If you live on the left coast of the US, you know that wine is an integral part of the social culture. From California through Oregon to Washington State, some of the world’s best grapes are grown and magically transformed into world-class wines.
Since moving to the Pacific Northwest 20+ years ago, I’ve become a bit of an amateur oenophile (it’s hard for me to escape it when the small city in which I live, Woodinville, hosts over 90 wineries and tasting rooms). I’ve also learned the proper process for not just tasting wine, but fully experiencing wine. (Hint: it’s more than glug, glug!)
The subject of wine tasting recently came up for me when I decided to register for SearchFest 2013 in Portland, Oregon on February 22.
While Woodinville may be the wine capital of Washington State, featuring big reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah (not to mention a few whites such as Chardonnay & Riesling), I admit I am most intrigued by the fussy but brilliant Pinot Noir.
We don’t really do Pinot Noir in Washington. For that, you need to go to the Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, Oregon. So, while I am ostensibly going to Portland for SearchFest, it is at least partially an excuse for me to take another weekend wine tasting trip in pursuit of the holy Pinot vino.
So, I can hear folks starting to ask the question, “where’s the SEO stuff, Rick?” Well, it’s right in front of us. I assert that we can experience wine tasting in the same terms that search engines taste and experience the websites we optimize.
Allow me to be your tour guide to the beautiful world of wine tasting and SEO.
Step 1. Wine Tasting: First Impressions
With a fine wine that has a lot to give (Two Buck Chuck just doesn’t make the cut here), you start with a small pour in a proper glass. Pinot Noir (or Burgundy) glasses have broad, deep bowls with thin rims that narrow at the top. This allows you to get the best impression of the wine, making it accessible for the optimal experience.
And while it may seem stuffy and pretentious to some, holding the glass by the stem or the foot (rather than by the bowl) is actually the right thing to do. Why? Because doing so won’t introduce your body heat to the wine, which can adversely affect the quality of the tasting experience.
So, let the wine introduce itself to you. Tilt the glass over a well-lit background of white and take a long look at the wine. Is the color basically red, purple or even slightly brownish? Is it transparent or inky opaque? Filtered or unfiltered? Does the color go to the edge or is the meniscus clear? A clear meniscus is a sign of an aged wine, which with reds, can be a very good thing.
SEO: Robots.Txt File
For search engines to first experience a website, they also need clear access. An SEO’s job is to ensure the robots.txt file, the HTTP header, and the <meta> robots tags allow search crawlers to experience all that a website has to offer, while blocking off elements of a site that could spoil the experience.
Step 2. Wine Tasting: Aroma
While the glass is still, bring it up to your nose and inhale deeply. What do you get? Sure, you smell wine (smart aleck!). But do you smell fruit? What kinds? Perhaps cherries, red or black berry, citrus, or even ripe stone fruit? Do you detect floral aromas, vanilla, smoke, or green vegetal notes? The initial aromas may be muted if the wine is “tight” (more on that in a moment).
Some wines will offer odd aromas as well, such as musty wet newspapers (this spoiled wine is “corked”) or perhaps even what is called “barnyard” (a euphemism for manure, an aromatic trait common in French Burgundy, and yes, some people actually enjoy that! But not me).
To begin the assessment of all that a website has to offer, a search crawler needs to find a Sitemap file, listing all of the varied and valuable content found within the site. As an SEO, you need to ensure the site has a valid XML Sitemap, that the file uses valid code, contains all valid links (not spoiled URLs that return HTTP 301, 302, or 404 responses), and is current with the latest published content.
But it doesn’t stop there. Unlike robots.txt, you can’t rely on search engines to automatically find the Sitemap and ingest it. You need to identify it, either by listing it in robots.txt or, preferably, by submitting it in the Webmaster Tools of Google and Bing. Note that Sitemaps are not mandates to index, just requests to crawl. It’s an initial whiff of the scope of a site for search, but there’s still much more to go.
Step 3. Wine Tasting: Does It Have Legs?
Does the wine have legs? What, you’re not familiar with the wine legs? To see the wine’s legs, hold the wine glass by the stem, hold the foot of the glass down on a smooth surface, and vigorously move the glass in small circles to swirl the wine in the glass’ bowl.
After a few seconds, stop and look at the sides of the glass as the wine settles down. The heavy, clear drips that form are the alcohol slowly oozing down the sides of the glass. The more prominent the legs in size and in number, the more alcohol there is in the wine. It’s a factor in how “big” the wine is.
SEO: Page Load Speed
Evaluating how big a webpage is can be a ranking factor, so evaluate key pages on the site for page load speed. Is the page lean and mean, super-fast to load (< 1.5 seconds), or is it sluggish?
Step 4. Wine Tasting: Bloom
You just swirled the glass, aerating the wine, helping it to open up. Take a second deep inhale. Did the aroma change? Are the original aromas still there? Is it still tight, or are there new and deeper aromas?
There should normally be a night-and-day difference between the first, non-aerated whiff to this vigorously aerated one, especially with a good wine. A little oxygen here is your friend. But, if there was no change whatsoever, the wine has probably been open for a while, is now fully oxidized, and will taste flat. Most of its volatile compounds are gone. Not so good.
SEO: Site Crawlability
As the search engines engage and interact with your site, will they find your page content is easily crawlable? Is there a decent amount of non-linked, accessible text content on the page or is the content all tightly compacted in image files, rich Internet application technology (such as Flash), or perhaps hidden away, embedded within <script> tags?
How about your use of keywords in the key page metadata fields, such as the <title>, <h1> and <img> alt text tags? Do they fulfill the job of describing the page content or does it fall flat, failing to open up to the crawlers? The search crawlers will miss the full experience of your site if the content is so tightly buried.
Step 5. Wine Tasting: Taste
Has your anticipation built up to the breaking point yet? You’ve been patient long enough. Take a nice sip but don’t immediately swallow. Swish it around in your mouth across your tongue.
Those volatile compounds that you (hopefully) enjoyed in the previous steps can be developed even further by pursing your lips, touching your tongue to the bottom of your upper front teeth, and slowly sucking in a little air, almost slurping the wine. Sure, it’s a bit inelegant, but fine winemakers will appreciate your effort, respect your knowledge of wines, and love you for doing it with their wines.
Some folks actually even “chew” the wine while sucking in air to get the full effect of the volatile aromatics the wine has to offer. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy a balanced, aged red wine, doing what may appear silly in print will allow you to maximize the experience of tasting a great wine. Trust me, if others laugh or giggle but then glug down a beautiful wine, they never really tasted it at all. Feel free to giggle back at them.
Now that you’ve tasted the wine, did it match its aroma or did it surprise you? Is it properly balanced between fruit, tannin (or astringency), and acid? An imbalance might indicate that perhaps it’s too young or maybe past its prime. Do the flavors progress and develop on the tongue?
Finally, does it have a nice, long finish? The descriptors people use for wine tasting can be, well, descriptive, and they can be downright silly. To each his own, I guess.
SEO: Quality Content
Finally, after everything else, we get to the meat of the website experience for search crawlers – consuming the body content! For the sake of the site, you want page content to be primarily text-based, high quality and of high authority on the topics it covers.
That’s the big experience search engines are looking for as they delve deeper into the site. The more informative the content is for people, the higher it will be regarded by search.
Step 6. Wine Tasting: Buy!
The purpose of a winemaker or a wine shop in hosting a wine tasting party is to sell wine!
Certainly, they want to educate potential customers about the qualities of the wine they offer, but this is all just sophisticated marketing, building value to sell their product. If you like what you had (and don’t feel pressured to say you do when it’s not to your taste), consider buying a bottle or three.
Convert! The purpose of most websites that employ SEOs is to convert site visitors into customers. The whole point of optimizing a site for search is to increase discovery of the site via search.
But if you optimize the site for humans first, not only will they respond positively once they visit your site, search engines will respond because they truly value sites that are interesting to people.
Wine Tasting & SEO Make A Fine Pairing
Humans tasting fine wine and search engines consuming a website are quite analogous activities. But, I can only wonder if search engines get as happy over an authoritative, text-based website as a human does over a glass of fantastic Pinot Noir. I’ll mull that thought over after Searchfest as I hit some of my favorite (and a few new) wineries in the Oregon Willamette Valley. Who’s coming with me?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.