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A Journey through Search Engine Optimisation

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Duncan Bloor | 13:30 UK time, Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Top ten lists of search terms by month, arranged in a wheel.

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


  • Comment number 1.

    This is some really great insight. I'm just beginning to invest a lot of time in SEO for my site and am looking forward to experimenting with tweaks. Thanks for being so candid, it's definitely helpful. Looking forward to the next blog posts!

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Duncan,
    sounds like we came to SEO in a similar way! I too hated lines of code but when I had to start analysing and tweaking content (including meta descriptions) and working with data, I was in my element!

    Most people do not realise the importance of Meta Descriptions, these are like your advert on the search results. Why leave it to Google to take an extract from your page or from your DMOZ entry (if you are so lucky!) when you can craft a perfect lead generating paragraph!

    I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to part 2.
    Shared on Twitter and Facebook :)

  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks for the kind comments, both. Good luck with the tweaks Dan, hopefully they'll work out for you.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Duncan,
    It is great to get a real story relative to SEO activity online. I have been in the SEO game now for the past 10 years and relate to your comments. I respect the time taken to detail the various aspects to be aware of online within SEO, social media, web behavior, redirects.... I manage a few websites online and have learnt something by the patience you have taken in sharing your days work and hopefully I will improve on my management with my team. I envy the caliber of staff you have the opportunity to work and gain ground online. Content is key. It is essential to incorporate phrases within narrative that drive the high traffic volume searches. Keyword research step1 before anything...
    Q- would you really implement 'reverse SEO' to give another site a deserving chance on search engines? I am impressed with the ethics practiced and the lengths you have gone to (even the thought, has never crossed my mind, limitless. (wikipedia are merciless) - All the best to you Duncan and I look forward to reading more of your work

  • Comment number 5.

    @iConquer, thanks and yes, an example is where one of our pages was ranking highly for 'games' despite having only two (quite niche) games on it. It was highly unlikely that anyone searching 'Games' would find that page useful and so we tweaked the on page keywords to better reflect the niche that had fewer searches but would be far more satisfying to the searcher. Ultimately, if users are bouncing off of our site as soon as they land, it's not a great experience for us, them or the search engines.

  • Comment number 6.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    This isn't SEO by a long shot. The average webmaster will not see as drastic of results as the BBC did due to the fact that our websites will never be as "powerful" as you corporate conglomerates. The META tags have all but been deprecated in SEO. Despite what the brown nosers over at SEOmoz might tell you.....links are still king. Meaning, if you want to consider your self an SEO expert, you need to learn how to build links.

    On page SEO, while very important, isn't going to get you page 1 rankings.

    p.s. We need moar BBC America t.v. over here. I want to see what country/race of people Jeremy Clarkson offends next, as it's very funny!

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.


    Err actualy for enterprise level SEO you are mistaken, when you work with Huge publishers (I work for a FTSE 100 publisher) who may have hundreds of webistes many of which may have several million pages.

    Some times just getting a site to have 95% of pages with sensible Titles and Meta descriptions is a big win and reqires large amounts of effort to get changes made.

  • Comment number 11.

    It's not exactly SEO is it and your maths is awful.

    67% onwards to a 81% CTR is not a 14% increase, it's a a > 20% increase

  • Comment number 12.

    As an SEO company ourselves this is quite interesting to read, offers an insight into how a multinational, large company like the BBC looks at its SEO strategy. Nice Article.

  • Comment number 13.

    Without getting into technical details or programming jargon, a search engine's functionality can best be compared to the index of a book. With this analogy, you need to consider the entire internet to be the book, and the search engine to be an electronic index that knows the contents of every page it can find. If you're planning to invest in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) then your goal is to get your website into that index, and make it as prominent as possible.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]


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