A Journey through Search Engine Optimisation


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Top search engine terms to BBC Food, by month. See full size version on Duncan Bloor's blog

This is the first of a series of three blog posts about Search Engine Optimisation in the BBC

I'm Duncan Bloor and I'm a producer in the User Building team in Knowledge and Learning in Salford. My job is to make sure that the Knowledge and Learning Product is maximising the opportunities to expose its content across search engines, social platforms and the rest of the web.

My journey with online and in particular with search engine optimisation (SEO) started outside the BBC. I was never really interested in, nor had the patience for, writing lines and lines of code for what I saw as little reward or in the finer aspects of designing a website.

I first became interested in SEO, and in particular how people behaved online, when I was shown the statistics for a small website and asked whether or not I could improve the number of visitors it received.

At the time I was concentrating hard on a becoming a surf bum in Australia after leaving the Royal Navy where I'd worked as a medic for eight years but I love a challenge and SEO seemed like an exciting new frontier and a welcome change from the well charted, highly regimented disciplines of medicine and the military.

When I first looked at the statistics, I was fascinated by the fact that we could find out the what, where, when, how and why of people's online behaviour without commissioning large scale studies or referring to far flung theory. We had all the data we needed to make decisions about our sites right at our fingertips. What people search for still fascinates me today.

The more I dug into this strange new world, the more it intrigued me. I began to find out exactly why the search engines liked some of our pages and not others, why some people would buy from a site and others leave. I began to see the website as a platform that I could perform countless experiments on. Where using one word over another would increase the chances of someone leaving by 5% or moving an image slightly higher would increase the chances of someone clicking on it.

Part psychology, part copywriting and part science, this new role suited me and I thrived on finding out exactly how users and search engines interacted with online content. I carried on doing this for three years with various marketing agencies, start-ups and multi-nationals until I joined the BBC's newly formed 'user building team' in October 2009.

The BBC was a whole new ball game. In the commercial world that I'd been dealing in, the rules were simple. The more visitors, the better, no questions asked.

In the BBC however, nothing is ever simple. How online content was commissioned often didn't take into account there being a 'search audience' for that content or in many cases, even an audience. Even finding the right person to talk to about a technical issue - such as Learning Zone's Class Clips having 200,000 more URLs than pieces of content - was often a challenge.

After finding and talking to the right person, it turned out that Class Clips generated not one URL for each content or aggregation, but multiple URLs depending on how you navigated there.

This means that search engines have large numbers of URLs to crawl through but a much smaller amount of truly unique content. This results in a bit of a mess in terms of how our content gets surfaced in the search engines and how much it is trusted, linked to and shared around the wider web.

I did find that the people who work for the BBC are naturally enthused about anything that will connect them with their audiences, so the reasoning behind SEO runs with the grain of the BBC's culture. Search engines are just looking for things that will please the user i.e. readable, reliable and relevant content. At heart, my colleagues are storytellers, and search engines are the start of many people's online stories.


Working across the range of websites in BBC Vision, my colleagues in the User Building team and I worked to incrementally improve SEO.

For example, we found that by using Google's webmaster tools, we could track and report on the effectiveness of our meta descriptions in making people click through from the search results pages to our content, which in turn made for a compelling, data driven argument to 'optimise' these meta descriptions.

Delia's pancake recipe page had the meta description altered in mid-August 2010. Looking at the proportion of people who clicked on that result ("click through rates") in the search listings before and after gives us an indication as to the success of the change.

I picked this recipe because it had high volumes of searches and it was in first position; so any changes in click through rates would be more likely to be statistically significant.

The results were very promising:

Around 10,000 people per week search for 'pancake recipe' or similar phrases.

  • Jul 30 - Aug 6 2010 (old meta description) had a 67% click through rate (the percentage of people who clicked on our result in the search engine results page after seeing it)
  • Aug 27 - Sep 3 2010 (improved meta description) had a 81% click through rate

This means that through changing the meta description - how our content is 'sold' to searchers on the search results page - we increased the number of people clicking on it by 14%

All else being equal, this means an extra 1,400 visitors per week or around 100,000 visitors per year when you take into account the huge rise in searches for pancakes around pancake day.

That's not bad for just a short amount of extra thought and effort being put into the meta description.

Work like this, along with a training programme, consultations with tech and editorial teams and checks on content being launched have been the mainstay of the User Building team's work within the BBC.

BBC Values and SEO

What makes SEO unique at the BBC is the editorial slant content producers have to take on it. For example, search engines tend to trust BBC content (because of the number of inbound links to the site and its stability over time) and rank it highly so when BBC staff choose keywords, we need to be as honest as possible. This is so that we don't inadvertently outperform other content on the web which may be more deserving of that top spot in Google. (This is almost "reverse SEO" if you like!)

Content can also be removed when the budget to maintain and support it has expired, or because rights have expired, or because the site it is part of is being rebuilt. When this happens it's my job to look at which old content is bringing new visitors to bbc.co.uk, and might be worth resourcing, to help everyone understand the importance of redirecting visitors who'd otherwise be left dangling on a broken link.

For example, when BBC Food re-launched in 2009/10, Oli Bartlett managed the redirect strategy very successfully, and he will blog about that next week.

The positives of working in this organisation far outweigh the negatives. I get the opportunity to do my work in a much deeper and more involved way that I just wouldn't get to do on the 'outside' and although this means working just as hard or harder, I enjoy it far more as it feels more interesting.

For example, at present I'm looking into analysing what people search for online and ways to represent that data to our content teams so that they can use it intuitively. This has resulted in work such as the 'Wheel of Hunger' which made it onto the front page of The Guardian.co.uk.

Other examples include analysing what the most asked questions are (JPG) and a breakdown of search demand in other knowledge areas.

One of the things I like about my job is answering peoples questions about my work, so feel free to ask any you may have in the comments below.

Duncan Bloor is Producer, User Building in BBC Knowledge and Learning

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