Monday, January 12, 2009

SEO: 3 Simple Rules

Spiders and Bots and Websites, Oh My!

Make it easier for your customers to find your website by making it easier for search engines to find and index your web content. In a nutshell, that’s what Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is all about.

The closer your company’s results are to the top of a search list, the better for you, because your customers often don’t look past the first few pages of results. At least not before kicking off another, perhaps more detailed, query. The iProspect Search Engine Behavior Study, performed in partnership with Jupiter Research, shows 23% look at only the first few results, 39% the first page, 19% the first two pages, 9% the first three pages, 10% more than 3 pages.

That’s why SEO is so important to your business. Smart SEO can help you get your results closer to the top and help lead more customers to your online door. I use three simple rules to guide the optimization process for my clients. Before we get to them, it’s really helpful to understand how search works?

What actually happens when you search online

Before you go to the web to initiate a search, Google and the other search engines have already been there. Using sophisticated software spiders (or robots or bots), Google continually crawls, or searches, the web, looking at the information on web pages in order to create an index—a very large index to a very, very large library.*

When you go to Google to search, Google actually goes to its own bank of computers and checks its index. That’s why you can type in “SEO” and get more than 271 million references in two tenths of a second.

How does Google choose an order for its results?

Relevance and popularity scores, my friend. And that’s where SEO comes in. The closer your customers search terms match the key words on your web pages—the more relevant they are—the closer you’ll come to the top.

If you were looking for information on Search Engine Optimization and typed “SEO” into a Google search, as I did a moment ago, you’d get a host of relevant items. A useful Wikipedia definition, some SEO providers. But the sixth item on first page of results included a reference to the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a non-profit that provides mentoring for high school students of color in New York city. Relevant? Perhaps not to our blog posting today. Search isn’t perfect, but it gets us there.

Where are people searching, today? comScore November 2008 U.S. Search Engine Rankings show Google dominates the market with 63.5% (up 0.4% from the previous month), followed by Yahoo at 20.4% and Microsoft Sites at 8.3%, Ask at 4% and AOL 3.8%. Between Google and Yahoo, you’ve got almost 85% of the market.

Organic vs. paid search

There are two kinds of search in this and paid.

Organic, or natural, results are ranked and presented by search engines according to their relevance to the search terms. Organic results are free.

Paid results are generally listed under a heading of “Sponsored Links” often at the top or right side of a page. They require a fee for the search engine to list their link for particular keywords. Google AdWords, where advertisers pay each time someone clicks the link in their ad (Pay Per Click, or PPC), is a leading example. We’re going to stick with organic results for today, however.

Rule #1—Customers First

Whatever the technical aspects of your website, make sure that it’s customer friendly. The more relevant and engaging you are to your customers—the better the quality of the experience and information you provide them—the more they will want to find you—and over time, the higher you’ll rank.

So before you go any further, step back and answer this question, “Why should your website should rank above all others in your field?” Give customers a reason to visit, return and buy. Be the expert. Provide a useful tool. Entertain. Don’t forget that branding and design matter.

Next, think about how your customers search and the terms they use. Keyword research is a critical step in the SEO process. Brainstorm. Survey your customers. Take advantage of online tools, like Wordtracker, that can provide information about specific search words. Don’t forget alternate spellings and phrasings. Analyze the competitive landscape of a search term or phrase to see how easy, or difficult, it will be to rank for a particular term. The SEOmoz KW Difficulty Tool can help you determine which would rank higher, “SEO” or “Search Engine Optimization?”

Then test…and test again.

Rule #2—Rank High

In addition to relevance, search engines rank results by their popularity. For Google, that measure is called PageRank. Basically, each link to a page on your site from another site adds to your site's ranking. Not all links are created equal, however. Quality of content matters. Links from other highly-ranking websites count for more than lower-ranking sites or spam links.

All things considered, your SEO efforts should aim at getting you the highest PageRank you can. To do this, you need to get as many inbound links from as many high PageRank web pages as possible. Quality matters. And often takes time.

Rule #3—Prepare to study up or find a good SEO partner

In order for your site to rank well in search results pages, it's important to make sure that Google can crawl and index your site correctly. The territory is technical and, if done improperly, can actually damage your website’s ranking.

A good partner will help you

  • Review site content and structure
  • Provide technical direction on website development
  • Research keywords
  • Develop content and optimize how it’s written
  • Provide SEO training
  • And more

There are lots of online resources to get you started. Here are a few:

A few caveats

  • The best time to optimize is right from the start, when you you’re planning to launch a new site or when you’re planning a redesign.

  • SEO isn’t always the right strategy for every website depending on your objectives. Building high quality, relevant web pages that engage your target audience and persuade them to act is. Remember, customers first! Set objectives for your web and determine the appropriate measures of success. Clicks don’t matter, quality leads may. Or conversion to sales. Find the right metric. Measure it. Revise and update your strategies and your web pages to meet your goals.

  • If you already have a high ranking website, be careful to preserve your rankings when you change pages or move to a new site. Your SEO partner will help you (with a 301 redirect) to pass on the page rank from your old to the new.

  • Avoid SEO experts who promise a #1 ranking. It can’t be done! And beware of what are known as “Black Hat” techniques, also called spamdexing. Search engine operators are aware of these deceptive tactics and the penalties in your web ranking can be severe and even result in having your listing removed.

  • SEO isn’t a set it and forget it kind of thing. If you rely heavily on search engine traffic, remember, there are no guarantees. Search engines periodically change their algorithms, how they analyze and rank web pages. Take a big picture view and make your overall marketing efforts less vulnerable to these vagarities. Look at creating your own inbound marketing system, including e-mail, social media and blogs, among others, to help you find more of the right prospects and convert them into customers.


*Google calls its web spider Googlebot. Yahoo refers to its version as WebCrawler. MicrosoftBot for you know who. These bots are frenetically busy. Currently the Official Google Blog claims that they have indexed more than 1 trillion. Of course, no search engine has indexed them all.

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