Is your website—built several years ago and perhaps not frequently updated—languishing in an undiscovered corner of the World Wide Web? Have you redesigned your site—filling it with attractive product photos, engaging videos and well–written content—yet find it’s still being slighted by search engines? Either could be the case, say experts in the relatively new field of search engine optimization.
Your website needs the right “front end” and “back end”—source code, architecture and content—plus regular tuneups to boost and maintain its popularity in search engine results, SEO experts say.
Staying current with SEO trends is truly challenging, even for the experts. Search engine algorithms—the rules that determine how search engines crawl the Web and categorize search results—are constantly being tweaked. As this story was being written, Google announced major changes to its algorithm in an effort to downgrade low–quality websites called “content farms” from top search results.
Despite the complexity, there are things business owners can track and even implement themselves.
For instance, your site may not be showing up in searches if your content is stale. Many companies rarely update their sites, yet fresh, original content is what search engines crave.
Make it a priority to regularly update your site: Post company news, create new videos, start a customer forum or blog, and add new product information or photos.
The goal of any SEO effort is to boost your site’s ranking in “organic” search results—the search results that occur naturally, not via paid–search advertising. According to a 2011 Forrester Research study, 85% of major companies are investing in organic search engine optimization this year.
Jill Whalen, chief executive officer of High Rankings LLC, an SEO and search engine marketing company based in Ashland, Mass., says that organic SEO is “simply making your website the best it can be for your users and search engines.”
“You want to make your pages the best ones for those search queries that relate to what you offer,” she says. “If you do that, search engines will have no choice but to show your pages in the top results because of their mission to show the best to their users.”
SEO done wrong is thinking too much about what search engines “like” and ignoring the needs of real people—that can ruin a visitor’s experience at your site and even make it unreadable.
SEO done right will rapidly show results with improved search placement, says Julia Rosien, owner and chief idea officer of Social North, a social media and search optimization consultancy in Kitchener, Ontario.
“But it takes three to six months for keyword campaigns to show sustainable results, where you can see and understand traffic patterns and decide what needs tweaking,” she says.
“It’s not about getting on the first page of search results—it’s about getting into the top three results in organic searches for at least some of your site’s keywords,” says Douglas Karr, chief executive officer of Indianapolis–based DK New Media LLC, a digital marketing agency. “Consumers are lazy. The first result gets up to 80% of all clicks.”
Being at the bottom of Page 1 is not being search optimized.
In the bedding industry, it’s not just retailers and mattress manufacturers who need to be search optimized in order to reach ultimate consumers, Rosien says. It’s component suppliers, too.
“With SEO, you can help raise awareness about your features and benefits, educate the public and stimulate demand among retailers and consumers for your products,” she says.
Launching an SEO project is time intensive—and it can be expensive. To start, learn a little about search optimization, beginning with some additional readings and free online tools and tutorials.
“Understand that search engines are a little bit dumb,” Karr says. “They need our help understanding what we’re talking about and finding our sites.”
To get a taste of how search engines “see” your website, try an instant SEO assessment. Go to WooRank (www.woorank.com) or Website Grader (http://websitegrader.com) and paste in your website’s URL.
How many pages of your site do Google and Yahoo index? How many external links point to your website? What is its Google PageRank?
You can download an SEO tool bar that allows you to view and compare the SEO of every Web page you visit.
There are many SEO audit checklists available online.
“Just Google it and print one out,” says Bill Hartzer, director of SEO at the Dallas–based Internet marketing agency Standing Dog. “They tell you all the different things you need to look at. If you have the time, you can learn to do it yourself—or you can pay someone to audit your site, usually for between $500 to $2,500 for a full audit.”
“Regardless of whether you do SEO in–house or outsource it, you will have to be a big part of the process,” Whalen says. “You can’t just hire an SEO company and have them do things on your behalf. SEO just doesn’t work that way.”
An audit may reveal that your site isn’t coded correctly, Hartzer says.
“Many companies have great–looking websites that simply aren’t being found by search engines,” he says. “Technical issues and coding need to be addressed by an expert.”
If a website audit shows that the usability and architecture of your site are technically sound, then the next step in an SEO effort is to develop a list of core keywords and phrases.
Rosien recommends that you outsource keyword research.
“Find someone outside your business with a track record of success, then be prepared to sit down and work closely with that person,” she says.
Hartzer explains: “Sometimes a business owner is too close to the product and they need an outside person. A good SEO (expert) will do research related to how people talk about your product or service and come up with a list of maybe 100 or more keywords and phrases. Then, they’ll work with you to narrow down that list.”
Bear in mind that different audiences may have different ways of thinking about and describing your products and services, the experts say. Your keywords need to reflect the way people talk about and search for your products. Include your trademarked brands and product names, but don’t be overly brand–centric. Many potential customers will be doing broader searches and you need to target customers who aren’t looking for you.
Some people may be using search terms that you don’t regularly use to describe your products, Rosien says. For instance, a latex provider ought to be aware that many people may search “foam” instead of “latex.”
“In developing keyword lists, you have to understand the stages customers go through while shopping,” Hartzer says. “There are certain keywords they’ll search when they know little about your product and, as their knowledge progresses, their terminology will progress.”
When researching a keyword list, start with Google Adwords’ Keyword Tool (https://adwords.google.com). You’ll need to create a Google account to log in. There you can type in the words and phrases that best describe your products and services and you’ll get a slew of recommendations and search statistics on the terms. (Whalen offers this tip when using the tool: To see the most useful results for each keyword you search, select “Exact” under “Match Types,” not “Broad.”)
If you already do pay–per–click paid search campaigns with Google Adwords (the Bing/Yahoo version is called AdCenter), the program’s tracking features allow you to assess which words and phrases have brought the most traffic to your site. Be sure to include the best pay–per–click keywords and phrases in your core keyword list for organic search optimization.
“The hardest part is choosing phrases,” Whalen says. “If you choose phrases that are too competitive (too many others have optimized for them), you may not stand a chance to rank for them unless you’re a huge brand. But if you choose those keywords that nobody searches for, while you may rank for them, you won’t receive any traffic.”
“A few years ago you could rank for the word ‘mattress,’ but now it’s so saturated you have to look for the long–tail keywords,” Rosien says.
A long–tail keyword is a word or phrase of any length that gets a small amount of search traffic—but it’s valuable, targeted traffic.
“Find the relevant terms that work for you—perhaps some of them have only 25 searches a month,” Karr says. “It’s possible that an SEO effort will not increase actual traffic to your site. But if they drive meaningful visits to your site—visitors who download your information, sign up for your newsletter or make contact with you—that’s all that matters.”
Uncover the right long–tail keywords using suggestions in the Adwords Keyword Tool. Also, in a regular Google search, use the “Wonder Wheel” and “Related Searches” links for more keyword ideas. After you click “Search” click on the “More Search Tools” drop–down menu on the left–hand side of the screen.
“The reason most companies can’t get SEO to work for them is because they’re shooting for much too competitive keywords,” Whalen says. “Big brands with a lot of marketing dollars can target highly competitive keywords, but small companies have to be more strategic in the keywords they choose.”
Try to devise a list of unique yet relevant keyword combinations, Karr says. A mattress manufacturer may want to target health–related phrases like “bad back” and “back pain,” not just mattress terminology.
“Mattress manufacturers ought to be generous and share new product–related keyword lists with their retailers,” Rosien says. “In a consumer’s local search for a mattress, a manufacturer shouldn’t rank above their retailers in the search engine results page. So, when you roll out new product content and metadata to your site, roll it out to retailers, too.”
More on-page fixes
In addition to optimizing the site content, there are other “on–page” factors that must be optimized in a successful SEO effort, writes Stoney deGeyter, president and chief executive officer of Canton, Ohio–based Pole Position Marketing, in an article for Search Engine Guide, “15 Questions That Will Change the Way You Think About SEO Forever.”
The “title” tag, part of your site’s HTML source code, is most important of all. Does each page on your site have a descriptive, unique and keyword–rich title tag optimized for that particular page? (To see your website’s title tags, right click on any Web page in your browser and select “View Source.” You’ll see all the code behind the page. The title is the text enclosed within the HTML tags “<title>” and “</title>.”)
“If you get nothing else right, get the title right,” deGeyter says. “That alone can work wonders in helping to get your pages to rank in the search results.”
“Internal linking” also is very important. It increases SEO and improves the usability of your site for visitors. If there is more information available to the reader at another page on your site, link to it. Make sure the “anchor text” in your link (it will normally appear underlined and highlighted in blue) is a keyword–rich descriptor like “How to shop for a mattress.” Don’t use a phrase like “click here.”
“Once your own site is in good shape, you turn to ‘off–page’ factors of SEO and that includes backlinks—links from other Web pages to yours,” Hartzer says.
“Link building” or “linking campaigns” are the backbone of SEO because search engines want to give searchers the most popular sites for particular search terms.
To see who is linking to your site, paste your website URL into Open Site Explorer. Whenever it makes sense for your site’s content and purpose, ask manufacturing partners, customers and others to link to your website.
But beware of unethical link building techniques such as purchasing links from low–quality websites called content and “link” farms. Major retailers JCPenney and Overstock.com were among two major retailers recently singled out for employing such techniques. As a result, Google pushed them way down in search rankings for many product search terms.
Seeking help with SEO
If you’re serious about the complicated and ever–changing process of search engine optimization, you’ll likely need some outside help.
Some SEO experts—or just SEOs as they call themselves—are employees of today’s new breed of Internet marketing agencies, which offer SEO, search engine marketing, Web design, content creation and social media management under one roof. Others are part of a loose network of specialists who refer work to each other.
“There is a trend toward connected agencies—individuals or groups of consultants who have partnership networks with all the right people in these different functional areas,” says Douglas Karr, chief executive officer of Indianapolis–based DK New Media LLC, a digital marketing agency.
Whether the SEO expert is part of a full–service agency or an individual consultant, be careful about whom you hire, says Julia Rosien, owner and chief idea officer of Social North, a social media and search optimization consultancy in Kitchener, Ontario.
“An SEO company that uses ‘bad guy, black hat’ techniques to improve your rankings can actually harm your business,” she says. “You need to hire someone who explains how they work, what works and why.”
“The SEO space and the whole online marketing world are ripe with a lot of shysters and folks who aren’t doing a great job,” Karr says. “Beware of the easy fix—$200 to buy 1,000 backlinks? Just say ‘no’.”
“Recognize that good SEO is ongoing,” Karr adds. “Everything is constantly changing, from search algorithms to relevant keywords to competitors’ tactics. If your company is being solicited by an SEO firm that has a standard project fee where they’ll optimize your site for a set fee and walk away, you may want to rethink the investment.”
Karr recommends a subscription model rather than a one–time fee.
“It can range from $1,000 to $10,000 a month and a lot gets done in those first few months,” he says. “If done right, you start seeing results within 90 days. So rather than spending $50,000 upfront for an SEO project, the consultant proves his worth and you decide whether to keep renewing.”
SEOmoz, a Seattle–based developer of SEO software, offers an extensive list of SEO consultants in the United States and abroad on its website.
Google Webmaster Central, a Google site with tips and tools for webmasters, suggests using these screening questions when hiring an SEO consultant:
- Can you show me examples of your previous work and share some success stories?
- Do you follow Google’s webmaster guidelines?
- Do you offer any online marketing services or advice to complement your organic search business?
- What kind of results do you expect to see and in what time frame? How do you measure your success?
- What’s your experience in my industry?
- What’s your experience in my country/city?
- What’s your experience developing international sites?
- What are your most important SEO techniques?
- How long have you been in business?
- How can I expect to communicate with you? Will you share with me all the changes you make to my site and provide detailed information about your recommendations and the reasoning behind them?
The social side of SEO
Search engine optimization is getting more social by the day, experts say. Search engines are tuned into chatter. They “see” all the people who talk about and link to your website and use the information to gauge your site’s popularity and importance to searchers.
“I combine SEO efforts with very specific, targeted social media marketing or what I call ‘social validation’,” says Bill Hartzer, director of SEO at the Dallas–based Internet marketing agency Standing Dog. “It’s that human SEO factor that the search engines have been looking to include in their algorithms for a very long time.”
In fact, if your company can’t afford an SEO overhaul and ongoing monitoring, the next best thing is to grab your keyword list and get more involved in social media, writes Kiran Bista in an article, “Nonprofessional SEO for Small Business,” at Search Engine Journal.
“In social media, mirror the keywords and phrases used on your website and you’ll get served up first by search engines,” says Julia Rosien, owner and chief idea officer of Social North, a social media and search optimization consultancy in Kitchener, Ontario.
“Going social” will improve your company’s online visibility because “Google is nothing more than a popularity contest,” explains Douglas Karr, chief executive officer of Indianapolis–based DK New Media LLC, a digital marketing agency.
“Your site’s popularity used to be all about how many backlinks it had. Now it’s starting to be about social,” he says. “So get the Facebook page up, interact with bloggers, start tweeting. Google wants to put the most popular ‘person’ at the top of the search engine results page.”
Karr continues: “As a mattress manufacturer, I might sponsor or participate in a range of conferences—even a wedding–planning conference—to get related bloggers and other commentators talking about my company and linking to me.”
“Social media can help get the word out about your website and its ‘amazingness,’ which in turn can help get links pointing to it,” says Jill Whalen, chief executive officer of High Rankings LLC, an SEO and search engine marketing company based in Ashland, Mass. “This means, however, that you really do have to have something worth linking to.”
Rosien adds a word of warning: “Social media requires a commitment from your company, otherwise your dormant Twitter account or empty Facebook page will look like a failed project sitting in your front yard. You don’t want abandoned accounts to be what greets people the first time they encounter you online.”
About the search engines
Hitwise.com estimates that Google captured 72% of the U.S. Internet search market in 2010, Yahoo had 14% and Microsoft’s Bing had 10%.
Bing’s market share is climbing steadily in the United States and some smart phone and computer operating systems now come bundled with Bing as the default search engine. In North America, Bing’s search algorithm also powers Yahoo, and the two are often referred to as Bing/Yahoo.
Searches in Google and Bing/Yahoo yield slightly different results. Good search engine optimization experts will take that into account.
“For instance, Google has placed tremendous importance on integrating video in search results while Bing/Yahoo has an enormous relationship with Facebook,” says Douglas Karr, chief executive officer of Indianapolis–based DK New Media LLC, a digital marketing agency.