Search engine optimization 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 more than half of readers surveyed

by Smart Business say search engine optimization isn’t part of their current marketing

strategy. 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.

“For well-optimized sites, businesses can

expect to see 70 to 90 percent of their visitors

coming from search engines,” says Greg Frye,

president, Upright Communications. “This is

the obvious way to attract Web consumers

and earn revenue on and offline.”

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.

“Many CEOs see search engine optimization as snake oil,” says Steve Phillips, founder,

Purple Trout LLC. “It’s still relatively new, and

they want to sit back and see where it goes

before making an investment. Some businesses have been burned in their first attempt

at SEO, likely because they didn’t choose a

reputable company and became discouraged

from attempting round two.”

The longer you wait to take action, the

more difficult it will be to get your site ranked

higher.

“I don’t see how any business can ignore

SEO, even on a local level,” Phillips says.

“The longer you wait to become involved, the

more difficult it will be to be visible to potential customers due to market saturation —

demand. So many people jump online all the

time, open Google and start searching. Heck,

I use Google to find a pizza place or to look

for a dentist. It’s amazing how many businesses haven’t considered it yet.”

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.

“Links from other reputable sites to yours

are positive points in SEO,” Frye says. “SEO

is moving more toward including off-site optimization along with what’s done on the home

page and keyword use.”

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.