Although some farms have websites, many do not optimize them to attract more customers and clients, according to Jo Cook, founder of Sun & Soil Website Design and a small farm in Michigan. (She’s been designing websites eight years and farming for three.) Cook recently presented a webinar for FACT, “Search Engine Optimization for Farm Websites.”

Cook explained first what search engine optimization (SEO) is. “It is a set of assumed, ever-changing best practices for getting your website to rank highly on Google for specific search terms,” she said.

SEO constantly changes because consumer behavior constantly changes. For example, a few years ago, few people viewed webpages on cell phones. “Now the mobile experience is a big part of it,” Cook said.

How consumers search online can also change since this depends upon the terms used. They will likely use layman’s terms if the farmer sells goods or services directly to the public; however, other farmers would be more likely to use industry jargon.

“SEO is not a very tangible concept,” Cook said. “It’s about making changes to your website to get Google’s attention.” She likened it to selling a house. No one way exists that ensures a good sale price; however, “if you paint over your neon green walls with a neutral color, you’ll get more buyers.”

She said that it’s important to set realistic and sensible goals. “We’re not trying to get you on top of pages that are relative to Google; we’re trying to get on top for relevant search terms,” Cook said.

The search engine results page (SERP) is what appears after a person enters a search. “Our goal with SEO is to be number one, two or three, as they get the most clicks,” Cook said.

The term “meta data” refers to the page title, such as “Happy Farm,” and description, such as “Happy Farm, 123 Farm Lane, Smalltown, NY 11111. A family-owned flower farm providing fresh-cut blooms.” The SERP also includes the website’s URL. When someone Googles certain keywords, they will be highlighted in the metadata and the meta page titles.

She said that SEO helps Google know what farmers do. SEO includes elements such as keywords, search terms, mobile responsiveness, page speed, backlinks, internal links, content length, amount of time spent on a page, metadata, proper page architecture, Google indexing and Google My Business.

“Keywords are the bread and butter of SEO,” Cook said. They are the short words, questions and/or phrases that a person uses in the search bar to find the information they want, such as “organic goat milk for sale” or “sunflower field Scranton, PA.”

But identifying what keywords people use can challenge farmers building their websites. “Businesses and professionals know niche terms the general public doesn’t know,” Cook said. “If you want to sell to the general public, you need to think like the general public” – like using “baby goats for sale” instead of “Nigerian dwarf doelings.”

Jo Cook has been farming for eight years. Photo courtesy of Jo Cook

A flower farm might use keywords like “flower farm,” “flower farmer,” “florist,” “floral designer,” “wedding flowers,” “event flowers,” “U-pick flowers,” “where to buy flowers” and “bouquets for sale,” plus the name of the town. A farm event space might use “wedding venue,” “barnyard wedding venue,” “outdoor wedding venue,” “farm wedding venue,” “special occasion event space” or “rustic wedding venue,” plus the name of the town.

Adding the town name is important because of geolocation. “If you want to show up when someone types ‘florist’ you likely don’t want to show up when someone in Cambodia types ‘florist,’” Cook said. “Since we are businesses based in a specific location and we service that location, have that location as part of your keyword process.”

Cook also stressed that each webpage needs its own individual set of keywords to rank highly on Google. That’s why a one-page farm website is a bad idea. Using a main keyword and its synonyms on each page is a much better strategy.

For example, the home page could identify the operation as a family farm in that town and share a little background with links to their farm-to-table events, livestock guardian dogs and fresh-cut flowers. Each of those pages would include keywords pertaining to those revenue streams. Farm websites should also include an “About” page so people can get more information on the farm. The “Contact” page is also important, so people know how to get in touch.

Websites need content to rank high on Google results. Cook said content should be relevant to the search intent and farm, consist of 300 to 600 words on the topic and provide information in “bite-sized pieces” with paragraphs broken into small chunks with bullet points and images. Using titles and subtitles can help keep it better organized. Keywords should be included and sound natural. Google will not highly rank repetitive sites or those with “keyword stuffing.” Keywords should always be in the webpage title and heading.

Some farmers may think writing 300 to 600 words on a topic is difficult; however, Cook said they should remember that many people know nothing about farming and they find the most basic details informative. The length also helps Google make sure your website isn’t a scam site.

“Google reads your pages like an essay: a title, header, body, second header,” Cook said. “If your title is halfway down the page, it won’t know what your page is about. Make sure the content is organized.”

Cook said if you don’t know how to talk about a topic, such as a CSA, in 300 to 600 words, add a FAQ section all about that keyword.

In each 300 words of page content, the keywords should show up four times, and two of those instances should be headers. The web design platform allows the designer to tell Google the keywords.

Cook listed a few Google mistakes to avoid, such as one page listing all the keywords and variations. “Google is not going to allow your page to rank,” she said. “Use keywords in a natural way. You want to rank for as many possible keywords.”

The design of the website should inspire people to linger. “If someone gets to your site and immediately clicks off because it’s ugly, confusing or they’re not sure how to use it,” then the amazing SEO does not matter, Cook said. A bright color with black text is difficult to look at, for example. Cook also advised breaking up text with relevant images.

Some people try to trick Google by pasting white keywords on a white background; however, these sites will be out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. White-on-white will not work with e-readers for people with vision impairment.

“It’s very possible you have a page just about farm-fresh beef and how you raise your cows and where people can pick it up,” Cook said. “We really want to make sure every page is dedicated to just one idea so we can prove to Google we’re relevant on that idea.”

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant