I’ve been doing a lot of work on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) recently. It’s a skill that is growing in demand as more and more organisations realise how much traffic they can generate through search engines. Having worked at Prospect and still working with union clients regularly, I thought I’d take a look at how effectively trade unions in the UK optimise their websites for search engine traffic.
For those of you unfamiliar with Search Engine Optimisation, it’s the art of making a website appear as high as possible in the ‘organic’ search engine results. This is as opposed to the advertisement places you can pay for, often called ‘pay-per-click’ or ‘sponsored links’. There are a number of ways to improve your search engine rankings, but to sum it up crudely, it is usually a combination of improving and adjusting your website and getting links to point to your site.
First of all, let’s have a look at some search traffic related to trade unions in Google:
|Search keywords||Global Monthly searches||UK Monthly searches|
|civil service union||6,600||1,300|
Source: Google AdWords average monthly searches over the last 12 months – May 2012.
It’s clear that there is a lot of search traffic out there – a hefty 60,500 searches are made monthly for the term ‘trade unions’. The ones I find really interesting are ‘join union’ or the sector specific searches like ‘teachers union’, ‘transport union’ and ‘nhs union’. This is because users searching for a term like ‘join union’ or ‘transport union’ are very likely to be looking to become union members or for some specific information. Therefore, directing this traffic to a union website could really help the union’s membership figures and boost their influence.
It’s trickier than you may think to test the results for these searches. Google and other search engines personalise search results depending on factors like location, what you’ve looked at before, and even what other people who share your Internet connection (e.g. your co-workers) have looked at. If you go to a website often, then it will appear higher in your personalised search results. Results can also vary ever so slightly depending on which Google server you hit at that particular instance.
For my analysis I’m going to use google.co.uk with Yoast’s ‘disable personalised search toolbar’ on a browser with all cache and history deleted. Importantly, I will ensure I’m not logged into any services, especially Google. First of all, let’s look at what happens when searching for ‘join union’:
Unsurprisingly given their size, UNISON and Unite seem to be battling it out for this key search result. UNISON comes out on top of the ‘organic’ search results, while Unite have paid for the only advert that appears. The lack of competition means Unite probably get a low cost for paying for the advert, but that’s another story and another article.
We see WorkSmart take the 2nd and 3rd places in the results, followed by direct.gov.uk, the TUC, Unite and the STUC. The interesting thing is that hardly any other trade unions feature for what should be highly competitive results. USDAW comes in at 15th while we have to go all the way to 57th in the Google results for the next UK union to appear – ATL. PCS and UCU are the only others to appear in the top 100.
Given the amount of searches conducted every month for such a potentially important search term (14,800), this suggests that many Unions are not engaged in any SEO.
UNISON has obviously made a strong effort at optimising their website for search results. Not only do they appear top, but they have a clearly written description in the search results, with plenty of links including key ones to join the union.
Unite have paid for an advert in the results and also appear 6th in the search results, but while the advert has a marketing message regarding price, the organic result has a summary automatically created by Google from the content on the page:
Join Online. … Unite the Union Logo … £11* a month. *Discounts are. The online application will calculate your joining fee prior to any payment being requested.
This doesn’t sell the page well, and could easily be improved by writing two carefully selected lines of text in the page description meta tag, and by changing the page title tag. Something like this would work better:
Join the Unite Union Online – Representing workers across the UK
Join Britain’s largest Trade Union online now for £11 a month. There are a range of benefits to being a member and a discounted price for part-time workers and people in education.
Now let’s have a look at another of the popular searches, ‘teachers union’. This is especially popular with 18,100 searches a month in the UK, possibly because of competition between the different unions.
I was delivering an online marketing course at one of the teachers’ unions last year, and the search optimisation module sparked a lot of interest, so there is an awareness of the need to search engine optimise.
Why does the NUT appear top? There are a number of factors that could account for this. For example:
- The NUT might use the term ‘teachers’ and ‘union’ more frequently and in close proximity to each other on their website, especially in the page titles, URLs and even in their domain name. While NASUWT also does some of this, the titles for the home pages of UCU and Voice don’t contain the word ‘teachers’.
- The NUT might have better links to the site using keywords related to ‘teachers union’. It’s not just about quantity. You can see from the screenshot that an SEO tool I’m using tells me that the NASUWT home page has approximately 22,000 links to it, while the NUT home page has fewer – around 10,575 links. However, the more prestigious and relevant the link, the more of a boost it gives to the search ranking. For example, for this particular search, a link from the BBC news website on the term ‘teachers union’ could be more valuable than 100 links for ‘NUT’, ‘ATL’ or ‘NASUWT’ from a little-visited personal website.
- The website might be more highly respected by Google. For example, a fast website with lots of fresh and unique content will be more likely to appear higher in search results than one with a lot of duplicate content, blank pages or an unreliable server.
- The website description that appears in the results convinces more people to click on it, telling Google that the result is more relevant than the others, and pushing it up the search engine results page.
There are some metrics that can be used, but they do need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Using a combination of the Google page rank and an SEO page authority and domain authority measure I often use, we can see how the teachers’ unions’ home pages measure up:
|Union||Page authority||Domain authority||Google Page rank|
UCU actually has some of the highest metrics, but the reason it comes 6th in search results is that it isn’t targeting the ‘teachers union’ keyword.
There is nothing wrong with this in itself. UCU represents more higher education academics, and a search for ‘lecturers union’ brings UCU in the top spot, followed by ATL. Interestingly though, search for ‘join lectures union’, and ATL appears top and UCU appears 5th, suggesting that ATL are optimised for those particular keywords.
Here are more results for some of the popular union related searches on Google:
Interestingly, the smaller URTU comes top. This is purely because their website is better optimised for the search term ’transport union’, even though it has significantly lower metrics and links than both RMT and TSSA.
Here are the results for a search for ‘nhs union’:
It’s clear UNISON have spent time and resources on their SEO, so again it’s no surprise to see them at the top of the results.
|civil service union||Union|
PCS come out top. PCS benefit from a clearer target market for the search term.
A smaller union comes out top again for this result. This is not because of their advanced use of SEO, but rather because it has the advantage of being targeted specifically at engineers, and so it wins the keyword battle. Since very few of the other unions have engaged in search engine optimisation, this is enough for UKAPE to dominate the results.
|6.||CONNECT (now merged with Prospect)|
Prospect is marketed as the union for professionals, and so it is no surprise to see it on top. Few other unions appear in the rest of the results.
So what does this analysis tell us? The following conclusions can be draw:
- The majority of unions in the UK are devoting little or no resources to optimising their websites to rank high in search engine results.
- Some smaller niche unions are able to get the highest rank for some competitive keywords due to the targeted nature of their membership and low competition from some of the larger trade unions.
- Unions with diverse membership, such as the GMB and Prospect, are at a natural disadvantage in competing for specific search terms, due to being active in multiple sectors.
- As UNISON illustrates, when a union does devote time and resources to optimising their website for search engines, they can significantly increase the potential audience of their website.
It’s a shame that trade unions in general are not performing well in search engines, but this is common problem. Most website developers and designers don’t appreciate this niche area; it’s a specialist service dominated by people with a mix of skills in information science, marketing and web technology. The clients I’m working with on SEO are often in highly competitive areas, such as online retail, where appearing slightly higher for a key search term makes a big difference to their bottom line.
While trade unions are missing out on recruiting potential members with poorly optimised websites, the other area they are losing out on is influence. If a union is running a campaign, for example to prevent a privatisation, then a better approach to SEO would result in the union’s message coming across more clearly to users through search engines.
So, what can be done to improve search engine ranking? There are advanced SEO tactics that take up time and resources, such as in-depth keyword analysis, targeting ‘long tail’ searches, or developing ‘link bait’. However, for many unions concentrating on the low-hanging fruit would result in significant improvements for a modest amount of work.
This is something which John Woods at the TUC did a while back on the WorkSmart website. By taking steps like improving the internal linking, populating meta data, removing duplicate pages, using search friendly URLs, and adding regular content through a blog, the website had a 25% increase in the numbers of visitors over a few weeks.
Unions generally do well for coverage in the online media, and will naturally attract a lot of backlinks from their members through blogs and social networking. Most companies would be envious of the ability of trade unions to naturally generate backlinks, an essential part of an SEO strategy. There is so much potential for unions to do well in search engines, it’s frustrating to see this opportunity being squandered.