To reach out to non-skeptics, you’ll need some basic SEO

There are many different skeptic blogs. Some (like this one) are mainly intended to be read by other skeptics. On blogs of this type we talk about what we are doing, how we are doing it, build community and discuss goals. These blogs can build their reader community organically by various means.

But if you are trying to reach out to the general public with your skeptical content, you need to think a little bit harder about visibility. Your brilliant expose on the latest UFO sighting or bogus herbal remedy is not going to have its optimal effect unless it is seen by people who have also been exposed to the original item. If a debunking falls in the forest, does it still debunk anything?

Of course, the time-tested way to make your posts visible to the general public is to simply make sure your site shows up in Google and the other search engines. Getting into search engines is not that hard, in fact its hard not to get Google to notice you if you are writing good content.

But simply getting noticed and getting optimal visibility in search engines are two different things.  If you’re not putting some thought into this issue, your posts may not be having the impact they could.

Fortunately, although there is some snake oil being peddled in this area, the basic techniques involved are not that hard. Collectively they are referred to as SEO or Search Engine Optimization.

What is SEO?

Simply put, SEO is the art of carefully composing your web content to make it as likely as possible to appear in search results.  Google and the other search engines analyze everything they can about web pages: the title, the url, the text contents as well as hundreds of other subtle signals. They use this analysis to match your post to searches made by users, the goal being to find the ideal results for that user. With a bit of thought, you can often tweak your posts so they will better match the searches made by the readers you want. That’s called optimizing your content.

The problem, of course, is that the exact algorithms used by Google and their competitors are closely held competitive trade secrets. This is not only to compete with Bing, Yahoo, Duck Duck Go and so on, but also to help prevent attempts to “game” the system.

If a debunking falls in the forest, does it still debunk anything?

Because there’s so much commerce on the web, getting better visibility is worth big money. This results in well-funded commercial sites making huge efforts to rank highly in Google, as well as scammers and criminals trying to subvert the system to their ends as well.

Again due to both competition and scammers, the algorithms change slightly all the time. There are entire sites such as Search Engine Watch devoted to tracking the latest changes.

Fortunately it is in Google’s best interests to find good content for users, so the tried-and-tested ways of making your content more attractive to Google don’t change much or very often.  None of them are secret, and in fact some are fairly obvious.

Avoid the SEO Snake Oil

Ironically, searching for the term SEO in most search engines is almost useless these days. That’s because there are hundreds of vendors selling services in this area, and they’ve all polluted the search results via their own techniques.

The secrecy of the search engines and the allure of all that money has brought in plenty of hucksters and snake oil salesmen who will try to sell you all sorts of dubious services. For a while it seemed they had all invaded Twitter as well, following people at random and expecting to be followed back.  If you go to Google’s own help page for webmasters about SEO, they talk about the snake oil problem at length (though they don’t call it that).

I’ve quoted the following before in a news item about chiropractors and SEO, but it’s worth quoting again. It’s a remark that Ted Dziuba made in an article on SEO quackery:

There are a handful of fundamentals about page design and other nitty things like URL structure that are generally accepted as good SEO, and you can derive all of this from the principles of not completely failing at web design. Non-brain-damaged web design and link building are 100% of SEO.

Anyone who tells you different is a quack that is only trying to separate you from your money.

I agree with that. As far as I’m concerned SEO boils down to just a few things:

  • Create well written, quality posts that are timely and relevant
  • Research keywords and phrases that your target audience would use in searches
  • Include those terms organically in your posts
  • Make sure the description, summaries, tags and URLs help people understand your site
  • Use analytic and webmaster tools to measure and adjust your site in search engines
  • Get others to link to your site from their sites, social media, etc.

If you do each of those to a basic degree, you’ll do fine.  If you need some specific guidance, just get the Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, learn it, and apply as many of the techniques as you can to your site.

Targeting Your Posts

For the purposes of this post, it’s not important to get into the differences between reaching out to “true believers” or proponents versus casual “fence sitters” or disinterested people. There are certainly differences in writing technique and tone that can be discussed elsewhere. But the technical principles we talk about here are the same for both, though some of the individual details (such as particular keywords) might vary.

It is meaningless to talk about where your site shows up in Google unless you are talking about specific search terms. All SEO is done with specific search terms in mind, since you have to type something into Google to get a result page where your site shows up. So how do we choose what search terms to use? Wouldn’t we have to read the mind of our target audience?  Not necessarily.

To some extent you can start with common sense to get some decent phrases. As an example, if you’re debunking the cancer treatments of one Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, you know that his name, “cancer” and “antineoplastons” (his name for his supposedly unique treatment) might be good phrases. You can Google various combinations of those terms and see if Burzynski’s own websites show up in the results. If they do, particularly if they are near the top, then you’ve got a good phrase to use.

But finding good terms by trial and error is tedious and time-consuming. And just because the target site ranks for that search, that doesn’t mean anyone is actually using that search term. Wouldn’t it be great to know which of these terms would work best? Should I optimize for his full name, or just his last name – which will generate more traffic? How many people actually enter these searches?

It turns out Google provides several tools to research this very thing.

Free Keyword Research Tools

There are several keyword research tools out there. Even if you’ve never had your own website, you may have encountered Google Trends. It allows you to enter multiple searches, separated by commas, and see a graph of relative search traffic for these terms over time. You can at least see which search term is the best out of a set of terms with this tool, though you can’t see the actual traffic levels.

Another very similar tool is called Google Insights for Search. It draws from the same data, but provides a better UI and more detail.  For instance, compare this Trends search for several terms relating to Burzynski with the same search on Insights. On Trends the relative results for “Burzynski cancer” are rounded down to zero, but not on Insights.

A third tool that I highly recommend is Google Adwords Keyword Tool. It is designed for people who are buying keyword-matched ads in Google – those ads that appear next to your search in the Google results (with the slightly yellow tinged background). If you run ads like that, you generally want to place them on searches that are high volume and relevant to your product or service. And so the tool will help you research this by telling you global and local search volumes, related searches and so on.

It used to be the Adwords tool didn’t even require an Adwords account, but now it seems to require you to log in.  Fear not, you can create an Adwords account on Google without spending any money.

The aforementioned Google SEO guide mentions the Adwords tool as a way to analyze keyword use on your own content and site. But since the tool draws its data from Google’s index, there’s nothing to stop you from using it to analyze public websites that you don’t own. That’s key to competitive SEO in business, but for our purposes it becomes a skeptic tool. You can analyze the keywords that rank highly for a site that you are critiquing or debunking, and use those terms to optimize your critical article.

There are several additional advantages to this tool over the other two tools. It shows actual numerical search volumes rather than normalized figures. It suggests other searches that are related to the ones you enter, so you can find new terms to use that you might not have considered.  It also allows you to jump directly over to Google Insights by clicking on an individual term in the results.

I will do a follow up post showing more about how to use this tool, but here’s an example. I entered in the website box and played around for a bit. I found that the search term “what is a cancer” generates a fair amount of traffic, and Burzynski’s clinic home page is the #12 organic result for this search. I never would have guessed that search term on my own.

Action Items

If you write skeptical content that is intended to be read by the general public, such as articles that debunk claims, it is well worth your effort to understand some basic SEO concepts.  Before you compose your next article be sure to do the following:

  • Download the Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide and study it.
  • Make configuration changes on your site to implement its recommendations, such as:
    • Make sure you have a proper robots.txt and sitemap.xml configured
    • Improve your URL structure (if possible) to include keywords in the URL
    • Include other hints like page titles, description tags and anchor text properly
When you begin to compose your next article, do the following:
  • Determine the web site or web sites that are most associated with the concept you are critiquing or debunking.
  • Use the Adwords Keyword tool to research keywords and phrases that rank well for those sites.
  • When composing your article, use those terms organically in your article, as well as in the title, subtitles and URL.
  • Do not resort to trickery such as stuffing keywords into your posts, hiding them as white-on-white text, or other such foolishness.

Don’t let your next debunking fall silently in the forest.  Optimize it so the people who need it the most will find it.

6 thoughts on “To reach out to non-skeptics, you’ll need some basic SEO

  1. sgerbic

    All good points Tim. I’ve been wondering about the hits I’ve been getting from spam like sites. I get up to 20 hits from a single website as a referral, yet I’m not listed on their page at all. Is this what you are calling the snake oil people?

    Usually I just go to their site and give them a bad rating on WOT, but many times they already have a low rating. Its annoying as I want my web stats to be accurate and not polluted with spam.

    I also received a comment on one of my blogs that looked legit at first glance, then noticed a large URL for a convertible car site. What? Again annoying. Its like they know we are just throwing about the junk mail we used to receive in our home mailboxes so they are finding another (cheaper) way to get their message to us. I suppose people are purchasing these items, otherwise why do it?

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      Yeah, what you are seeing is blog comment spam, they do it in the hope that they can trick you into linking to their site so your incoming link will boost up their ranking. This is precisely why NOFOLLOW was invented. If it is an option on your blog, make sure you have it turned on for comments, especially from new users. (I also recommend moderating all comments so these links don’t even get on your blog for a moment).

      Yes, what you are seeing is definitely what some would call “black hat SEO”, the type of stuff that Google catches you doing it they’ll drop you out of the search engine entirely.

  2. Mick West

    Great advice Tim. I think it’s especially important to get the keyWords in the URL, and that’s best done by having the URL be the title, as you do here. It’s easy to do with WordPress, vBulletin, etc.

    I also like to prepend all my debunking posts with “Debunked”, so if someone is looking fo a debunking then the nature of the post will be apparent in the search results withou having to click through. Also adding the word “hoax” often helps.


    1. Tim Farley Post author

      Good tips! Yes, I’m working on a couple of follow up posts for this, and one will be entirely about getting keywords into the URL and how you tweak that on the different blog systems.

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