On indefinite hiatus…

May 1st, 2011

Thanks for visiting the Toronto SEO Workshop site.

We’re on indefinite hiatus, and will not be doing any training sessions or SEO consulting for the foreseeable future. (Though it kills me, because I love this stuff!)

What’s the deal? I (Rob) am focusing on the SEO, communications and customer acquisition strategies of Wave Accounting, which is an awesome free online accounting app made specifically for small businesses. I encourage any freelancers, solo-entrepreneurs or self-employed people to check it out. It’s actually free — really and truly — and does all the stuff that most people need. What’s not to like?

If you’re in the Toronto area and:

a) you would like SEO services (training, consulting, etc.)


b) you offer SEO services (training, consulting, etc.)

please let me know. I’ll try to connect the providers with those who seek them. info {at} torontoseoworkshop {dot} com.


Keyword Research for SEO 101

January 8th, 2010

Here’s a short video on keyword research. It gives you the basics to start making smart data-focused wording choices for your online content, whether it’s a web page for a small business, or an online magazine article.

6 SEO Tips for Journalists, Writers and Editors

December 3rd, 2009

I guest-blogged at Kat Tancock’s Magazines Online blog a couple of weeks ago. For those of you who missed it, here it is.

Good SEO can be a game changer for independent bloggers as well as newsroom editors, freelance writers and anyone who handles the words that end up on the screen.

SEO is the craft of playing Google’s game – writing your web copy in such a way that Google will like your story better, and place it higher on a search result page, than that of your competition. Old-school editors and writers get defensive about SEO — they feel, perhaps, that it infringes on their own wordsmithery, or it strikes them as marketing or tech (i.e., “not my job”). But while they’re arguing, someone else’s web page is getting pageviews (and, yes, ad impressions), and that person is securing a career in the new media landscape.

If you want to get in on the game and start pulling in Google traffic, there’s great news: the fundamentals of SEO – and particularly the elements that lie within the control of an online editor or writer – are easy to learn, and don’t require you to compromise your editing or writing.

Here are 6 practical SEO lessons for online writers and editors.

SEO tip #1: Keywords over cleverness

Nine times out of 10, writers and editors would rather be clever and creative than clear. Unfortunately, Google (though a brilliant piece of machinery) isn’t all that good at wordplay. Even common headlines that work well on magazine covers, like “10 ways to blast belly fat,” are lousy SEO headlines, because nobody goes to Google on the first day of their weight-loss resolution and punches the words “blast belly fat” into the search bar. Quite obviously, most people use keywords (i.e., search terms) like “weight loss tips,” “diet plans” or “lose weight.”

Your best ally in figuring out what terms to use in your writing is the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. (See the screencast at top right for a demo on how to use the Keyword tool; or check out the SEO video tips on our YouTube channel.)

The Keyword Tool was built to help advertisers create better ads, but it also helps editors and writers discover what words real people use in their online searches.

SEO writing tips for journalists

A quick look on the keyword tool shows that your pool of potential monthly readers is:

  • 5 million if you use the words “lose weight”
  • 16 million if you use the words “weight loss”
  • 37 million if you use the word “diet”

All else being equal, I’d rather get a slice of the “diet” group than the “lose weight” group, so I can now write my headlines and web copy accordingly. (You’ll see in the video, though, that all else is not equal: the data for “diet” is likely inflated. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s pretend we don’t know that for now.)

You can use these heavy-hitting keywords in conjunction with your clever titles too. Just change “10 ways to blast belly fat” to “Diet Tips: 10 ways to blast belly fat” or something like that.

SEO tip #2: Know where to use keywords

It’s probably self-evident, but the best places to use keywords are in all the traditional display copy spots:

  • headlines
  • subheads
  • captions
  • boldface
  • any place where you would normally have your print typeface differ from your body copy typeface

In our weight-loss example, weave the word “diet” into as many as those spots as you can, without it becoming obnoxious to your human reader. You’ll be giving Google clear signals that your story is a good one to serve when those 37 million people a month search for something with the word “diet.”

SEO tip #3: Links matter

Google cares a lot about the number of links around the web that point back to your website. (In SEO terms, those are called “inbound links.”) All else being equal, Google will give preference to a site with lots of inbound links over one with fewer links, with the pretty convincing rationale that lots of links means lots of people are recommending the story or the site. This is as good a reason as any to get on social media like Facebook and Twitter: when you spread your story, you’re doing more than encouraging readers to click today. You’re planting the seeds for inbound links that will boost your Google rankings.

[Clarifying something that wasn't quite clear enough in my guest post for Kat: Google can't read a private Facebook page, and there's no evidence -- yet -- that Google will improve your ranking if you appear on Twitter. But things that circulate in social media have a way of getting linked to by bloggers, etc., so there is definitely value to social media. More on the connection between social media and Google on another day.]

SEO Tip #4: Good stories get links

The things that made stories great a decade or two ago are the things that make people want to link to you now. Be interesting. Be scandalous. Be creative or funny. Be an expert, a news-breaker, an insider, a pest… These traits make for the best stories, and the best stories get more links and better Google ranking. In this way, Google is very fair.

SEO Tip #5: Good SEO is good for people as well as Google

In a print world, art directors and editors work hard on packages that hang together as a whole, so even a story with an unclear headline will make sense to a reader who can pick up on cues like strategically positioned images. But online, it’s harder to make these elements work together — the interplay between layout and meaning is just not there.

On top of that, the rumours you’ve heard are true: readers online don’t browse around the same way they do in print. The web is a results-oriented medium, and directness is a virtue.

This is where good user experience goes hand in hand with SEO: by making your display copy clear and direct, you give the readers direct information to pull them into the story, and you play nice with Google. Win-win.

SEO Tip #6: Throw SEO away in favour of the human user

This much has always been true in media and it continues to be true now: you can’t sell out your readers. Don’t cheat them for an advertising buck, and don’t cheat them for an extra bit of SEO traffic. For success in the long run, you need to make sure your user experience is a good one. Squeeze as much good SEO in as you can, but if SEO is truly at irreconcilable odds with the user experience, ditch the SEO.

Thanks to Kat and the people who commented on the post at Magazines Online and Masthead. Feel free to hit me up with online writing/editing questions.

Easy SEO: Good opportunities to boost rankings

November 21st, 2009

We’ve been offering the free SEO Test for about two months now, and can now look at the aggregate data1 and see what people do right most often, and what SEO mistakes they make with the greatest frequency.

The most missed SEO opportunity we’ve seen is not having a blog that pings.

It’s easy to understand why. People who aren’t in the habit of publishing content might think a blog is really hard to manage, or may not think a blog applies to their own business. But as I mention in our SEO training workshops, there are huge advantages (SEO and otherwise) in adding a blog to your site.

Why Are Blogs Good for SEO

  • Google cares how fresh your content is. All else being equal, Google will give a higher ranking to a new page than an old page. A blog allows you to easily create new content to feed the search engine spiders. (Note, however, that a new page on an old site is better than a new page on a new site.)
  • More content means more chances to match up with someone’s search query. Obviously if I have 10,000 sentences on my site, there’s a better chance of there being a keyword match than if I only have 10. People tend to be hesitant (with good reason) to add new static pages to their websites, but with blogs the threshold is lower, and you can generate content more casually, more easily, and again give the search engine spiders something to eat.
  • Blogs give you a chance to give to the community. If you have some particular expertise that you can share without undermining the main product you’re offering, give it away. Being generous with what you know encourages people to link back to your website, which is good for immediate traffic, and boosts your overall ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs).
  • Pinging: if you’re using any of the major blog tools like Wordpress, Blogger or Typepad, they all “ping” when you post. Which is to say, each time you post something new the blogging tool  sends a note to the search engines saying, “Hey, Google (or Bing or Yahoo), there’s new content over here you should be aware of.” In other words, it significantly boosts (and nearly guarantees) that Google will index your content.

There are other advantages to a blog, too, for human users and search engines. Blogs show that, even if the rest of your site doesn’t change, there’s someone still minding the store (i.e., this isn’t a 6-year-old site that’s been abandoned). Blogs invariably have “share this” tools, making it easy for people to put your web links up on sites like Digg, which will help your immediate traffic and your Google ranking.

For those who are still scared of blogging, the best thing to remember is that blog posts can be short. Very short. This one, for instance, is too long. You can get huge SEO results from a blog, without investing huge amounts of time.

Footnote 1. The SEO test categorically doesn’t collect any data about you. Not your ISP number, nothing about your website, your location, your browser… All we gather is the number of times people click “1″ for each question, how many time people click “2,” etc.

Twitter News

November 19th, 2009

I love it! I’ve maintained for a while that people’s resistance to Twitter comes down to one sentence:

“What are you doing right now?”

That’s the label that Twitter has long had on the 140-character box where you input your Tweet. And the problem with it is “What are you doing right now?” makes people think that Twitter is no more than a stream of status updates like “Just had a ham sandwich” or “Golly I’m bored.”

As of today, though, Twitter has a new label on the box:

“What’s happening?”

New label on Twitter

New label on Twitter

Waaaaaay better. When it comes to building websites, small labels like this are worth agonizing over, because the users of the site take a lot of cues from them, knowingly or not. The way we understand how to use a site comes as much from simple labels as it does from explicit instructions.

In this case, the problem is that the old label made Twitter newbies look at the site and miss the point. The new label removes a barrier to entry.

Of course, I had thought, “Duuuuude, you gotta check this out…” would have been a better label, but maybe that’s just me.

Facebook, Twitter and the law

November 5th, 2009

Not only do I encourage small businesses to engage in social media to promote themselves, I’ve explicitly suggested to some that they should say something titillating. If you want to benefit from the Internet’s ability to get lots of attention for your business, you’d best start by having something to say.

But I suppose a word of caution is in order. Before we start acting like 15-year-olds (”OMG, can you believe what a skank [your competition] is!?”), we all might benefit from a tutorial on how you can get yourself into hot water.

Tony Wong explains defamation 101

Tony Wong explains defamation 101

When Courtney Love used Twitter to call a designer an “asswipe, nasty lying hosebag thief,” we shouldn’t be surprised that she got served with a lawsuit for libel. But there are a lot of other, more subtle statements that could land you in hot water, or not, depending on the situation. In today’s Toronto Star, there’s a very useful primer from Tony S.K. Wong, a lawyer with Blake, Cassels and Graydon LLP., that explains some of the details you should keep in mind. Such as:

  • If it’s true, you can say it, but the onus is on you to prove that it’s truth.
  • If it’s opinion, you can say it, but just saying “In my opinion” before a statement isn’t enough to cover your backside.

Get the whole article at http://bit.ly/legal1

The Social Media Spectrum

November 3rd, 2009

We’ve all seen the warnings about keeping your personal information safe in a social media world. But security issues aside, where do Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (the Big Three of social media, as far as I’m concerend) rank on the spectrum of private vs. public communication — specifically as it applies to marketing applications?

I didn’t think there was much debate about this until I got into a debate about this with a friend. So for the record, here are my thoughts in graph form:

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter ranked for privacy and reach

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter ranked for privacy and reach

What does this mean?

I have two scales: the horizontal measures how private a medium is, from “only open with a password” to “come on in, one and all.” The vertical scale measures how large your potential audience is, or how loud your voice can be, from “one-on-one conversation” at the bottom to “yell if from the mountaintop” at the top.

Facebook as an application is the most private of the three, since most people lock down their profiles to some degree. Businesses Pages on Facebook are public (and therefore technically all the way to the right of the graph) , but the nature of the medium still gives a business Page on Facebook the whiff of being in an enclosed space. In terms of its reach, with Facebook you can send alerts to your Fans, or even to a specific segment of your Fans, but not to a specific individual, so the nature of the conversations is right in the middle of the intimate/broadcast continuum. For better and for worse, your reach is likely to be smaller on Facebook. On the down side, smaller reach is seldom the goal of marketers. But on the upside, the conversations do feel more intimate. On Facebook, people are in what they consider to be a safe space. So when they do engage with you here, the trust level is higher, and your brand’s connection with the users is more intense.

YouTube is out at the extreme end of both spectrums: in general, it’s a medium where you throw something on your channel and the world will come and consume it at its own leisure. So that makes it more purely broadcast. Yes, people can and do subscribe, and yes, you can post messages and address people’s comments, but most interactions on YouTube are anonymous and mass-scale.

As for Twitter, it’s out there like YouTube, but behaves as if it’s not. Leaving aside those who lock down their Twitter accounts (from a marketing perspective, this wouldn’t make any sense), anything you Tweet can be seen by anyone who happens to stumble by, or who does a search that matches the content of your Tweets. And in general, anything you say on Twitter is shouted out into space, to be heard (or not) by whoever may be listening at that moment. So it’s pure broadcast in that way.

But because Twitter is really about people following you (as opposed to finding you accidentally), it feels and acts less like broadcast.  Also, unwritten Twitter protocols dictate that a good Twitter-er will engage one-on-one with her/his followers, rather than just spouting off a one-way stream of updates, so in practice, the communications tend to feel more personal than they do on YouTube.

Give me a shout if you have any questions.


Need more information about Social Media and Social Media Marketing? Check out our SMM training sessions.

SEO for small business

October 29th, 2009

SEO for small businesses

The truth of the matter is that no small business owner wants to spend time on website maintenance. These people are in business with expertise and interests that usually have nothing to do with website creation and management.

But it’s also true that these business owners are spending money on websites right now, and few if any of them are seeing a return on their investment. And they’re rightly frustrated.

Cut to the chase: any small business spending money on its site (and, worse yet, spending money on advertising) without looking after SEO, is going about things backwards.

The strongest selling point for SEO is this: would you rather keep spending advertising dollars every single month to appear in someone’s directory, or instead would you like to appear consistently high in Google and other search results without paying a penny for the privilege?

Once you know what you’re doing, SEO is free and powerful. It doesn’t take any more work to build a well-optimized site than it does to build a weak one. And once you’re ranking well in Google, for free, you’re in control of your online destiny.

Some people will have read the preceding paragraph and honed in on one phrase: “once you know what you’re doing…” Luckily, that’s not as daunting as it sounds. Like so much else in life, the first 80% of SEO is easily taught and easily learned. (Plug alert: check out the SEO courses we offer.) It’s the extra 20% that some people pay consultants six figures to finesse.

Is 80% knowledge enough for your website? Consider this: your competition is probably doing nothing for SEO right now. With just a bit of attention, you could probably climb up — perhaps all the way up — in Google rankings. If you’re a multinational corporation competing for ranking in searches like “best mobile phone,” you definitely want to invest in some good brains who can do the 100% job. But for the little guy, 80% is infinitely more than the guy down the block, and that could be plenty good enough.

Back to advertising: is it worth it for small businesses? Once you have your SEO under control, see how your site is doing, and how much business it’s throwing to your front door. If you’re not happy with the results, then you need to look at a bunch of things, including:

  • is your site helping guide people toward the purchase that you want?
  • are there other factors affecting your ranking?
  • what can you reasonably expect advertising to do for you, and what is wishful thinking?

In my opinion, advertising requires a much greater investment of time to understand, and is a riskier use of your money, than good SEO (and good SEO training).

Google Doesn’t Use Meta Keyword

October 16th, 2009

This is old news to SEO followers, but a valuable point for newcomers trying to optimize their sites.

Once upon a time the <meta keyword> tag in the HTML code was a factor in search engine rankings. Google has abandoned that practice (though other search engines have not). Here’s the voice of the big G, Matt Cutts, making the point uneqivocally.

Twitter for New Journalists – Not What I Expected

October 14th, 2009

digital-Journalism-schoolThis morning, I was part of a classroom session with students from the combined University of Toronto/Centennial College journalism program. I had been invited by Andy Frank to address the group with him, about the shift from traditional media to “new” media.

The most surprising thing: almost none of the students are on Twitter. I’d say it was under 10%. And based on our discussions they were much more likely to get their news from print than Andy and I are. Which makes me wonder/ponder a bunch of things:

1) These were first-year students, about 5 weeks into their post-secondary career. Would the numbers be different once the J-School profs work with them a bit, and once the students start getting more into their craft?

2) Twitter’s demographic has always been older. But I guess I was wrong to think it would nonetheless have a following at the university level. If only because Twitter is so suited (designed for, in fact) mobile devices, and since everyone older than 15 has an iPhone, I would have thought Twitter would have deeper penetration.

3) Everyone in the class was on Facebook, it seemed, but when asked what kind of journalists they were thinking of being (print, radio, TV, online), they leaned heavily toward old-school media forms. I definitely would have thought that university students in J school would be more attuned to the possibilities in the interactive space than, say, the people working in a newsroom at the major newspaper in town. Not so. While media business today is desperately seeking for a way to stay afloat in a digital space, the students implicitly seemed to frame their journalism thoughts around print, TV and radio.

4) So, am I the keener looking too far forward, with too little attention on the established forms of media? Or are university and college students insufficiently attentive to the radical shifts to the media landscape? It’s not like they’re digital virgins. They’re perfectly comfortable in the space. It just seems like the digital thinking hasn’t completely obliterated for them the traditional media forms.

To any of the students who (I hope) will follow this blog, welcome, and congratulations on looking forward. If J school grads are, in fact, slow to shift their thinking, you’ll be on the cutting edge of whatever comes up next.