If you have been trading online for ten years or more, you will remember the early years of search engine optimisation. SEO was a new concept that promised to help your online store easily leap to the head of the pack and appear prominently on Google's search results. All you had to do is follow a few simple steps and hey presto! - instant results.
Fast-forward to the present day and things look very different. The process of trying to appear on the first page of Google has become an undignified scrum, with everyone trying to leap to the head of the pack at the same time. Relax for a moment and you'll see your site tumble down the rankings. Combine that with the increasing prominence of paid adverts on the results pages, and it's easy to understand why more and more businesses are giving up on trying to appear prominently on Google, and focussing on other methods of promotion.
So is it still worth it to spend time and money on search engine optimisation?
The answer to the question is a big 'YES'! The benefits of SEO go far beyond simply appearing high-up in the Google results. The principles of search engine optimisation are the same as the principles of high quality web design, and consequently there are a huge number of benefits to it that you might not realise at first.
Page titles are used to create the link to your site in search result pages. Not only that, but page titles have a massive weighting in all the search engine algorithms, meaning they are the main tool you use to tell Google what each page contains.
But page titles have a use beyond just SEO. If you have a button on your pages for people to 'Like' your page on Facebook, or 'Tweet' your page on Twitter, then the page title will be used to create the link to your site on social media. In this way, page titles become the main 'name' for the item that's being shared, so you need to make sure that it's descriptive, accurate and helpful - otherwise people will see the shared link and not know what to do with it. Don't just cram the page title full of keywords or it will look like spam. You've generally got around 60 characters to play with so make it clear, descriptive and informative as you can.
Every page in your site needs to have a block of high quality text near the top which describes the content of the page, and provides a sales pitch. On product pages, this will be your product description, but on pages where you've just got a list of products or sections, consider adding a fragment that will introduce that page.
Text blocks like this are useful from an SEO point of view as search engines are very good at identifying the 'key content' on each page, i.e. the content that is unique to each page. If you make sure that your introductory block of text includes the sort of words and phrases that you think people might be searching on, then you will definitely increase the chances of your page ranking well for your chosen terms.
More than that, however, this block of high-quality text is your best chance at telling your human visitors that they are on a useful page. Without this text in a prominent place, your visitors may struggle to tell what the page is about, and quickly lose interest. And if you make the page sound really useful and interesting, you have a much better chance of that page being shared via social media.
Search engines like websites to be made of good quality HTML and CSS so they can easily sift through the random bits and pieces of headers and navigation in order to find the 'meat' of each page - the unique content. If your site is a few years old, and has had lots of changes over time, it could be that you have some HTML errors that will cause Google to trip up as it tries to identify the key content on each page.
Sometimes the best (and cheapest) approach to sort out your HTML is to do a complete design refresh, where your site will be designed from the ground up to work well with search engines.
As well as being good for search engines, an up-to-date design will increase the confidence of potential shoppers. And if you are doing a redesign anyway, why not take the plunge and go for a responsive design that will look equally good on smartphones as well as desktop computers?
By improving the quality of your website titles, content and design, not only will you increase the chances of your site ranking well, but you will also increase the chances of people taking your site seriously, sharing your pages and going on to place orders. The core principles of SEO are the same as the core principles of effective website design, so don't give up on it.