Purpose: This article explores how businesses offering technical communication services used search engine optimization techniques to attract prospective clients to their business Web sites.
Method: The study draws on a survey of 240 principals of these businesses, brief interviews with half of them, analyses of their sites, and tallies of inbound links to their sites.
Results: The interviews and analyses reveal how businesses oriented their sites not only to a human audience of prospective clients but also to an audience of search engines. Businesses that reported search engines to be more helpful in directing traffic to their sites had sites that, in comparison with those of their less successful peers, featured longer home page titles and received more inbound links.
Conclusion: Though search engine optimization techniques can increase Web site traffic, technical communication businesses varied widely in how extensively and expertly they used such techniques.
Keywords: technical communication businesses, Web sites, search engine optimization, hyperlinks, titles
- Technical communicators reveal how they constructed and updated their Web sites to attract both human and search engine audiences.
- Human and search engine audiences can invite different Web site communication techniques.
- Techniques associated with higher levels of search engine traffic include writing longer Web page titles and generating higher numbers of inbound links.
The top three pieces of technical communication that most people encounter are arguably the search interfaces of Google, Yahoo, and MSN (recently rebranded as Bing). These three rank among the top ten most heavily visited Web sites (Hitwise, 2009). Together with other search engines, they are used by 41% of American adult Internet users on a typical day (Madden, Fox, Smith, & Vitak, 2007). Some fraction of these users are no doubt searching for the work of technical communicators, much of which nowadays gets posted somewhere on the Web. But amidst the Web’s trillion-plus unique Web addresses (Official Google Blog, 2008), the work of technical communicators is not always easily found. Hence, search engines play a key role in the technical communication information ecology, and for this reason, it is important that technical communicators create Web documents in such a way that users of search engines can easily find them.
This article examines how technical communicators orient their work to search engines. Technical communicators are, of course, accustomed to orienting their work to various human audiences, and like any human audience, search engines may be more effectively communicated with in some ways and not others. The practice of orienting a site to search engines is called search engine optimization (SEO), and as search engines have become increasingly sophisticated, so too have webmasters, to the extent that in 2003, the practice spawned its own professional organization, the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), at www.sempo.org.
This article first introduces SEO, focusing in particular on writing-based techniques that get Web pages ranked higher. Then it explores how technical communicators practice such techniques by examining the experiences and Web work of those who have an interest in having their Web sites found: technical communicators who maintain a Web site for their own independent company, consultancy, or freelance work. I surveyed 240 principals of these businesses, briefly interviewed half of them by e-mail, analyzed their sites, and tallied links to their sites. I describe how they oriented their sites to either, or both, a human audience and search engine audience. Then, I analyze their use of two particularly important SEO techniques, contrasting how these two are used in sites that are more successful and less successful at attracting search engine traffic. The article concludes by discussing why and how SEO know-how should become part of the repertoire of all technical communicators, whether independents or employees, whose work gets posted on the Web.
Search Engine Optimization and Business Web Sites
SEO has been defined as “[t]he practice of using a range of techniques, including augmenting HTML code, web page copy editing, site navigation, linking campaigns and more, in order to improve how well a site or page gets listed in search engines for particular search topics” (Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization [SEMPO], 2008, p. 3). For instance, in recent years, the New York Times and other media outlets have been composing headlines for their Web articles that are typically less allusive and more literal than the headlines for their corresponding print articles (Lohr, 2006). Such changes, along with other SEO techniques, have been credited with significantly increasing the numbers of Web site visitors arriving through search engines (Sherman, 2006). SEO is sometimes used synonymously with SEM, search engine marketing, but strictly speaking, SEM encompasses SEO plus other Web marketing techniques, including advertising through search engines, that are not explored in this article.
Though SEO can benefit any Web site, it could be particularly advantageous for the sites of independent professionals and small businesses, which typically cannot marshal the resources to match the extensive marketing campaigns of their larger organizational competitors. But by using communication techniques that are accessible to all, such as a change in writing style, small businesses can reach their target audience right at the moment when that audience is searching for them. A commercially sponsored survey found that 82% of U.S. consumers claimed that search engines were among the tools they use to find local businesses, and that 50% would turn to search engines first (WebVisible and Nielsen Online, 2009, pp. 2–3). This same study found that, among U.S. small businesses, 26% have invested in some kind of SEM (p. 6), and that search engines were among small businesses’ fastest growing marketing tools, roughly tied with or leading the growth in other Internet marketing tools and offsetting the decline in the use of all “old media” marketing tools (p. 8).
In a 2005 survey of members of the STC Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG, only 22% of respondents to a question about marketing methods responded that publishing a Web site was not applicable to them, suggesting that the other 78% had indeed gone through the effort and expense of creating and maintaining a business site (STC Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG, 2005b, p. 10). These 78% rated their Web site as among their more useful marketing tools. To achieve such success, it was no doubt necessary that prospective clients first find their site.
This article builds on a previously published analysis of the role of small businesses’ Web sites in the marketing of technical communication services and on the role of search engines in particular. That article (Killoran, 2009) reported that only a portion of businesses’ technical communication clientele originated primarily because of their Web sites, but that portion was not inconsequential: Almost half the businesses drew in at least 10% of their clientele primarily through their sites, including a quarter of businesses that drew in 20% or more of their clientele this way. Among various channels that would direct people to their Web sites, these businesses rated search engines to be among the most useful. Analysis also revealed an association between higher levels of such search engine usefulness and higher percentages of technical communication clientele originating primarily through these sites; hence, pursuing search engine rankings might be financially remunerative. Analysis of their sites revealed evidence showing that most technical communication businesses had considered search engines to be at least nominally among their Web site’s audiences. Building on that foundation, this article examines these businesses’ techniques for earning high rankings from that audience.
Search Engine Optimization Techniques
Optimizing a site for search engines does not necessarily mean de-optimizing it for humans. Many of the techniques that are effective with one audience are also effective with the other, especially as search engines’ ranking algorithms have increasingly factored in data generated from human behavior. However, just as various human audiences do not read a site the same way, human and search engine audiences do not read a site the same way. In general, search engines are the idiot savants of readers: Whereas humans skim and read between the lines, search engines read Web text and Web code meticulously and literally. Search engines are much stronger at analysis but much weaker at synthesis, more preoccupied than typical human readers with various quantifiable and structural features of a Web page, but woefully ill equipped to construe the rhetorical purpose of that page and its surrounding Web site.
Though search engine companies guard their ranking algorithms’ confidentiality (Hansell, 2007), some companies have revealed some of the more obvious variables in their algorithms, and other variables are known or suspected among researchers, SEO specialists, and webmasters who continuously monitor and analyze their own sites’ traffic. For instance, Google’s patented PageRank™ algorithm, which works like an academic citation index of a Web page’s visibility, ranks a page according to the number of other pages that link to it and the PageRank of those linking pages themselves (Brin & Page, 1998). When Google was originally developed in the late 1990s, other variables in its ranking algorithm included the position, font, and typographic case of terms on a Web page; their proximity on the page with other terms used in a search query; and the terms used in the anchor text of hyperlinks that link to that page (Brin & Page, 1998). A decade later, Google’s ranking algorithm now includes more than 200 variables (Google, 2009b, 2009c). Google itself reveals some of these variables, such as in advising webmasters to use accurate and informative title tags (see Figure 1) and HTML “alt” attributes to describe images (Google, 2009e), which search engines cannot otherwise “see.” Other text features generally understood to receive significant weight in ranking algorithms include text placed in HTML header tags (Ledford, 2008, p. 106), in emphasis tags (pp. 108, 167, 171), and at the tops of Web pages (p. 341). Sensibly repeating keywords to raise a Web page’s keyword density (i.e., the number of keywords divided by the total number of words on a page) has been found to influence rankings (Zhang & Dimitroff, 2005a), apparently Yahoo rankings in particular (Ledford, 2008, pp. 284–285).
Some variables look beyond the state of a Web page at any given moment to consider its state over time, such as how long established a page’s Web domain is—older is better—and how frequently the page has changed over time. Change implies that the page has not been abandoned, and is favored by search engines like Google and especially MSN (Ledford, 2008, pp. 48, 284, 322). Indeed, the growing popularity of corporate blogs can be partly credited to the favor that search engine algorithms accord to Web pages that receive frequent updates (Ledford, 2008, pp. 48, 339). Some variables also factor in a Web page’s environment: the rest of its site and the rest of the Web. One study of successful SEO specialists found that they employed not only internal but also external techniques (i.e., not only within but also beyond a page) to boost rankings, such as creating high numbers of site pages and generating high numbers of inbound links from other sites (Evans, 2007).
Yet a full understanding of search engines’ ranking algorithms remains elusive. In one study, researchers attempted to reverse-engineer Google’s algorithm using twenty-two variables but were largely unsuccessful (Bifet, Castillo, Chirita, & Weber, 2005). In addition, search engines’ algorithms are constantly evolving, with Google, for instance, adjusting its algorithm an estimated half-dozen times per week (Hansell, 2007). Some changes are implemented in response to the manipulative actions of SEO practitioners themselves. For instance, once Web marketers recognized the importance of inbound links, they began posting “link farms,” Web pages that served no purpose other than to furnish other sites with inbound links. Search engines like Google then responded in turn by treating with suspicion pages filled with nothing but links, and factored into its assessment of a link the mutual relevance of the content of the two linked pages (Ledford, 2008, pp. 20, 26, 38).
For similar reasons, not included among Google’s 200-plus ranking variables are two of the more commonly used meta tags: meta tag descriptions and meta tag keywords (Google, 2009a). Ironically, such meta tags were invented precisely as a means by which Web information could be readily identified by machines like search engines. However, as they are embedded within the head section of a Web page’s HTML code (see Figure 1), they never had the visibility to human audiences that might otherwise have kept them honest. One study found that the presence of a meta tag description indeed raises a page’s search engine ranking (Zhang & Dimitroff, 2005b), but in general the relevance of such meta tag descriptions to search engines has been diminishing (Moran & Hunt, 2006). Though they are not among Google’s ranking variables, they can nevertheless be important to a human audience on the rare occasions when Google excerpts a meta tag description to annotate a link on a SERP, a search engine results page (Official Google Webmaster Central Blog, 2007b). Yahoo, by contrast, is much more likely to use them on its SERPs (Moran & Hunt, 2006). In contrast with such a fitting use of meta tag descriptions, meta tag keywords (not to be confused with keywords that would likely appear amid a Web page’s text) are never ordinarily visible to human audiences at all and so are trusted even less (Moran & Hunt, 2006; Sullivan, 2002a, 2002b).
As this brief review makes evident, SEO, much like the practice of technical communication in general, at best proceeds by a combination of knowledge and educated guesswork into the “mind-set” of its search engine audience. In such circumstances, it is not clear how technical communication businesses, which have expertise writing for human audiences but not necessarily for search engines, would employ SEO techniques to promote their Web sites, a situation that prompts two general research questions:
- RQ1: How do technical communication businesses orient their sites to audiences that include not only humans but also search engines?
- RQ2: How do technical communication businesses that are more successful attracting search engine traffic compare with those that are less successful in how they employ SEO techniques?
With more than 200 search-sensitive variables that could be described and compared, it is not feasible to describe technical communication businesses’ use of all SEO techniques, let alone attempt a comprehensive comparison between more successful and less successful business sites. Hence, to address these general research questions, the second question in particular, this study focuses on two SEO techniques that are prominent to both human and search engine audiences, are at least partially quantifiable, and are comparable across various sites: one an internal Web site factor, title tags; and the other an external factor, inbound links. This selection of both an internal and an external factor provides a manageable and balanced representation of the scope of SEO techniques.
Title tags are among the most important fragments of text on a Web page for both search engine and human audiences:
- They are the only tag from a Web page’s meta section factored into Google’s ranking algorithm (Dawson & Hamilton, 2006) and apparently are particularly important for Yahoo (Ledford, 2008, p. 284).
- They are displayed prominently in large, blue hyperlinked headings on SERPs, where searchers tend to rely on them more than on the accompanying annotations or link addresses (Jansen & Molina, 2006).
- They are displayed to surfers on the tabs of browser windows, at the top of browser windows, and in a bookmarks list when a page is bookmarked, and so are among a Web page’s most salient signposts.
In a survey of advertisers experienced in SEM, the use of keywords in title tags ranked among the top SEO techniques (SEMPO, 2008, p. 69). The mere presence of a title tag is associated with higher rankings in SERPs (Zhang & Dimitroff, 2005b), and a greater repetition of keywords in a title has been found to raise that page’s ranking in a SERP (Zhang & Dimitroff, 2005a), suggesting that perhaps longer titles might have a greater effect than shorter titles simply because longer titles can hold more keywords.
However, on their SERPs, Google, Yahoo, MSN, and other search engines truncate titles that exceed 64 characters or so, including spaces. Also, repetition of keywords, known as “keyword stuffing,” is frowned upon by search engines like Google and can result in a Web page’s lower ranking or even removal from the search engine’s index (Google, 2009d; Ledford, 2008, pp. 10, 47, 90). According to Ledford (2008), some search engines index only the first 50 characters in a title, leading her to recommend short titles, preferably fewer than 40 characters (pp. 46–47). Though other search engines will still index and factor into their ranking algorithm the truncated portion of a long title, the weight a ranking algorithm grants to a title might be distributed among the title’s various words (Moran & Hunt, 2006; Sweeney, 2008); a word buried in a longer title could thereby have less impact than the same word in a shorter title. Malaga (2007) observed that titles of successful sites were short and focused on key search terms. The home pages of Google and Yahoo themselves currently feature one-word titles; however, subordinate pages of both search portals feature longer titles, sometimes exceeding 64 characters, and some successful ecommerce sites, such as Amazon and eBay, currently feature home page titles that exceed 64 characters. Site authors would also have to consider how a long title would appear to their human audiences. Apart from appearing truncated in SERPs, long titles appear even more truncated in bookmarks menus and in the tabs of browser windows.
Ultimately, if titles are to assist their sites in being found and well ranked by search engines, they must include keywords that match users’ search queries. A pair of commercially sponsored surveys of U.S. consumers found that, when searching for a local business, at least half said they compose a search query that describes the kind of service they seek, but a bit less than half also include a geographical term, such as the name of their city, in such a search query. Only a small portion search by a specific business name, perhaps because it is their lack of previous familiarity with a specific business that is prompting their search in the first place (WebVisible and Nielsen//NetRatings, 2006, p. 4; WebVisible and Nielsen Online, 2009, p. 7). Indeed, Ledford (2008) advised not to include a business name in a title unless the business is already so well known that the name would appear in search queries; instead, she recommended using keywords that match the content of the page (p. 46). Hence, apart from a title’s length, authors of small-business Web sites would have to consider a title’s potentially keyword-rich references to the business services offered, the business’s geographical location, and the name of the business or its principal.
This record of SEO research and professional practice, along with the need to serve both human and search engine audiences, raises a set of research subquestions specifically about the title tags of technical communication business sites:
- RQ1a: How long are the title tags of technical communication business sites?
- RQ1b: What keywords and other content appear in the title tags of technical communication business sites?
- RQ2a: How does the length of title tags compare between technical communication business sites that are more successful attracting search engine traffic and those that are less successful?
- RQ2b: How does the occurrence of keywords in title tags compare between technical communication business sites that are more successful attracting search engine traffic and those that are less successful?
The other quantifiable variable to be compared is inbound links. Inbound links are a key means by which both human surfers and search engines find Web sites. As discussed above, Google’s PageRank formula relies primarily on such links—the correlation between the two measures has been confirmed by outside researchers (Fortunato, Boguna, Flammini, & Menczer, 2006)—and Google openly advises webmasters to get other relevant sites to link to theirs (Google, 2009e). One study found that sites with more inbound links were more likely to be covered by search engines (Vaughan & Zhang, 2007). A study of SEO specialists found that one technique they employed was to generate high numbers of inbound links (Evans, 2007), and in a survey of advertisers experienced in SEM, inbound links ranked among the best SEO techniques (SEMPO, 2008, p. 69). One of the hottest new areas of SEO, social media optimization, focuses on generating inbound links from Web 2.0 social media (Bhargava, 2006; Ledford, 2008). Yet generating inbound links can be a challenge for small businesses in particular because few other webmasters or Web writers would know about them, and even when known, their brochure-type sites would typically offer few enticements deserving a link. This challenge, along with the need to generate links that would be relevant to both human and search engine audiences, raises a set of research subquestions specifically about inbound links to technical communication business sites:
- RQ1c: How do technical communication businesses generate inbound links to their sites?
- RQ1d: How many inbound links do technical communication businesses generate to their sites?
- RQ2c: How do the numbers of inbound links compare between technical communication business sites that are more successful attracting search engine traffic and those that are less successful?
Thus, analyzing differences in these two key SEO factors—title tags and inbound links—can offer a snapshot both of how technical communication businesses orient their sites to mixed audiences of humans and search engines and of how those businesses whose sites attract more human visits through search engines apply SEO techniques differently than those whose sites attract fewer such visits. The research studies cited above employed a diverse range of research methods: various human subjects research methods to inquire into the practices of Web site authors and their audiences; and analyses of Web code and Web text to inquire into the practices of Web site authors and search engines. Accordingly, as this study sought to inquire into the SEO practices of technical communication businesses and the efficacy with which those practices attracted search engine traffic, it employed a comparable range of research methods. To assess quantitatively the efficacy of technical communication business Web sites with both human and search engine audiences, I surveyed principals of technical communication businesses with Web sites. Then, to gain greater insight into technical communicators’ orientations toward their human and especially search engine audiences, I briefly interviewed willing survey respondents by e-mail. Finally, to assess objectively the features of these businesses Web sites’ title tags and inbound links, the Web sites of all survey respondents were downloaded and analyzed and their inbound links were tallied using search engines. In the following sections, I describe the sampling and recruitment procedures, survey and interview procedures, Web site analysis, and routine for tallying inbound links.
Sampling and Recruitment Procedures
Sampling of technical communication business Web sites was conducted throughout the winter and spring of 2007, well before STC’s Online Buyers Guide and Consultant Directory (2009) was published. Hence, I relied extensively on search engines, in particular Google, Yahoo, and MSN, which collectively were conducting over 85% of all U.S. searches at that time (Burns, 2007a, 2007b). I approached the sampling process as a typical prospective client might when seeking services of the kind that would prompt a search query like “technical communicator” as distinct from queries like, say, “copywriter” or “Web designer.” I used a variety of search queries that are roughly synonymous with “technical communication business”: “technical writer,” “technical writing consultant*,” “technical communication consultant*,” “technical writing service*,” and “technical documentation services” (search engines typically treat an asterisk as a wildcard character). I also followed the sponsored links returned by such searches, though these furnished only a small fraction of my sample. These searches were not restricted geographically, but for practical reasons only sites that were at least partly in English were considered.
Though a patient exploration of the millions of pages reportedly turned up by any one such search might, in principle, eventually unearth most technical communication business Web sites, SERPs list only the first thousand pages, and so I examined SERPs for each search until that limit was reached or until I ran into a clear pattern of unproductive listings, typically a sequence of 50 links without a technical communication business site among them. To appreciate the challenge small businesses face in being found on the Web, it is important to recognize that even such a listing of a thousand will typically be only thinly populated by technical communication business sites. Searches for “technical writer,” for instance, tend to turn up informational sites, educational programs, job ads, technical writing staff in various industries, staffing companies, and the 2003 movie The Technical Writer, often before they turn up technical writing businesses. As typically small, static brochure sites reaching out to a relatively specialized audience of prospective clientele, technical communication business sites are liable to be ranked low by search engines like Google that favor large, popular, frequently updated sites. Moreover, because technical communication services have traditionally been marketed primarily through referrals and networking (STC, 2004; STC Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG, 2005a, 2005b), it is likely that some technical communication businesses do not take full advantage of SEO techniques to make their sites easier to find.
Accordingly, I also sought out other sources to discover sites that might be missed or poorly ranked by search engines: general Web directories, links posted on dozens of Web sites related to technical communication or to business services, and business Web addresses included in a few listserv and print sources discussing technical communication business (see Killoran, 2010, for a more detailed list). Collectively, these furnished about half my sample, though the two halves overlapped considerably. Sampling continued until a majority of the sites found with each new search or source tended to duplicate those already found.
All prospective sites were examined to determine whether they were indeed technical communication business sites. I operationally defined such a site to be an independent Web site representing a company, consultant, or independent contractor that is significantly oriented to offering such services as writing, editing, or designing technical documents. Whereas many such businesses were quite specialized, a number of businesses that offered technical communication services also offered services perhaps better described as marcom (marketing communication), Web design (of nontechnical Web sites), copywriting, translation, and a seemingly endless range of other services. As long as they showed evidence of offering technical communication (as operationally defined) among their primary services, these were included within the sample. Just over a thousand sites met these criteria. To increase the likelihood that the study focused on sites representing still-viable businesses, sites that did not show evidence of activity within the preceding year or so were removed from the sample. (See Killoran, 2009, for a detailed description of this culling process.) This left 638 reasonably current business sites offering technical communication services.
These businesses—in particular their principals when a principal’s name or e-mail address was known—were e-mailed with an invitation to complete a brief survey questionnaire, and nonrespondents were e-mailed again two more times over the subsequent few weeks. I received 240 usable questionnaires, plus an additional 6 that were not usable because they listed a Web domain that could not be matched with the sites listed in the sample pool, as well as returned (undeliverable) e-mails from 17 sites. Thus, the overall response rate was 39.6%. Considering the general decline in survey response rates (e.g., Eaton, Brewer, Portewig, & Davidson, 2008, pp. 115–116), this can be considered a decent rate, especially when compared with the response rates of other surveys of small businesses about their Web sites (Flanagin, 2000; Pflughoeft, Ramamurthy, Soofi, Yasai-Ardekani, & Zahedi, 2003) and of technical communication consultants and independent contractors (STC, 2004; STC Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG, 2005a). For the sake of conciseness, I refer to all participants as running businesses, though some were no doubt unincorporated, because 87% of their sites feature their business names.
Survey, Interviews, Web Site Analysis, and Tally of Inbound Links
Survey Though this article does not explore the survey results, passing mention is made of the results of a couple of survey questions. The first asked participants what percentage of their technical communication clientele had originated primarily through their Web site. The other question, a multipart question, asked participants how much search engines, as well as various other kinds of communication such as links from other Web sites, helped in leading people to their business Web site. Response options for this multipart question ranged from 0 (helped “not at all”) to 3 (helped “a lot”), with additional response options indicating “don’t know” and “not applicable.” For more details about these survey questions and their results, see Killoran (2009, 2010).
Interviews Two concluding survey questions played an instrumental role in leading to the interviews and Web site analysis, which are the methods that produced most of the results reported below. One asked participants whether they would be willing to participate in a brief e-mail interview; 126 of the survey respondents went on to submit interview responses. As it was clear from some participants’ survey responses or Web sites that SEO was not an important part of their marketing strategy, interview questions relating to SEO were asked only when it was apparent that such questions could elicit informed responses. It was also readily apparent that, for some, SEO was a sensitive topic, and so I asked probing questions only cautiously. Indeed, the only two participants who explicitly withdrew from an interview because of the nature of the interview questions each cited a question about SEO as their main reason: They did not want to reveal their “trade secrets” or “bag of tricks.”
Web site analysis The other survey question playing an instrumental role here asked participants for the URL of their business Web site so that their participation could be matched with the list of URLs in the sample pool and thereby authenticated, and so that their sites could be downloaded and analyzed together with their survey and interview responses. One participant’s site remained inaccessible despite repeated attempts, and so could not be included among the remaining 239 sites that were analyzed.
Within the HTML files themselves, the main analyzed feature pertinent here was the home page’s HTML title. Though, on many sites, each site page often had its own distinct title, the home page was selected as the source for such analysis for a few reasons:
- Among the sample’s very diverse sites, every site had a distinct home page.
- As the home page is the typical URL featured in links and in business promotional material, the home page is the typical entry point for both human visitors and search engines.
- A home page title, in contrast with titles of subordinate pages, seems most likely to best represent the business as a whole.
Titles were analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively for a number of factors:
- Their length in words and also characters
- The type of content they included, such as the name of the business or principal, a reference to the business’s services, and a reference to the business’s geographical location
- Tallies of the most common terms appearing across the entire sample’s titles
Tally of inbound links Finally, to obtain an objective measure of this study’s external SEO factor, inbound links, I conducted both Google and Yahoo searches using the search query “link:http://www.DomainName.com” (substituting in each site’s domain name) to tally the inbound links to each site’s domain or, in the few cases when that domain was unrelated to technical communication, to the site’s main technical communication home page. These searches were also conducted on the Web domain of the inaccessible site mentioned above. As some businesses maintained their Web domain both with and without the “www” prefix, searches were conducted on both options and the higher tallies were recorded.
To develop a broad understanding of businesses’ SEO orientation and techniques, I first draw on participants’ interview responses to illustrate how participants oriented their sites to either, or both, a human audience and a search engine audience, the general objective of RQ1. Then, to address the various subquestions of both RQ1 and RQ2, I analyze businesses’ use of title tags and inbound links, first describing their characteristics and then comparing those of sites that are more successful attracting search engine traffic with those that are less successful. Finally, to interpret these results for what they say about technical communication businesses’ Web marketing practices, I briefly discuss participants’ disparate attitudes toward SEO.
Business Web Sites’ Orientation to Human and Search Engine Audiences
As the intended audiences of these business Web sites are obviously human, participants’ descriptions of how they oriented their sites to search engines can be revealing for how they approached the two potentially conflicting audiences, the crux of RQ1. Participants describing their practices toward search engines often referred to their site’s human audiences as well. Consider, for instance, the perspective of a participant whose site ranks first in a Google search for her particular technical communication service specialty. She described how her site’s search engine success emerged in part as a side effect of her goals toward her target audience of prospective clients but also from some awareness of SEO:
[My site] was originally set up (around 1998) as an advertisement for my writing/editing/publishing services, with the intention of positioning myself as *the* authoritative web site on [my specialty], and thus attracting paying clients—which it did. [A]t the time there were few other sites providing this type of information; now there are many…. [M]y web site was the first site to focus on [this specialty]. It’s a big site, with lots of relevant content. It has incoming links from many, many related web sites, and many of those links have been in place for years. Most of the pages have good metadata, and are generally structured for search engine optimization. And, of course, the site’s name contains the phrase [naming the job title of one who performs this service].
As is evident in her explanation, some of these features accounting for her search engine success would have had to be important for human audiences first, such as her site’s ample content, which would invite other webmasters to link their sites to hers, which in turn would then raise her site’s search engine rankings. Other features, such as her site’s longevity, might be equally important for human and search engine audiences; it has enabled hers to build up its reputation among her human followers, and a domain’s longevity is also important to search engines like Google. Yet other features would be more relevant to search engines, such as the good metadata, which is not ordinarily viewable by human audiences. It is clear that this participant was conscious of her site’s impact on both kinds of audiences.
Some participants, when asked about their SEO techniques, mentioned features that would be accessible to both human and search engine audiences but referred to their sites with a level of granularity that revealed they could see their Web text as a search engine would—not so much as whole passages but as collections of keywords. They mentioned such techniques as placing keywords where search engines would most notice them: high in a page or tagged as headings, hyperlinks, or other HTML formats. For instance, a participant who rated search engines as very helpful in leading people to his site, and who estimated that at least 20% of his clientele originated primarily through the site, described his successful SEO practices: “Although I write primarily for my readers and not SE bots [search engine robots, also known as Web crawlers or spiders], knowing how to place keywords in proper syntax (headings, bold, italics) and in links makes more attractive spider food.” Despite his explicitly favoring human readers over search engines, this participant’s “spider food” comment illustrates an analytical view of Web site text that would likely escape most of his readers. Also, in pointing out that he oriented his site primarily to human readers and not search engine robots, this participant alluded to the potential tension in orienting simultaneously to the two audiences, each of which can invite different techniques.
Of course, most keywords were scattered throughout these sites’ text-based pages, not ensconced within any format more distinctive than a plain paragraph. Given the technical communication field’s orientation to human audiences and participants’ own writing expertise, participants discussing their SEO techniques often spoke not so much of keywords but of good written content in genres familiar to human readers, such as newsletter articles. Yet they were mindful that such content would be read by search engines too, and that search engines especially favor frequently changing content laced with keywords. For instance, one participant, whose company’s services included such SEO specialties as Web design and online marketing, explained her site’s success attracting search engine traffic by pointing to its frequently published written content:
We focus on getting quality content from our company out on the Web. Some examples are press releases, blog entries, comments on other blogs, event postings, and articles. Having continual, keyword-rich, high-quality content helps us. We use paid search on a very limited basis.
She rated search engines as helping a lot in leading people to her site, which was the source of about half of her technical writing clientele.
Likewise, several participants discussing written content in genres designed for human audiences also raised its effect on search engines. For instance, some participants justified their blogs in part because the loquacious, frequently updated content would appeal to search engines. Such an effect was observed by a participant who maintained a blog on her business site for a little over a year before discontinuing it: “I think it was quite useful for my business and will maybe start again someday. However, I don’t think it made a real difference in the amount of business that I received from my site, although it did produce a lot of listings in the search engines.” Despite her blog’s negligible impact on her clientele, she nevertheless rated search engines as helping a lot in leading people to her site, and estimated that at least 20% of her clientele originated primarily through her site. Her site also featured extensive FAQs, which she believed few of her human visitors bothered to read, a perception shared by some other participants about their sites’ written content. One such participant, whose home page had an eye-catching design, suggested that the page design is for human audiences, whereas the written content is for search engines: “I hate to admit this, but most people are much more effected [sic] by the visuals, and a lot of them don’t even read the copy. I doubt anyone has ever read the long article I have on my homepage. I put it there for SEO ‘lift.’” Such comments illustrate how writing seemingly designed for a business’s human audience can have a different, sometimes even greater, impact on its search engine audience, and that some participants, aware of this effect, used it as part of their SEO strategy.
Businesses’ Home Page Titles
Length of titles To understand how technical communication businesses employ specific SEO techniques, I turn here to examine in detail businesses’ home page titles, first measuring their length, the object of RQ1a. All home pages in the sample included title tags. Titles averaged 6.5 words in length and 53 characters in length, including spaces, less than the approximately 64 characters and spaces that are typically displayed on SERPs. The medians were somewhat lower yet: only six words and 46 characters, numbers that would seem to offer few opportunities for matches with search queries. However, as discussed above, using the full space available on SERPs is not necessarily advantageous to reach either search engine or human audiences. Some businesses nevertheless opted for long titles that would likely appear truncated on SERPs: 28% of titles (67) surpassed 64 characters. Several of the longer titles were formatted not as phrases but as lists of keywords, suggesting that they might have been written not primarily for human readers but for search engines. Consider one site’s 14-word title: “writing skills training effective writing business writing [business principal’s name] [business name] plain language.” Such a breathless string of keywords might puzzle prospects who visit the site to assess the business’s writing expertise. However, it is easily parsed by search engines, though search engines like Google would be suspicious of the four-time repetition of “writing” (including in the business name) and could demote the site for keyword stuffing. A few other titles were similarly composed without expected punctuation, perhaps to avoid diluting the impact of the keywords with characters (punctuation marks) that would figure neither in search queries nor in search engines’ ranking algorithms.
Content of titles Analysis of the titles’ thematic content, the object of RQ1b, revealed that a large majority of titles (86%) included the name of the business or, less commonly, the principal (see the “All sites” column in Table 1), perhaps a necessary choice for a business site’s home page title. However, except in those cases in which the business name happens to include specific keywords such as technical and writing, such a name would likely offer few opportunities for matches with search queries from new prospects not already familiar with the business or its principal. A smaller majority (62%) included words or phrases describing services (e.g., technical writing) or, less commonly, professional roles (e.g., technical writer) or a tag line. Collectively, these tended to be richer in keywords that would match likely search queries, though the few tag lines—such as “Get [business name] to work for you!”—typically included fewer apparent keywords and seemed more oriented to human audiences who had already found the site.
Keywords in title tag
Business’s or principal’s name
a Search-promoted sites are those that search engines helped moderately or a lot in leading people to the sites, and search-unpromoted sites are those that search engines helped little or not at all.
b “All sites” also includes those in neither the search-promoted nor search-unpromoted groups.
c One search-unpromoted site could not be downloaded, and hence n = 69 rather than 70 in this analysis.
d z is the test statistic for the difference between the proportions of search-promoted and search-unpromoted sites that include thematic keywords in their title tag. None of these z scores is significant at the p < 0.05 level.
e Business services also includes professional roles and tag lines.
Only a small minority of home page titles (12%) included a geographical term identifying the business’s location. Such terms tended to appear toward the end of titles that were uncommonly long, with a median length of 10 words and a character count usually exceeding the 64 or so characters displayed on SERPs. By contrast, among the 187 sites with meta tag keywords, 45% include such a geographical term (Killoran, 2009). This difference in percentages suggests that location, though acknowledged as a potential keyword by many, might not be viewed as such a marketing priority that it deserves to be squeezed into a title, or indeed might not be conceived as the kind of information conventionally included in titles. Of course, if mentioning one’s location suggests that a business would prefer to work only locally, a business reaching out to clients nationally and internationally through the Web might deliberately downplay its location.
However, mentioning one’s location could also be a tactical attempt to get higher rankings from search engines. Consider the role of location in the search queries and rankings reported by a participant based in a mid-sized American city but serving clients nationally and internationally:
Our Web site tends to be ranked highly by the search engines . . . especially queries that include [the business’s city and state]…. I think it helps enormously that we provide somewhat specialized services (e.g., services in the areas of XML, FrameMaker). If we provided, for example, generic technical writing services, I think it would be more challenging to achieve a high search engine ranking…. We have noticed that companies often prefer local technical writers, but don’t have the same preference for consultants and trainers (e.g., it is common to bring in a consultant or trainer from a different geographic region). Fortunately, our Web site also ranks highly in geographically-constrained searches (like “technical writer [the business’s city]”), so we have been successful in drawing local and international clients from the Web site.
This participant estimated that 25–35% of his clientele originated primarily through his company’s site. As he explained, in contrast with general search queries, such as “technical writer,” the site ranked well for specific search queries, such as those identifying his specialized services or his geographical location. Thus, whereas general terms might appeal to a broader range of prospective clients, specific terms receive favorable treatment by search engines.
Across the entire sample, however, such generic technical writing terms as technical and writer were among the most common terms appearing in home page titles: 44% of the titles included technical; a similarly large minority included one or more of the words sharing the root writ-, as in write, writer, writes, and writing; and most titles that included one of these words also included the other (seventy-two, or 30% of the sample). Of course, in a sample selected to focus on technical communication business sites, such a concentration is to be expected. The 30% of titles that were in effect competing for the same “technical writ-” search queries could nevertheless be more distinctive and hence more competitive by the accompanying keywords in their titles. More distinctive titles could take advantage of a phenomenon known as the “long tail of search” (Sullivan, 2004, 2005): General terms such as writer typically appear in a high number of search queries (the wide base of the tail), whereas more specific variants such as technical writer, medical writer, grant writer, and so forth appear in fewer queries (the tapering middle of the tail), and, as suggested by the participant quoted above, very specific variants like technical writer [city] appear in fewer yet (the slender segment of the tail leading to the tip). In a crowded worldwide marketplace, small businesses can successfully compete by targeting search queries near the tip of the tail (Ledford, 2008), which might also draw the more committed searchers.
Many titles, however, also included terms that were unlikely to be used in search queries for technical communication businesses. Among the top half-dozen title terms was the generic Web site term home, appearing in 38 titles (16%), sometimes even in a title’s high-valued first-word spot—words placed earlier in a title are thought to carry more weight in search engine algorithms (Ledford, 2008, p. 98, 295). The similarly redundant welcome (what business would not welcome its visitors?) appeared in an additional 10 titles (4%), in all cases as the valued first word. In addition, among the top title terms was the word and or symbol & (77, or 32%), along with lesser quantities of articles (e.g., the) and prepositions (e.g., to, in). These are known as “stop words,” which many search engines typically ignore (Ledford, 2008, p. 90). In many cases, such stop words are required in order that titles make sense to their human readers, but for search engines their inclusion could dilute the weight of the remaining keywords.
Also in deference to human readers, or to convention, the majority of titles included punctuation, and not just the expected colons and commas but also a variety of stylish marks seldom seen in titles of sober technical communication documents: dashes, vertical bars (“|”), slashes (“/”), colons used in pairs (“::”), ellipses, and others. As mentioned above, search engines are indifferent to punctuation, so such typographic creativity would likely have been designed for the benefit of impressionable humans, though even human readers would most notice such usage when viewing not these businesses’ home pages but rather SERPs, where these eye-catching titles would be prominently displayed.
In sum, this quantitative analysis of home page titles’ content reveals that participants varied in how they oriented their site titles to audiences that include both humans and search engines. A large majority made the obvious and perhaps necessary choice to include the business’s name or principal’s name regardless of how well or poorly it would match likely search queries. Only a smaller majority made the less obvious but perhaps optimal choice to describe their services, typically with keywords that would likely appear in relevant search queries. Only a small minority included a reference to their geographical location, despite the advantages such a reference could provide to their search rankings in a competitive worldwide medium. By contrast, a majority devoted limited title space to stop words or punctuation marks, many of which are useful to human audiences but none of which are useful to search engines.
Comparison of titles Several of the quantifiable features of titles were also examined to determine whether they were presented differently in sites that were more successful attracting search engine traffic in contrast with sites that were less successful, the objective of RQ2a and RQ2b. Such attraction levels were determined by the survey question asking how much search engines helped in leading people to these business sites. To operationally define the two relative levels of attraction, nonnumerical responses (“don’t know,” “not applicable,” and blank responses) were set aside and the range of numerical response options was divided in two: the higher ratings of either 3 or 2 defining the “search-promoted” sites (n = 141), and the lower ratings of either 1 or 0 defining the “search-unpromoted” sites (n = 70). (See Killoran, 2009, 2010, for more detailed discussions of these survey results.)
As shown in Table 2, the home page titles of the search-promoted sites averaged about one word more than those of the search-unpromoted sites, a difference that is statistically significant (p = 0.03). A similar comparison showed that the titles of the search-promoted sites averaged about nine characters more, a difference that also is statistically significant (p = 0.045). Hence, measured by quantity, the home page titles of the search-promoted sites offered more content. As for what that content consisted of, the results are less definitive. As shown above in Table 1, no significant differences at the p < 0.05 level were found for title keywords or phrases specifying a business’s or principal’s name; its business services, professional role, or a tag line; or its geographical location. In all these cases, however, slightly higher percentages of search-promoted sites featured home page titles with such thematic content, suggesting a possible trend. Hence, it would appear that technical communication businesses more successful at attracting search engine traffic are composing longer home page titles than are their less successful competitors, but aside from such a quantitative difference, their titles’ qualitative differences remain unclear.
a Search-promoted sites are those that search engines helped moderately or a lot in leading people to the sites, and search-unpromoted sites are those that search engines helped little or not at all.
b One search-unpromoted site could not be downloaded, and hence n = 69 rather than 70 in this analysis.
* p < 0.05
Businesses’ Inbound Links
Generating inbound links Unlike home page titles and other site features, which site authors themselves control, many inbound links are beyond such direct authorial control and so have to be elicited, a practice that is the focus of RQ1c. Aside from creating links from other sites they owned or registering their sites with directories like Yahoo’s, participants mentioned a variety of ways to elicit such links: asking other webmasters for links, joining professional organizations that post directories of members’ sites, creating content for other sites that would also feature links back to their own sites, and posting informative content on their own sites that would attract inbound links from others.
Among these, asking other webmasters for links was not viewed favorably. For instance, one participant who mentioned the practice also anticipated some of its objectionable methods: “Getting other sites to link is usually just a matter of asking. However, I don’t solicit links from businesses or people that I don’t have some other relationship with. I don’t use an e-mail blast to ask for links.” Similarly, another participant suggested that such links could appear unprofessional: “[Most other sites], of course, want a reciprocal link, something we don’t do to reduce amateurish-looking clutter on the site.”
Participants more favorably mentioned links from sites of professional and business organizations with whom they had memberships:
- Regional or specialized technical communication organizations, such as STC chapter sites, some of which feature links to their members; the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators and its Independent Authors Special Interest Group (www.qualityauthors.co.uk); the Northwest Science Writers Association (www.nwscience.org); and the European Medical Writers Association (www.emwa.org)
- General communication-related organizations, some representing writers locally, such as the Colorado-based Boulder Writers Alliance (www.bwa.org); or representing independent professionals, such as the Association of Professional Communication Consultants (www.consultingsuccess.org)
- Various general business organizations, such as local chambers of commerce and organizations of women business owners
Participants also mentioned generating links to their sites through their work creating content that gets posted on other sites along with their Web address:
- Designing Web sites for other organizations and including a webmaster’s link back to their own
- Posting writing on other sites, such as articles, wiki contributions, and comments on others’ blogs
- Posting to Web-based discussion boards
- Being quoted as an expert in someone else’s article
Ledford (2008) presents Web 2.0 social media as one of the most promising sets of SEO tools, and in this study the Web 2.0 medium most often mentioned was blogs. At the time these interviews were conducted, the professional social networking site LinkedIn did not yet have the widespread participation it has now, yet it occasionally came up in the sampling process, the interviews, and the site analyses. However, no participants specifically mentioned links from social networking sites like Facebook, social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, micro-blogging tools like Twitter, or other Web 2.0 media, though at the time these interviews were conducted most such media were relatively new and not yet widely exploited for business marketing purposes.
Finally, participants discussed creating and posting informative content on their own sites that could induce others, such as the EServer Technical Communication Library (tc.eserver.org), to link back to their sites. For instance, one participant maintained a site that, apart from a few pages promoting her business and its services, featured dozens of nonpromotional, informative pages devoted to her professional writing specialty. She rated links from other sites, along with Web searches, as the only methods that helped a lot in leading people to her site, though apparently through little deliberate promotional effort of her own:
My site gets promoted passively because many prominent and reputable organizations, institutions, businesses and business sites link to my site—too many to list; I think there are several hundred. I know there are many universities, non-profit organizations, and public libraries, for example. I did not ask them to link; I assume they linked because they found my content useful. Very few of them asked permission, but some did. I do monitor my search rankings but rarely change any aspects of my site—it ranks very highly for many of my keywords. I have never really done anything to affect my search engine rankings. They have always been pretty good, so I don’t see any point in messing with them. I haven’t changed my keywords or meta descriptions in years.
Despite her seemingly passive approach to SEO, her site ranks among the top 10 sites in the sample as measured by either the Google-generated or Yahoo-generated tallies of inbound links. Alas, this participant’s site was atypical, as most of the sample’s brochure-type business sites did not appear to have generated such a widespread following.
Numbers of inbound links Tallies of inbound links could offer an objective assessment of how much participants developed this SEO technique, the object of RQ1d. However, Google’s and Yahoo’s advanced search functions reported vastly different numbers of inbound links, with Yahoo typically reporting ten times or more the number. Yahoo’s reports included links from its own overlapping directories, links from Web 2.0 media, and many others that Google typically overlooked, but also including what appeared to be duplicate counts of the same link and links from pages I could not access or in which I could find no such outbound link. Of the 240 home pages in the sample, Google reported that 82, more than a third, received no inbound links whatsoever, and only 3 received more than 100 inbound links. By contrast, Yahoo reported that only 2 home pages received no inbound links whatsoever, and an impressive 92 (38% of the sample) received more than 100 inbound links, including 20 that received more than 1,000. Other researchers have observed that Google’s tallies are the less reliable ones (Bifet et al., 2005; Evans, 2007); Google apparently knows about many more links than it is willing to share (Official Google Webmaster Central Blog, 2007a).
According to the more comprehensive Yahoo-generated data, the median number of inbound links across the sample was 58. For a sample of mostly small, brochure-type marketing sites, unlikely to attract a large following on the initiative of others, this figure suggests that many technical communication businesses must have been taking some initiative themselves to elicit inbound links, whether intentionally or as a side effect of their participation in the Web’s communities. The sites with the largest numbers of inbound links seemed to have attracted many of their links from their owners’ participation in Web 2.0 media: their own postings to blogs, discussion forums, and wikis; other bloggers’ blogrolls; and so forth. These Web 2.0 sources varied widely in their relevance to technical communication: Loosely aligned Web 2.0 communities can host contributions on a variety of topics, and business principals sometimes seem to have pursued personal, not professional, interests. As some search engines, notably Google, factor in the relevance of two linked pages to each other, these links would carry widely varying weights in the search engine’s ranking algorithms.
Comparison of numbers of inbound links Though the uneven quality of such data discourages a precise analysis of the myriad link sources, a quantitative analysis can nevertheless broadly indicate whether participants’ development of this SEO technique is related to their success attracting search engine traffic, the objective of RQ2c. As explained above, each site was identified as a search-promoted or search-unpromoted site according to how helpful search engines were rated in leading people to the site, and sites without such a numerical rating were set aside. Based on the more reliable Yahoo-generated tallies, the remaining 211 sites were rank ordered from #1 (fewest inbound links) to #211 (most inbound links). A Mann-Whitney U test indicated that the search-promoted sites rank significantly higher (U = 3163.5, z = 4.24, p < 0.001, with the sum of the ranks totaling 16,717.5 for the 141 search-promoted sites and 5,648.5 for the 70 search-unpromoted sites). The median search-promoted site received more than double the number of inbound links than did its less promoted counterpart, 88 and 34 respectively. Such results indicate that the SEO technique of generating inbound links could contribute to the success of technical communication business sites at attracting visitors through search engines.
Participants’ Attitudes Toward SEO
To interpret these results for what they say about technical communication businesses’ Web marketing practices, it is important to consider participants’ disparate attitudes toward SEO. As described above and elsewhere (Killoran, 2009), some participants were quite mindful of search engines as important Web site audiences, consciously employing SEO techniques when composing their site text, conducting test searches, and diligently monitoring their site rankings. For instance, the participant quoted above explaining how he laced his site with “spider food” also described the effort he invested in understanding SEO in general and his own site traffic in particular: “I try to keep up with the latest trends in the SEM…industry. This includes reading newsletters, blogs, and forums—almost on a daily basis. I also study my server logs to find out how people get to my sites and whether they leave or dig deeper.” He and many other participants received substantial portions, in some cases majorities, of their clientele primarily through their sites.
Yet even some such relatively successful participants struggled to master SEO techniques and to further their site’s success. For instance, one participant presented what would seem to be a record of SEO success, rating search engines as very helpful in leading people to his site, and reporting, “Most all new clients found me through the site or after being directed to it.” Yet, even he acknowledged being perplexed by the arcane workings of search engines and opaque Web analytics (traffic monitoring) tools:
I’m still leaning [sic] how to get . . . search engine responses to “[business’s U.S. state] technical writing” or “[business’s city] technical writing.” To do this, I keep refining the meta tag for keywords and some of the lead page paragraphs…. I come up on some search engine listings when I do the search[es] that I referred to above. I monitor the site traffic carefully and get an average of about 50-hits/day. Some are from search bots and others, I hope, [are from] people searching. Analyzing the statistics is a challenge because I don’t totally understand the jargon used in the endless array of tables on the stats page.
Other participants similarly indicated that they had only a modest grasp of SEO.
However, unlike these two participants quoted above, some participants were not all that interested in SEO, to the degree that a few indicated they had not even bothered to register their sites with search engines. Some explained that “chasing SE rankings,” as one put it, was too laborious, time-consuming, or costly; or that they did not need more clients, especially the sort of clients who would rely on search engines; or that they simply had not yet gotten around to SEO. A particularly critical view was expressed by a U.S.-based participant who served clients from throughout the United States and Europe, and who estimated that 10–19% of her clientele originated primarily because of her site. Despite such apparent SEO success, she nevertheless played down the importance of SEO in her business marketing strategy:
I use my site as an online portfolio, and in that role it’s been very useful. My site is intended to act as a trust builder for people who have heard about me through other means, such as from a talk at a conference or from a prospecting email I’ve sent. It’s not designed to pull in clients through web searches, although it has done that. I’ve discovered that most prospects who find me through Google, etc. are not the kinds of clients I want to work with (they’re too small or inexperienced). I ended up rewording my home page to filter those people out so I wouldn’t waste time on bids. I would caution tech writers not to spend lots of time and money on SEO and focus instead on getting their URL out through talks at conferences, publications in trade magazines, comments on professional blogs, etc.
In her survey responses, she rated search engines as moderately helpful in leading people to her site, but not as helpful as her own Internet use, her speech communication, and referrals. Whereas this article has been illustrating how search engine and human audiences are different, this participant’s comments also illustrate how human audiences who use search engines might themselves be different from those who do not.
Collectively, participants’ disparate attitudes toward SEO likely expressed themselves in similarly disparate levels of commitment to such SEO techniques as home page titles and inbound links, and so these disparate attitudes should inform any conclusions about participants’ SEO practices.
Implications for Technical Communicators
This study has explored how businesses offering technical communication services engaged in the fairly new communication practice of SEO. SEO can enrich technical communicators’ growing corpus of best practices in Web writing, design, and usability for human audiences by adding another kind of Web site audience. Human and search engine audiences do not necessarily invite divergent communication strategies—indeed, what works well with one often works well with the other. However, as this study has illustrated, they do invite a different vision of Web textuality: not just whole documents and genres but disparate collections of keywords and links. And as a result they also invite technical communicators to consider different questions about their Web site: not only how one’s human audience navigates and reads the site but also how search engines might do so; how that human audience might phrase their search queries before they even arrive at the site; how competitors for the same search queries have phrased their Web sites; and not only what is within one’s site but also what environment or community of Web sites beyond might link to one’s site.
As specialists in communicating to human audiences, technical communication businesses would not necessarily approach a search engine audience naturally, or enthusiastically. This study found that, in general, businesses seemed to write more optimally for search engines where the techniques for both search engine and human audiences are similar. Fortunately, they often are: Search engines’ ranking algorithms to some degree emulate the behavior of human audiences, according greater value to factors that human audiences would more highly value, such as informative titles and relevant links. On the other hand, businesses seemed to write less optimally for search engines where the techniques for search engine and human audiences could diverge, such as in inefficiently phrasing their home page titles.
Of course, search engines are at best an intermediary audience leading to the targeted human audience of prospective clients, and not all technical communication businesses were strongly motivated to reach that intermediary audience. However, in a challenging economic environment, reaching prospects by any means at all can offer an advantage. Even prospects derived through referrals or networking might conduct a Web search to perform due diligence on a technical communication business before committing to becoming clients. SEO would enable such prospects to find the business site more efficiently, and some of the writing techniques discussed above would take only a few moments of attention. Given the effort and expense these businesses have already undertaken to construct and maintain their business Web site, those few moments could turn out to be a cost-effective investment. Ideally, such a decision would be based on marketing strategy, not on a lack of SEO know-how.
This study also sought a snapshot of what currently passes for SEO best practices—or at least more effective SEO techniques—among technical communication businesses. Quantitative analysis of the internal factor, home page titles, found that those of sites that were more successful attracting visitors through search engines are significantly longer than those of sites that were less successful. Thematic analysis of these titles found no significant differences in the occurrences of keywords that would be used in search queries for small businesses, though the more successful sites showed slightly greater tendencies to feature such keywords. Quantitative analysis of the external factor, inbound links, found that the more successful sites received significantly more than did the less successful sites. These differences with two key SEO factors suggest that technical communication businesses’ differing levels of success at drawing visitors to their sites through search engines are likely partly due to differences in SEO techniques, not just differences between high-demand and low-demand technical communication service specialties or differences in regional market conditions or other such extraneous factors. The finding that longer titles are related to greater success with search engines adds further evidence to the unresolved discussion of optimal title length (Ledford, 2008; Malaga, 2007; Moran & Hunt, 2006; Sweeney, 2008). Although it has long been recognized that higher numbers of inbound links are related to greater success with search engines, this study was able to extend such an association to relatively inconspicuous sites whose link tallies typically number only in the dozens.
Titles and inbound links are two key factors within and beyond Web sites, but Google’s ranking algorithm alone factors in more than 200 variables. Hence, just adding an extra keyword or two to a home page title, or eliciting a few extra inbound links, might not have a noticeable impact on a Web page’s rankings. However, differences in these two key factors suggest that many other such differences might exist among technical communication business sites, differences that would influence their rankings relative to each other and also offer businesses an incentive and a means to improve their own site’s rankings. For instance, many of the points made about how home page titles could be written more effectively for SEO would of course apply to the titles of other pages within a site and also apply more generally to the writing of page headings, lead paragraphs, anchor text of links, and other features of a Web site’s textuality.
This study focused on technical communication businesses, but its implications could be extended to most technical communicators, whether the Web site they contribute to is their own or their employer’s. Most technical communication documentation finds its way onto some kind of digital network or database, whether the public Web or a private organizational intranet or even the help system of a software application. There, it might lie in relative obscurity until users manage to unearth it through some search functionality. Technical communicators with SEO know-how could better ensure that their work gets found. SEO practices are becoming increasingly complex as search engine algorithms become increasingly complex, but such know-how is also becoming increasingly valuable as digital networks host an ever larger share of the world’s documentation and SEO practitioners become more competitive. As experts in communicating technical information to human audiences, technical communicators tend to have the analytical and language skills that would make them well suited to master the kinds of communication techniques that impress search engines. The SEO field is still relatively young, with almost half the respondents in a recent survey of SEM practitioners reporting less than three years of experience (SEMPO, 2007). Yet their earnings appear comparable to, if not higher than, those of technical communicators (STC, 2007), a testament to how highly companies now value SEM know-how.
Technical communicators and businesses looking to further develop their know-how will find, in addition to the research cited in this article, many free and timely resources available on the Web:
- SEMPO’s Web site (www.sempo.org) offers, in addition to organizational information and industry news, an ample “learning center” featuring publicly accessible research, articles, and other resources about SEM.
- Search Engine Watch (searchenginewatch.com) is a long-established information hub featuring timely search engine data, articles, newsletters, and conference information.
- Some search engines, such as Google, post SEO guidelines for Web site content, design, and technical features (2009e). Google also offers the free Web analytics tool Google Analytics (www.google.com/analytics/).
For technical communication instructors responsible for developing the Web design knowledge and skills of their students, introducing search engines as a distinct kind of audience, rather than just a technical tool, can create legitimate space for studying SEO techniques amid the rhetorical objectives of Web design courses. It is worth noting here the views of a participant quoted above (the “spider food” specialist), who was strongly committed to SEO and quite successful at it:
I strongly feel that colleges and universities should start incorporating SEO writing skills into their curricula. The real challenge will be to write headlines and ledes that have strong keywords and yet aren’t just a string of boring text. [U]nderstanding basic SEO is critical for professional writers in the 21st century.
As this participant and this study’s results suggest, writing for both kinds of audiences simultaneously can be a challenging college-level skill, one that students preparing for Web-related professional practice ought to master.
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About the Author
John Killoran is an assistant professor in the English Department of Long Island University, Brooklyn campus. He researches Web communication and has published in such journals as IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, and the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication. He is a senior member of STC. Contact: email@example.com.
Manuscript received 12 August 2009; revised 4 February 2010; accepted 6 February 2010.