Interview: ‘It’s not rocket science’, says Google’s best of the web

Know your customer and optimising your site for the web does not need to be rocket science, according to the founder of Google’s newly crowned Best of the Web.

Upmarket UK cottage website Sheepskin was named Best of the Web in the travel category following a nationwide search for the sites which are do the best job of exploiting the internet.

With just 17 properties, soon to rise to 20, Sheepskin is the kind of small business Google believes are too often missing out by not having a good web presence, or any at all.

Helen Shaw, co-founder of Sheepskin, said although many much larger companies complain about the cost of using Google she believes the search engine has proved invaluable to her company.

“We use Google because we basically make sure out site is optimised in terms of key words but we are careful in the way we use key words.

“Plus we use Google Analytics, and that’s free, it’s fantastic they provide all this data. We have used Adwords before and it can be quite expensive, but only if you do not target it correctly.

“You have to understand your customer so you know you can hit the right areas before you start using Adwords.”

Sheepskin used local web developer One Ltd in Oxford to build the site and it employs a local photographer to take the stunning images it uses.

Other than that the company and the web site is run in-house by its small team of 3.5 people. Essentially what’s at work here is an algorithm based on human intelligence that provides what Sheepskin knows its customers past, present and future are searching for.

“We do all out SEO in-house because we feel we know our customers best,” Shaw said. “It’s taken us some time to optimise our website in terms of terms of search and understanding what our customers are looking for.

“But I think when you know your customers and know your product it’s not rocket science. There are a lot of tools out there to help you do this, but a lot of the time it’s just common sense.”

That common sense approach is being adapted for social media with Sheapskin dipping it toes into using Facebook and Twitter.
“You have to dedicate time to it. We started with social media with Twitter because people were asking if we were on Twitter?.

“At first we felt it was a necessary evil but you can see people on the internet are really starting to use it. We are just starting with Facebook, trying to get a following to attract more of our customers to build more of a community.

“People want to talk to you, to have a relationship with you and you have to understand what they want. If you do this they expect a response. We are getting better and better at it.”

With no offline presence and not having the huge marketing budgets to get their name out through more traditional media channels, Skeapskin owes its existence to the internet.

So it is for this reason that the firm has put so much time and effort into making sure its website not only looks appealing but offers customers all the information they need.

“We live and die by our website,” Shaw said. “It’s our brochure and it’s how people get in touch with us. We have had so many of our guests comment about how much they love it.

“We wanted something that stood out, to really brag attention in the right way. We wanted something different and wanted the images to be important, for it to be relaxing and more emotional than just factual.”

As well as pictures content is also important and Sheepskin’s Home Truths section of its property descriptions is all about making sure customers are fully aware of any foibles they might encounter.

Shaw and business partner Adam Lloyd set up Sheapskin in October 2009 having travelled extensively but on returning home they realised the UK had much to offer.

However, the pair had had such bad experiences both at home and abroad they felt they could do a better job of offering the kind of trips they would like to do themselves.

All the properties in the Sheepskin portfolio are handpicked and visited by a member of the team and the website works with the owners to make sure they meet requirements.

While initially Shaw and Lloyd had to go out finding properties to sign up, now they are finding owners’ are coming to them and many are turned down.

From an initial six properties it now has 17 and that will soon be 20 as new cottages are brought on stream away from its core region of north west Wales.

This will require another member of staff to be added to the team and has prompted Sheepskin to think about enhancing its search function to offer an expanded range of filters on its website.

The hard work goes on. “It does take a lot of time and effort. You cannot just build a website and they will come,” Shaw said.

“I think if you are a small businesses and you are not dedicating time to this you are potentially really missing out.

“Businesses should analyse where they are getting new and existing customers from and take resources from another channel to put it into a website and optimise that.”

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