At GOVTalks Spring 2020, DSGa’s Amanda de Zayas, Content Strategist, and Ericca Farrington, Outreach Coordinator, teamed up to talk about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). We learned what SEO is, how search engines work, and what makes up a search ranking. They also explained how agencies can use Siteimprove’s SEO tools to help constituents find their websites quickly and easily via search engines, like Google, Yahoo! and Bing.
What Is SEO?
Amanda de Zayas kicked off the session with an overview of SEO. She explained that search engines use algorithms to determine the order that results are listed in when a user types in a search query, like “renew my driver’s license,” or “apply for food stamps.” To help drive effective SEO, an organization has to determine which characteristics help their search ranking and then format their content and adjust their technology accordingly.
The Oxford Dictionary defines SEO as the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine.
Why Is SEO Important?
Compared to the private sector, government has unique advantages and challenges when it comes to SEO. Two of the biggest considerations for government are visibility and shutting out imposters.
Visibility is essential. You can have really helpful information on your website, but if people can’t find it, it’s useless. For Georgia state agencies, an average of 53% of traffic on GovHub comes from search, and 90% of that search comes from Google. If you don’t take the time to ensure your content fits SEO criteria, it makes your website really hard to find.
Shutting out imposters is equally critical, as it’s prevalent for Government sites in particular. Imposters, or “look-alike sites,” are designed to look and function just like agency websites. They’re often used to make money or collect personal information. For example, they might try to get users to pay them money to do things like renew a driver's license, register a business, or worse, just collect and steal their personal data. SEO helps ensure that constituents are only interacting with legitimate agency websites.
How Has SEO Evolved?
SEO has evolved greatly over the last 20 or so years. Search engines, particularly Google, continually refine their algorithm to show the best results. So, what worked at one time, doesn’t necessarily work now. Through the years, SEO has cycled through phases where it’s about gaming a system by loading up on search keywords, interlinking between sites, and really fleshing out metadata. We’re now in a place where content relevance and quality is extremely important. So today, and especially on GovHub, it’s really about creating useful, relevant, readable content.
Driving effective SEO is all about creating useful, relevant, readable content.
How Are Search Rankings Determined?
What goes into a search ranking? The short answer is: no one really knows, except for Google. Google’s exact algorithm to determine search rankings is a famously guarded secret that depends on a myriad of factors. They’ve published some official information about it, but a lot of it is really vague.
Some Factors Consistently Matter
What we do know through research and testing is that some factors are consistently important. These are things like relevance to the original search query; readable content that’s in plain language; non-repetitive content; load time; and domain authority. The last one, domain authority, is essentially the trustworthiness of a site. Government sites have an advantage here because they have better domain authority, and are given priority.
Another factor is metadata, or the information that you can enter on the backend to alter how results appear in search. There’s also the location of the user, the user’s search history, any ad buys that are taking place, and more. Suffice it to say there are many factors that come into play and good SEO seeks to really balance them.
The Good News: GovHub Has You Covered
A lot of what makes up a good SEO strategy is baked into GovHub. These are things like domain authority — official government websites with the “.gov” automatically get a boost on Google. Metadata is also auto-populated on GovHub. Additionally, there are technical specs that are automatically addressed, like load time, security, and mobile-friendliness. This means that you’re really freed up to focus on good content, which is the best thing your agency can do to help your search rankings.
Good Content Is Readable, Relevant, and Unique
Readable content is in plain language. Strive for middle school reading level. Use simple phrases and shorter sentences. Eliminate adjectives where possible. Break up walls of text so your content is easy to scan.
Relevant content answers your audience’s most frequently asked questions. It reflects how they phrase their searches and the languages they use. What pages do they visit most often? Which topics are most popular? Where are you losing users or not addressing issues? Are there any gaps in your content? By using Siteimprove’s analytics tools, you can answer and address questions like these.
Unique content has a singular purpose. Don’t repeat the same language verbatim in several locations because that could actually hurt your search results. Think about how you can consolidate or customize information depending on its location in your site. Be sure to alter language to fit the audience usage. You may need to deliver the same message to the media, a specialized audience, and the general public all at once, and it should be the same every time. You may also need to alter copy to fit different content types. For example, it will be presented differently in a call to action than it would be in a press release or on a topic page. Tailoring content is best practice but it also helps with SEO.
Every Search Is Different
Amanda closed her portion of the presentation by explaining that no two searches are the same. Where your site lands in search results will vary depending on the equally varying SEO factors that come into play. It may also be different for the same person at different times. That’s why it’s important to use Siteimprove analytics tools to systematically research, monitor, and track what your audience is searching for, and how you perform against that.
Using Siteimprove to Track Search Performance
Ericca Farrington gave attendees a closer look at the components that go into Search Engine Optimization. She explained how to determine what metrics matter and why. Attendees also learned how to use Siteimprove’s SEO tools to elevate their content’s “findability,” increase their overall DCI Score, and most importantly, improve their website’s performance.
SEO Is More Than Numbers
Ericca started by encouraging agencies to focus on progress versus numbers. She explained that, when it comes to assessing your website’s performance, it’s really easy to focus on the wrong analytics — often called “vanity metrics.” These are metrics that appear to be impressive but do very little to provide insight into your website’s performance. For example, 5,000 subscribers to a newsletter is impressive; however, if only 200 of those subscribers are active, how are the other 4,800 subscribers beneficial to you? There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in measured success, she explained, but nuance and context are worth keeping in mind as you process analytical information.
Siteimprove’s SEO Dashboard
Ericca then walked us through Siteimprove’s SEO Dashboard. A website’s SEO Score is based on the cumulative total of four components that measure how well its user-facing and technical aspects contribute to search engine optimization: Technical, Content, User Experience, and Mobile.
- Technical refers to the backend of the website and how well search engines can access, crawl and index it.
- Content refers to how well visitor-facing content engages users and whether meta content is optimized for search engines and users.
- User Experience refers to how effectively links, images, and other visual elements are used to improve the experience of users to the website.
- Mobile refers to how responsive and adaptive the website is for mobile users.
Improving Your SEO Score
Your Siteimprove SEO dashboard features two dialogue boxes: “Fix These Issues to Improve Your Score” and “Fixed Issues.”
- Fix These Issues to Improve Your Score shows you the issue, difficulty level to fix — which is based on the technical skill level that it will take — and the points you can gain from fixing the issue completely.
- Fixed Issues outlines all the issues that have been resolved and the number of points those fixes added to your overall SEO Score.
Within both of these dialogue boxes, you can click on an issue to get a more detailed overview. For example, if you click on “See All Issues” from the “Fix Issues” column, you can go into the issues affecting the content portion of your SEO. This breaks down the issues in more bite-sized pieces, so you can see how many times that issue occurs sitewide, the difficulty level of the breakdown, the category that it falls within, and the points that you can gain by fixing that issue.
Why Is Search Performance Important?
Even with a dedicated team that manages the website, it’s nearly impossible to catch every single error. Using SEO analytics helps you to be more aware of what's going on with your website. It also allows you to gain perspective on how a user sees and experiences your site. When thinking about SEO, you should keep in mind that the experience is different for every visitor. For example, a broken link may not be an issue for the majority of visitors, but it is for the audiences seeking the information that link leads to. Analytics are a great way to keep tabs on broken links, misspellings, and other issues that not only impact website performance, but also user experience.
Next Steps: Setting Your SEO Priorities
First, as soon as you have access, start working in Siteimprove. Log into the dashboard and familiarize yourself with the tool. Siteimprove has excellent learning resources to help you understand the dashboard and the SEO issues on your website. If a full SEO content makeover seems too daunting, pick your top 10 most visited pages and optimize their content. Also, consider attending DSGa’s state-certified Content Specialist Course to get more experience. Or you can put in a ticket to work with our team on customized recommendations. And, of course DSGa’s support desk is always available to provide a helping hand. Our team is very familiar with how Sitemprove works and we are more than happy to help you.
SEO is more than numbers and keywords that give you a better ranking on Google. SEO is an indicator of your website’s overall performance. Taking a proactive role with Siteimprove’s SEO analytics will make your website more user friendly and increase your web visibility. Tracking SEO is not only important for being aware of underlying website issues, but also for measuring success. The ability to track your progress for fixing issues can give you a visual representation of how close you are to achieving the goals you’ve set for your website. The most important thing to remember: good content equals great SEO.