SEO and reality: ranking first for ‘subaqueous auto racing’ is only impressive if people actually search on that phrase

subaqueous auto racing photo
Race car driver Bob Burman didn't
really race underwater.

Content is the core of on-site search engine optimization.

  • You must provide useful information that people will seek.
  • This information should incorporate words and phrases that people will actually use when searching for what you offer.
  • Such words or phrases must be specific enough to distinguish your content from others.
  • But…these words should also be generally used and understood by your target audience.
Word choice and SEO: striking the right balance

The above guidelines seem rather obvious, but it's often hard to find that sweet spot between a phrase like auto racing—which is so broad it will generate 32,300,000 search results—and a phrase such as "subaqueous auto racing" which generated 0 results at the time I wrote this. (Note: because I've used this phrase repeatedly, this page will probably soon become the 1 result for the term...unless some of you go out and create competing content.)

Here on the Web Development Blog, as you know, I write about topics related to Web development. In an ideal world I'd rank well for the phrase Web development but it's too common. It can also mean different things to different people. I'm a long-time blogger, but I only make a few posts per month so I can't compete with Wikipedia and other major players on such a frequently used term. But if I get more specific, I can do well. Today this blog came in 4th out of 231,000,000 results for web development blog. My old blog (which links to this one) comes in 7th, so for now at least I'm getting two good results for that phrase.

Write first for readers, then for SEO

Photo of cockroach inspired robot
While robots crawl the Web, they do so to help people.

I didn't get these search results by analyzing my site and stuffing the phrase "Web development blog" every place I could find. I just used the term in the most obvious places: in the section title, the primary menu, and anywhere it naturally fit in the text. If you write for humans (rather than robots) you'll naturally include many of the relevant words and phrases in your text, but you may still need to do a bit of fine-tuning to match your vocabulary to your readers.

When we're writing for the Web, we're usually writing about subjects with which we are very familiar. We may use specialized vocabulary that makes sense to us, but isn't used by our readers. This could include technical terms pertinent to the field, regional terms specific to where we live or even phrases specific to our organization.

In order to make sure that our copy is both easily understood and easily found via search, we need to take a step back and read/edit the content with our readers in mind.

Choosing reader-friendly phrases for SEO—an example from higher education

Colleges, universities and other non-profit organizations all depend on fund-raising to serve their missions. Some organizations call their fundraising departments "Advancement." Others use "Development" or "Philanthropy." Alas those outside the non-profit world, including many potential donors, don't see those terms in the same way as insiders. Someone involved in manufacturing may think of "Development" in terms of product development. A recent graduate may consider "Philanthropy" to be the realm of the rich—and not realize it also includes his/her $25 donation to the annual fund.

Schools that use simpler phrases such as "make a gift for XYZ" or "give to XYZ" make it easier for donors to find their giving pages. For example, if I Google give to Dartmouth, the first result takes me to their Why Give page which also includes a direct link to their online giving page.

Why worry about SEO when we link to Giving (or whatever) from the home page?

If I know that I want to find something on a particular site, I'll just type the address in the url, then use the navigation or on-site search to find what I seek. I'm not everyone. I know many people who will use the Google search bar even when they know a site's address. Dartmouth alumni and friends may very well Google "Give to Dartmouth" rather than going to to look for the Giving link. Thus it's helpful that Dartmouth ranks #1 on that phrase. Organizations that have large sites—common in academia, Dartmouth has more than 300,000 publicly indexed pages—rely heavily on on-site search because they offer so much information.

Taking advantage of long tail search terms

Horse with long tail
Horses have long tails, so can you.

While a phrase like give to Dartmouth is both specific and direct, we can also get good results from phrases that are more unique. Awhile back, in SEO - keywords do the darndest things I asked if you were getting traffic from unusual words or phrases you didn't expect. My friend Wayne mentioned, via Twitter, that he gets traffic on phrases we might not want to repeat. David commented that he is getting good results for "Long haired guinea pigs."

I just looked at my analytics again and am now getting results on click here, have you tried jargon and rt hacool. These actually appear in my top 10 which surprised me, but these are still logical. I've written posts advising against using click here and against business jargon, and hacool is my Twitter ID. (rt stands for reTweet which means to forward someone's message on Twitter.)

While these and more general phrases such as "Web development blog" or "blog website tutorial" appear among the top 10 phrases bringing traffic to my site, niche-specific phrases make a significant impact. The phrase quantify and visualize twitter search results produced 5 visits from people who spent an average of 16:50 minutes on the site and visited an average of 7.6 pages.

Admittedly, 5 visits isn't many. But when you also get 2 for how to start redesigning your web site, 3 for cool html blog, etc. they start to add up. People visit this site via almost 2,000 keyword combinations (many of which may be variations on a theme). The top phrases may bring hundreds of visits each, but when added together it's the little niche terms that bring in the majority of traffic. The collective success of these individually smaller elements is what is meant by the long tail.

Woohoo! My site has the #1 spot for "subaqueous auto racing"

While niche phrases produce traffic, they still need to be relevant to our content. When Google indexes this page, it may get the #1 spot for "subaqueous auto racing." But placing high in search results is only half the battle. Such results only matter if people are searching on that term AND if I provide useful information on the topic. You and I both know that this article is about word choice and SEO. So if anyone searches that phrase hoping to learn about underwater car racing, they will be sorely disappointed and leave the site. Some marketers like to brag about making the first page of search results, but if the phrase doesn't bring visitors it isn't helping.

When editing copy for SEO it's easy to get wound up worrying about what phrases you should rank for, but if you write for your readers and apply common sense, you'll start to see meaningful results.

SEO Keywords and Phrases Resources is also on Facebook

Need more Web tips? Fan the Facebook page. I'm posting 1 tip/link there per day to offer ongoing advice on Web design, marketing and social media—without overwhelming your Facebook stream.

Postscript: Google works fast!

As of 3:50 p.m. e.d.t today, September 10, 2009, this page did come in at #1 for subaqueous auto racing. Here's the screencapture of the Google results page. I have a Greasemonkey script installed on Firefox that also includes Twitter results. As a result of looking this up I'm now also finding reTweets and links I didn't yet know about.

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  1. Twitter Comment... Heidi Adams Cool - SEO and reality: ranking first for ?subaqueous auto racing? is only impressive if people actually s... [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by schools4me (schools4me) — September 10, 2009 @1:16 pm

  2. I think it's amazing that Google returns your site for 'subaqueous auto racing' so quickly. Their clever little algorithms must be working overtime, separating out all the phrases that can be extracted from any number of word combinations that people use on the net. Of course, it is testament to your SEO, but still - pretty impressive of Google.

    Comment by David — September 10, 2009 @6:21 pm

  3. David, Google is amazing. I think they are factoring in the links from Twitter even if they don't use them for pagerank. It seems to speed up the indexing. Part of it might be my SEO, but ranking high on a term no one uses is pretty easy. That said, having it rank in mere hours is totally a testament to their spiders. They are obviously gathering data quite quickly.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — September 10, 2009 @10:00 pm

  4. It's not what you call it it's what people look for. Write that way and write for people and you win. Remember that Google is your dumbest, blindest visitor. Solid take-aways and yes you do rank #1 for "subaqueous auto racing"... I actually ran a search on it... :) Which I guess that is another takeaway... if you make it simple for visitors to figure out what you want them to do they will do it... like me go search for that term... @David - the reason that you can rank so fast w/ blog posts is because many services pull the RSS feed and KNOW that new content is there... Google is no different and I've seen many posts get indexed 10 minutes after they get posted simply because of the RSS effect.

    Comment by Kyle James — September 10, 2009 @10:10 pm

  5. At least it will be easy to see who is scraping your content.

    Comment by dave — September 11, 2009 @3:29 am

  6. Heidi: Let me just highlight the last two lines: "... if the phrase doesn't bring visitors it isn't helping. "When editing copy for SEO it's easy to get wound up worrying about what phrases you should rank for, but if you write for your readers and apply common sense, you'll start to see meaningful results." And of course, you'll want to track those results, and see how many of those visitors convert into customers. Excellent post! Mark

    Comment by Mark Keating — September 11, 2009 @8:59 am

  7. Kyle,
    great point about blog posts and RSS. I always tell people that having a blog on one's site is good for SEO - and can serve as the backbone of a social media plan. Although I hadn't set out to do it, this post really illustrates that point. When searching "subaqueous auto racing" (with the quotes to get the exact phrase match) Google now shows 52 results, while there were zero before I started. If this article had been added to a static page it would not have been indexed as quickly. Nor would so many have seen it to link to it from their blogs, reTweet it, etc. Yet this happened in less than 24 hours.

    It also proves that it is easy to rank for obscure terms. Unscrupulous SEO practitioners can create examples like this to prove that they can get a #1 ranking. But marketers shouldn't be impressed by that. No one can guarantee a #1 rank on a truly relevant phrase.

    Instead they should ask if a site saw improved traffic (over time), and if that traffic led to conversions—or whatever goals the site involved may have had. In this case I know I'm not getting traffic from the subaqueous phrase, but instead from, Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed and my subscribers. In the long run, I may also get traffic on phrases relating to SEO and wordchoice but in the short term the traffic is coming from social media.

    Yes, that is rather handy. Instead of comparing Technorati and Google Blog search I can see all the links/copies in the phrase search. T'is very informative.

    Thanks! You are absolutely right about tracking results. Writing the copy and implementing SEO is just the first step, measuring results and adjusting strategies is an ongoing process.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — September 11, 2009 @9:13 am

  8. @Heidi - I complete agree. You are preaching to the choir as we would say in the South. :) Now if we could only convince everyone else that this stuff isn't rocket science and to quit being afraid of it...

    Comment by Kyle James — September 11, 2009 @9:57 am

  9. Kyle, Indeed, it's not rocket science, it just requires logic and thought. It requires enough knowledge to justify paying people like me to build sites with semantic mark-up and other SEO and social media friendly features, and to work with folks like you at Hubspot on inbound marketing strategies. But it's not so complex that people should be hesitant to jump in.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — September 11, 2009 @10:10 am

  10. I find many articles on net about SEO, but there are too many sites which follow SEO rules, how can I compete with them and be the first? But thanks anyway.

    Comment by Usman — May 4, 2010 @1:54 pm

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