and vary photos by season, when applicable).
  • Display photos of the sign on your door if you office(s) or practice(s) are part of a building.

Contact information. What is your preferred method of being contacted? Do you want people to call you? Then make your phone number prominent. Do you want people to fill out a form? Then prominently link to your contact form. Use common sense.

SEO is like many other marketing practices. You can easily overdo it. The days of keyword stuffing are gone.

People can always tell when a site is over-optimized. An over-optimized website does not communicate a strong brand. It communicates desperation, I think.

To be honest, we do not build single landing pages for local SEO.

I know that a local site can do well with a single landing page. But I would never put all of a website's information on a single page.

Back in 1999, forums and message boards were a prominent way of advertising one’s services. While still fairly potent for niche focused services, how can businesses utilize social media to achieve the same or great effects in a scalable fashion?

Thurow: Social media and link development existed long before Facebook and Google were invented. They existed in different forms. The principles for optimizing content are the same or very similar.

Blogs. Let me say this: a blog is a website like any other website. Content needs to be categorized, labeled, and archived appropriately, just like any other website.

Blogs, forums, and message boards are really easy to set up, but what happens a few years down the road when content becomes difficult to manage? Few blog sites are prepared for this.

Some SEO professionals just see the benefit of the quick turnaround time without thinking about the long-term, big picture.

Social media optimization (SMO). As I mentioned previously, social media has existed for a long time. It’s just “hot” topic now as other things were “hot” topics a few years ago, like the whole long-tail thing.

Social media sites are great as a means of distribution. Web search engines are one way people use to locate and discover desired content.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of wasted time and effort put into social media optimization.

You have to understand your audience and the type of social media consumer they are. Target the wrong one? That is a lot of time and energy wasted.

I am not a naysayer of social media. I’ve been a blogger (content provider) for a very long time. My firm and my client firms have greatly benefited from the social media’s distribution capabilities.

I’ve personally seen more companies waste time and money on social media optimization that could have gone into more effective means of optimizing a site, such as coming up with a strong information architecture.

The core fundamentals of good SEO still rely on well optimized on-page factors and content, with the addition of quality inbound links. Do you see this changing in the near future, given that the search engines are beginning to consider other signals such as user reviews, user-generated content, and historical user behavior?

I like to think of link development as a form of validation. Other people validate that what you say about your content is true or sound.

Link development continues to be a core SEO fundamental.

Core SEO fundamentals. These fundamentals have not disappeared and will never disappear, I believe. That is why they are called “fundamentals” – they ARE intrinsically important.

But people and companies do not “get” the core fundamentals, what I call the 4 Building Blocks of SEO. Many people still believe that inbound links trump on-the-page criteria when, in fact, these items should reinforce each other.

Reviews & user-generated content (UGC). User reviews and user-generated content is overhyped. Some SEO firms pay people to write user reviews whether the reviewers actually purchased a product/service or not.

User-generated content has been around long before Google came into existence. Who is going to write using keywords? Some people will – most won’t. You can’t train the world to be search-engine friendly copywriters, though it would be a noble cause.

People pay reviewers to write bad reviews about their competitors. And people who have a negative experience with a website tend to tell more people about that negative experience than people who had a great experience.

The end result? Some really great products, services, and content get unfairly evaluated. It happens more frequently than any of us care to admit.

Searcher behaviors. We understand searcher behaviors more deeply than we did back in the 1990s when Andrei Broder first wrote about A Taxonomy of Web Search (PDF).

To truly understand web searcher behaviors...on both desktop AND mobile interfaces.., we need to gather both qualitatative and quantitative data.

It is not enough to rely on log-file and web-analytics data.

Quantitative data can tell you how people act but not reasons why people act.

In my opinion, too many SEO practitioners base user behavior on log file data. This quantitative data can tell you how people act but not why people act.

To make a search-friendly website, you need to understand both the "how" and the "why".

Qualitative & Quantitative info. One source of "why" information can come from usability tests. Usability testing can initially be rather time consuming and not always scalable. But man, is it accurate and insightful!

Some other sources of qualitative data include:

  • Interviews (users, customers, employees, etc.)
  • Field studies
  • Heuristic evaluations
  • Expert reviews

I believe strongly in both quantitative AND qualitative sources of information.

I try to pay attention to details, too. For example, qualitative data can often yield the exact opposite information of what log-file data indicates (e.g. a high bounce rate can mean high user satisfaction). And quantitative data can often tell you the impact of the "why."

In conclusion, I think there are plenty of areas for improvement in the search marketing industry. And kudos to those people who think outside of the box – the outliers – who want to see search industry evolve.

I don’t know about you, but I sure am waiting for the next great web search engine. We’re long past due, don’t you agree?

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