In 2009, Jon Payne emerged from a bedroom in Bedminster in search of a real job, and founded search engine optimisation firm Noisy Little Monkey. Since then he’s marketed, socialised, seminared and flipped one or two tables, all in the name of improving companies’ grasp on getting noticed.
Future Content: Hi, Jon. Can we start with a comparison, between what SEO looked like when you started and what it’s like now? It’s a bit of a minefield, isn’t it?
Jon Payne: That’s the popular myth – it’s not. It’s the same. Google’s become more sophisticated in a lot of ways, but the basic rules apply. Make a website that’s really, really useful for your target audience. As long as your content is unique, and it’s media-rich, and people like it, it’ll rank. The algorithms that Google runs are to understand what humans find useful as content. Some of that’s about linking, some of that’s about social authority, some of it’s about how words appear on the page.
What varies is how Google picks things up. If your website’s been built badly, you need to be more popular with real human beings for it to rank. If your website’s been built well, you don’t need to be as popular.
FC: So what constitutes a well-built or badly-built website?
JP: Broadly speaking, a good website from an SEO perspective is also a good website from an accessibility perspective. Basically, Google’s spiders go out and crawl on the web, and when that spider arrives at your website it needs to see machine-readable signals about which bit of content is important.
- You may like: Why you should commision a content audit
Google is a machine: it doesn’t give a fuck about the colours or anything, it just sees all the code. If your web designer has correctly marked up all the video, images, descriptions of people, descriptions of products, descriptions of services, the site map, the phone number, that means all the elements are clearly defined. That helps organise the universe, which is Google’s mission. One of the best ways to do that is to make it accessible for people with disabilities: make all of your content accessible. Set up your content for people who are partially sighted, or who change the menu around because they can’t get their mouse to the right-hand side of the screen. Google sees the websites in exactly the same way because, effectively, Google’s a blind user with no arms.
FC: This accessibility thing sounds a) pretty technical and b) quite expensive…
JP: Not if you build it in at the ground floor. The best accessible website that I know is anything .gov.uk That’s fully accessible. The accessibility team was led by a guy called Joshua Marshall , and he was just really, really, really militant. They said, “you cannot have your information on our new website unless it’s 100% AAA compliant.”
Looking at the website, you might say ”oh that’s kind of dull: black and white,” but you easily find everything you need. Not only do they make it accessible from a coding and user-experience standpoint, they make it accessible from a ‘you and me’ standpoint. They’ve made it so that if we, as people who run a small business, need information about tax, it’s simple for us to find that and differentiate it from tax about personal stuff and tax for accountants. That was no more expensive a design than any other: it just required a lot of fighting with people who said, “I need pictures”, and the developers had to say, “well, you can have pictures, but they have to be accessible and we have to be able to mark them up.”
FC: Talking of smaller businesses - what can they do to make their sites accessible?
JP: Get a responsive, accessible WordPress design from Theme Forest or Theme Bakers. Get your web developer to bend it to your requirements. It’ll cost you under $100 for the theme, plus however much your web designer charges per day to do that work.
There’s a company I know, that shall remain nameless, which has spent tens of thousands on its website, using technology that Microsoft stopped developing in the year 2000. What the fuck are people doing paying tens of thousands of pounds for a technology that’s obsolete? It’s because the web developer can’t do anything else, or because their manager is too lazy to say, “let’s train some people on some technology that was released after Saddam Hussain was dead.”
The good web developers are more forward-thinking. When they’re asked a question like, “can we make this accessible?” they want to pull that thread and say “well how accessible do you need it? Does it have to be AAA compliant? Because we can do that - it’s gonna be hard, we’re gonna fail a few times, but eventually we’ll beat it.”
AA compliance is kind of doable, single A compliance is almost standard with modern web tools, but lots of web developers will say, ‘I’m not gonna develop to that standard because it’s impossible’. It is possible; you just need to push it. Get a really good SEO developer, which means a really good accessible web developer, because they care about staying on top of the latest technology.
FC: Is there another way to make sure your website ranks?
JP: Technical accessibility is inversely proportional to your requirement for link authority. If your website is super accessible, you need fewer links from other pages to be number one on Google. If your website’s really inaccessible, Google can’t analyse it very well, but if there are editorially justified links to the content from trusted websites - media channels, newspapers and so on - it’ll overlook that because it must be good or they wouldn’t be linking to it.
So… will you give me a link from your Future Content Blog?
FC: Of course.
JP: See, from an SEO perspective, while many people would think that a link from your blog to Noisy Little Monkey – colossus in the marketing world that we are – isn’t really worth it. For us it is.
We’ve done some webinars for SEMRush, which is a worldwide search engine software company, and we got two or three links from their blog to my page on our website. That gives us link authority from one of the biggest trusted names in our industry, which is good.
But lots of people could do webinars for them, lots of people can write blogs for them, so it doesn’t really give us any uniqueness in the Bristol area. We don’t want to work in America - we want to work in Bristol. Your blog is a better link authority for local clients because it’s on-topic, it’s trusted and it’s also local. Even though you’re smaller, for us there’s much more benefit than from…I was going to say the BBC, but a link from BBC West would be even better...
FC: So what are the common misconceptions about SEO?
JP: People think SEO is about technology when actually it’s about understanding your customers: where they are and what they’re searching for. Our biggest bit of project work is to help people understand that.
We present that to the client, and they go, for example, “We call it the J2264 and everybody calls it boot polish! So do we describe the product as J2264 (boot polish)?”
No, you describe it as boot polish, because that’s what people are searching for. If you need to put J2264 somewhere, so that Google knows that’s what you call boot polish, fine - but stick it down the bottom of the page.
Then we say to the client that we’ve noticed people in the same sort of buying process are searching for ‘shoe cleaning kit’, so does the client have a shoe cleaning kit? The client says “No, we don’t do kits”, even if they sell brushes, buffers, a bag to put both of those things in, and all the different kinds of polish and that suede stuff.
If people are searching for shoe cleaning kits, and you have the components, why don’t you put them all together? It’s a virtual shop, you don’t have to go and buy some stock! All you’ve got to do is put these things in a bag for the person that orders it!
FC: That’s real world SEO, isn’t it? ‘People are looking for this, why don’t you sell it?’ Are there any other big misconceptions?
JP: The other misconception is that they can give it to us to do, and we can outsource some of the content to you, and that’s it. That’s not enough. As a client, you need to look at your analytics, understand what’s working and what’s not, measure where people are landing on the website and what they’re doing. If people are landing from organic search and then bouncing, your search engine optimisation is fucking great, but it’s not the whole story, because they’re not doing anything when they find you.
Are those visitors actually interested in anything else you sell? Have they arrived there for the wrong reasons? Or is it just that they can’t see anything else on your website that’s useful to them? Search engine optimisation is about driving traffic, but that’s the very beginning.
Another misconception is… look, I’m on a mission to destroy people using the phrase ‘keywords’. Web designers will often ask, “what keywords do you want to rank for?” and the client will go, “Right, we want to rank for shoe shop, we want to rank for boot polish because we’ve had some research done, that’s what people call it… and Bristol. And boot polish Bristol. Oh and we’re by the M4, we need Cribbs Causeway…”
The web designer puts all of these things in this piece of data on the website called a meta-keywords tag. Before Google owned the whole universe, that tag was used as a synopsis of your page. Google would look at those keywords and go, “right, the page is about this” and it wouldn’t bother to read the whole page. In 1999 Google realised that we were all filling that with bullshit, so it built its algorithm to read the page and ignore keywords.
Don’t use meta-keywords and don’t talk to your website designer about keywords because he’ll put them in. It looks fucking ridiculous and it slows Google down from getting to the meat of your site. Talk about search terms instead.
FC: Search terms?
JP: People don’t typically search for key words, they search for phrases or they ask their phone questions - 40% of searching is done with speech now. Google’s done some research and, apparently, 25% of American teenagers have used a voice search while they’re on the toilet - but, even when people aren’t speaking, they ask natural questions. We’re starting to see traffic arrive to us from ‘SEO agencies near me’ which is people on laptops with a mic or on phones, just asking out loud. So a search term is a string of words like that, a phrase which Google understands.
FC: OK. Shall we finish with your top five optimisation tips?
JP: Yes! OK. Think about the purpose of each page of your website, from the user’s point of view. What problem does it solve? Think about what phrase are they going to type into Google when that’s their problem. Your landing page has to offer content which solves that problem.
Then look at the URL - www.yourwebsite.com/thebootpolishpage. That ‘boot polish page’ bit needs to match what they’re typing into Google. The page title - which is the blue bit of text on Google when you see search results - make that match their search phrase. Make the headline, the H1 tag, the alt text tag for your images - make all of those match that search phrase.
That’s four things. Four tips. Five... just have some good content on it. Get your business story right, and tell your story in a way that people can understand, and make it so that everybody can access it - because then Google can. There is no magic to doing the SEO bit, other than research and describing your products fully and having the website accessible.