Desperately Seeking Web Sites

Search engines such as Google and Yahoo! troll the Internet constantly, categorizing and ranking Web sites so users can find what they're looking for. Those listings are free, and extremely popular: Searching is more common than any other online activity besides email and general surfing. And users trust those listings much more than rankings based on clickthroughs from paid ads.

Every search engine uses different techniques to rank Web sites. If you understand those techniques, you can actually move your site higher in the rankings. This is called search engine optimization (SEO), one aspect of search engine marketing (SEM), which also includes such techniques as paying to be listed or to be ranked higher. Currently, most businesses haven't optimized their Web sites for search engines, which means there's a competitive advantage to doing so. However, it's an advantage that won't be around forever.

So how do you go about optimizing your site to make sure it stands out from the crowd? You'll probably need to work with a professional firm specializing in Web services. While the concept of SEO is simple, the execution is complicated and constantly in flux. As you begin the process of optimizing, here are some guidelines to keep in mind.

Choose your keywords.
Search engines use keywords and phrases to rank sites. You'll need to define a set of keywords targeted to your audience and based on your business goals, competitive advantages, and key messages. Try to think from a user's perspective: What words or phrases will they use when trying to find you? You may sell hats, but your customers may call them caps, lids, or fedoras. Choosing the right keywords is the crucial first step to search engine optimization.

Use the keywords.
Next, insert your keywords into the URLs, page titles, and content of your Web pages. There are lots of little tricks to this. For example, the most effective page titles are about 75 characters long and include the most important keywords at the beginning. On each page, keywords and phrases should represent between 2 percent and 3 percent of the total content.

Make links and influence people.
The more links to your site from relevant and trusted sources, the higher you'll rank with search engines. For example, always list your site with online business directories, even if you think no one will find you through them. Those links may not produce any direct leads, but they could bump you up in the search engine rankings, especially if the directories are popular or highly visited sources.

Know your audience.
People searching the Internet don't all use the same search engines. Research shows that older audiences still prefer AOL and professional audiences tend to opt for MSN and Google. Younger audiences often like Yahoo!, and Ask.com is on the rise. Only about one-third of users consistently use a single search engine. Knowing your audience will help your Web-services firm decide which search engine to optimize for.

Those are just a few tips to search engine optimization -- there are many, many more. Once your site has been optimized, check to see how you're doing in the search engine rankings. As time goes by, you'll need to keep tweaking your Web site to stay on top of the heap. The average user won't scroll past the first two or three pages of a search-results page, so you should aim to land within the top 20 results in your search category.

It takes time, effort, and money to optimize your Web site for search engines. But what's the cost to your company if you don't optimize? Lost revenue? A drop in brand awareness? Unlike other investments you might make, it's easy to measure the results of search engine optimization: more clicks, more visitors, and more sales. Isn't that what every business is searching for?

About the author
Jeff McPherson is director of client services for SilverTech, a leading New England-based interactive firm. McPherson works with clients such as Pizza Fusion, American Water, Eastern Propane, Dr. Hauschka Skin Care, and others to develop long-term online marketing and technology relationships. He can be reached at jeff.mcpherson@silvertech.com.

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