An Introduction to SEO for Race Directors
In our introduction to race digital marketing we had a simple message: diversify your online presence any way you can, do things you decide to do well, but focus on your website.
The reason we put so much emphasis on developing a strategy that revolves around your website is because your website is pretty much the only online asset you can hope to have full control over. When you work to increase your Facebook page Likes or Twitter followers, you're really sweating to grow someone else's audience. In the end, the only traffic you fully own is the one that ends up on your website.
Which is why - also in the light of recent Facebook News Feed changes that will decimate organic reach for Facebook pages - establishing quality search engine traffic matters. And it matters now more than ever.
What is SEO?
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the process of making a website friendlier for search engines, like Google, to find, index and rank for content.
SEO is something a website owner would do to help search engines digest and categorise content (text, images etc) on their website. By better understanding what the website is about, search engines can then do a better job of serving content from that website to the right people, hence increasing its visibility on search queries and driving more traffic to the website.
Why is SEO important?
If you've invested on a race website and want people that don't know about your race to find it, SEO gives you the best chance at it.
Not only will optimising your website for search engines help you tap into a huge audience of potential perfect matches for your race looking for events like yours, it is also 100% free. So assuming you put the effort into making your website work well with search engines, you can hope to establish a stream of regular relevant traffic that costs you absolutely nothing.
How do I improve my website's SEO?
If you are to succeed in your SEO efforts, it is really crucial to go over the definition of SEO we gave above one more time. Note that, contrary to many other definitions of SEO floating around on marketing websites, we did not define SEO as the process of increasing traffic to your website. And there is a very good reason for that: if you approach SEO with a view to simply driving traffic to your website, you will fail.
Back in the early 2000s, when the world was a more innocent place and search engines were a bit dumber than today, driving search engine traffic to a website consisted of embedding hundreds of keywords on a webpage in an attempt to trick search engines into thinking the website provided content relating to those keywords. Often, that would be done by camouflaging endless streams of text keywords against the webpage background, so they would be picked up by search engine robots, whilst being invisible to visitors (a practice known as keyword stuffing). Luckily for everyone, those days are well gone.
These days, if your SEO efforts are to produce meaningful, lasting results, you cannot hope to trick search engines. Search engines have become a lot smarter and have ways of knowing whether the information a user is searching for can really be found on your website. So you cannot simply sprinkle your webpage with a bunch of disconnected keywords and hope people will click through.
Which is a wonderful state of affairs, really Because rather than getting any kind of traffic, you should focus on getting the right kind of traffic. And the right kind of traffic - the type that will translate into race registrations - is traffic that comes to your website for things you actually have to offer.
So, from that point of view, you and Google are on the same side. You don't have to manipulate or outsmart Google. All you need to do is help it understand what you have to offer and Google will do the rest for you.
The two pillars of good SEO
Effective SEO means people looking for something you have to offer clicking through to your website to find it. The more your website appears on the right searches and the more people viewing your website on results are inclined to click through, the more quality traffic your website will receive. Put simply:
Clicks = Impressions x Click Through Rate
Optimising your website for search engines means both ranking highly and being seen often (impressions), as well as getting people to click through to your webpage when it appears on search engine results pages (SERPs). So SEO is really a two-part process:
- Optimising for rankings. It all starts with making sure your website ranks highly for the kinds of things you'd expect it to rank highly. For example, your website for the Reading Half Marathon should not only rank highly for queries like "Reading Half Marathon" (it should really be top of the pile for things like that), but also ideally for queries like "south of England half marathons" or "England half marathons in March". The reason why you need to rank for the latter, more general type of query is because these queries will open up your website to a whole new audience.
- Optimising for result display. It is not sufficient to rank highly on SERPs to secure traffic for your website. It is as important that your webpages display sufficient relevant information on the ranking page when they appear there, so people know what they're clicking through to. For example, let's assume you had a webpage that ranked highly for "10k run April Massachusetts" and the title and description of your page on the Google results page said something like "Home" or something completely random (which it probably will, if you haven't worked on your meta tags - see below). Someone looking at that result will likely be confused about whether your page really contains what they're looking for and prefer to click on some other link on the page. Result: you've just missed a legitimate visitor through poor information display.
Optimising rankings and optimising the display of results goes hand-in-hand in SEO. And we'll look at how you can improve both.
Before you even start thinking about optimising your rankings, you need to take a pause and ask yourself: what kinds of searches would I like to rank highly for?
This doesn't mean that you can hope to rank for any kind of search you want. If you run a race website, for instance, you can't hope to rank for things like "bitcoin" or "Justin Bieber" or whatever the latest search trend is. And neither should you want to. Because no person looking for information on bitcoin will click through to your website and keep reading. So really what you're asking yourself is, what can I reasonably expect to rank for given my website content?
To answer that question, you can conduct a little thought experiment. Imagine you are listening in on a conversation of racers looking for their next challenge. They don't know your event by name and are not set on any one race. What would they look for and how would they search for it?
Perhaps they have a race type/distance in mind and a month they'd prefer to race on. So something like "trail race November" may be something they'd search for. Maybe they also have an idea of location, so they don't travel that far, so they may search for "trail race November Oregon". If your race is a trail race in Oregon in November, you'd very much want to be in front of these guys when their search results come in.
Understanding what keywords - or, technically speaking, search queries - you need to rank for is the essential first step in your SEO strategy. As we just saw, these search queries could involve location/date preferences or more specific things that you think a potential participant may be looking for that your race can provide a match for. For example, if your race is a Western States qualifier, you'd want it to come up when people are looking for Western States qualifiers in your area (i.e. searching for things like "Western States qualifying races Utah").
Think about all the questions you race could be the answer to. Then prioritise those queries and start working on ranking higher for them.
Climbing higher up SERP rankings is not for the faint-hearted. It requires a combination of persistence and diligent application. But, when done right, it pays handsome dividends.
The first thing you need to do in your pursuit of higher rankings is get a better insight into your existing search engine traffic. What keywords are already driving traffic to your website? What pages are receiving the traffic? Where should you focus your efforts to improve your existing performance?
You may be able to sort of answer some of these questions through Google Analytics, which you should absolutely have set up on your website. Ideally you'd want to go one step further and set up your website on Google Search Console.
Through Google Search Console, you'll be able to see what search queries your website is ranking for, the ranking position (anything up to 10 will be on the first page of results) and the click through rate (CTR). For example, the below screenshot shows some of the queries that drive traffic to our article about alternatives to chip timing.
It's important to note that Google won't show you all the queries driving traffic to your website, only a representative sample. But that is good enough to allow you to improve your ranking.
Taking you through all the techniques you can use to improve your rankings with Google Search Console will have to wait for a more detailed article. However, the general idea is to look at how people search for stuff (the exact keywords they use, for example) and, if possible, tweak your content to align with that.
For example, take the query "race timing app" on our screenshot above. If our page contained only instances of "timing app" but ranked ok because "race" was also somewhere in the text, we could improve the ranking by replacing some instances of "timing app" by "race timing app". This may help bump our position up from 10-20 (i.e. second page of results) to < 10 which would make a ton of difference to our click count (take a look at this chart for an idea of how rapidly CTR drops off with SERP position).
The key here, though, is to never force keywords into places where they don't belong. Do not be tempted to insert keywords out of context simply to improve rankings. Only do so if the overall integrity of your content is preserved (e.g. adding "race" in front of "timing app", does not change the meaning of the phrase, if anything, it enhances it by making it more explicit).
Another useful tactic for improving rankings is linking to key content pages on your website both internally and externally. For example, if you have a page with all your race's info (date, location, course description etc), include links to that page on your FAQ or other pages on your website - and, where possible, encourage other sites to link back to it. That is why we strongly recommend listing your site on as many race listing sites as possible. This will all indicate to Google that certain pages on your website have more authority and need ranking higher for certain keywords.
This will all help incrementally improve your ranking for queries you already rank for. But what about keywords you think you should be ranking for but for which you receive no traffic at all?
Let's take the example of a race that is a Western States qualifier. You'd expect that race to rank for searches of Western States qualifiers, but doesn't. How can you improve that?
The first thing to do is include searchable content on your website with the information you want people to be able to find. So, in this case, include a blog post or FAQ item or something on your race info page to the effect that your race is a Western States qualifier. Remember: if the info isn't there, Google can't find it. Make sure you include the kinds of keywords you think people looking for Western States qualifiers would look for, e.g. "Western States qualification race". Then, once you start receiving traffic for that query, work on optimising your position through tweaks and cross-linking.
Optimising results display
Thankfully, optimising how your webpages appear on SERPs is a lot more straightforward that improving rankings. And the whole thing is - almost - entirely in your hands.
The way to instruct search engines what your pages are about and what you'd like them to display for them on SERPs, is by using meta tags. Meta tags are little bits of information you can add to any webpage, such as a title or description, which search engines and social media can use to provide a summary of your webpage wherever they display it online.
It is very easy to inspect your webpage meta tags and it's likely, if you're using one of the popular website building platforms, such as Squarespace or WordPress, that your website will already have some meta tags set up. To check what's already there, go to any page on your website and do Right Click > "View Page Source". Search for "meta" in your page's source code. You should find things like this:
< meta name ="description" content =" Tips, tools and resources for race directors and endurance event organisers. Everything you need to plan, promote and grow your race. "/>
This is an example of a description meta tag from our homepage. When our homepage appears on SERPs or social media, it appears with the description above below the page title and URL:
If we hadn't explicitly provided a description meta tag, Google would likely try to figure out what to use as a description for our homepage from the content on that page. And that could really have ended up badly, like Google displaying the labels from our navigation menu or something equally random.
In terms of the species of meta tags you could have on your website, there are three types you'd want to consider:
- Basic tags. These are title and description tags, both essential for displaying meaningful information on SERPs.
- Open Graph tags. These are tags that start with "og:" in the tag name. Open Graph tags are used extensively by both search engines and social media platforms. They are the kind of thing Facebook will automatically pull from your website when someone inserts a link of your website in a Facebook comment. They include things like webpage description, but also tags for images and other content that can be used to display a richer view of your webpage. You can get a quick survey of your existing tags and see how your website will appear on Facebook by entering your website URL in Facebook's tag debugging tool.
- Twitter card tags. Twitter has decided to use its own group of meta tags. These Twitter card tags do a similar job to Open Graph tags, telling Twitter what info to display for your webpages. Nothing to do with SEO at all, but good to have if your webpages are widely shared on Twitter.
Beyond meta tags, there are a number of more advanced ways to enhance your webpage display on search results. For example, apart from the standard way of presenting search results (title, followed by URL, followed by description), Google allows for all kinds of custom structured data for SERP listings. But that is really well beyond the scope of this article.
Setting up a regular SEO schedule
Optimising your website is more of an ongoing process than a task you can tick off and never look at again. So it helps if you slip into a routine of revisiting your SEO every so often.
What we do is set aside some time every month to review and re-tune our website SEO. You should think about doing something similar, once you go through a full website SEO audit.
Things you could be spending time on during your SEO review sessions could include:
- Identifying potential queries to work on improving your ranking for on Google Search Console
- Identifying potential holes in your content you can work to plug by adding new pages or posts to your website
- Checking for new external links to your website on Google Search Console
That's it - so go get started on your SEO!