Lost and found Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

If your IT guru has told you that something called search engine optimization is the way to go, but you’re still foggy about what it is or why you should care, consider this: When done right, SEO could double your return on investment and help you acquire scores of new customers.

Search engine optimization in its most basic form is simply about making your Web site appear higher up in search results from sites like Google and Yahoo.

Search engines are the starting point of almost all online activity, second only to e-mail, yet 83 percent of readers surveyed by Smart Business say they plan to invest less into their 2009 marketing budget. Search engine optimization has a rightful place in every company’s budget, yet few companies ‘get it,’ and they don’t allocate serious funds into the development of a program.

It all starts when a potential customer enters a search term into Google. Two types of search results are displayed: natural and pay-per-click.

Natural search, which are the results shown on the left side of any search page, are based on merit and validity to the keywords used. The results in the narrow column on the right are pay-per-click results.

When you optimize your site for natural search, it can take three months to see progress in your rankings. The better the optimization, the higher up your site will appear in relevant searches, increasing your chances for a sale.

Pay-per-click gets immediate results by displaying your ad when someone searches for a particular keyword that you choose, but you are charged every time someone clicks on your site. This is an advertisement and a temporary fix.

Why optimization is important

The name Google is so widely used that it’s the newest verb in the English language. Everyone knows of the search engine because it has a commanding market share (various online sources cite 60 to 70 percent on average), so the connection is easy to make: If your Web site ranks high on Google, that’s the best way to reach an audience that’s looking for your goods or services. SEO gets your name in front of consumers at a time they are looking to buy what you sell.

SEO creates compelling information on your site, makes it easy to find and spreads your name around the Internet as much as possible. In the process, your site will be placed ahead of your competition when keywords are searched related to your business.

“SEO is the new Yellow Pages, but it’s not all alphabetical,” says James Yancey, managing director, 360i. “Consumers look at the first sites they see as the best. Making sure your site ranks high is the best way to influence people in digital space.”

Competition plays a role in the difficulty in ranking high, but a series of criteria installed by Google and implemented by SEO firms help make the ranking determination.

“Companies shy away from SEO because they don’t understand it, or they’ve had a bad experience in the past,” says William Flaiz, vice president of SEO and Web analytics, Avenue A/Razorfish “This is unfortunate because their site is suffering in the end. A professional SEO firm will be able to tell their clients what keywords generated traffic to their site, how long people stayed on the site and what pages they clicked on.”

The longer you wait to take action, the more difficult it will be to get your site ranked higher.

“Waiting to perform SEO will increase the amount you’ll need to invest in optimization to achieve the same goals as investing today,” Yancey says. “Competition for keywords and overall growth of the Internet will make it more expensive to wait and [take] longer to see results.”

What to look out for

Although understanding the intricate details of what makes search engine optimization work would require two Advil and a clear schedule, knowing the basics and what questions to ask will minimize the use of your mental reserves. There’s no accreditation program for SEO firms, but getting a brief education of the process will allow you to know your opportunities instead of becoming one.

First, there are different forms of SEO, none of which comes with a guarantee. There are two main types of search: local and global — and you’ll also hear the term “universal search,” which encompasses both, plus video. A business like a restaurant would probably be interested in a local search only, so would focus on keywords and phrases that include the city name.

One of the easiest ways to measure what keywords might help you rank high is Google Analytics (www.google.com/analytics). It’s a free service provided by Google that allows you to test the current value of your Web site and gives you detailed reports on what keywords are being used to find your site.

But keywords are not the only measure of success.

“A big barrier to success is implementation,” Flaiz says. “It’s good to know if a company will be working for you at a greater capacity than just finding keywords.”

Web site design also plays an intricate role in the process. Your site may have an impressive appearance, but spiders — software robots that “crawl” the Web indexing data — must be able to understand information on the page, or it will not be efficiently indexed, dropping your Web site’s ranking.

Mobile search is the newest type of optimization and sometimes it’s referred to as “third screen.” In the U.S., mobile marketing is largely used for local search, but foreign markets rely on mobile Web access heavily for all facets of search.

Getting the most return from your site requires a balance of compelling information, easy access and optimization that gets it to the top of the search engine rankings. Most professional firms will be able to handle all of these needs, but again, ask questions before signing anything.

Ask the SEO firm if it performs link building, which places a link to your site from other reputable sites. Also ask what techniques it uses to create incoming links to ensure they follow search engine guidelines.

Also, ask the company how it tests, measures and reports results. Think about what you want to know, such as how many people visited a page and if they made a purchase, and make sure the firm can provide that data. The SEO firm must provide updates that mean something to you. Also ask to see samples of its work and see where those clients rank.

Once you find a company you are comfortable with, think long term.

“If you are thinking of hiring an outside company, you should definitely engage in it for a year,” says David Roth, director of search marketing, Yahoo. “SEO is a long, iterative process with delayed results; you’ll want to keep the agency around so they can maximize the benefit to your company and hold them accountable for their actions.”

Like anything else, SEO gets you what you pay for and that means hours of work and a decent chunk of your marketing budget. Since a feasible figure depends on your budget, factor at least a quarter of your marketing budget for SEO.

“The good news is, once SEO is put into place, the cost of attracting a new user is practically zero,” Roth says.