Ask nearly everyone and they’ll say that search engine optimization is intimidating. Search engine optimization – SEO for short – should be a familiar term and practice for anyone or any commercial company with a website. SEO is what you do to your website to get a higher ranking on search engines,particularly Google,Yahoo and MSN.The higher you rank the more likely someone will click through to your site and buy your stuff. Lately, information and tips on just how to do that can fill a library.
“I don’t think you can be in business without realizing that search is a big part of the tool you need – you need to have a strategy to be found,” says John Battelle, search guru and author of the book The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture.
And yet being found is still perceived as some sort of magic formula. “SEO is not sorcery or deception; just something that requires diligent research and staying on top of changes to the way search engines do things,” says Joe Balestrino, who runs the Mr. SEO website.
If someone enters the term pizza into Google, for example, the first results are most likely the product of SEO. Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s have all made an effort to rank in the top three spots on Google. Whether they remain there is something search engine marketers will need to stay on top of. Search engine marketing – SEM – are the tactics employed in order to rank higher, be they through paid search or other nonpaid methods. It could be by transforming a website’s look and feel to gain higher ranking.
Take the term iPod and plug it into Google. What you get is a sponsored (or paid) search result for Apple. The first nonpaid result is also Apple. Not a coincidence. The Apple brand is so strong that it ranks very high on unpaid results, and paying for a sponsored result is just bet hedging.
People who are new to selling on the Web can get very confused by the “science” behind SEO. Talk of relevant keywords, algorithms and cost per click can terrorize Web sales newcomers. It’s an issue that continues to frighten brand-name companies as well. Since the concept of SEO is only about eight or nine years old, most companies have typically hired a chief marketing officer with as little as two years’ experience in matters of SEO.
Companies are also realizing that search engine marketing is a full-time job and have created executive positions just to monitor and enact SEM strategies. Companies that will do your SEO for you are growing as well. Books and conferences continue to provide advice whether you are a newbie or have been practicing SEO for awhile.
While trying to demystify SEO for people who have gone to a few dozen websites and have not been able to understand it, we can’t ignore the advancements in SEO and how big the market has become. Search still finished first in online ad spend in 2006, to the tune of 40 percent of total online advertising revenue, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers. This trend of 40 percent is predicted to continue through 2010, according to eMarketer.
Back when there wasn’t a name for SEO, the tried-and-true way to rank high on search engine results pages was using as many keywords as you could in your content. If you sold cigars, putting the word cigar in your articles and written materials as many times as humanly possible would probably get you a pretty high ranking. With the ascension of Google and its algorithmic rankings, that doesn’t work so much anymore. Not to look too far under the hood, but the Google algorithm that ranks pages basically looks at who is linking to whom on the Internet and the quality of those pages. The more high-quality pages linking to you, the higher you get.
Most marketers employ a combination of SEO and paid search, also called pay per click, which results in a sponsored ad when someone searches for certain keywords. For example, that’s why searching for iPod brings up Apple’s URL in the sponsored position and as the first search result – or the “natural” search result.
Getting there has been considered by some as rocket science. And there is a current debate in the industry over whether SEO is too hard for the average Joe to execute effectively. Some consultants who do SEO say, of course, it’s a very difficult science. Critics claim that search gurus want to keep SEO sounding complicated so that they will continue to get your business.
“SEO is a new-school-of-marketing thought – switching someone’s beliefs is nearly as difficult as converting someone’s religion,” says Todd Malicoat, who consults on SEO from his StuntDubl.com site.
“I think that there’s a complete misnomer that SEO equals top position on the search engines,” says Dave Taylor, tech blogger at AskDaveTaylor.com. “In fact, smart SEO is much more about being findable for the specific keywords and phrases that will drive customers to your site, rather than just a more simplistic popularity contest.”
That said, there is no denying that SEM efforts continue to grow. Forty-two percent of advertisers say that their SEM budgets are new, says the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), in its recent annual survey of marketing executives. The survey also found that 83 percent of advertisers prefer organic (or natural, nonpaid) search, while 80 percent put paid search at second place. Respondents stated that sales was their primary goal for SEM – 59 percent said this. Fifty-three percent said brand awareness was the primary objective and 48 percent said lead generation was the goal. SEMPO’s 2005 survey stated that the North American search engine marketing industry grew to $5.75 billion. That’s a 44 percent jump over 2004.
“Search engine marketing is growing at a faster rate than television, than radio, than print media,” pepperjamSEARCH.com CEO Kristopher B. Jones said at a press conference in August 2006.
While brands are becoming more adept at SEO, a battle is still ongoing behind the scenes between traditional advertising and search marketing. “I think the big brands are starting to get it, but yes, at a snail’s pace,” says Mr. SEO’s Balestrino. He says that while a few of the “heavy hitters” have been looking for SEO people to get them started, most still rely on the word of their SEM. “As you might imagine, few SEMs are into SEO because it can greatly reduce the need for PPC over the long haul.”
Balestrino adds that some companies are starting to see PPC “for the losing battle it can become,” especially among highly competitive retailers and service providers. “The company who is willing to spend the most can rank the highest, but the ROI is dwindling because PPC costs are rising faster than inflation,” he says.
StuntDubl’s Malicoat says that “I no longer try to claim that ‘branding is dead,’ but that certainly won’t keep me from kicking it while it’s down. It’s amazing how often I see a big brand completely blow top search rankings that could have been achieved with a little understanding, some initial planning and very little additional budget.”
Keywords are Key
The camp that believes SEO is not an intricate science say the first thing any SEO beginner needs to do is figure out what your relevant keywords are. Since the major search engines are organizing results based on the word or words people type into the engine, knowing how to organize your keywords is step one. Plus, coming up with all the applicable keywords for your site helps you understand much more clearly what it is you sell.
You can find these keywords by writing down as many as you can think of, or you can survey your core audience. You can also buy software to help you come up with words. There are sites and software to help you find the value in the keywords you have come up with, such as Overture.com (now known as Yahoo Search Marketing) and WordTracker.com.
Statistics associated with your keywords will help you decide what words get more traffic than others. Companies such as Trellian offer SEO software tool kits that help manage keywords, check your rankings, edit your meta tags and create PPC bid comparisons, among other things. For your cigar site, for example, “Dominican cigars” may get far more traffic than “Mexican cigars.” In fact, the latter may do so poorly as to warrant omission when it comes to keyword bidding.
What you are shooting for is a site that can be easily indexed by a search engine. Search engines send out automatic programs that look for new content and create an index based on the words on each website page. That means that attention to Web design and quality writing will boost your site’s chances of getting high rankings. For example, try to keep each Web page small in size, have no broken links, use correct HTML, a server that is up all the time, no identical Web pages on your site and good, clear navigation. All these elements help the site get indexed by search engines.
Some believe that little things such as title tags can make a difference in your site’s rankings as well. Title tags are the one-sentence descriptions coded into the HTML that are displayed at the top of the browser when you visit a page. Organizing your site in URLs that make sense also may contribute to rankings (URLs that show the structure of the site in words as opposed to a series of numbers). Something as simple as a sitemap page helps when you are being indexed.
Especially in Google the more sites that link to your pages the higher your ranking will be. This is called backlinking and is very effective when “high quality” sites link to you – and is even more effective if the link text itself contains one of your keywords. This may mean you will need to put on a public relations hat and send information or press releases to other sites. Joining industry Web forums can help get the word out as well.
This is how SEO has operated over the last few years. There have been many nuances along the way and those degrees of execution are what make SEO seem very impenetrable. In recent years, companies and website owners have opted to buy SEO from firms that do it for you – pepperjamSEARCH.com, Prominent Placement, Fathom SEO, SEOInc.com, EngineReady.com, Adoofa.com and iProspect, just to name a few.
SEMPO’s annual survey indicates that more companies are interested in outsourcing their SEO, but the overall numbers are still small. Only 26 percent of advertisers plan to outsource half or more of their paid-placement budgets for 2007. About two-thirds said they plan to do all of their organic SEO in-house. Only 10 percent said they would outsource all of their SEO needs. The high tech sector is also not immune to the difficulties of search. Among top software firms surveyed by marketing research firm MarketingSherpa, 25 percent were not “sufficiently optimized for search engine visibility.”
Some search pundits and bloggers continue to believe that big companies are slowly awakening to the power search brings to their brands. “Big companies are doing too little, and many small companies are too focused on SEO at the price of good content production. The magic bullet is just to produce lots of good, fresh unique content; not to play SEO games and trick people into linking to you,” says Taylor.
Having everyone on the same side of the fence would solidify search as a must-have for all companies. Currently the jury is still out about what constitutes the best approach to search. Some critics have written that SEO is a “one-time fix” – that once a site is optimized, you won’t have to touch it again. Counterarguments are that sites have to change as search engine algorithms change. “I think there are more than a few [SEO firms] that give companies the indication that over-thinking an SEO strategy is necessary, when in reality, it isn’t,” says Mr. SEO’s Balestrino. He says that most companies budget SEO expenditures pretty low, but not necessarily too low to be effective. He says to be wary of the “overly grandiose implementation.”
Others predict that the future of SEO is specialization – broad-category specialists who see SEO as “just plain marketing” and people who will specialize in areas such as keyword research, link building and analytics.
Search engine marketers are still having a hard time because so many of them working for mid to large companies are not focusing exclusively on SEO. A JupiterResearch/iProspect survey found that 88 percent of SEMs are doing SEO; however, 58 percent of them are doing website design, 26 percent do public relations, 44 percent do market research and 22 percent do direct mail. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many hats for overworked SEMs.
This is where legitimate SEO firms hope to gain ground. While MarketingSherpa research stated that SEO firms were still mostly “mom-and-pops,” staffs are growing at these firms and client accounts have doubled. MarketingSherpa says there are a handful of SEO firms reporting more than $10 million in revenues from SEM work and there are at least a few companies reporting $20 million in SEM revenues. The research reveals that most of these businesses have only been in operation for about four years at the most.
Some say that the buy-in from companies who could use search isn’t complete. SEMPO’s 2005 marketing survey stated that only 37 percent of companies said that executives were “moderately interested in search engine marketing practices.” Even companies who would like to outsource their SEM appear to be intimidated by the choices. “The biggest mistake is not doing enough homework on who is reputable and what works,” says StuntDubl’s Malicoat. “Companies should search names, company names, past company names and really be diligent in learning what is going to work best for them.”
Battelle is straightforward when it comes to telling companies what they need to do. “It is hurting companies that don’t use search,” he says. “It is our user interface. It is like a listing in the Yellow Pages.”