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We designed our studio; it's filled with light and music. There are multiple meeting rooms, a well stocked kitchen, and an indoor garden (with fishpond). Pop-in for tea and stay to use a spare desk for as long as you need.

11 Greenwich Centre Business Park,
53 Norman Road, Greenwich
London SE10 9QF

Cog is a Certified B Corporation

Public transport

We’re next to Greenwich train and DLR station. We have a door right on the concourse but it’s different to our postal address.

From Greenwich rail platform

This video shows the route to take from the train that will arrive at Greenwich rail station from London Bridge.

From Greenwich DLR station

This video shows the route to take from the DLR that will arrive at Greenwich DLR station from Bank.

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11 Greenwich Centre Business Park,
53 Norman Road, Greenwich
London SE10 9QF

Cog is a Certified B Corporation

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SEO in the cultural sector

SEO in the cultural sector

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is important to any cultural sector organisation. But I can imagine it is an especially daunting topic to over-stretched arts marketing teams. 

In this article I’ll give an overview of the topic and provide some tips on how to make some simple changes with big results.

I start with some definitions: What is SEO? / How do search engines work?

Then work through the key topics that affect SEO: KeywordsContent / Visual content / Clean URLs, title tags and meta descriptions / Links and backlinks / Structure (information architecture) / Accessibility / Speed / Security / Works on any device.

And finally, the big question: Should you do SEO?

Grab a cup of tea and settle in, it’s a long read …

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the process of making your site more attractive to search engines. The term ‘engine’ is a far from perfect metaphor for what are very sophisticated algorithms that sort, rank and return the results when we type in a search.

Those algorithms are (now) really good at finding relevant web pages. Their focus is on audiences and what they want from each search. So the best performing websites start from that simple principle – they focus on exceptional content and the ways that search engines can find it.

Organic (versus paid)

Google uses (and everyone else has followed) the term ‘organic’ to mean the ways people look for and find results via a search. Organic is different to ‘paid-for’ placement, where you might buy the space at the top of a results page. In this article I am referring to ‘organic’. We can cover PPC (pay per click) and other advertising another time.

How do search engines work?

Search engines are interested in two elements, in this order …

  1. Content
    How relevant, interesting and authoritative your content will be to the person searching.
  2. Structure
    How easy it is for people (and search engines) to find the relevant content.

The Google algorithm

I’m old enough to remember when there used to be lots of different lists of sites and multiple search engines: Ask Jeeves, AltaVista, Lycos, Excite and more.

Then the founders of Google created a killer algorithm that ranked pages and ‘back-link’ connections, and sorted searches via the scores. Almost overnight, Google became the only search engine worth using.

Actually there are reasons why you might want to use another search engine such as Duck Duck Go or Ecosia – I’ll write about those another time. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume that we’re talking about the +92% of users currently searching via Google in the UK (Bing 5% and Yahoo! still have about 1.5%).

An old Apple Mac G3 displays the original Google search screen at Stanford University.

From relatively simple (but very clever) origins, Google now uses multiple algorithms (mathematical, problem-solving equations) and machine-learning to rank its scores, and artificial intelligence to analyse searches and retrieve results. We all still refer to this collection of cleverness as ‘the Google algorithm’.

The specifics of the algorithm are closely guarded and are constantly tweaked and updated – sometimes in secret, sometimes to great fanfare. For instance, it was a big deal when Google announced that they would be ranking sites mobile-first.

Google state that they consider these key factors when delivering search results:

  • Meaning – what the user intends by their search
  • Relevance – results must be relevant to the search
  • Quality – results are ranked in terms of quality of content
  • Usability – the pages are scored for accessibility, readability, safety, etc
  • Context – the user’s location, settings, and history of searches are all considered.

Google RankBrain

RankBrain is a part of Google’s algorithm that uses machine learning. It is used to judge meaning and understand the intention of each search, and then how they interact with the results.

For instance – if I search for ‘where to play Glass Onion’, Google knows I want to listen to the Beatles track. But if I search ‘where is playing Glass Onion?’ it knows I am looking for the film ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ (and tells me times at my most convenient cinemas).

Search Quality Raters

Google also employ actual humans, called Search Quality Raters who rank pages and searches based on strict criteria (that are published online). They are mostly focused on YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) pages, pages that can affect “the future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety of users”.

The process the search engines uses

Search engines follow these four basic steps, in this order:

  1. Crawling
    Search engines use tiny programs (called crawlers or bots) to follow links and discover new pages and updated content. They move from page to page, link to link, across the web. You or your web agency can choose to allow or block the bots (for instance, we would block all bots while a new site is in development).
  2. Indexing
    All of the crawled data is collected and indexed. Search engines categorise, order and catalogue the content so they can retrieve it more easily. By using the index (rather than searching all of the internet) the search is much faster, but the data can be old; it can take hours, days or weeks for the bots to crawl your content and update the indexes. There are a few tricks you, or we, can use to hurry up the process but you can’t force it.
  3. Ranking
    When someone searches, the search engine uses its algorithm to make a judgement about what they are looking for and sends a query to its index to retrieve the best results. It then uses its algorithm to order the data it retrieves.
  4. Search results
    Based on the context of the search, the search engine then chooses the order and the visual presentation of those results. The list of the results is known as a SERP (Search Engines Results Page).

Keywords

I’m starting with keywords because they are the cornerstone of what lots of people (especially commercially-focused SEO agencies) consider important to SEO. You need to decide how important they are in the mix for your cultural sector site.

The principle is simple: lots of people are looking for stuff on the internet. People who are looking for your stuff are likely to use certain keywords in their searches. If your site matches those (and meets all the other SEO criteria) then they are more likely to find you.

The reality is more complex because Google’s algorithm is really smart and is using so much more data than just keywords.

People can find you already

If the main search term that your audiences use is the full name of your venue then Google will already rank you at the top (or very close). For instance if your venue were called ‘The Greenwich Arts Emporium’ then Google would almost certainly rank you top if anyone searches for “where is Greenwich Arts Emporium?”, assuming they are based in or near the UK.

But if you want to expand your audience or want to compete against others then keywords start to be more relevant. For instance you’ll have to work harder to rank highly for ‘fun places to go in Greenwich’ or ‘find workshops for my child in London during October half term’. Although, if your website is full of those activities then it’s likely that the Google algorithm will rank you highly.

How do I choose keywords?

If you decide to invest time in keywords then you need to think about your target audiences and the sorts of searches they will be making, and then use those words in your page titles, meta descriptions and the rest of the content.

You can look in your analytics to see what terms people are currently using to find you. But you might be better served by thinking more laterally and asking some friends to search for your targeted content via Google.

Ask them what they typed then replicate that. As you start typing, Google will auto-complete your search with its most popular searches…

You might also look at the Related searches at the bottom of the results page for clues about what other sites those users are interested in.

Be a little bit cautious because Google also remembers your previous searches. You should clear your search history and use an incognito window before trying this.

Try following each of those searches to see how well you currently rank, how well your competitors rank and the types of pages that Google consider the most relevant. Then learn from those things.

What about long-tail keywords?

You might also consider long-tail keywords (a fancy term for phrases with more words).

They are useful to consider because that exact phrase might perfectly summarise your offering. For instance, if you are hosting an ice-rink that has stunning views of the city then maybe ‘best views from an ice-rink in Sheffield’ would be good long-tail keywords. If you use that term in key places on your site then that might secure you great targeted results.

Don’t bother with LSI keywords

I’ve read lots of SEO ‘experts’ writing about LSI (Latent semantic indexing).

They are wrong. Google do not use LSI to rank your pages. Anyone who tells you they do is misinformed. You really don’t need to know much more but here’s a bit of extra information in case a board member suggests you should be using it …

Latent semantic analysis (LSA) was developed in the 1980s. It uses an algorithm to measure the frequency of certain words and their synonyms to compare different pieces of writing. There is an often-believed myth that if you take a page that has good SEO, pull out all of the keywords and synonyms and then reorder them in your own way, then your page will rank just as highly. Maybe that used to be the case (Google won’t say) but they do say that it isn’t the case now.

LSA is really useful for checking that someone hasn’t copied an essay, or for blocking spam. But Google do not use it in their algorithm.

Do bother with synonyms

Just because LSI isn’t useful doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired by how other people write and rank highly. Google’s algorithm does recognise synonyms as well as the exact match to search terms.

For instance, if someone searches for ‘West End show’, they will probably also get results for ‘West End theatre’ and ‘theatrical West End performance’.

Content

Relevant, authoritative content is the number one factor in SEO. Add to that the need for other sites to find, appreciate and backlink to that content, and for the site to function well, and you have most of your SEO covered.

The tricky extra factor for arts organisations is that the most popular content tends to be on events pages that have short lifespans. As soon as the page is gone, so is the value of the SEO you had generated.

Here are some sensible tactics you can employ to tackle that.

  • Create pages with ‘evergreen’ content and keep them updated, fresh and relevant.
  • Ask people to link to those pages (see Links & backlinks for more details) instead of event pages.
  • Consider adding specific ‘landing’ pages for genres. Pre-filtered content on its own page, with a specific URL, is much more focused than a full ‘What’s On’ listing (you should have that too, of course).
  • Consider adding ‘evergreen’ content on those landing pages. A short introduction to the page will give you a chance to give context and include the kinds of words people might be searching for.
  • Create compelling articles that attract broad audiences that people want to link to. A really great blog can provide this.
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's blog: creating content for first-timers, engaging audiences with musicians and publishing guest reviews. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's blog: creating content for first-timers, engaging audiences with musicians and publishing guest reviews.

Write in ways that people want to read

In researching this article I have seen lots of people advise others to ‘write naturally’. I don’t know what that means. Writing isn’t natural. It’s always different to speech.

Whatever you write, there are conventions to follow. Writing for a website is different to an email of complaint, and to a WhatsApp message, and to an academic essay.

So my advice is (to pretty much everything in life) – decide what you want to say, consider your audience, and tailor that stuff for those people.

People aren’t coming to your website to read long academic texts. Even when you are writing an in-depth article, very few people sit down and read an online piece from beginning to end, even long, fascinating articles about SEO.

Text is glanced at by visitors, people dip in and out, often on a small screen with multiple distractions around them.

Here are a few of our tips on how to write for your site.

  • Imagine your audience reading your words
    The best way to understand how to reach your audiences is to be empathetic. Imagine what it’s like trying to book a ticket for a show, in a hurry on a train; or wanting to do research for an article; or applying for a job on a lunch break. Where are they? What kind of device are they using? How much detail do they need?
  • Keep it short
    Forget what you know about sentences and paragraphs. Write snappy, punchy clauses and add breaks and spaces. Twenty words is a long sentence on a website. Short words are always better than long ones. Short sentences are better than long ones. 
  • Use visual hooks
    People will scroll through looking for the relevant bit to them. Give them plenty of visual hooks – headings, lists, quotes, diagrams, photos etc
  • Show and tell
    Use images to show what you mean and back that up with the words you use. Assume that people will scan an article and then read into the detail.
  • Start with the end
    Most visitors just want to skim content so tell them all they need to know in the opening paragraph or summary. Then add detail for the smaller number of people who want to delve deeper.
  • Use everyday English
    Jargon, acronyms and arts-speak have their place but make sure you keep them to that place. If there’s a more accessible way of writing something then write it like that. Don’t dumb-down but do be clear. Replace unfamiliar words with more common ones. Don’t use a Latin phrase if an everyday English phrase will work.
  • Adopt a personality
    Remember you are not writing from you, you are writing from your organisation. Write in that tone-of-voice. If you have a house-style or existing guidance then follow it. But if it was written to help with press-releases and funding applications then remember to adapt it to suit your website audience.
  • Avoid repetition
    Repetition is a powerful tool in winning an argument or making a speech. But it’s usually a waste of space on your web pages.
  • Always consider search engines
    It’s not only real people who are reading your site, so are search engine algorithms. Do use the keywords and phrases that you want them to pick up but only within a relevant context. Write insightful engaging text that people will want to read. That’s what the algorithms are trained to spot.
  • Edit online
    It can be easier to edit content once it’s in the site and you can see how it works on the page. Review it, review it again, then ask someone else to objectively review it for you. Do remember, you can edit it again after it’s been published. Google likes to see that.

The Government’s website has a great approach to creating content for the broadest possible audience and they have published excellent advice of how best to replicate that on your site.

Visual content

Lots of people concentrate their SEO efforts entirely on text, but images are also important, both to your users’ experience and directly to the bots that are judging your site.

Visual content can have a huge impact on factors such as the page load speed, accessibility, responsiveness on different devices, and on the ways that your users comprehend and navigate your site. All are important to the Google algorithm.

This is especially important to consider in the cultural sector where audiences expect the impact of full screen photography, video and the sophistication of moving visual elements throughout.

Use unique images

We know that generating imagery takes time and money. It can be tempting to use stock images (from libraries of pre-prepared images) – we do it ourselves, sometimes. But there is no substitute for good quality original images.

Photo by Luke Southern on Unsplash Photo by Luke Southern on Unsplash
Illustration by Dale Crosby Close Illustration by Dale Crosby Close

Let’s say you want to have a picture at the top of your ‘contact us’ page. You could get a generic photo of an old-fashioned telephone but is that really sending the right message about your organisation? Wouldn’t it be better to use an image that better conveys your personality?

If you have to use a stock photo, choose an interesting, appropriate one.

And remember that Google has powerful image recognition so it knows that the telephone image is used on thousands of other sites. And it’ll downgrade you for that.

Google search results page shows a long list of results, each displaying the same image of a telephone with different crops

If you do need to use stock photography then consider using images that reflect the make-up of your local population. Use images featuring people of colour, of people with disabilities, of people with different body shapes, of openly trans people. There are a wide variety of sources to choose from.

Optimise, compress and choose the right file type for images

1. Optimise

Large images (and hefty video files) are one of the most common issues causing slow page loading (see further down this article for more information about page load speeds).

Design is obviously a factor. Most of our clients need high-impact, full screen imagery and plenty of it. That will inevitably mean larger files sizes and slower loading. It’s a pragmatic compromise that we revisit on a site-by-site basis. Using still images instead of video, or illustrations instead of photography can give you opportunities to dramatically decrease the file sizes and load speed.

It’s important that your site is set up to deliver images optimised for the size they’ll appear on screens. An image might need to be huge to display on a desktop screen but it doesn’t need to be a huge file when viewed on a mobile screen, you need to deliver a smaller version for that use (and medium sized versions for tablets and laptops). Speak to your web developer and find out if that’s how your site works. If it isn’t, get them to update it.

Optimisation makes the site faster and that means it’s using less energy.

2. Compress before uploading

It is also important, from an energy use and sustainability perspective, to resize and compress images before you upload them. We’ve written about compressing images for your website elsewhere.

  • Choose the right file type
    Choosing the correct file type can produce much sharper results and much smaller file sizes. If you need help with any of this we’re at the end of the phone or email to provide advice or practical assistance.
    JPEG – perfect for photos and some logos
    PNG – line drawings, screenshots, images that contain text, and most logos
    GIF – animated images
    SVG* – logos, icons, simple illustrations
  • Consider ‘Next-gen’ formats
    The new generation of image compression and file types are designed to save resources – WebP, JPEG 2000 and JPEG XR. They work brilliantly on most (but not all) web browsers. These file types are usually generated ‘on the fly’ by your website set-up after you have uploaded a conventional image. You’ll need a web developer to help set that up.
  • Consider lazy loading
    Waiting for everything to load on a long page (even the images that aren’t visible when people first land on a screen) can take time. So you can choose to load content incrementally, or as people scroll down. This is a huge topic in itself. There’s a great article about lazy loading on the imagekit site. You can also delay the loading of other elements, we’ll mention that later.

*SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is a brilliant, relatively new file format that uses code to ‘describe’ how to render an image rather than mapping out the pixels. They can be used to create high quality at very small file sizes. We use them a lot but we don’t usually allow our clients to upload SVGs because there is potential for them to contain malicious code.

Use alt tags (correctly)

Alternative text (contained in what is known as an ‘alt tag’) is a way to attach a description that can be read independently of the image. It’s a vital part of making your site accessible to people who are using assistive technology (or have images turned off).

Accessibility is an important topic in itself; it’s especially important in the cultural sector where it is such a hot topic with audiences and funders. It’s also important to SEO; Google gives higher rankings to accessible sites. There’s more about that, later in this article.

The text in alt tags can also be read by the bots so you may decide to be diligent about the words you use from that perspective too. However, do not be tempted to stuff alt text with key words. It’s not useful to your audiences and Google definitely frown on that.

Your content management system should be set up to easily allow you to add alt text. If not, chat with your web developer to sort that out.

I’m planning to write more about how to us alt tags in more a more detailed article. For now, here are some key bullet points:

  • Write short, descriptive captions in everyday English.
  • Describe the context (think about why the image is being used) as much as the detail.
  • Don’t add alt text to images that are just there for decoration.

Name and label your image files

As well as alt text, Google can see your image file names so use that to your advantage. Give your images meaningful names (not just a string of numbers) so the bots can find and retrieve them. It’ll also make it much simpler to find your image when you search for your images in your computer files and online media library.

Caption your images

Finally, think about the captions you use. If your website is set up to display captions on or near the images then use that space to enhance your communication. Give context and further explain what people can see, name the people in the photo, include the photographer’s credit. It’s all useful to your visitors which in turn will enhance your SEO.

What about image metadata?

Images can also contain hidden information called metadata – such as where and when a photo was taken, what camera and which settings, the copyright of the photographer or photo library and much more.

Google don’t use metadata to inform SEO although they reserve the right to read it.

The metadata can add significantly to the overall size of the file so you might choose to strip it out by default (you’ll need image editing software like Adobe Photoshop to do that) and, instead, use methods such as adding a text caption on the site to convey the copyright description for the image.

We reserve the right to [use image metadata]. We can parse the data and we have displayed it at one time or another in search results… You should use it if it is available, but don’t go out of your way to add it retrospectively. We might use it. We might not.
Matt Cutts at Google in 2014

Clean URLs, title tags and meta descriptions

Clean URLs

URL stands for ‘unique resource location’. Think of it as the unique ‘address’ of each page (or anchor point, or downloadable document, or many other ‘resources); it’s what appears in the top bar of your internet browser.

Clean URLs are ones written in clear English rather than computer code.

URLs are automatically generated, the structure is the path that a computer needs to follow to find that page. Your web developers can help to either restructure the content so that path is automatically ‘clean’, or provide options to overwrite more complex URLs with human-friendly alternatives.

Compare the two URLs above. They point to the same film on different websites. The top example is an automatically generated clean URL, the second displays the more complex path generated by a database search.

It’s important to have clean URLs because:

  • They make sense to humans. We all respond better to words we can understand and get suspicious when a string of code appears in our web browsers.
  • People are more likely to share links if they describe what they link to… nobody wants to accidentally share a bogus link.
  • When people do share, that ‘anchor text’ counts towards your SEO rankings.
  • People are more likely to click a link if they understand where it will take them.

Title tags and meta descriptions

These are bits of code (using HyperText Markup Language or HTML) that convey the title and description of the page. That code is picked up in different scenarios for different purposes.

Relevant, in our case, they are used by search engines and are displayed in search results pages, and can be pulled through when someone adds a link in a social media post (including platforms like Slack and WhatsApp).

You should be able to add and edit Titles and meta descriptions within your content management system.

It is therefore important to think about their content and structure from that perspective. Here are some tips:

  • Keep your title tag short
    Remember that people scan the results so you have a fraction of a second to grab their attention. Display sizes vary but 50 – 60 characters (including space) is about the maximum that will be displayed.
  • Make every word count in the meta description
    In theory, meta descriptions can be any length. But Google will only show as much as will fit in their display area. 155-160 characters is probably the useful limit. That’s not much more than an old fashioned Tweet (before they doubled their length).
  • Write meta descriptions in short sentences
    Google is looking for natural writing and regular syntax. Don’t be tempted to just write a list of the key words; that’s not what people want to read and so Google is less likely to display it.
  • Include key words (maybe)
    If you are focusing on specific keywords then do include them in both the title tag and meta description. But be sensible and don’t force it; Google hates a forcer.

Featured snippets (position zero)

If Google feels that your page provides the definitive answer to a question, or the perfect match to a search, then they can feature it in a highlighted box (like the one above).

A Google search results page show a panel headed: Get in touch, above four numbered sections for the About page on the Cog Design websiteSometimes called ‘position zero’, this result displays above the usual top 10 results.
Google can display three types of feature result:

  • Paragraph – usually a direct answer to a posed questions
  • List – often a step-by-step how-to or a recipe (but not in the result above)
  • Table – usually charts, data tables, etc.

SEO agencies can obsess about being in position zero. They use keyword searches and investigate regular questions so they can write meta descriptions tailored to them. They rarely work. By all means try but there are no guarantees; your resources could probably be better invested elsewhere.

Links and backlinks

Links are ways to connect one page to another. Strictly speaking they are called ‘hyperlinks’ which was a much more fun term, but the internet has become more serious and people don’t really use that term any more.

Backlinks (also known as inbound links) are an important part of the way that search engines work. Or at least they used to be; they are reducing in importance but they are still a factor.

In SEO terms, you ‘inherit’ the authority of the source’s website. This is referred to as link equity.

When a well respected blog or website has a link to your site then that scores higher than a link from elsewhere. If they only link to you, you gain all of the link equity; if they link to lots of places then the equity is shared. Links also have more value if they are in prominent positions on the page.

It’s worth remembering that internal links count too. If you have a high ranking page that links to another page in your site, then that page will inherit link equity.

Anchor text

‘Anchor text’ is the term given to the words that have been turned into links. Google’s bots are checking those too. They want to see that you are being reached by relevant terms so that users are finding the content they want. But don’t be tempted to ask your friends to add relevant anchor text links on their site; Google can tell whether the links are ‘natural’ and will penalise you if they aren’t.

‘No follow’ links

You can (since 2005) choose not to pass on your link equity (by asking your developers to help you add a rel=”nofollow” attribute to the code). This can be useful because:

  • It stops spammers adding links in the comments on your page to gain equity from you.
  • It means you can link to sites that you don’t necessarily want to support (for instance you might want to link to an article by a previous Minister of Culture).
  • You can still be linked to from paid ads without breaking Google’s rules about paying for backlinks.

Note: although ‘no follow’ links don’t pass on equity, they are still used by Google to build a profile about your page. They are looking for a mix of links; too many ‘no follow’ backlinks will be penalised.

What gives a backlink value?

  1. Relevance
    The backlink should come from a relevant page or site. If your page is about a new youth theatre group then a link from the Association of Youth Theatres has more relevance (to Google) than one from a local school.
  2. Authority
    Google don’t publish data to tell you what they consider to be authoritative but you can probably make a good guess. If the site is well respected, if it has lots of visitors, if people use it as a reliable reference point to link to other places then that probably gives it authority. There are tools that claim to help but they really aren’t relevant to our sorts of clients.
  3. Uniqueness
    The first backlink to your site from another site is worth more than the next. So it’s better to have a dozen links from a dozen sites than twenty from the same site. Multiple links are fine, they just carry less worth. Value is divided amongst the different links on a page. So if you are one of three backlinks on a page then those links are more valuable than a page with 30 links.
  4. Best position on the page
    Google uses the ‘Reasonable Surfer Model’ to work out how likely someone is to click a link: “The amount of PageRank a link might pass along is based upon the probability that someone might click on a link.” The more likely, the higher the value.
  5. Well anchored text
    A backlink with relevant anchor text has more value than an irrelevant or generic anchor. Surrounding text can be a factor too.
Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Google Search Central

Link building

We’ve heard of many SEO agencies advising our clients to engage in ‘Link building’. We strongly advise against anything that might be considered an attempt to manipulate Google algorithm – never buy links. It’s just not worth it.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be working hard to get good links to your site. Here’s some ideas to try:

  • Ask every reviewer to link to you; there is no harm in nudging them if they haven’t. Request that they link to your home page or a page that isn’t going to be archived (not the ephemeral event page).
  • Invite bloggers and ‘influencers’ to special events or press nights and be clear which page you want them to link to as well.
  • Invite guest bloggers and content creators to contribute to social media channels and to your site (and publicise that).
  • Create informative, interesting, engaging content and tell people about it – use social media, email etc.
  • There’s no harm in reaching out to a few key sector people and asking them to include you in their blogs or website content.
  • Internal links count too. So if you have a couple of very popular pages, you can use them to link to other, relevant content.

 

Checking your backlinks

You can use a third-party tool to list the backlinks to your site. You can search for free tools, pay for them or use Google’s Search Console (your web agency can help you set that up).

That can be a good starting point for starting your link building strategy (or deciding you don’t need one). Some people go a step further and use tools to look at the backlinks on competitor (or peer) sites, and then contact those sites to ask them to include you too. We’ll leave you to decide how useful or ethical that is.

Internal linking

Backlinks are important. But so are internal links, within your site. We’ve written more about ‘site architecture’ navigation and structure later in this article.

Internal links help users. If people can easily find the content they want, and link to other relevant content, then they are more inclined to spend longer on your site, which improves SEO in itself. Internal links also help bots to crawl your site which makes it easier to properly index your site.

And you can use internal links to improve your rankings. If you have certain pages that rank highly, then linking them to other pages will improve their ranking too.

Should I link out to other sites?

Some people are worried about linking out to other sites. I guess their thinking is that you are directing people away from your site. Maybe that’s true but if the other site has relevant content then you are doing them a favour by linking out. Plus it really helps Google to understand the context of your page.

Website screen showing an overlay with a sign-up form, on the English National Ballet website

One missed opportunity we see a lot, is where arts organisations direct people to the websites of the venues where they are touring (usually because the venue is handling ticket sales).

If you’re doing that then you should add a prompt to remind them that they are leaving your site; perhaps they’d like to join your email list before they go.

We’ve seen that used to great effect to maintain relationships with customers who may not return otherwise.

Structure (information architecture)

The structure of your site is important from many perspectives. A well structured site makes it easier for all users to find the content they need and for you to direct them to content they’d like. Consistent structure makes it simpler for search engine bots to crawl and make connections and for people using assistive technology to navigate from section to section, page to page.

You’ll sometimes hear the term ‘information architecture’ to describe the process of organising your content in ways that consider all of the above.

Naming your Pages and Posts

Think carefully about each page title. These will become a key part of the web address (URL) and will be used by search engines. Carefully consider whether to include keywords.

Keep the title short and relevant and remember it has to be unique (you can’t have two Pages/Posts called the same thing).

Use heading styles H1, H2, H3 etc

Your website’s content management system will allow you to add styling to the text areas of your site.

Heading styles are marked in alphanumeric terms (Heading 1 = H1, Heading 2 = H2 etc) to denote their importance. In the language of the internet, these are referred to as ‘tags’.

The H1 tag (Heading 1) is usually reserved for page titles so you shouldn’t usually use this within the content of your pages.

The H2 tag is used for headings within the page, H3 for sub headings and H4 onwards for sub-sub headings. And, ‘Paragraph’ is used for the main text on the pages.

Using the correct ‘styles’ (rather than just making the text bigger and bolder) is really important. It’s important visually and, more importantly, these styles produce a hierarchy of content used for accessibility and web searches.

It can be tempting to just shove a big heading in the middle of a page (to add emphasis) but this will have a detrimental effect on lots of other aspects related to your website, including SEO. Think about structure first and the visual styling should follow.

Consider using Schema markup

The biggest three search engines (Google, Yahoo! and Bing) created standards for HTML tags within web pages (known as microdata). The idea is to have a consistent way of adding additional information that can be consistently read and translated by bots. Their standard is known as Schema.

We set up our sites with some basic Schema structure and give our clients a little extra control over specific types of content. But it is becoming less important now that Google’s algorithm is so good at understanding the intention and context of every search.

But it can still be useful. As an example – if you are putting on a play called ‘Garlic & Herb’ then it’s likely that it’ll be difficult to search for because search engines will assign it to ‘food’ related searches.

So you can add additional tags (with American spellings). A performance of a Play would be a ‘TheaterEvent’ or ‘BroadcastEvent’ if it is digitally available online. You might also tag the Play as being the ‘workPerformed’.

However you might assume that Google’s rank brain will already infer that ‘Garlic & Herb’ is a play because it is a page heading within the What’s On section of your arts centre website.

Consider language conventions

If you want people to find your site via a search engine then you need to use the words that are mostly likely to be searched for.

You need to be pragmatic. Is being fun, quirky and informal (when people are on your site) more or less important than people finding you via Google? Is it more accessible to use friendly terms or to use conventions that help people find you in the first place?

As an example: when we first worked with Gulbenkian Arts Centre we found that audiences were either interested in live events or interested in films. We thought it would be neat to divide the content into ‘on stage’ and ‘on screen’; their existing audience liked it and we got some great feedback about how friendly and clear it was.

But their analytics showed that site visitor numbers were dropping. And the reason was that nobody uses Google to search for those terms. So the pragmatic thing to do was to switch the site to use the more conventional terms of ‘film’ and ‘live events’.

Of course you might decide that you are more interested in quality than quantity. You might decide that you want to appeal to an in-crowd rather than being mass-appeal. That would be a bold move; it might be tricky to justify to your board and other stakeholders if website numbers start dropping.

Sitemaps

A site map is a structured list of the headings in your site. It’s not a public-facing thing, you create it to be ‘read’ by bots and machines, using code: XML (extensible markup language).

You don’t need to have a sitemap but it is a useful additional tool that bots use to find your pages. It’s especially useful if you have a new site or you’ve made some big structural changes (and the bots haven’t properly crawled your site yet).

Google states that “in most cases, your site will benefit from having a sitemap, and you’ll never be penalized for having one.” https://developers.google.com/search/docs/crawling-indexing/sitemaps/overview

You can create a site map in a manual way but we recommend using a tool such as Yoast SEO (we install it on most of our clients’ sites).

Then upload a copy to Google via their search console. We do this as a standard as part of our go-live process for new sites.

You might also consider getting your developers to add your site map into the code that is crawled by bots on your site. Get them to upload the sitemap to your site and add a link within your robots.txt (something like this ‘https://www.domain.com/sitemap-name.xml’).

Enhanced sitemaps

Sitemaps can be enhanced to carry additional information (known as metadata) that is also used by search engines. A couple of metadata attributes are useful, others have become redundant:

1. Date of the last page modification, known as the ‘lastmod attribute’.
Google recognises and rewards fresh content so it likes to know when pages are updated. Its bots can crawl your whole site, or you can upload a sitemap that states which pages have been modified and are therefore worth crawling, which makes it quicker to crawl the site. Some people try to cheat by changing (manually or automatically) the ‘publication’ date of pages without actually modifying the content. Don’t do this. Google will spot it and stop trusting your sitemaps. You can also include details of how often a page is updated, known as the ‘changefreq attribute’. But google think this is a largely redundant piece of data if they regularly check the lastmod attribute.

2. Presence of an alternative language (or other regional variations), known as ‘hreflang attributes’.
It can be a lot of work to include this attribute on every individual page so you can add it to the sitemap instead.

3. The importance of a page in your site, known as the ‘priority attribute’.
It is thought that some search engines still use this attribute but Google have been clear that they make their own minds up about which of your pages they consider to be the priority. They ignore this attribute in sitemaps.

Accessibility

Accessibility is an important topic for many reasons, including SEO. Considering accessibility helps all users. At least 1 in 5 people in the UK have a long term illness, impairment or disability. Many more have a temporary disability and everyone can have situational needs.

Making your content appealing to the broadest possible audience has obvious advantages. It means that more people will visit, stay longer and engage more with your content, Google likes that.

Likewise, it’s important to invest the time to ensure that the site functions without compromise for people using assistive technologies (such as screen readers), and people living with disabilities, including the vast majority of people who don’t identify themselves as disabled.

And the improvements that you can make to improve those areas will also help users with slower web connections or those who are standing on their busy commuter train, holding a phone in one hand.

Accessibility and the relevant guidelines (WCAG) and legislation (The Disability Discrimination Act) are far too comprehensive a topic to cover in detail here. I’ve written a little about the importance of accessible websites in our journal and I’ll be writing more soon. I’ll update this link when that’s in place.

Speed

Page load speeds are an important factor in SEO.

Of course nobody wants to wait for pages to load and Google have confirmed that they use it as a ranking factor.

There is always more that can be done so it’s worth considering how much time and resource you are willing to invest, and then balance between wanting high-impact and wanting the fastest page load speeds.

Google have a tool for testing page load speeds: https://pagespeed.web.dev/

This article’s page scores well on desktop test (although there are accessibility issues that we need to address) but our mobile speed needs some looking into. We’ll learn from that and address those points. Then I’ll update this article and Google will give us a little boost because they like fresh content.

Here are a few things that you or your developers can do to improve your speed…

1. Hosting

It’s important to have your site hosted in an environment with quick response times.
And do think about the physical location, Even the quickest fibre takes time to transfer data across the globe so think about where your main audiences will be based, and host there.
We also think it’s important to think about energy use and sustainability. We’ve written more about sustainable websites elsewhere.

2. Caching

Each time someone visits your website, they are requesting thousands of pieces of data. That data has to be searched for, found, sorted, and ‘served’ to their website browsing software before it is translated into the display on their screen.

Caching is the process of pre-serving database queries or storing some of the regularly ‘served’ content. Think of it like this – you need to create a new bank card PIN so you use your house number (2), plus your birth year (93) and your favourite number (7). You combine those three bits of data to create 2937. If you use that card regularly you’ll soon be able to recall 2937 much quicker than having to retrieve the information you used to create it.

Caching is a bit like that. We take multiple pieces of data and combine them in ways that are often used on your website. But, instead of three bits of information we are dealing with multiple thousands.

There are two main types of caching:

  • Browser caching – when someone visits for the first time, their device retains some data. So their next visit is much quicker. We use products such as Litespeed Cache or WP Rocket* to provide this and to control how much data is retained for how long.
  • Server-side caching – pre-serving commonly used database requests in front of the main website so that it doesn’t need to be retrieved from the database. This might be full pages (your home page perhaps) or individual elements (such as your menu or footer).

Caching doesn’t just make the website pages load faster, it also reduces the load on the servers because there are so many less calls on the databases so it is energy efficient (and more sustainable).

*NB don’t ever use multiple browser caching systems, this will cause all sorts of problems and may make your site unusable.

3. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)

You might want to consider ways to serve a stripped down version of your site to mobile devices. If nothing else you should consider not having full page video, especially on your home page.

4. Limit third party-scripts

If you have any extra services plugged in to your site, they will all take time to load.

Examples include:

  • Social media embeds like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (widgets or marketing pixels)
  • 3rd-party advertising networks like Google Adsense and Amazon Associates
  • Website analytics like Google Analytics and Hotjar
  • A/B testing tools such as Optimizely, VWO, Unbounce
  • Comment systems such as Disqus and Facebook comments
  • Accessibility overlays such as Recite Me
  • Chat widgets like Olark
  • Backup and security tools,
  • Social sharing tools

Take some time to consider whether they are essential to you and your audiences. Ask your web developers if it is possible to delay their activation so that they are loaded after the rest of the page, or only when the visitor scrolls to them.

Security

You’ll know this already but it’s a part of SEO so I’m adding it for completeness: your site needs to be ‘secure’ and accessed via https (the ’s’ stands for security).

Google has been downgrading plain http sites since 2014; you’ll have noticed that the main web browsers are all but blocking traffic to those sites now.

To get https status, you have to add a piece of code known as an SSL (Secure Socket Layer) that encrypts the data as it passes between your site and its users. The SSL has to be verified at regular intervals by a Certificate Authority. So most people refer to an SSL as a security certificate.

There are enhanced levels of security available but most of our clients are fine using a basic set-up. We use a service called Let’s Encrypt, funded by the big web companies.

It’s free to use and requires a bit of extra admin on our side to keep it renewed. However the big advantage is that our clients don’t have to go through lots of verification and admin; we manage all of that for them.

Works on any device

Google has been ‘mobile-first’ since 2019. Essentially, Google’s bots will crawl the mobile version of your website rather than the desktop.

You can check whether your site is (considered by Google to be) mobile friendly, using this tool: https://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly

Just because your site is mobile-friendly doesn’t mean it works well on any device. The best way to test that is to use it on multiple devices and see how it performs; if it’s clunky for you then your audience will be struggling too.

Should you do SEO?

Just ‘doing SEO’ is a bit like just ‘doing exercise’. A general approach will benefit you overall. But if you have a clear objective, say building muscle strength after an injury, then you need to be much more focused. And, if you do it wrong you could actually be causing permanent harm.

Let’s stretch this metaphor a little further. If you are unfit to start with then you can achieve a lot of good, general improvements relatively quickly; it’s always worth doing. But if you want to compete with athletes then you need to be fully committed to the task (and probably have started a long time ago).

OK, let’s leave the analogy there.

Sneaky SEO – don’t do it

In the early days of SEO (by which I mean up to five years ago) it was very common for people to game the system using sneaky techniques. The most common was to hide text on a page (perhaps white text on a white background) full of popular search terms and keywords.

People can still be sneaky, by ‘stuffing’ key words into content and tags, writing articles specifically for rankings, repeating content to double-up their hits and much more. But Google are very wise to it all. If their algorithms suspect it is happening then they will downgrade your site and eventually remove it from their results.

Don’t do sneaky SEO. It’s not worth it.

Should I do the SEO myself?

If you’re reading this article then you are likely to be an overstretched marketing person at an arts organisation. Attracting website visitors will be one of countless other to-dos on your list.

It is important but you also need to weigh up the investment (of time and money) against the rewards. You need to decide what you actually want to achieve and how you want people to find your content.

You might want to consider appointing a specialist to help you (we provide that service to our website clients) but there’s a lot you can do yourself, in-house and with your web developers.

Is it worth employing an SEO agency?

Like me, you probably get dozens of spam emails a week, offering to guarantee you front page positions on Google. Never respond to those; if nothing else, nobody can guarantee search rankings. But there are good SEO specialists out there. A great partner can provide support, specialist insight and practical guidance that can be an invaluable investment.

If you are going to invest in an SEO agency, find a partner who will work with you and take the time to understand your needs and objectives; be clear, set out clear targets together, and be prepared to invest your time alongside theirs.

It’s worth remembering that arts organisations are all very different to the types of clients that most SEO agencies are used to working with. Purely commercial SEO agencies tend to be focused on a single product or specialist service in a competitive, profit-driven market. While arts organisations have a much broader offer, many audiences, a collaborative approach and a balance between commercial imperatives and charitable objectives.

Commercial agencies tend to concentrate on procuring backlinks (links from other sites) and using tools to spot gaps and manipulate content around keyword searches. Lots of that is irrelevant (or of little use) to arts organisations. They benefit more from well considered site structure and relevant, interesting content that people want to engage with.

At Cog we offer SEO advice as part of our ongoing client relationships. To those who are yet to become our clients, we recommend One Further as experts in this area – another factor that Google rank highly.

Phew … that was a long read.

Let’s recap with a top ten list of  the most important factors for SEO

  1. Relevant content – by far the most important factor is ensuring that your site has content that people are searching for. If you want to target a specific audience or search terms then you might consider writing relevant content with those in mind.
  2. Crawlable content – your site needs to be visible to search engines. So make sure your pages are crawlable and ensure that pages are structured in ways that they can be easily indexed.
  3. Quality and quantity of links – credibility comes from being well connected to other high-ranking websites.
  4. Content written for users – you can create lots of content that includes relevant terms but is it actually interesting for users to read? If users dwell and read it then Google knows and ranks you higher.
  5. Unique content – Google frowns on replicated content (because some people use it to try to cheat the algorithm) so ensure that content isn’t repeated across pages.
  6. Expertise and authority – Show that you know your stuff and that users can trust your opinions. Do that by writing knowledgeably and convincingly, and include quotes, links and accreditation.
  7. Fresh content – Google’s algorithm checks how often you are updating your content. It likes new and renewed content.
  8. Click-through rate – when people engage with your links and buttons, it shows that people are interacting with your content. Google likes that.
  9. Load speed – load speed is important to your users and so it’s important to Google. Work hard to reduce your page weights and load speeds.
  10. Works on any device – your users will come via many different devices and screen sizes. Google is looking to make sure they are equally happy across those different platforms.

How can Cog help?

Talk to us if you’d like us to help with more detailed advice in this area. We can arrange workshops or audits of content, and can help your team to better understand the need to adopt good housekeeping rules around content and SEO.