giraffe

First, some questions about visiting a zoo…

Please answer these in your head before you begin.

  • Would you visit a huge zoo that had lots of enclosures, but had the exact same animal over and over in each enclosure?
  • Would you visit a zoo that had just a few enclosures but it was hard to see what was inside?
  • Would you visit a zoo with your family and spend all day there if there was no food or drink sold?

map of zoo

This article articulates my thoughts on SEO, content writing, website architecture, and zoo management. One of these is not like the others, but success of a zoo, and the success of your existing (or next) website are more closely linked than you may think.

Does this mean that if you are currently responsible for your local zoo and managing it very well, that you could become the proprietor of an excellent, highly-performing, top-ranking website? “Absolutely yes!” is my answer – and here I will explain just how this is the case.

Management of a zoo

A careers website that I randomly found explains the role of a zoo director as:

zoo entrance

“Zoo directors are responsible for supervising all aspects of zoo management. Areas of focus usually include managing park operations, creating budgets, implementing policies, hiring management staff, sourcing additional funding, and overseeing the development of the facility. A director also usually acts as the chief spokesperson for the zoo in media relations.”

So, managing a zoo is a very encompassing role, as you can see. A person needs to have experience and discipline in several areas – or at least the understanding of them, so that each discipline can be managed at a high level.

monkey manThe creation, maintenance, and ongoing success of a successful website also requires wide ranging skills that are not always apparent when a company or individual decides to “get a new site”. From design to build, from user experience to conversion rate optimisation, from revenue generation to advertising, from off-page SEO to on-page SEO, from copywriting to long form content, and from more x’s to y’s than you can shake a stick at, a multitude of disciplines are required if a website is going to become a success.

cart

Okay, so far you are probably thinking something like “so a high-level zoo management role has many parts, as does fashioning a successful website – but this could be said for almost any high-level job!”. And you would be correct…but hopefully the next part will get your juices flowing.

The next part…

Going back to one of the questions I asked at the beginning of this article…

  • Would you visit a huge zoo that had lots of enclosures, but had the exact same animal over and over in each enclosure?

penguins

I can imagine that any visitors that found themselves visiting a zoo such as this would have a pretty boring time as they traveled around, discovering that the same animal (let’s say a penguin) was in each and every enclosure that they came to. I am pretty sure that they would leave in a much, much shorter time than they would do at a zoo full of many more majesties of the animal kingdom. They’d probably spend less money on food & drink, and at the gift shop, too.

What about the following question?

  • Would you find it hard to travel around a zoo that had very few signposts between each enclosure?

signpost

Imagine that you are at the zoo, and you have just seen the magnificent elephants in all their glory. There is a path to the left, and to the right when leaving the elephant area. Which path do you take? You really want to see the meerkats, but which path will take you closer to them? There is a huge sign at the entrance to the park, but you don’t want to go back to the entrance every time to successfully navigate your way around the park. Hmmm.

Elephant

The ‘clever clogs’ among you will be piecing together various correlations between how a successful zoo operates and how a successful website is created and operated. As I delve into various aspects of zoo operations, it will become clearer and clearer why your existing and future websites should be built and operated using the same principles that a successfully-managed zoo follows.

Website Scenarios

Which scenario(s) does your own website fit into? Am I really comparing websites to zoos? Read more to find out…

A website with few pages and averages around 500 words per page = a tiny zoo a small deer park.

If your website has less than 50 pages, and the content on each page is largely lacking any depth, then you could consider it the equivalent of a tiny zoo. Perhaps not a zoo at all, but home to just one or two animals. Perhaps deer. Yes, you operate the equivalent of a small deer park. Now,  if visitors want to visit a deer park, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with this at all. You are meeting their need.

However, if your pages have only a small amount of content per page, then this is probably similar to having a description for a particular enclosure as “This is some deer”. Not very helpful. If people have traveled to your deer park, then enriching their knowledge about deer, what they eat, how they interact with each other, where they sleep, and many more deer facts, will leave them feeling satisfied. Happy, even. Heck, they’ll even spend some money in the gift shop or the canteen – or even sponsor ‘Jenny’ to make them feel good about themselves.

engaged peopleVisitors to the deer park that feel enriched are much more likely to mention their visit – along with their newfound knowledge – to friends and others.

Your website may be about a niche subject – perhaps you run an accountancy practice in a small town. This does not mean that your site should contain no effort, and should merely act as something that people with your business card can refer to. Don’t have a website if this is the case. It will only underwhelm you. If there really is no need for more than 25 pages on your site, then at least make them the best pages that you possibly could do. More words, with more features, and more interlinking between the various pages on your site, whether those pages are other services that you offer, or the history of the company. Think ‘rich’.

The difference between the number of enquiries that a small website with half-assed content receives across the year, and a website in the same, small town (and sector) that is full of useful, rich, information that answers many questions that a searcher/visitor is asking – or even thinking about – is great.

A website with hundreds of pages with over 1,000 words per page, but the content has been written just to please Google and not the visitor = a large zoo with only a few types of animal.

There are some SEOs that now believe that they have “seen the future” and are preaching to clients that they need “over 2,000 words per page, content is king”. Bizarrely, however, many SEOs simply keep doing the same technical things they did in 2004…but enough about them. Like many SEO ‘wind direction changes’ to ‘beat Google’ , just adding more words is not the answer. Yes, sites with greater amounts of content will tend to rank better than sites with much less content. But if that content is underwhelming, keyword-stuffed tripe, then what is the point? You are enticing visitors to what is essentially a very dull experience. And this is why I equate such a site to a zoo with very few animal types.

lionImagine, you and the family have been looking forward to Saturday morning all week, thinking that you are going to a place where you will see some of the wonders of the world. It will be little Johnny’s first time seeing wildlife in the flesh. So hopes are high. You get there, park up, and then begin your journey around the zoo. You marvel at the size and muscles of a lion, even though it’s fast asleep for the moment.

You move on to the next enclosure, and the sign says that there are two more lions living here. However, it seems that they are both asleep at the moment in their den. Oh well, and as you reach the third enclosure, this one also contains a lion. 

tiger

This lion is awake, and slowly prowling its area, and you get to see the size of its enormous paws. You move to the next area, and again, it’s a lion. Little Johnny is getting restless now. Never mind. You go to the next enclosure…and yep, you guessed it…a lion. And the next – “oh, a tiger!!”, you say, and you start to feel better. But as you move on, it’s lions all the way. Not the most interesting of ‘zoos’.

If you wanted to visit a large cat park, you would have chosen to do so, but you went to what was advertised as a zoo. It just happens that it is a very boring zoo, with the same experience in every enclosure. Yawn.

Now, this is the type of zoo that I would associate with a website that has been built solely to attract Google – and in doing so, has lots of content written on each page. But not just any content – loooooooooong, boring passages of text with paragraph after paragraph of the same text-only format. The next is not broken up in any meaningful way, save for a few short, ‘keyword rich’ H2 tags…yak! Plenty of words to help Google to understand what the page is about, but giving an underwhelming experience to the visitor.

Many sites that wish to capture Google traffic so that they can sell advertisements, or get you to click on affiliate links, follow this method. But many corporate websites have now followed suit. Usually, this flat, dreary, characterless, lifeless content is placed at the bottom of the page, with any kind of enquiry form, affiliate link, and imagery above the fold. And for a while, it has worked pretty well.

This tactic of stuffing keyword-rich content at the bottom of a page has been used for years, but in recent years the length of such content has moved from what was once 200-300 words to 1000-2,500+ words.

This relatively new realisation by SEOs (now that many of their old tactics don’t work) and web owners, that writing long form content to ‘beat the system’ works well, has encouraged evermore website owners to adopt this strategy – and has forced Google to work out how to ensure only those that are writing useful, rich, editorially-linked, interesting content are rewarded.

It’s almost like an evolutionary step in the world of online marketing and SEO. Much like how various other tactics were devalued over the years, Google has had to do this for a remarkable increase in the amount of content-per-page in recent times. And rightly so.

Thankfully, at the end of 2019, Google finally released a series of algorithm updates that really helped it to differentiate between sites that produce content in this horrible, dry, featureless, vapid way, and websites that produce content that is much more informative, and rich.

mega menu

This is what I think bad mega menus look like to humans and Google bots.

By ‘rich’, I mean the way that within text, the page links both internally and externally to pages of value, not just relying on a ‘mega menu’. I hate ‘mega menus’ for the record. They make it so much harder for Google to understand the context of a particular page – and badly designed mega menus are terrible for usability.

The way that content is laid out – such as breaking content into columns, sections with different background colours, imagery, video, and interactive features – are what I consider some of the things that make a piece of content rich, rather than flat and mediocre.

A small section of the Embryo SEO page.

A small section of the Embryo SEO page.

You can see here part of a screenshot of Embryo’s SEO page to see how we have laid out content in ways that are both useful and easy to read for a visitor. The full length image of the page was just too large to have been useful in this post. But you get the point, I’m sure.

But my main point is that Google REALLY is now able to better understand the differences between those that put effort into their content, and those that merely write more of it. Tricking the big G with lots more words is probably now a thing of the past (for competitive sectors, anyway).

Google now not only reads the text of pages, it renders pages, too. This means that it takes screenshots of every page (or at least many pages) in its index. In rendering millions of pages, and using AI, it has been able to work out what a good page looks like, and what a bad page looks like – based on the metrics gained from Google Analytics data and other sources.

Think about those millions upon millions of pages that perhaps have a form, some images, and/or a link to an affiliate product at the top of a page, with several flat, boring paragraphs of content below the fold. It is so easy now for Google to know it has arrived upon such a page. And this makes it so easy for ‘G’ to give a page of comparable content that has a richer, more intricate, unique layout, a much higher chance of ranking.

A site that links to pages in the menu but NOT contextually throughout page content = a zoo with randomly placed animal enclosures, making it hard to manage. Hard for visitors to know which part of the zoo they are in, too.

feeding zoo animalsI admit that I haven’t mentioned anything zoo-related for a few paragraphs, but I had to explain (hopefully with clarity) that ‘content-for-content’s-sake’ sites were the devil. Forgive me.

If you are to run a successful zoo, it makes sense that you would house certain animals close together. Having the penguins at the other end of a park to the walruses does not make for easy animal management, such as feeding time, when such animals could be fed from the same, or at least similar, food sources. If the seals are also in another part of the zoo, then things become very inefficient indeed.

If you had put this in place as a zoo manager, you would be able to count the days before you were fired.

And yet I see a very similar thing on a daily basis when working with client (and their competitor’s) websites. Whether a site has few pages with little content on each, or a lot of pages full of long form copy – and all variations in between – I see that whomever is in charge of adding content to the site relies almost entirely on a site menu to help Google find its way around the site.

For the vast majority of websites, the first visible page content that is read by a Google bot is the menu content, probably followed by the ‘page title’ of the page (usually within a H1 tag), followed by the main body of page content. Think about inefficient this is – especially on websites that have menus with tens, if not hundreds of pages/products in a store. These sites are asking ‘G’ to read through that menu each and every time – BEFORE the page starts to describe itself in any kind of detail.

linkWebsites that dominate search rankings in their sectors, (competitive sectors that is) in the vast majority of cases do indeed have menus as described above, but they also have something that websites with much less SERP saturation do not – links to contextually relevant pages within the body of a page’s content. These (usually) take the form of text inks to other, topically-relevant pages on their own site. Some websites even link out to other websites! And so should you, but that’s a lesson for another day.

In the same way that keeping seals, walruses, and penguins together is helpful to keep a successful zoo, linking to relevant, useful, timely pages from within the text of your own pages greatly increases ‘G’s chance of understanding what the linking-out page and the linked-to page are about. Do this across several pages, using different (but on topic) words on each page (I call this ‘shingling’), and you help Google to understand in much greater detail what the various clusters of pages on your site are about.

The more that ‘G’ understands, the more that it has confidence in ranking you in higher positions than competitors that it does not understand as much.

Help Google to help you! Give ‘the big G’ enough confidence that your pages are very topically-relevant, and Google will reward you with higher rankings. Especially if your content is voluminous, rich, presented well, informative, and useful.

A site where the main thing you can do is read = a zoo without cafes, gift shops, or food & drink kiosks.

popcornThink how much shorter, on average, that visits to a zoo would be for families if there were no cafes, no food & drink kiosks, no feeding the more docile animals, and no time spent by kids in the gift shop, choosing between a pencil sharpener with a crocodile on it, or a koala bear that clings to a lamp. Visits would obviously be much shorter – and there would be much less revenue for the zoo. In fact, ticket income alone would not keep a zoo anywhere near to operating at break even.

clown

Zoos that get ‘sticky’ features correct in between the animal enclosures are successful zoos.

And now comes the web analogy part again…Have you ever wondered why large(r) websites (especially in B2B sectors) have sometimes very decent ‘resources’ sections, with e-books to download, interactive tools to use, and other ways to keep you on their site for longer periods?

When I suggest this type of content to a client, I am mainly met with something along the lines of “well, they are big, they can afford to create all of that content”. Noooooo! It’s not that more successful websites decided to include these features because they were so successful. It’s (partly) because they built such features that the sites are indeed successful – and continue to grow. 

A web page that takes an age to load = a zoo where queues are huge, animal enclosures have terrible views, and toilets are often out of order.

I hate queuing – even though I’m British. I hate slow service. I hate wasting my time, and I hate it when I am busting for the loo and there are none around – and such a ‘toilet incident’ in a Belgian park has scared me for life. No matter how cute a baby tiger, or how majestic a polar bear, a long time spent in the queue for an ice cream on a very hot day is not good for the soul. 

Or a crowd of people so large that you cannot see what mischief monkeys get up to at feeding time. And if ‘mum’ cannot find a place to take a comfort break because of flooding in the nearest toilets, then tempers will flare, and enjoyment will decrease for the whole family.

On a similar, albeit much shorter time frame, a web page that takes a ‘long time’ to load can be just as infuriating to a web user. It may only be a few seconds, but that can seem an eternity, especially when previous websites, that a user may have visited, are much quicker to load. Google AMP was not created out of curiosity, but (in many ways) as a means to stop bad developers getting in the way of great (or not so great) content.

Whether or not you believe that Google prefers (and therefore improves the ranking of) websites that load faster than other websites (seriously, why would it not?), us human beings don’t like it when websites take an age to load – and that’s that.

Over the course of a year, you would be surprised to know that for every 1/10th of a second that a site takes to load, there would be significant drops in revenue for your business. In fact, although it was a long time ago now, Amazon found that for every second of extra loading time on an average page, this cost them $1.6 BILLION in sales. 

So, why is creating a successful zoo like creating a successful website?

Successful Zoo Management Successful Website
People visiting a zoo want great content – a wide array of animals People visiting a website want great content – articles, offers, solutions
People want to learn – about animals People want to learn – about a product, service, or other ‘stuff’
People want engaging features – food & drink and children’s entertainers People want engaging features – tools and resources
People want to be able to feel in control of their journey, but to still be curious People want to feel in control of their journey, but have their curiosity piqued
Queues and animal shows need to run like clockwork to maintain a healthy flow of visitors A website needs to load fast, with efficient code, helping users to get what they came for

In Summary…

penguin

There is no reason for this penguin image to be here. It just looks nice.

Okay, I know that some of the analogies in this article are a little tenuous, but I am sure you get the idea (and the animal illustrations look nice, don’t they?). Much like a zoo, a website needs to have many factors operating well for real success to be gained. Just one or two poorly-running features can be the difference between ‘search success’ and ‘search anonymity’.

There are hundreds of thousands of business websites in the UK right now that suffer from some or most of the problems that I have highlighted. But by far the most ignored of these is good, lengthy, rich, well-presented, editorially-linked content, written across the major pages of a website. If you have landed on this page from a search about zoo management, I sincerely apologise for wasting your time 😀


No animals were harmed during the creation of this article.

James Welch

James is a digital industry veteran, and has worked various roles from SEO, head of research, to director level. He is a content nerd, and loves nothing more than demanding that evermore content is added to client sites - as well as the Embryo blog!