UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Hey, Hey, We’re … In The Charts Again!

Posted by Brian Kelly on 9 Nov 2007

The Background

I was asked recently to advise a colleague at the University of Bath on how to raise the Google ranking of some Web pages. “Should I go to an SEO company?” was the question I was asked. A similar question was asked recently on the JISCMail website-info mgt list: “Can anyone recommend a training provider for Search Engine Optimisation and / or Search Engine advertising training?

My response to such questions has always been that there is no silver bullet to getting into the first page of Google search results – if there were, the bad guys (the porn companies, for example, or the estate agents) would exploit such techniques. Rather, I suggested, you should follow well-established best practices for Web sites – have a static URI, ensure that it is persistent, that the page complies with HTML standards, that content is given as text and not in images and encourage people to link to it. These simple techniques can help to ensure that your pages are Google-friendly.

Getting Into The Top Google Hits

When I sent the email I remembered that I’d recently given a talk, and subsequently discovered that the title of the talk was near the the top of the Google search results. Revisiting the search query, I found that pages related to my talk at the Inspiring The iGeneration event on Web 2.0 for young people on “We’re The Young Generation And We’ve Got Something To Say” now occupy the top four places.

Google Search Results for We're The Young Generation

The title of this talk, incidentally, I used after Ian Watson reminded me in March that I’d used this song title as a metaphor for young people providing user-generated content at the AUKML conference last year.


So it is possible to get your pages into the top set of results in Google without paying a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) company a lot of money. But what relevance does this have to the organisation which wants to market its services: for example a university which wants to promote its courses (for a search of ‘top university Computer Science degree’) or facilities (‘conference facilities in beautiful city’) ahead of its rivals (the University of Bath provided an excellent location for the IWMW 2006 event, but the University of York, another beautiful city, did likewise for IWMW 2007. I’m sure Bath would like to be ahead of its rival in the search engines).

My findings were based on a series of words which would be in wide use on the Web (music sites, song lyrics, etc.) This then is similar to ‘conference facilities in beautiful city’ – which has 1,940,000 results, led by the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh.

The Web sites I used which were found in the top four results where the page on the UKOLN Web site (HTML page and PowerPoint presentation), a post on this blog (hosted on and the slides for the talk, which were hosted on The UKOLN Web site I can understand (it has been in existence since about 1993, I think, and has static and relatively stable URI. The prominence of the two Web 2.0 services I found very interesting. Although they haven’t been around as long, they both provide clean URIs and both services are popular and are likely to have many inbound links to them – which will enhance their Google ranking.

So what would my advice be to the conference office? Create some slides about the conference facilities you provide and upload them to Slideshare, making sure that you provide metadata containing the words you might expect people to search for and add a link back to your Web site. In addition set up a blog, perhaps providing updates about the events you are organising. And if you want to enhance the Google ranking, ensure that you use a popular blogging services (such as WordPress or Blogger) – as hosting it on your own site is unlikely to boost the Google ranking.

Of course, as well as this advice being relevant to the business sectors of our institutions, the approaches I’ve described can also be used to help project Web sites to be more easily found. It’s interesting, I feel, that the approaches to making your content more easy to find in a Google world rely on hosting your content on a variety of popular sites, rather than hosting the content centrally – especially on a Web site which is not widely linked to from other sites.

Ethical Issues

Is this a desirable approach, some may wonder? Is it ethical? Could the success with “We’re The Young Generation” be regarded as spam for people who are searching for information about the Monkees’ song? That’s for you to decide (in this case I would argue that we shouldn’t resort to using unambiguous factual titles for our content, as this would be boring).

And if I were evil I would suggest that it would be an interesting experiment to see if you could replace Edinburgh and Cambridge in the top Google places for a search for ‘conference facilities in beautiful city‘ ith your own city. But, as I know people in both of these prestigious institutions, I couldn’t possibly encourage people to take part in such an interesting experiment …

And if you are seriously concerned about such ethical issues, perhaps you should pay an SEO company to do the job for you – the money they get will help to ease the guilt they may feel.

8 Responses to “Hey, Hey, We’re … In The Charts Again!”

  1. My feeling too is that there is no silver bullet. Unfortunately, many people believe there is and SEO companies have whole marketing departments encouraging the belief that they are that bullet. It can be difficult for institutional Web people to get their message through.

    I quible with some of your example search terms. Looking at Google Analytics, our terms are either extremely specific: “university of leicester fees” (we should get somewhere near to top for this!) or general: “distance learning mba”. We might expect and hope for more sophisticated searching, but I don’t see any evidence that people we want to find us are using terms such as “conference facilities in beautiful city” or “top university Computer Science degree”. If they’re not, then testing SEO with such terms is likely to be wasted effort.

  2. Hi Stephen
    Thanks for the response.
    I perhaps should have qualified saying “there is no silver bullet” and said there is no silver bullet for sustained high rankings in Google. I can recall at one stage the UKOLN Web site being in the top 3 hits for “good pubs in Glasgow” – this was at the time of the IWMW event at the University of Strathclyde, and the page about social events contained those words. I don’t think we’d feature in the top Google rankings any more.

    It would be unkind of me to suggest reasons why you might not be found using a search term of ‘beautiful city’ (I used to work at Loughborough University and enjoyed my time in the East Midlands).

    However I’m sure there are other institutions who would like to be above you in searches for ‘distance learning mba’. So perhaps that might be a better example to use in a home-grown experiment, without having to pay an SEO company.

  3. Tim Beadle said

    Your approach sounds sensible, Brian. If you want more info., you could do worse than Steve Johnston’s eBook, 50 Ways to make Google love your website, only £19.99. Oh, and he’s relatively local – Bradford-on-Avon.

  4. Janet McKnight said

    Could the success with “We’re The Young Generation” be regarded as spam for people who are searching for information about the Monkees’ song?

    Surely no more so than calling a company “Apple” could be regarded as spam for people who are searching for information about the fruit! :-)

    it would be an interesting experiment to see if you could replace Edinburgh and Cambridge in the top Google places […]

    … and if anybody wants inspiration for similar “interesting experiments”, they could do worse than starting here:

  5. conference facilities in beautiful city

    Given that the top result in Google only has a pagerank of 4, replacing the current results wouldn’t be hard with a well built page and some link building. As you say, a well built page is pretty much according to modern web standards, though you can tweak a fair bit within that for optimal results. There are a variety of factors involved, though they fluctuate as Google tweaks their algorithm. Who links to you is still the key thing.

    As others point out though, does anybody actually search for that term? You can actually research this with Google’s adwords keywords tools, which will give you relative popularity of a search term and similar terms.

  6. Hi Matt
    My post wasn’t meant to be about search engine optimisation for a particular expression, but about SEO techniques and the associated issues and implications.

    Thinking about the point you made about identifying terms with low pagerank values, which would be relatively easy to beat makes me wonder if that is a technique used by SEO companies to beguile unsuspecting marketing departments – “We’ve got you into the number 1 position for ‘conference facilities in beautiful city’ – can we have out fee please”?

    Perhaps this discussion should help inform people who are still intending to procure the services of an SEO company?

  7. Hi Brian, slight cross-purpose posting then, my intent was to show quite how easy that kind of optimisation could be.

  8. Tony Hirst said

    There are simple things anyone can do to improve the findability of their web pages. E.g.

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