Ranking and SEO – light on a dark art

Search engine optimisation can seem like a bit of a black art, particularly given that search engines can and do change their algorithms with little or no prior warning or documentation. However there is growing awareness that if institutions, projects or individuals wish to have a visible web presence and to disseminate their resources efficiently and effectively search engine optimisation and ranking can not be ignored. Indeed at the JISC HEA OER Phase 2 Prorgamme meeting in January the projects flagged up SEO as being an area where they would appreciate more support and guidance.

Coincidentally the day before the programme meeting Jenny Gray of the OU raised a query on the oer-discuss list about an unexplained drop off in traffic to OpenLearn from google, which she suspected was a result of a change to the google algorithm. Several people responded with helpful suggestions including Lisa McLaughlin of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) who forwarded some invaluable advice on search engine ranking and optimisation from her colleague Julie Walling.

Julie has now written a similar post on the ISKME Research blog: Trouble shooting a Drop in Search Engine Rankings. This helpful blog post outlines a set of questions that can be used to troubleshoot whether a drop in rankings is the result of a change in a search engine algorithm, or due to an issue with the website in question. Recognising that SEO can be extremely complex and that the cause of ranking changes elusive, Julie sets out some basic principals to bear in mind. These include:

1. Structure sites so they are as content rich as possible
2. Pick one keyword per page and stick to it
3. Include your keyword in the anchor text of internal links
4. Attract high value external links

I can highly recommend Julie’s blog post to anyone interested in learning more about google ranking and search engine optimisation more generally and as an added bonus she also provides links to other useful resources on this arcane but important topic.

8 thoughts on “Ranking and SEO – light on a dark art

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Lorna’s JISC CETIS blog » Ranking and SEO - light on a dark art -- Topsy.com

  2. For the record, I think we’ve tracked down our problem on OpenLearn, and it would appear to be a bit of an own-goal. We restructured the site following a mainstreaming of our production practices. Deep links into the site were changed (aka broken).

    Google’s response to following those broken deeplinks from other’s sites to ours was to cut our ranking.

    Moral of the story – even if you’re publishing your sitemap to Google, you need to put in redirects for everything if you restructure.

  3. Thanks Jenny. That’s really useful to know. Does fixing the links bring your ranking back up to its previous position or do you have to work your way back up again?

  4. This is a very interesting point. For a long time, academic institutions and their staff have put informative and accurate information onto the web. However, they have generally, never considered the SEO aspects of getting their information to the top of the search engines. I think this is a two fold problem, however.
    1. The academics themselves need to take more interest in SEO 2. The search engines themsevles, such as Google, Yahoo and Bing should really rank these sites a little higher.

    The recent Googe Panda Update has highlighted a couple of issues. Such as how eHow was getting ranked higher than many academic articles in relation to search terms such as “level 4 brain cancer”. Most web surfers looking for information on that would just click the top link on Google and not look at the domain/site that is providing that information.

    Hopefully, things will start to change for the better, as I for one, want the academic results appearing above the non-academic ones when searching for medical related things!

  5. The problem with the field of SEO is that it at the stage of knowledge generation, lacks standards and in my view hardly any consensus on what works and what does not work. The evidence points to the Panda update which saw many site tumble off the SERPs. Many sites have found it difficult to recover because of the absence of measurable factors that can be point to why there was a dip in rankings. Persons often speak of generating quality content as a factor for improving rankings? , but “what is quality content”?. The truth of the matter is that SEO is too subjective and until measurable standards (agreed upon) are implemented we will forever be discussing these very same issues. JMHO

    PS: please delete first post I omitted some word so I posted again, sorry!

  6. Hi Lorna,

    Google makes over 500 changes to its algorithm annually. You are absolutely right about site structure and internal linking. A website should ideally have no more than 3 click deep structure with a logical internal linking strategy.

    As far as traffic drops are concerned they are mainly as a result of algorithm change such as the one we had a couple of months ago – it was called the “Panda” update you can read more on it here http://www.elevatelocal.co.uk/blog/googles-post-panda-guidance-09052798

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