14 tell-tale signs your business isn’t optimised for search

Not ranking on Google or other search engines? We reveal the most common causes of sites failing to deliver organic leads and traffic

As anyone who has spent considerable time, hard work, and cash building their own website will know it’ll all be for nothing if you can’t get the right visitors to it.

To see your site languish unvisited and failing to deliver the hoped-for sales is frustrating in the extreme. It can also be baffling: what has gone wrong? Enter three little letters: SEO.

If your website needs more, or better, search engine optimisation, it will always struggle to gain visibility on Google, Bing and other search engines and will not easily attract customers. Below, experts share some clear signs that you need to revisit or create an SEO strategy.

1. Competitors have better rankings on search engines

Let’s start with the obvious one. If your competitors are on page one, and you’re on page seven, of Google’s results when potential customers search for your products or services, they’re streets ahead of you SEO-wise and reaping the benefits at your expense.

“That could be because you’re not using keywords correctly,” says Gareth Morgan, managing director at Liberty Marketing.

“While page titles, meta data and site content should be optimised for the right keywords, it’s essential you choose unique keywords for each URL so pages aren’t competing against each other. Otherwise, you’ll see high bounce rates and will essentially cancel out all the hard work you’ve done.”

Underneath the title tags you need a strong meta description, which is similar to the blurb of a book to entice you to click and read on.

“It’s also important to refresh your keyword research at least twice annually,” adds Morgan. “This will ensure your site is optimised for up-to-date search requests.

“Unique, keyword optimised site copy and blog content is essential for optimising your site to get the right kind of traffic and make those much-needed conversions.”

On a related note, don’t become obsessed with images and banners with embedded text as Google can’t read them. Use the ALT tag for images to add keywords, thus making your visual strengths more visible to search engines.

2. You do not have SEO-friendly URLs

We’ve all seen URLs like this www.site.com/service.php?p=6527? and it’s an opportunity missed. Again related to the keywords you want to rank on, you can relatively easily edit the permalink if you use a content management system such as WordPress, says Farah Radford, owner and founder of digital marketing agency Digivita.

“Try URLs that includes the main keyword from the page. If your site is about bikes then your URLs could be similar to site.com/mountain-bikes, site.com/road-bikes etc.”

3. You have more than one homepage

Ok, this might sound odd, but as Radford explains it’s the type of thing that might otherwise escape your attention. “Try to type in your website address with and without www. If both work without one redirecting to the other (i.e. site.com will automatically direct to www.site.com or vice versa) then your site needs some attention.

“Go to your Google webmaster tools account and specify which version of your site is preferred by you. If you have a WordPress site, there are various free plugins that let you do the redirecting.”

4. You’re providing a bad user experience

From your perspective, your website might be pretty much perfect. But have you really looked at it from a potential customer’s perspective? The usability of your site is of course important in itself, but also from an SEO point of view.

“Good user experience is one of the factors that search engines look out for when assessing your website,” warns Katja Brömel, head of content & SEO at audience acquisition specialist Twenga. “Factors such as high bounce and low conversion rates can immediately indicate the pages which don’t perform. The next step is to check the relevancy of the keywords these pages are ranking for in order to identify the problem.”

If people are leaving your page straight away, the keywords might need tweaking. The semantics may be similar, but users that are just looking for recipes online won’t end up buying the cookery books you also sell on your website, says Brömel. Make sure too that users find the content they came for as soon as they arrive on your landing page.

5. Your website is slow

Following neatly on and related to user experience, a slow site is a recipe for disaster, says Digivita’s Radford. Attention spans are increasingly low and if your site is slowed by images loading it will affect your SEO.

“You can check whether your site is running slower than it should by using Google’s pagespeed tool,” she advises, adding that the tool will also provide suggestions to improve pagespeed.

“If you have a parallax website (or longer homepage) in WordPress CMS then the WordPress images lazy loading plugin can be a life saver. It delays loading of images outside the “above the fold” content. The images won’t be loaded before the user scrolls down to them.”

6.  You’re not generating organic leads

Another sign you may need to take another look at your keywords is the conversion rate of organic traffic. Heather Baker, CEO of communications agency TopLine Comms, says: “The most obvious sign that your website isn’t optimised is that you’re not generating organic leads from it! Don’t judge performance on keyword rankings alone.”

“An SEO strategy should ensure you’re targeting keywords that not only get traffic, but are also relevant to your offering and made as close to the point of purchase as possible. It’s the difference between a search for B2B PR (which could be a student researching the topic) and B2B PR Agency (which is more likely to be a potential lead – and hence a keyword TopLine ranks at one and two for currently.)”

7. Your website is still not mobile-friendly

If you’re not seeing any traffic from mobile devices, you might need to review your site’s design as soon as possible. Dr Aleksej Heinze, co-director of the Centre for Digital Business, Salford Business School and head of the advisory board to the Search Engine Marketing Trade Association (SEMTA), explains: “Google is penalising websites that don’t look and load well on a mobile device.”

It has however offered a free tool to help website owners to test their site: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/.

“Make sure that your website passes this test to benefit from the increase in mobile website visitors,” says Dr Heinze. “If you are in the process of re-designing a website it is a good idea to consider a ‘mobile first’ approach as this helps with flexibility for any mobile devices to engage with your content in a much faster and more user-friendly way.

Twenga’s Katja Brömel adds that “good, responsive web design should automatically detect the type of device being used to access the site and adjust the layout accordingly to maximise user experience.”

8. Your site is full of content copied from other sites

You wouldn’t be the first to take a shortcut to populating your site with content. But because it’s so easy and lazy to hit ‘Ctrl C’ to fill the blank spaces Google and other search engines have rightly clamped down on it. Their algorithms pick up duplicate content and quickly penalise offenders.

“Who’s going to notice it isn’t unique, right? Wrong,” says Digivita’s Radford. “If you have same the content on multiple pages of the same website, that counts as duplicate content too and your site will suffer Google’s wrath.

“Get the copy written by a professional copywriter and make sure you do keyword research before writing the copy. Google Keyword planner is a free tool you can use to find out the right keywords for your site and also how many people are searching every month for your keywords.”

9. Your site has no blog

A quality blog can work wonders. Search engines love fresh content and a blog is one of the most obvious sections in which content can be regularly updated.

It can also keep visitors coming back, and provide a wealth of ‘shareable’ content, particularly when guest bloggers are featured who can promote content to their followers.

Shree Vaidya, head of SEO at Engage Interactive, warns it’s important to “remember that first and foremost your content needs to answer a genuine need that the user has; don’t just write for the sake of writing”.

The Google Hummingbird algorithm launched in 2013 supports this as context is everything. Rather than single keywords repeated the algorithm attempts to match a search with the entire context of an article to help users find what they are looking for.

And once you’ve published well written, interesting content make sure you promote it via social media to drive traffic via other channels, adds Vaidya.

10. You’re a local business with poor Google+ and citation information

Local search is becoming increasingly important for smaller businesses, especially as the ability to search ‘on the go’ has increased thanks to mobile devices. Submitting your information to Google MyBusiness means it will appear on search, maps and Google+.

Says Shree Vaidya: “One of the first things I check is the relationship between your website, your Google MyBusiness/Plus and external sites. The NAP (name, address, phone number) data – otherwise known as citation information – needs to be consistent across these properties. Focus on making sure the information on your site is correct first, then find where you’re listed across the web on local directory sites and update them to be in line with your site, then update your Google+ listing.”

In addition, says Digivita’s Radford, spend 10 minutes registering your business on local directories such as Yelp, Foursquare, Bing and Google Maps to more effectively leverage local SEO.

11. Your keywords should be ranking highly, but Google is returning the wrong pages

Ross Jones-Morris, marketing manager at StuRents Ltd, warns that sitemaps are crucial as they effectively provide directions to help the search engine ‘spiders’ find their way around. When looking at where StuRents ranked for their relevant keywords, he says: “We found that while many ranked well, the software we used didn’t return results for any of the keywords out of the Top 100.

“So we didn’t have much visibility. We assumed this meant that in the specific locations the keywords mentioned we simply weren’t performing well enough on broad SEO terms. But this was not the case.”

“I decided to find the URL the searches were returning; this involved manually checking our position by going through the returned results well into the hundreds. For many of them it turned out that Google was simply returning the wrong page.

“For example, for ‘student accommodation hull’, Google was returning our Nottingham accommodation page – which of course is not relevant and therefore does not rank well. Google was therefore reading our site wrong, indicating an issue with our sitemap. We updated our sitemap in line with Google’s guidelines and now for ‘student accommodation hull’ we have a front page result as the search returns our Hull page – a much more relevant and helpful result.”

In terms of next steps, says Digivita’s Radford, talk to a developer and ask if your sitemap is dynamic or whether you have a plugin in place, such as WordPress SEO by Yoast.

12. You are receiving emails from people asking you to remove links from your site to theirs

Dr Aleksej Heinze explains: “It is possible that your website has been hacked or for some other reason includes links coming from your website which are considered by others as spammy (in a number of updates to the Google Penguin ranking algorithm update) and hence they want you to remove them. Evaluate your pages that contain that link and consider improving your website quality and reduce the number of external links you use in your text.”

13. You don’t have a custom error 404 page or 301 redirects 

If a user types one of your page addresses in incorrectly or reaches a page that no longer exists when clicking from another site, they will ideally be redirected to another page rather than meeting an error 404 page, says Digivita’s Radford.

Creating 301 redirects may be time-consuming if your site is content rich, but it’s worth spending time on, even if it’s only to ensure they reach a customised 404 page that explains what you do and what they might find that’s of interest. “You can also include a search box,” says Radford. “All these will help you make the visitor stay on your site rather than leaving just because he came across yet another 404 page.”

14. You’re not testing your sales pages

Whether it’s an e-commerce site, a B2C or B2B service site, a news site or just a sales brochure site, every website can increase sales or sign-ups through testing, says Jez Booker, head of search for digital agency The Internet Works.

“Big companies with lots of technical knowledge and manpower do testing on a massive scale – Google, Amazon, Hotels.com, Electronic Arts, Upworthy – all of these sites are constantly testing page variations for visitor responses. For companies of this size even a 0.01% uptick in response rates can mean a large boost in revenue.

“But small companies can benefit too,” adds Booker, “especially as there are now lots of relatively inexpensive testing software options on the market.” He warns that rivals will gain a competitive advantage if they use tools to simplify the process of improving their conversion rates.

Booker suggests looking at a range of testing software platforms, such as Visual Webiste Optimizer (VWO), Optimizely, Unbounce, KISSmetrics, and Crazy Egg.

“And be aware that there is a split testing platform built into your Google Analytics. However, this does require a steep learning curve and you’ll probably need a sympathetic developer to help with the integration and set-up.”

The basic formula for the simplest kind of test – an A/B split test – says Booker, is:

  • Hypothesise
  • Execute Test
  • Analyse Results
  • Iterate
  • Start again.

Page elements you might consider for testing:

  • Headline
  • Images
  • Benefits List
  • The call-to-action
  • Sign-Up Form
  • The main sales copy
  • The offer
  • Colours

In order to spot the changes that make the difference you should only alter one element at a time and keep as many external factors as even as possible between the A (original page) and the B (the test page). Booker says The Internet Works’ clients are encouraged to run “at least one basic landing page test at any one time on their sites”.

“Even if it’s just comparing response rates for a form with a box around it versus one without, if the test shows a large improvement it means another win. And then we can start again. Hypothesise, Execute Test, Analyse Results, Iterate. Forever!”

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