Results from SEO makeover for PhotoTour DC

Posted on March 23rd, 2011 by John Nicholson

Back in October, we selected PhotoTour DC (previously PhotoTour Excursions) as the winner of our first SEO makeover contest for DC small businesses.  We’ve had a lot of fun working with Lynford Morton during this process and, as we draw a close to this makeover, are happy to report some nice results.  Below is an email I sent to Lynford a few days ago capturing the results and my recommendations for next steps to keep his momentum going.


Hi Lyn,

Hope you’re doing well and gearing up for the spring tour season.

I spent a few hours today analyzing your Google Analytics data for the last few months, to see the impact of our SEO efforts so far.

You can see the results here.  The first tab shows the results in graph form, the second tab shows the actual data.  I more or less used the SEO measurement process described here – with some adjustments for your situation.

I looked at the 9 weeks after our SEO was implemented vs. the 9 weeks before.  Not apples to apples but good enough for our purposes.

For keyword groups I’m focusing on the keywords we identified in our keyword research back in October.  Within Google Analytics I aggregate similar words together (e.g. everything with “class” or “classes” in it) which is how I end up with “keyword groups.”

By “conversions” I’m referring to the 3 goals we set up initially in Google Analytics — visits to your Signature Excursions page, visits to your Specialty Excursions page, and visits to your Calendar.  These don’t tell us whether they signed up for a tour, but it is a good indication of interest and the best conversion metric available. (I originally was trying to track clicks over to the Eventbrite page but for various reasons we haven’t been able to track those consistently.)

While the numbers aren’t huge, we have seen a nice increase on a number of our target keyword groups.  For instance, “workshop” related phrases had 0 conversions prior to SEO; after they had 36.  “Photography” went from 32 to 101, “class” from 6 to 21.  A few groups stayed flat and one – “lesson” – dropped.

Overall your conversions on SEO target keywords increased from 50 to 175 – an increase of 3.5x.  Not bad for the first couple months.

Note that I did not include “tour” related words in the analysis.  Because your brand name includes “tour” it’s too hard to tell the effect of SEO on these words vs. other marketing efforts like Groupon.  It does appear that your Google rankings on top “tour” phrases have increased.

Based on the analysis, I don’t think you need to make updates to the body content of your site at this time.  I’m confident that over time our optimization from the end of last year will continue to help improve your rankings.  I do, however, think it’s worth updating your title tags at this time based on what I saw in the results to date.  I’ve attached recommendations for updating titles on most of your main pages.

I’m marking this as the official end of our “SEO makeover.”  Of course I’m happy to answer any questions you have, now or in the future.

I’ve set up an automated report for you in Google Analytics; you’ll receive it by PDF at the beginning of each month.

As for future steps, here are my recommendations:

1. Keep the target keyword list (keyword research) doc handy anytime you make changes or additions to the website.  Integrate those keywords where possible, especially in the title tags, headings, and lead paragraphs of any new pages.

2. Ensure that the title tags remain intact anytime you make updates to the site.  Those are critical for SEO.

3. Check your Google Places listing once a quarter or so to make sure the information is still accurate.

4. Continue to try to attract links from other relevant websites.

5. Continue to post regularly on your blog.  Consider approaching photography experts to interview on your blog, to mix up the content.  And consider approaching other local bloggers offering to post tips (or be interviewed) for their blogs.


It’s been fun working with you on this.  Keep me posted on how things are going with your biz!



Title tags and SEO: a primer

Posted on March 23rd, 2011 by John Nicholson

For our latest newsletter I’ve written an article on title tag optimization — what I call the “easiest way to boost your Google rankings.”  If you’ve read the article and have feedback or questions, please submit them below.

Given that we often spend 5+ hours on Step 2 alone, it was a challenge to create a process that could be done in under an hour.  If you have the time and want to do a more thorough job with title tag optimization, here are some other steps you can take.

Check Competitors

(I originally included this as Step 2 but cut it out in the interest of simplicity.  I recommend doing it between Steps 1 and 2 in the article.)

Google the phrases you identified in step 1, and click through to the sites of any competitors or similar companies that appear on the first few pages of the organic search listings.  Look at the title tag (see Bank of America screen shot in the article to know where to look) and the most prominent text on the page you land on.  See any good keywords that you missed in your brainstorm?  If so, integrate those into your existing phrases or add new ones.

You can also go directly to the sites of competitors you already know of; but especially if you’re a small business, expect many of them not to have keyword-rich title tags.  The advantage of finding competitors through Google searches is you know they’re well-optimized for search.

For Randi’s site, I Googled “dc nutritionist” and checked out sites of two similar businesses that ranked well organically.  From their title tags I picked up a few new phrases like “certified,” “health and wellness,” “specialist,” and “counselor.”

Step Up Your Keyword Research

If you have a lot of time, replace steps 2 and 3 with the much more rigorous, 10-step keyword research process I describe as part of our SEO makeover for the Melete Foundation.  Expect it to take at least a couple hours.  It’s hard to emphasize how beneficial this process is if you’re serious about SEO.

Optimize Title Tags on Your Other Pages

In the article I focus just on the homepage because that’s the most important title tag for SEO and I wanted to make the process manageable.  But the same general process can be used to optimize title tags throughout the rest of your site.  Service pages, product pages, and about us pages are ideal candidates for keyword-rich title tags.  And if you came up with a lot of phrases in your keyword research, much of the hard work is already done.  Just try to tailor the title tags to the specific pages as much as possible.  As part of our Melete SEO makeover, I’ll have more detailed tips on full-site title tag optimization.  Stay tuned …


Making Sense of the Mobile Web

Posted on March 22nd, 2011 by Karan Gill

In the past few years, mobile web browsing has exploded with the introduction of devices such as the iPhone. This growth has companies everywhere scrambling to come up with ways to adapt to their customers’ rapidly changing information needs and to leverage the plethora of new platforms. There are 3 main ways to create a presence on mobile devices -

  1. existing non-mobile optimized websites;
  2. websites or web applications specifically designed for mobile devices;
  3. and native applications that run directly on the devices.

It’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of each of these to determine the best strategy for your business.

Option 1: Existing non-mobile optimized websites

One of the key components to the recent smartphone revolution is the availability of desktop-class web browsers on mobile devices. Before the iPhone, mobile browsers were severely limited in their ability to display web content and websites designed for desktop browsers were more or less useless on these devices. This made it critical to design websites specifically for mobile phones. However, thanks to the large screens and clever interface gestures like flicking, dragging, and zooming on today’s smart phones, websites that are designed well for the desktop are perfectly usable on-the-go in most cases.

One of the best examples of this is the New York Times website, which Apple loves to show off in their commercials. This is one of the most highly trafficked and content heavy websites on the web, and yet the same design works well on desktops and mobile devices alike. If the main purpose of your website is to display content, it is unlikely that you need to do anything to cater to today’s mobile devices. Even desktop-centric designs for basic functions like search, account login, and signup are handled well by modern smart phones.

Option 2: Mobile optimized websites and web applications

On the other hand, if your website is more of a web application and heavily focused on functionality, making some design changes to make life easier for mobile users might be a good idea. A relevant example is the auto insurance quote system on This application requires the user to input a very large amount of data to generate an insurance quote for their vehicle. Unlike content-based websites where the user can just zoom in on and scroll around the content they want to see, functionality-based websites require the user to understand all of the interface elements, input information, and make decisions, sometimes with sensitive personal information. It’s important that the user be able to see all of the form elements and labels clearly.

Using modern programming techniques, web designers can make mobile websites look and work like native applications on a mobile device. There is currently no way to make data entry tasks as easy on a mobile device as on a desktop, but if it’s possible to develop a very usable auto insurance quote system for mobile devices, it should be possible to design an interface for almost any data collection requirement.

One huge benefit to making a mobile-optimized website instead of a native application is that the same website will work on all mobile devices. Native applications have to be developed separately for different systems like iPhone and Android, and there can be significant development and maintenance costs involved. With existing platforms changing rapidly and new ones being introduced frequently, trying to offer services uniformly to all users via native apps can become a headache.

Option 3: Native Applications

That said, there are some use cases for which there is no option but to make a native application for a mobile device. This is the ultimate solution in terms of availability, functionality, and performance. Native applications have the ability to leverage the hardware of the device they run on, so you could use the phone’s microphone to record a sound, or the camera to take a photo, etc. This functionality is used well in USAA’s mobile application, which allows users to deposit funds into their account simply by photographing a check with their mobile phone and uploading it to USAA. This would not have been possible with a mobile website.

To take it further, native apps can use the capabilities of the hardware in ways that mobile sites cannot. Today’s mobile phones come with sophisticated graphics chips which can render dazzling video and interactive games. Especially with Adobe Flash player not working very well or at all on mobile devices, if you need to provide graphical interactivity or animation to users, native applications are the way to go.

Another area where native apps have an advantage is that they are stored and run directly on the phone, so they can be used when the device is not connected to the Internet. You should consider a native application when it’s critical that your users have access to your content or functionality even when their device may not have an active Internet connection.


As you can see, there are many ways to have a presence on popular mobile devices today. In our experience, many customers overestimate their need for mobile-specific offerings when a normal desktop version or mobile optimized version of their existing offerings would be the ideal choice. A good developer can help you make sense of your options and choose the one that gives not only the best return on investment, but also the best experience for your mobile users.


Review of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

Posted on March 21st, 2011 by John Nicholson

In our latest newsletter we’re trying out a new “practical book review” feature that focuses on work-related takeaways from something we’ve recently read and enjoyed.  First up is a book called Rapt and you can read my takeaways here.Rapt

I originally included a longer summary and critique section in the article, but I decided to strip it out after realizing how bored I get when reading book reviews by amateurs.  You can read that section below if you’re interested:

Rapt is a survey of recent scientific research on the topic of attention, by pop science writer Winifred Gallagher. Here’s the book in a nutshell:

  • Your life is the sum of what you focus on.
  • Recent science shows how finite a resource attention is.
  • Minimize involuntary, bottom up attention, which focuses on the novel and flashy; this served us well when tigers were a threat but not in a world of constant alerts and distractions from smart phones and the Internet.
  • Maximize deliberate, top down attention by choosing activities where you can achieve a flow-like state of intense focus – whether it’s writing a report, talking to a friend, or playing tennis.
  • With practice, you can achieve this state of “rapt” attention regularly, leading to a more productive, fulfilling life.

If you’ve done meditation or yoga, Gallagher’s emphasis on being present or in the moment will sound familiar.  So too if you’ve read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “flow” or any of a growing number of happiness and performance researchers.  What’s unique about Gallagher’s treatment is her diversity of sources (mostly contemporary scientists but also classical philosophers, psychologists, and novelists), her narrow focus on the subject of attention, and her ability to weave this topic through a wide range of applications: work, relationships, creativity, disorders, motivation, health, and religion.  I enjoyed the book overall.  Gallagher clearly did a ton of work reading and talking to experts in each of these areas, and drawing out their work’s relevance to attention.

That said, I found the writing to be, well, not the most attention-grabbing at times.   She spends too much time summarizing and quoting her sources, and not enough time synthesizing the research, presenting her views, and developing a unique voice of her own.  It sometimes feels too much like a series of interviews or book reports.  I also wanted to hear more of her practical suggestions for living a focused life.  Or maybe, as an attention-challenged person myself, I just wanted them presented in a more digestible way.

While I didn’t love the book, I still am very grateful to Gallagher because her findings and framework have helped me in some key ways, as I describe in my takeways article.  And I have yet to seriously what she presents as the most promising long-term tool to improve your ability to focus: regular meditation.  That’s on deck.

Do you have tips for improving concentration at work or elsewhere?  Please share them below.

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Melete SEO step 4: keyword research

Posted on March 9th, 2011 by John Nicholson

This is part 4 in a series of blog posts capturing our SEO makeover for the Melete Foundation.

Keyword research is the foundation of good SEO.  The goal of this step is to identify a list of 15-30 “target keywords” — phrases that people interested in your type of business are likely to search on and that you want to rank well on.  It is not a step to take lightly.  If you do mediocre keyword research, you’ll likely end up with a completely different list of target keywords than someone doing great keyword research.  Since a number of future steps in the optimization process rely heavily on this list, everything else will suffer as a result.

In Melete’s SEO kickoff meeting we spent about a half hour brainstorming keyword ideas, but that was just to provide us with a starting point.  Ben from Melete joined me at Affinity Lab for most of the official keyword research session, which lasted about 2 hours.  Here’s what we did:

1. Review Competitors.

As is often the case with non-profits and foundations, Melete doesn’t have any organizations they consider true competitors.  But there are groups doing similar things, and at the end of our kickoff meeting I asked the Melete team to come up with a list of them.  They later sent me a list of 8 similar, yet more established, organizations: Projects Abroad, i-to-i, CDS, CIS, Global Volunteer Network, Cross Cultural Solutions, World Teach, and CIEE.

2. Learn from Competitors’ SEO.

I quickly looked at all 8 sites and identified 4 that seemed to have done some SEO, by looking for keyword-rich title tags.  I focused in particular on 2 (Cross Cultural Solutions and CIEE).  By looking at title tags and home page content, I was able to add a number of new potential keywords to our starter list, such as: international community service, teach overseas, international volunteer travel, teach in [country], volunteer abroad, and fellowship program.  These were phrases that we’d missed with our initial brainstorm, and some of them, like “volunteer abroad,” opened up an entirely new set of words that would become part of our target list later on — and that we might have missed otherwise.  Competitor sites are a great way to fill in the gaps in your brainstorming before you start deep diving into keyword types.

3. Bucket Keywords.

Next Ben and I took the full list of keywords so far (brainstorm + competitor research) and broke it into similar-themed groups.  As is usually the case, there were multiple ways to slice and dice the list; for instance, “summer teacher exchange” could be in a “summer” group or in a “teacher” group.  In cases like that, we put them in both and then later narrowed down the list.  The final 5 groups were:

  • volunteer
  • cross-cultural
  • teach
  • community
  • other

Each bucket had an average of 5 keywords.

4. Pull Volumes and Expand Buckets.

With some initial structure in place, it was now time to turn to data to expand, improve, and eventually narrow down our list.  We went to Google’s keyword research tool and pasted in each bucket of keywords, one at a time.  Each time, Google spit back monthly search volumes for our words as well as a long list of related words.  We scanned through the keywords and, if there were obvious words that we should have included in the original buckets, we added those to the search box and reran the search.

Google keyword tool results

This allowed us to pick up an even wider range of variations.  Sometimes we redid the search a few times, sometimes only once.  Once we felt like we’d caught all the major words for that bucket, we then went through the search results, checked the ones that seemed like good matches, and exported those to a spreadsheet.  We did this for all 5 groups, using a separate tab for each.  See these in the last 5 tabs of our Melete Keywords doc.

5. Combine Buckets.

We then copied all keywords from each of the 5 tabs and pasted them in one sheet.  We ended up with about 80 keywords.  The next few steps are time intensive per keyword, so often I will narrow the list down at this point by search volume if the combined list is 100 or more (e.g. remove all keywords with search volume under 200 per month).  In this case, I decided to leave the list as it was because 80 is a manageable number and there weren’t obviously irrelevant words on the list.  See the full list of keywords on the first tab of our keywords doc.

6. Add Relevance Scores.

Volume is a great way to evaluate keywords, but there are 2 other critical factors: relevance and likelihood.  Of the 3 criteria, relevance is the only subjective one in the way we score it.  I define it as the “fit between site content/service and likely searchers’ intentions, relative to other keywords on list.”  Another way to think about it is, will most of the people doing this search stick around if they land on your site?  Scoring this is mostly a gut reaction, but it’s good to run some of the main types of searches to see what’s currently popping up on Google.  Sometimes we’re obvlious to completely different, equally popular meanings of search phrases (e.g. “paris hilton” the hotel vs. “paris hilton” the person).

Ben and I started by sorting our spreadsheet by keyword, to try to get similar keywords near each other.  Then we flew down the list and assigned a relevance score of 1 to 5 to each phrase, with 5 being the most relevant.  I entered a number and Ben shouted out if he disagreed.  After we had scores for all 50 keywords, we sorted by score to see where the distribution was skewed.  Since this is a relative score, and since we’re trying to prioritize keywords at the end of the process, we want a roughly even distribution.  So we adjusted some scores to even it out.  See our relevance scores in the first tab of our keywords doc.

7. Add Likelihood Data.

I define “likelihood” as “probability of achieving page 1 Google ranking after SEO, relative to other keywords on list.”  You could also call it “competitiveness.”  To score likelihood in an objective way, I use a great technique I learned from Jill Whalen: “allintitle” searches on Google, which tell you how many web pages have that phrase in their title tag.  Jill’s argument for using this technique is this: “Because title tags are given so much weight by Google, any page that is using the phrase in their title tag is at least rudimentarily optimized for the phrase, and is therefore one of those that you’re competing against.”

For Melete, I took each of the keywords on our list and entered them into a Google search using this convention: allintitle: “[keyword]”.  Then I took the number of results Google returned and entered that in my spreadsheet.  See the data I entered here, under the “Title Pages” column in the first tab.

8. Convert Volume and Likelihood Data Into Scores.

At this point we had data for all 3 criteria, but we needed to get volume and likelihood on the same 1-5 scale as relevance.  So we set up a legend for each on another tab, and then used a VLOOKUP function to convert them all into scores.  As with relevance, volume and likelihood are relative scores.  The scale doesn’t need to be a perfect reflection of actual values, and we want similar numbers in each group.  See the scoring legend and conversion formula I used here, under the Legend tab and the Volume and Likelihood columns in the first tab.

SEO keyword research screen shot 1

9. Total Scores.

Whew.  It’s been a lot of working getting here but now we enter the fun phase.  We added a “total” column and summed the 3 scores, and then ordered in descending order.

10. Identify Targets.

With total scores in place, it was finally time to identify our target keywords.  We added a “targets” column and assigned a 1, 2, or 3 to about 25 keywords total (5-10 of each number).  We could have just gone by the “total” column, and made the top total scores 1s and so on.  But it’s best to combine the scores with some human judgment, which we did.  See our final list along with all scores and tabs here.

Melete keyword research screen shot 2

Keyword research can be a grueling process.  The reward comes later when you’re optimizing the site and eventually analyzing your SEO results.  When you’ve done a thorough job with keyword research, you don’t waste time second-guessing and rechecking your keyword list throughout these later steps.  And of course the real reward comes when you see more high quality traffic coming to your site.  Hopefully we’ll see that soon for Melete.  But we’re not there yet.

Up next: content and tag optimization.

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Nielsen’s findings on college students and social media

Posted on March 4th, 2011 by John Nicholson

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen and team recently conducted a study on how college students use the Web.  There are a number of interesting takeaways from the research but the big one for me was that students aren’t as enraptured by social networking as most people think.

Yes, virtually all students keep one or more tabs permanently opened to social networking services like Facebook.  But that doesn’t mean they want everything to be social. Students associate Facebook and similar sites with private discussions, not with corporate marketing. When students want to learn about a company, university, government agency, or non-profit organization they turn to search engines to find that organization’s official website. They don’t look for the organization’s Facebook page. (emphasis added)