The Background

I was asked recently to advise a colleague at the University of Bath on how to raise the Google ranking of some Web pages. “Should I go to an SEO company?” was the question I was asked. A similar question was asked recently on the JISCMail website-info mgt list: “Can anyone recommend a training provider for Search Engine Optimisation and / or Search Engine advertising training?

My response to such questions has always been that there is no silver bullet to getting into the first page of Google search results – if there were, the bad guys (the porn companies, for example, or the estate agents) would exploit such techniques. Rather, I suggested, you should follow well-established best practices for Web sites – have a static URI, ensure that it is persistent, that the page complies with HTML standards, that content is given as text and not in images and encourage people to link to it. These simple techniques can help to ensure that your pages are Google-friendly.

Getting Into The Top Google Hits

When I sent the email I remembered that I’d recently given a talk, and subsequently discovered that the title of the talk was near the the top of the Google search results. Revisiting the search query, I found that pages related to my talk at the Inspiring The iGeneration event on Web 2.0 for young people on “We’re The Young Generation And We’ve Got Something To Say” now occupy the top four places.

Google Search Results for We're The Young Generation

The title of this talk, incidentally, I used after Ian Watson reminded me in March that I’d used this song title as a metaphor for young people providing user-generated content at the AUKML conference last year.

Discussion

So it is possible to get your pages into the top set of results in Google without paying a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) company a lot of money. But what relevance does this have to the organisation which wants to market its services: for example a university which wants to promote its courses (for a search of ‘top university Computer Science degree’) or facilities (‘conference facilities in beautiful city’) ahead of its rivals (the University of Bath provided an excellent location for the IWMW 2006 event, but the University of York, another beautiful city, did likewise for IWMW 2007. I’m sure Bath would like to be ahead of its rival in the search engines).

My findings were based on a series of words which would be in wide use on the Web (music sites, song lyrics, etc.) This then is similar to ‘conference facilities in beautiful city’ – which has 1,940,000 results, led by the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh.

The Web sites I used which were found in the top four results where the page on the UKOLN Web site (HTML page and PowerPoint presentation), a post on this blog (hosted on wordpress.org) and the slides for the talk, which were hosted on Slideshare.net. The UKOLN Web site I can understand (it has been in existence since about 1993, I think, and has static and relatively stable URI. The prominence of the two Web 2.0 services I found very interesting. Although they haven’t been around as long, they both provide clean URIs and both services are popular and are likely to have many inbound links to them – which will enhance their Google ranking.

So what would my advice be to the conference office? Create some slides about the conference facilities you provide and upload them to Slideshare, making sure that you provide metadata containing the words you might expect people to search for and add a link back to your Web site. In addition set up a blog, perhaps providing updates about the events you are organising. And if you want to enhance the Google ranking, ensure that you use a popular blogging services (such as WordPress or Blogger) – as hosting it on your own site is unlikely to boost the Google ranking.

Of course, as well as this advice being relevant to the business sectors of our institutions, the approaches I’ve described can also be used to help project Web sites to be more easily found. It’s interesting, I feel, that the approaches to making your content more easy to find in a Google world rely on hosting your content on a variety of popular sites, rather than hosting the content centrally – especially on a Web site which is not widely linked to from other sites.

Ethical Issues

Is this a desirable approach, some may wonder? Is it ethical? Could the success with “We’re The Young Generation” be regarded as spam for people who are searching for information about the Monkees’ song? That’s for you to decide (in this case I would argue that we shouldn’t resort to using unambiguous factual titles for our content, as this would be boring).

And if I were evil I would suggest that it would be an interesting experiment to see if you could replace Edinburgh and Cambridge in the top Google places for a search for ‘conference facilities in beautiful city‘ ith your own city. But, as I know people in both of these prestigious institutions, I couldn’t possibly encourage people to take part in such an interesting experiment …

And if you are seriously concerned about such ethical issues, perhaps you should pay an SEO company to do the job for you – the money they get will help to ease the guilt they may feel.