Search Engine Optimization

You can't resist the temptation. Fixated on your computer screen, you anxiously type keywords relevant to your business into your favorite search engine. A list of search results appears. You cringe as you spot several competitors, then grumble because your company's Web site is nowhere to be seen. Where is it? That depends. Where is your search engine marketing strategy?

Gone are the days when adding keywords in meta tags to your site produced rankings. Search engine marketing has evolved into a complex and competitive program. It's also profitable—according to a March 2003 report by Piper Jaffray senior research analyst Safa Rashtchy, online search is the most cost-effective direct-marketing method. The average cost per lead from search is 29 cents, far less than e-mail (50 cents), the Yellow Pages ($1.18), banner ads ($2.00) and direct mail ($9.94).

Gather your Web design and marketing staff; both teams are required. Understanding search engine marketing basics will help your team execute a strategy in-house or outsource it to specialists. The sooner your site is visible for relevant keywords, the sooner future customers will find your company.

How Do Search Engines Work?

Many business owners are unaware that search engines feed their results to each other. For example, if you type a keyword into MSN Search on Microsoft's consumer information and entertainment site, the Web site listings displayed could be from Inktomi, Microsoft or Overture. Overture provides search results not only to MSN Search, but also to AltaVista and Yahoo! Could a top site on Overture then appear as a top site on a distribution partner's site? Yes. Unfortunately, these distribution relationships change frequently, making it difficult to determine exactly where results come from.

The challenging part, however, is figuring out how to land a top position in the search engines. There are two complementary yet completely different types of methods: optimization and advertising.

Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to enhancing your Web site design to make it more appealing to crawler-based search engines. An automated robot, also referred to as a spider, is sent out to crawl the Web looking for site pages to add to the search engine's database. A mathematical algorithm then determines the ranking of pages in the database for the keywords consumers use. These rankings are referred to as natural or organic listings.

Search engine advertising, on the other hand, enables you to buy listings for your keywords. Positions achieved this way are referred to as paid or sponsored listings. The most popular program in this category is pay-for-placement. These programs typically allow advertisers to open an account for $5 to $50, then bid on keywords for a minimum amount of 5 or 10 cents per click. Advertisers outbid each other for a higher position by increasing their bids by 1 cent per click. Only when a consumer clicks your listing is your account debited.

Are you disappointed to learn that search engines don't magically and objectively find the "best" sites on the Web? That's understandable. However, it was always possible to influence search results. Today, it simply costs more. Yet, for companies willing to invest the time and money, it's well worth it. The plan begins with the right set of keywords.

Making Keywords Count

If you have the wrong set of terms, your site won't rank well in algorithm-based search engines. Plus, you'll waste money on pay-per-placement programs by attracting browsers, not buyers. To create an effective list of keywords, start with these suggestions:

Company names: Start with the name of your company, products and services. Include misspellings and plural forms of words, if appropriate.

Themes: Consider related words your customers might use to describe your business. People looking for an automobile insurance company might type in "car insurance" or "auto insurance." Perhaps drivers are likely to switch insurance providers when they buy a new car or used car, which would be good terms, too.

Profile your competitors: Your competitors are excellent sources of ideas. Study the keywords in their Web sites and their metatags. From your browser toolbar, click on "View," and then select "Source." If they're using metatags, you'll see keywords listed at the top of the page.

Then, brainstorm ideas about how your customers are looking for your business. "Think like your customers," recommends Nacho Hernandez, 30-year-old co-founder of online Mexican grocery store MexGrocer.com, a La Jolla, California, firm that projects 2004 sales to hit more than $1 million. "A majority of our customers are English-speaking Americans, but most use Spanish keywords because they want the more authentic products. So they'll search for 'salsa verde' instead of 'green sauce,'" Hernandez says. "While we market hundreds of keywords equally split between Spanish and English, we were surprised to see [that] 440 percent more traffic and 200 percent more sales come from the Spanish words."

Of course, if nobody is looking for certain keywords, it's pointless to promote those. That's why a popularity check is important. Search engine marketers typically use Overture's free Search Term Suggestion Tool and the subscription-based program Wordtracker. These tools reveal how many people search for your keywords. Moreover, these tools and Google AdWords' free Keyword Suggestions tool will provide suggestions of related phrases consumers use. Finalize your list to include relevant yet popular keywords.

Getting Optimal Results

Modifying your site to please the search engine spiders can be tedious. Be prepared to wait weeks or months for your site's natural rankings to improve. Although top listings aren't guaranteed, time-consuming efforts can pay off.

"The credibility boost is huge," says Gary Salzman, 47-year-old co-founder of coffee resource retailer site WholeLatteLove.com. The Victor, New York-based business projects 2004 sales of more than $10 million. "Consumers see that natural listings are awarded to highly relevant sites. That's the match they want."

To make your site relevant for your keywords, it's important to realize that sites don't compete against other sites for rankings. It's Web page against Web page. Therefore, each site page needs to be assigned a set of keywords. Focus on the pages that have valuable content for your visitors and are good for new visitors to land on first. A few places your keywords need to be included:

Meta tags: This tactic alone has absolutely no impact on your rankings, but your keywords still need to be in the meta title, description and keyword tags of each site page you'd like ranked. The page title and description are often used as the Web site listing in the search results.

Alternative text (ALT tag): Mouse over an image, and you may see a text box appear if the Web designer has used alternative text. Try to use a different, but related, phrase for each ALT tag on a page.

Page copy: The keywords you want your site to rank well for must be in your page copy. The thought is, if your site visitors can see them, then your page is relevant for those terms.

Hyperlinks within your site: Don't link "click here" copy to other pages within your site. Hyperlink keyword phrases instead, because search engines follow these links and the keywords in them.

Link popularity is also a chief ingredient in an SEO campaign. Your site needs to link to other related sites and, more important, well-ranked and content-relevant sites should link to yours. Run a search for your keywords in Google or Teoma and evaluate the natural listings. Contact sites that aren't direct competitors, and offer to trade links or buy one. Marketleap has a free Link Popularity Check tool which shows you how many pages link to yours and how many link to your competitors.

You're not done yet. Once your site is optimized, a majority of search engines need to be notified to crawl your site. Unfortunately, most search engines now require an inclusion fee. It may be a per-URL fee, a fixed per-click fee on any site rankings you achieve, or a combination of both. Inktomi, Overture and Teoma are examples. Google is still free and will index your site on its own; however, you can use the "Add URL" form if your site isn't in its database.

"Analyze, optimize, submit, monitor, then repeat the process," says Shari Thurow, webmaster and marketing director of SEO firm Grantastic Designs and author of Search Engine Visibility. "Getting top-10 positions and maintaining them is an ongoing process. A site should always get consistent, high-quality traffic from the search engines," Thurow adds. "It's also an ongoing challenge to determine what competitors are doing to achieve search engine visibility."

Thurow recommends evaluating site statistics reports monthly. Once your site is fully optimized and submitted to the search engines, maintenance can usually be done on a quarterly basis.

Is your anxiety level increasing yet? Don't worry. There's a quick way to get any position you want. Just buy it.

Buying Your Way to the Top

Pay-for-placement is the easy way to get a top position in search results. Open an account, then choose your keywords, set keyword bids, write a title and description for each keyword or group of keywords, then designate a landing page for each keyword or group of keywords. Your ad listings will be live as soon as editors approve them. Typically, these listings are placed under a "Sponsored Listing" type of header to set them apart from natural listings.

On FindWhat.com, Kanoodle.com and Overture, positions are awarded to the highest bidder. A one-penny bid over an advertiser moves your listing above his. On Google AdWords, positions are given based on the combination of bid amount and click-through rate. That means the highest bid doesn't automatically get the number-one spot. Consumers are part of the voting process. Ad listings that aren't clicked will drop.

Wondering how often to update your bids? Watch your competitors. If they perform daily or weekly updates, you'll probably need to do the same to keep the positions you want. Maintaining a top-three to top-five position is important, because those generally appear as sponsored listings across the distribution network. That means greater visibility and resulting traffic.

Bid management tools such as BidRank and PPC Pro automate this process for you. Companies such as Atlas OnePoint (formerly Go Toast) and Did-it.com even offer tools that manage your bids based on your cost-per-lead or cost-per-sale goals. Pay-per-click is still time-consuming to manage, but at least the results are instantaneous and often rewarding. For example, these campaigns added more than 60 percent to WholeLatteLove.com's total growth in 2003.

Tools alone won't improve your conversion rates. Compelling ad listings and landing pages that persuade people to complete an intended action make or break your results.

"Don't misrepresent your offer," warns Salzman. He noticed that out of 60 competing ad listings for "espresso machine reviews," only 38 percent showed what they said they would in their ad copy. "Consumers make snap judgments in seconds. Lose their trust, and they'll back out of your site to click on your competitors' listings. The back button is not your friend."

Don't panic over this crash course in search engine marketing. In addition to the resources listed here, you can turn to SearchEngineWatch.com, the educational hub for search engine marketers. You can also meet with search engine representatives and marketing experts at Jupitermedia's Search Engine Strategies conferences, or breathe easier by outsourcing your campaigns. Just make sure your Web site can be found by using relevant keywords. Your customers are waiting.

Catherine Seda is author of Search Engine Advertising, and runs search engine marketing seminar series