SEO for arts and culture organisations

I keep going back to that Culture24 report, ‘How to evaluate online success’. There’s quite a bit in there to digest and a few threads that I think are worth teasing out – it’s probably going to be good for a couple more blog posts at least.

Anyway, I flicked through the key recommendations earlier. This sentence in particular couldn’t be much clearer:

invest in SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) first, then mobile versions of websites and then social media

Despite that, it’s social media that dominates the conversation among the arts/digital chattering classes (aptly, I suppose). You rarely hear a peep about SEO and mobile doesn’t figure that much either (at least not in a practical way – it’s all bespoke apps, Foursquare and QR codes).

I think I know part of the reason for this. SEO and mobile platforms (sensible ones that people will actually use) are boring, technical and often need to be budgeted for and commissioned. On the other hand, it’s fun to chat to people on social networks, the tools are more readily available and ‘success’ is harder to measure (or easier to obfuscate, depending on your level of cynicism). Let me know if I’m very wide of the mark.

So I thought I’d kick off some chat about boring SEO.

What’s SEO and why’s it important?

Culture24’s report showed that the overwhelming majority of visitors to the participating organisations’ websites come via search engines. The process of making your website more easily discoverable via Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc is called Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). It’s a complicated area but, in the simplest of terms, it comes down to this:

  • On-site SEO is about making sure the website is built properly and contains relevant content. This is so that, when a search engine crawls your site, it can find all the content on it and work out how it might be relevant to potential search queries.
  • Off-site SEO is to do with links coming to your site from other, relevant websites – the more the better. Each incoming link is proof that your website is important. The more links pointing to your site, the more likely you’ll turn up when someone does a search on a relevant topic.

It’s actually a lot more complicated than that but you get the idea.

What does investing in SEO look like?

This was explained pretty nicely by Jake Grimley in a comment on my previous post. He said:

They recommend investing money and/or time, I’m not sure they recommend commissioning your local SEO shark.

This ‘SEO is common sense’ meme is barely half true. Yes content is important, but SEO is a bit more than that. It has to be designed into the structure of your website. SEO = Design

What he’s saying (although you should read the very excellent comment below) is that for on-site SEO you should make sure that your website has been put together properly. It should be well structured with valid, cleanly written code, good metadata, descriptive links and so on. This should come as standard from a good web design agency (*cough*Made*cough*). It also helps to have lots of pages containing relevant keywords.

For off-site SEO you want to find ways to build up the number of links to your site. It helps if the sites linking to you are authoritative and the anchor text used includes good keywords.

Some rough analysis, building on the Culture24 research

Although the Culture24 report concluded that SEO is important, there was no analysis of how well the participating organisations are doing (which is fair enough, it was outside of the project’s initial scope). So I thought I’d run off a few numbers, see how they compare to each other and see what, if anything, that would tell us.

BIG CAVEAT: This is a very quick, very crude bit of analysis. It’s meant to serve as a conversation starter rather than something from which we can draw any firm conclusions.

Here are the figures, with some explanation of them below:

With thanks to m’colleague, Ian Ravenscroft, who lent a hand pulling the figures out. Those columns explained:

  • Google Page Rank – out of 10. Higher is better.
  • Alexa Traffic Rank – lower is better.
  • Quality – a score out of 100 based on high-level factors search engines take into account when deciding whether a site is trustworthy or not (domain age/expiration, indexed pages and so on).
  • SEOMoz gives us MozRank and Domain Authority – higher scores are better.
  • Majestic SEO gives us figures for the number of Pages on a site and the number of Links pointing to it from other sites.

I should point out that Google has been down-playing Page Rank for a while and Alexa is more than a little flawed. Still, the indication of the websites’ status that they give is pretty much in line with the other measures.

Conclusions and recommendations

As I said before, it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from a quick snapshot like this. A more serious piece of research would look at whether things are improving or worsening over time. Some keyword research wouldn’t go amiss to see what terms the sites are ranking for (compared with terms they’d like to rank for/areas of the site that are currently hidden), we’d want to tie that in with how useful that traffic is to the organisation and… well, I could go on.

Still, this much we know:

  • These are all big sites
  • They all have a lot of links pointing to them
  • They’re regarded by the search engines as authoritative sources of information

On the surface, it looks like these organisations are doing pretty well – many website owners would commit atrocious acts for those kinds of results. That’s not to say they couldn’t do better so, to the extent that these arts and culture organisations should invest in SEO, they might (if they don’t do this already):

  • make sure they’ve got their websites in order from a technical point of view. Kew’s James Morley spoke about this at the Let’s Get Real conference. The Culture24 report suggets an annual SEO health check;
  • consider doing a content audit to see if those thousands (and millions) of pages are organised and presented as well as they could be;
  • depending on the results of some keyword research, consider some specific SEO work around particular areas of the site that could do with being made more prominent – new exhibitions and event hire are favourites for this sort of thing.

All to be weighed up against the return that kind of investment will give, obviously.

So there we go. I wrote a post about SEO. Thanks for making it to the end.