Totally off topic: About your small business site or blog, and getting it noticed - what not to do

This has nothing at all to do with Japan, or food, or anything else that I normally write about here. But I am putting it on this site in the off chance that it will be read by regular folk. That is, people who just happened to land here, looking for a recipe perhaps. It's not for web designers or developers or people who built stuff for the web. And it's certainly not for so-called "SEO experts".

But I just couldn't take it anymore.

(What is SEO, you ask? It's an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. We'll get to that later.)

Why can I tell you about these things?

I am not an 'SEO expert', and I am no longer a web designer. So why listen to me?

I run two fairly successful blogs. They are both 'niche' blogs as they say in the website-creating world - they each concentrate on a fairly narrow topic. The one you are reading now, Just Hungry, mainly focuses on Japanese home cooking, though I do allow myself to stray from that topic a bit. It's about 80% Japanese food and Japan-related stuff, 20% other things, mostly of a personal nature. My other blog, JustBento has an even narrower focus: compact portable meals, aka bento boxes. I suppose neither topic is going to gather a huge audience, but I am very happy with the number of visitors I get on both.

Both have great positions on Google searches, for the terms that people are likely to use when looking for what's on them. If you search for 'bento recipes' for example, JustBento is at or near the top. If you search for 'Japanese home cooking' or 'Japanese recipes', the same applies for this site.

What's more, I built both of the sites myself. I am my own web designer, developer and SEO person. While I do get a wee bit of help from my husband (aka The Guy) he's not really a web person (he develops programs for other platforms, not browsers) so I do 99% of the brunt work. What's more, in my previous life, before I became a full time writer, I was a web designer. Heck, my Amazon Author Profile page may be the only one that lists a cookbook and a CSS/Javascript book! (Those are website-building-techie things, just in case.) At heart, I'm still a web geek. So I think I have a pretty good idea of what to do and what not to do.

Comment spam, aka inserting your site links into comments

Every day, I spend a good amount of time going through the comments on both sites. A large number of comments have links to other sites in them. Most such comments get flagged and dumped automatically by the blogging software. You can imagine what those are - links to sites selling v**gra, sex sites, hair loss treatments, dodgy diet pills, and the like. However, a number of other comments containing links to get through. Most such links are to what look like legitimate business sites. Recently there have been links to things like a site for a company that makes custom iron gates in Arizona, a doctor's office in California, and a furniture company in the UK. And there are always lots of links to 'web design company' sites and various blogs. All not related in any way to the subjects Just Hungry and JustBento cover. (Note: I do allow some links to be published if the subject is related; however, I don't allow blatant 'advertising' links. If you're posting about your Japanese learning site on an article about how to make tofu, that's advertising.)

I'm here to tell you, such links do not work. They do not work. If you hired a web designer or other 'expert' who told you they do work, they are lying to you, or they have no clue. There are no widely recognized, certified credentials needed to call onesself a 'web designer' or an 'SEO expert'. If you are getting charged for dodgy practices that are supposed to raise your site's visibility in the eyes of Google and other search engines, you may be getting ripped off.

Why don't comment links work? For one thing, sites such as mine that hold all comments in a moderation queue will not even publish them. So no one will get to see them.

"But", you may be saying, "there are plenty of other sites that do publish these comments". Well, if a site's comment section is neglected enough to allow all such links to pass through, your site link is probably mixed in with the ones for [insert popular medication name here] or fake [insert Swiss watch maker name here] watches and Hot [insert your favorite nationality/ethnicity/age here] Girls. It's like moving your storefront into the seediest part of town. Would you want your lovely custom staircase company next to a peep show parlor?

But some sites do a half-hearted job of screening the most obvious links, mainly with automated screening solutions, so the medical/x-rated stuff gets dumped. So then, you might think your link will get noticed by the search engines. Wrong! All modern blogging and content management systems (most blogs and many other sites are built using one of these) have a system where links in comments are automatically tagged like so:

rel="nofollow"

What that little tag means to search engines is that the link in question should not be 'voted up', so to speak. Google rankings are largely based on how many incoming links there are to a site for a particular search term, so 'link juice' as its called, legitimate links from other sites to your, are very valuable. But if all your comment-links get tagged with that nofollow, it's useless.

Morever, savvy internet users are absolutely sick and tired of internet spam, whether it's in their email, their Twitter streams, or on the websites they read. So if they see your site linked to in such a manner, they are both very likely to even click on it, and to think much the worse of you.

I know that it's very hard to get attention on the web, and how anxious you might be to get noticed. But there's a wrong way and a right way. Don't waste your time and money doing it the wrong way.

A couple of more don'ts besides comment spamming

  • Do not write to an established blog (or other site) asking for a 'linkback' or 'link exchange'. I hate those and most other blog owners do too. If we really like your site organically, we may link to you, but if you push it we will ignore you. (This may sound arrogant, but it's the truth.)
  • A recent tactic is asking if you can write a guest post for a site, in which you will include links to your site. You should check first to see if the site you're writing to even accepts guest posts. (Mine do not, unless I put out a specific call for them - and the last time I did that was on JustBento about 3 years ago. Just Hungry has never had a guest post.) Morever, if your site's subject matter is totally unrelated to the site you're writing to, forget it. (A warning for new blog owners: be very wary of accepting such 'guest post' requests. The requester is only in it for the link juice.)

A very short list of the right ways to do it

In closing, here's just a very short list of the right ways to get more attention:

  • Make sure your site is clear about what it is selling/what the subject matter is. This information should be in text, and displayed prominently on your site.
  • The most important page on your site is the home or front page. If you have a flashy Flash 'entry page' that has not been appropriately text-optimized, you are making your site harder to find. If your web designer proposes a Flash- or graphic-only entry page, fire them. (I'm talking to you, restaurant site owners!)
  • A site that is frequently updated has a better chance to get search engine attention. If you have the time, incorporating a blog on your site, that you update regularly, can be a way to fairly painlessly keep your site fresh.
  • Making comments on other blogs can work - but make sure you are making relevant comments not just there to plug your site/blog. Then, casually include a link to your site. If it looks like you know what you are talking about, and the subject matter of your site is somehow related the site where you're commenting, chances are you will get more eyeballs on your site from that.
  • Read Search Engine Watch and educate yourself.

So, that's it for this special announcement. Now back to your regular programming in the next post!

Addendum: For food bloggers (or any blogger), especially if you are just starting out

Food Blog Alliance is a site by and for food bloggers, about the ins and outs of running a food theme blog. The articles are written by experienced food bloggers, some who have have had successful, even profitable, food blogs for years. There are plenty of tips there that pertain to general blogging too, so it's well worth checking out. (I have a couple of articles there: Startup costs for a food blog is a bit outdated but still viable, and Welcome visitors to your blog with an About page is still pertinent.)

(A bit of history: Back when I was a working web designers, I used to use Just Hungry to test out various search engine theories and such. Some worked, some definitely did not. It was very educational to see how things worked in on a real, live site. But now that Just Hungry is an important part of my writing business, it's no longer an SEO guinea pig.)

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