The SEO Volunteer: Volume 2

Having signed up with two charities last summer to help them with their digital marketing and complement my SEO, PPC and social media training from Salford University and SEMPO, my learning has definitely moved on. The following is a mega-post, but if you’re looking to build work experience in this field by helping a charity, it may prove useful.

Digital marketing isn’t a fixed process that will be the same for every business or organisation out there. Plus, it’s a two-way street: an organisation will have to change how it works, not for the sake of a web crawler hosted at Mountain View but for the sake of customers, partners and others who are proactively seeking useable information via the web (including mobile). However, voluntary organisations can involve stakeholders and gatekeepers that may prevent the kind of rapid change that you would see from an online enterprise eager to seize upon any and every advantage.

From 2 Charities to 1

It may not have been the most sensible thing to try and work with two charities while still in a full-time job, trying to find a new job post-redundancy, and with a new family to look after! So, I committed to working with just the one, ICA:UK, a charity based in Manchester that sells facilitation training to corporate, public and third sector clients. Facilitation training is a competitive marketplace and the goal was to improve their ranking for that very term – facilitation training – amongst others, and see what other issues could be resolved.

I was lucky in that analytics and technical issues were being dealt with by my main contact in the charity, and he “got” the notion that it wasn’t about increasing the quantity of traffic, but the quality. However other areas, such as opportunities for new content and linkbuilding, were shared amongst stakeholders and therefore trickier to negotiate. Due to funding constraints the site was volunteer-built and they were struggling with a version of Joomla in need of update, really, which made implementing potential page and site changes harder and in some cases not possible – perhaps another skill area I’d do well to explore.

As an aside, their facilitation workshops are an excellent tool for agencies, whether niche or full-service, in the project discovery stage, as they provide techniques to allow groups – say the marketing DM and their colleagues within a client business – to progress on concepts and achieve consensus. And you can even swap that energy-sapping flipboard or whiteboard for one of their rocking Sticky Walls.

What was done

  • A visit to Hubspot. Not a pro-SEO’s site of choice possibly, but running the url through Hubspot’s Website Grader (now called the Marketing Grader) helped point out a few things, such as the homepage having too many images without alt text to be that bot-friendly, or human-friendly, for that matter.
  • Analytics and backlinks were reviewed. Going over Google Analytics with the charity soon identified pages with the highest bounce rate, while a quick run through Open Site Explorer from good old SEOMoz identified existing sources of links that could be expanded upon further, and the odd irrelevant inbound link to be dealt with.
  • The indexing basics: I quickly made sure the site was submitted to Dmoz.org and the Yahoo! directory.
  • A Keyword Glossary was composed. By working with the AdWords Keyword Tool, I discovered some new potential terms but more importantly had a metric on monthly local search volume and competing sites for terms. I then used the “classic” KEI formula, squaring the search volume before dividing it by the number of competing sites. The higher the result the higher the potential efficiency, roughly. I then asked the charity to rank the most efficient 20 terms from 0-1 for relevance, ie what they would believe are most likely to convert. This is a rough, ready and knowingly flawed way of working with keyword discovery and efficiency. For example the Keyword Tool and similar databases can’t be trusted 100%, and there are more complex ways of defining efficiency that take PageRank and other factors per competing site into account. However, as a starting point it was sufficient.
  • PageRank flaws were identified. A whole page of outbound links lacking nofollow attributes, for example, was quickly remedied.
  • Domain and IP checks, and other technical tasks: the site was accessible both at a www. and non-www. version of the URL: a quick call to the hosting company to set up a 301 redirect on the non-www version was all it took to solve that. Were CSS and Javascript files stored separately, not coded on the pages? Check. Search engines like verified IP addresses, so has a reverse DNS been performed? Check. Is it a static IP, rather than a dynamically generated one? Yep.

What wasn’t done

  • Technical tasks Version #2: I wanted to, but didn’t, get stuck into meta tag errors, Meta Robots tags, xml sitemaps, creating a custom 404, and identifying server errors with Webmaster Central or similar.
  • Analytics Ninjtsu: key conversions and EOI on the site were identifiable but not being measured – and you can’t improve what you can’t measure. This was another area I needed to cover, especially to figure out attribution and attrition – what was originally prompting visitors to drop by, and why might they drop out?
  • Link acquisition: a potentially time-consuming task, but essential and well worth the investment in terms of time and effort. Which I couldn’t, and regret not being able to make the time. However, there’s also a key point of learning here: volunteers and staff within the charity were asked to think of their own contacts with a web presence who might provide a link – especially those such as academics, for example, who add content to a high-authority site such as a .ac.uk domain. Some balked at doing this which was a shame – I’d personally say there’s no harm in asking for this, but some people involved perhaps believed it to be too commercial a thing to be doing.
  • Content: there was a wealth of relevant content full of ready-made search terms in their quarterly newsletter, which while available as a PDF online and therefore crawlable, I could have repurposed for blog posts and editorial. While I had multiple time pressures, in hindsight I’ve learned a lot about managing time and rethinking what key tasks might actually be, and how to budget time. The charity’s CEO, in the meantime, became social media born-again and is now a voracious tweeter, and traffic deriving from his activity was immediately noticeable.

…and there’s most likely a hell of a lot more besides. There are a lot of charities and third sector organisations in need of this kind of support, and it can present a lot of opportunities to develop skills and insight for the would be digital marketer, whether you’re on the more technical or creative end of the spectrum. However, you have to balance out a good opportunity – and mine certainly was – against organisations less able to effect changes, either to their site or their activity, that might reduce what you can do, learn, and have to show to future employers.

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The SEO Volunteer: Volume 1

In pushing on with building on my SEO and digital marketing course from Salford University and SEMPO, I’ve hooked up with two charities as a volunteer to help them with their online presence, and they’re both very different, but the basic issues in terms of online presence are the same.

The first, The Ethical Computer Company, is an IT re-use enterprise in Stoke-on-Trent, taking unwanted or outdated IT from businesses and individuals, refurbishing it and either selling it in the community, sending units on for use in the developing world, or disposing of the waste correctly. From a small charity project started ten years ago bootstrapped themselves to having two shops, diversifying into vegetable oil recycling and operating as a UK Online training centre, with the staff having been previously long-term unemployed.

The second, ICA:UK, is the UK branch of an international charity specialising in facilitation training: the process that enables volunteer and community groups to work together well, make decisions and take action. They offer training courses to charity and community sector clients, and also provide training and support projects for young people and youth groups in and around Manchester.

Traditional SEO advice assumes that you’re working in e-commerce, and that the site you’re aiming to optimise has one focus – selling a specific group of products or services, giving the site an easily-defined overall theme. Very few charities, especially if they function as social enterprises as in the case of these two, will possess such a site. If you’re doing something similar to build your skills with other charities, don’t be quick to criticise your charity for not being single-theme in their web presence: it’s common for charities, especially the smaller ones short on resources, to have a less focussed site, and may have a predetermined CMS-based site that they can’t radically alter.

This is the case with the two charities I’ve been working with, but there’s still plenty that can be done – backlinks can be checked and pursued, alt text added, keywords researched, identified and refined down for effectiveness, and effective tracking of conversions applied via Google Analytics: all, crucially, cost-free except for time, if you’re willing to give it, and see what you can gain from it. So far it’s been a source of sanity as the winding down of my current employer continues, with all the grimness and frustration that brings.

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Careering through the web

My stay of execution at Vision+Media will be short-lived: I’m supporting their apprentices until the summer, so in the meantime company research, networking and (ugh) applying for jobs the old-fashioned way continues apace. On the research side I’ve been exploring the crossover between digital and careers advice that my current job has created, and in doing so came across ICEGS, the International Centre for Guidance Studies. In short it’s a research and professional training centre for careers advisors, based at the University of Derby. So far so boring, but one of their publications did catch my eye – Careering Through The Web, a paper looking at how wikis, social networks, RSS and the like are influencing how graduates are sourcing career and vocational information and advice. This tickled my interest given past experience using a skinned Moodle VLE to try and deliver mentoring supporting from one media industry mentor to two separate groups from Vision+Media’s Advanced Media Apprenticeship and the Media Foundation Placement Scheme.  I remember my own barriers in using the Moodle – I had hoped our tech partners would use Ning for this specific solution, but Moodle did have a strong set of standard features and endless plugins, not to mention excellent cross-browser compatibility given its’ maturity.

It’s worth a speed-read if this is an area you’re interested in, however I was  disappointed: it rattles through a number of relatively innovative services for job-seekers, such as Wikijobs, but just categorises these things against three broad models of guidance delivery: one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many. It’s main recommendation is that these kind of things are good and should be supported, and that careers advisors should be more digitally literate and competent. I’m not sure a 35-page research piece was needed to tell us this, and if this was a way to foster interest amongst HE careers advisors it’s probably amongst the least effective, in my opinion: a hands-on, interactive workshop where they could get online and try some of these things out for themselves, and, crucially, get into a debate to overcome common objections and concerns about the influence of social tech.

However a research centre’s main aim is usually, uh, research, so it’s too easy a criticism to make. The real problem with this paper is the complete lack of stats: none of the networks and resources identified have been assessed or broken down by user figures, traffic, age, sector or region. So no  insight can be gained on, say, quality versus quantity, and how these tools rack up against established individual advice and guidance delivered in-person, and sometimes guided by nothing more than an A4 pro-forma and some potentially out-of-date knowledge.

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The Digital Skills Summit – brokering skills between digital companies, students, and universities

I couldn’t attend the Digital Skills Summit delivered by Manchester Digital and Manchester Knowledge Capital last week. This was a shame: going by the #mcrdig hashtag on Twitter and chatting to a couple of delegates, a lot of the topics discussed are close to my heart at the moment:

  • A Skills Broker for the digital sector in Manchester or “The North” was discussed. This gets its own set of bullet points below, you lucky sods.
  • MMU’s David Bird stressed the importance of paid internships for students in the digital sector. This makes total sense. Employers are expecting students and recent graduates to be business-ready and entrepreneurial, on top of being technically skilled designers, coders, online marketers and so on. Their expectation to get paid should be part and parcel of this.
  • CPD for established digital professionals was a thorny issue, with some dissatisfaction being expressed at the quality of what’s on offer in the region – though it’s unclear if this was aimed at the private sector, the support agencies, or the universities, or all of the above. A tough one, this, and easy to get bogged down in if you lump all these different parts of the skills supply chain into one. I’ve touched on this topic in a previous post, asking  what price should be paid for digital sector training. Price has an immediate impact on quality and I’m concerned that there hasn’t really been a broad enough, meaningful discussion on the quality of training that might be offered to one industry in, by global standards, a pretty small area.

So, this skills broker idea was mentioned – and I wouldn’t blame Manchester Digital for wanting to position themselves for it, though I’m unclear on what’s holding them back. It’s a really good idea: universities and businesses could be doing a lot more together, and not just work-based training, if the relationships were right. A third party with a good overview of wants and needs on both sides could do some real good, and would provide a consistent stage to get top-tier thought leaders in technology, design and training in the 21st century speaking and teaching in the region, without stepping on the toes of Northern Digitals, Econsultancy, or anyone else.

Would a membership-based trade body be the one able to do this? I’d say they’d need to match up against the following attributes:

  • Autonomous: they would have to have strong partnerships with HE and industry, but would have to work to its own agenda and have a crystal clear, realistic mission statement. Those two groups are effectively clients, but not necessarily the users: they’re the students, graduates and CPD customers, and if the mix of influence is off-balance their interests could easily be forgotten.
  • Knowledgeable about training, and training as a harsh, competitive arena, as much as they might be about digital. One without the other won’t do.
  • Nimble and responsive: waiting on committees, steering groups and stakeholder meetings for permission on projects and products they’re not able to assess in detail will just slow things down, and rarely affect the outcome. There are things that could be started literally right now, with no real barriers.
  • Open-minded and accessible: the new waves of talent can come from anywhere and there is no archetype of success in such a frequently disrupted industry. This must be visible as more than a lip-service equal opportunities policy.

How you’d fund something like this is tricky, and may only be solved by being as iterative in the approach from the outset as possible, making a virtue out of trial and error. I’d suggest something small, lean and mean which wouldn’t need a physical base to get going: once I’d improved my know-how, I found a decent laptop, phone, connectivity and transport to be the main capital resources whether we’re talking about placements, online training or training events. Constitution-wise I’d be wary of creating a co-op for the reasons above, although the relatively new CIC model may work well in this instance. It may not even be a full-time job for one person to begin with. Revenue-wise I’d say a pay-as-you go system would enable that essential speed, flexibility and JFDI factor. Contracts and SLAs would be a secondary concern, and not a barrier to getting started.

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Online trends: using the web for media careers advice

One thing I wish I’d figured out five years ago, back when I worked for Media Training North West, was this: when trying to attract people who need media careers advice, market the outcome – media jobs – not the service. In hindsight I feel pretty stupid to have only come to this conclusion more recently: a classic case of when working non-commercially, and at the beck and call of funders, one can easily fail to see the wood for the trees. However, that burial in detail has some value in knowing what is good media careers advice, compared to where users online are trying to find it.

Here’s a table comparing search volume on Google for “media careers” (blue line) and “media jobs” (red line):

Google insights chart of media careers v media jobs search volume, UK, 12 months

Roughly speaking, there’s ten times as much search interest in “media jobs” over “media careers”, and that’s just over the last 12 months. The top 5 SERPs for the first term aren’t, from my experience, necessarily the places where you’re sure to find the relevant jobs – indeed, it’s a sector where the majority of jobs aren’t advertised, particularly if we’re talking about broadcast and film.

Google is overwhelmingly used by the under-informed  so we can assume that a considerable chunk of those querying “media jobs” would value media careers advice and resources – even if it’s just to conclude that the industry isn’t for them. If you’re an organisation providing that service, your site would do better to be optimised along those lines. Providers of advice might argue that I’m misunderstanding what they do, but uptake has to be taken into account as a primary performance indicator.

So how are organisations out there doing on this? Here’s just a couple:

Skillset - the skills council for the creative and digital industries (whatever that means…)

Not bad in some areas – for more outcome-oriented keywords, say, “film jobs” or “tv jobs”, they’re usually within the top five of first page Google SERPs. They also claim to cover the games industry, and this is a sector which desparately needs realistic careers advice to be disseminated. On this point they fail hard – number three on the second page of results for “games design jobs” might as well be nowhere. Skillset’s domain is 13 years old and they’re inundated with good quality inbound links (such as a wealth of .ac.uk domain referrals) , so there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t rank well on this theme (hell, #1 on page 1 isn’t unrealistic). My guess at the problem? The content.

Prospects - the official graduate careers website

And a .ac.uk domain, to boot! They’re not a site specific to media, but keep in mind that the graduate talent pool is a major resource for all industries vaguely definable as “media”. They don’t rank on the first page for “media careers” or “media jobs” but if you pop “graduate” into the middle either of those phrases there they are. This makes sense, given their business as a big graduate recruitment portal, used by students, universities and recruiters alike, but it could be too small a niche given the flood of graduates out there that won’t include that extra term in their job searches. (And it’s worth noting from a legal point of view that you can’t exclude non-graduates from “graduate” recruitment: if the individual fulfils the criteria, with or without a degree, they can apply).

This is just a run-through of search visibility – landing-page user experience, and the quality of advice, is another matter. I’ve got a hunch that online is consistently under-used, and the massive potential for careers advice and CPD via the web is untapped. I think that’s in part because attempts to do so still think of it as a 1-2-1 or 1-to-many service, rather than taking a step back at the bigger picture of how individuals are sourcing advice and opportunities using the web.

I’ve not yet mentioned the high-ranking jobs portals that pWned the SERPs discussed above – places like totaljobs, Guardian Jobs, Mediaweek and Careermoves. It’s a mixed bag in terms of quality and relevance that needs further poking about, so I guess that’s the Part #2 of this post planned!

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LinkedIn obsession: mapping my contacts

I’ll have a tinker and see if this can be embedded, but via LinkedIn Labs you can map your LinkedIn connections – a great way of seeing if those with small nodes on the edge of your network have other contacts you should be connected to:

LinkedIn Labs | InMaps – Simon Knight’s professional network.

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i.studio plus – training for future web and digital managers. But which price is right?

One thing I perceived from the i.studio traineeship project was a broader lack of business awareness and skills amongst the talent entering the web industry. Some readers who see me as a public sector quango muppet may scoff at my making this observation…

This was more true of those coming from a design or development background – there are one or two universities in the region, such as MMU Business School, that are much more on the ball in teaching digital marketing and ecommerce within their business degrees.

Tying this together with the original i.studio research and spending an hour or two with our tame web and interactive freelancers I put a mindmap together:

Picture of the mindmap produced for i.studio plus

(Click for full-size)

Man, I love a mindmap – my tool of choice is always Freemind. On the left were practical constraints (I’ve removed the node with budgetary info as that would be bad karma), on the right structured notes on content, style of delivery and so on. Lovely curving links where topics are related. If you’re interested in seeing how I bodge together training solutions, click on the image for the full-size map.

In brief, the skills thought to be critical were a full understanding of digital as a business, financial awareness, building the right team for the job, project management, and a big one: pitching skills. At this point the bulk of the work was passed on to a subcontractor, The White Room, who were able to source relevant training providers with relative ease, and had the right experience to satisfy what I’d outlined in terms of style and credibility. (I didn’t just email this over to them, mind, the usual mind-numbing procurement processes were followed). To build on the i.studio brand, i.studio plus (or i.studio+) was born. I insisted on this name. I think The White Room hated it…

Pricing benefited from public subsidy, and cost around £350 per delegate. This price was still a stumbling block when it came to getting businesses involved, even though it offered a massive discount on the real cost, especially when compared to other providers nationally or in the region. To The White Room’s credit, however, they achieved full subscription and uniformly positive feedback for the training sessions. Interestingly, they had to hit the phones to really get the sell-in, and I ended up warming some contacts up by phone as well – I still wonder what part of the marketing was obscured by overall perceptions of Vision+Media, and what might have more to do with the need to sell training pretty hard. My conclusion, despite this: businesses really have no idea how much training should cost. This was more reflective of a broad creative sector too used to subsidy meaning free – and too many organisations and bodies keen to do this to demonstrate support, when in fact they were undermining the sector by preventing it from truly understanding return on investment in training.  My big worry is that the LEPs will rush in to the current void do the same again, and miss the complexities in fostering a strong non-academic training infrastructure for such a fussy sector as creative and digital.

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