Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Search Engine Optimization

The acronym “SEO” refers to “search engine optimization” and is the process of increasing the rank or improving the visibility of a Website or Web page in search results such as those generated by Google, Yahoo and Bing. SEO refers to the 'free' search results generated by these services. There are also paid services (broadly refereed to as SEM – search engine marketing) that can be employed to place Websites above the free search results. (One of these services is the AdWords service offered by Google. But, paid services will be reserved for a different discussion).

SEO may be used as a stand-alone Internet marketing strategy or as a part of a larger marketing plan. Whichever strategy you decide to use, the SEO principles and (good) practices are the same.

Before we begin our discussion of good SEO practices, I should say a quick word about companies that guarantee top 10 ranking or top rankings for a given amount of time. These services are a SCAM! Search engines programmers go to a lot of trouble to make sure that their systems can not be fooled, tricked, manipulated, etc. to give one site a top ranking all the time. And (thinking logically) if there were a trick to guaranteeing a high ranking, everyone would use it. The result would be that no site could be guaranteed to be in the top 10!

So, can anything be done to increase search engine ranking? YES! But, it involves knowing something about how search engines work, how to code in HTML, and the 'art' of writing copy for your Web pages. Let's look at a few good practices that will improve the ranking of your Website or Web page. (By the way, I continue to say, “good practices,” because there are methods known as “black hat” practices that will work to increase your Website's rankings. But, if the search engines discover you are using these methods, your site will be black listed and will be completely removed from search results).

Step 1 – define your target audience.
Wow, this sounds too much like traditional marketing. But, like traditional marketing, there are so many competitors on the Web, you will never stand out to everyone in every search. Defining an audience will greatly help when working through the following steps.

Your target audience may be everyone in a geographical area or everyone planning to visit a geographical area (Disney World for example). Some things to think about when defining your target audience are: age, social standing, economic class, religious affiliation and race.

The target audience might be anyone looking for a service / product you provide. But wait, this one is very broad again. And the idea of finding a target audience is to remove the 'broad' aspect of marketing. At this point it is good to remember that each page of your Website can be set to target a different group. When going through these steps, it's a good idea to think of them with respect to each page of your site!

Step 2 – create a list of key words and phrases.
If you were looking for your product / service on the Web, what might you type into the search bar of Google? Ask a few of your employees or friends to give you a few words or phrases they might use. You might even look at the copy on competitor's sites for a little inspiration (especially if their sites are ranking high on searches).

Once you have a list, give that to your Web developer or SEO expert. They should have tools that allow them to research the phrases most often used by people searching for the services or products you are selling. Your expert should then work with you to incorporate your list with those they've found through their research.

Step 3 – meta tags, copy and other Web stuff
Based on the list you and your expert come up with in step 2, your Web developer can now create meta tags (HTML code) that will allow search engines to 'figure out' what your site is about. The words and phrases from the list should also be incorporated into the copy of your site. Search engines actually test the 'reality' of your meta tag words and phrases by comparing them to your copy. If the page copy does not contain any of the keywords or phrases used in the meta tags, it is tagged as suspicious and possibly fraudulent.

A good Web programmer will also know that other tags should have references to these keywords and phrases as well – title tags, link tags, image tags, etc. should have attributes or wording that relate to the page's target audience, keywords and phrases.

Using the methods discussed in these steps will greatly improve the chances that your page will score high in search engine rankings. But, here are a few things to remember...

+ It may take two or three months to begin ranking high – search engines index pages on a regular basis. They like to see the page show up in the same category several times in a row. This is to decrease the change of including fraudulent pages. So, give it time to work.

+ Most search engines use click frequency to help rank sites/pages. This is because it is assumed that if your page is often clicked when certain phrases are used, it must be relevant to the search.

+ The phrases visitors to search engines use to find services and products can change over time. It is a good idea to review the keywords and phrases you are using periodically – at lease once every year.

+ Narrowing your target audience may be the best way to increase your ranking in search engine results. Remember there are literally MILLIONS of sites out there and every site is trying to get everyone's attention!

+ Finally, for best results take an active part in the process of SEO. Insist that your Web developer designs and codes your site to be search engine friendly. If he/she can't explain the practices and principles listed here, they probably don't really know much about designing for SEO. They may be able to develop an awesome looking site. But if they don't know about search engine friendly practices, your site ranking (and maybe sales) will suffer.