Think of your site as a physical location. How would you get people to come and see you? Direct mail, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, word of mouth, flyers, business cards, T-shirts, packaging, FaceBook, Twitter, email campaigns, banner ads on websites – traditional advertising works for websites too.
Then there are those methods you can only use for websites: click through advertising and search engine optimization (SEO). Click through advertising costs either by the ad, like traditional advertising, or by the click – each time someone clicks on your ad to get to your site, you pay. As with other advertising channels, the more people who are known to view the page where your ad resides, the more you pay. Ads can appear on various web sites, or at the top of search engine pages. The most popular pay per click app is Google AdWords. Click through advertising may be a good option for you.
This article will focus on the other online only method: Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SEO is all about getting your site to the top of the list when someone does a search in Google, Bing/Yahoo or another search engine.
Watch out for Snake Oil
Many claim that search engine optimization (getting your site to the top of that list) is science or magic or some other sort of mystery that only a few very special people have the brains to understand. – NOT TRUE! Effective search engine optimization is a lot of work. And it does take some technical knowledge. But the basics are just that – basic.
The purpose of this article is to demystify SEO so that you can select an honest SEO firm. Or if you have a bit of tech savvy you can see that it’s not impossible for you to do on your own. And even for those of you who love to browse, but aren’t so comfortable with the technical details, there is a lot of the SEO job that you are more qualified to do (or at least supervise) than any SEO firm.
How much SEO do you need?
Is your site for your school and everybody who will ever want to find it on Google already knows it exists and will look it up by typing in “Peoria Middle School”? Then you need just the tiniest bit of SEO.
Is your site for your family car dealership and the tri-state area sees Uncle Joe on TV every spring hopping up and down in a bunny suit inviting “y’all” to “come on down to the Kalamazoo Kia Kangaroo Sale”? Yours is not the only car dealer in town and when people search for car dealers they will probably type in something like “Kalamazoo cars” rather than “Kalamazoo Kia”, although if they really like Uncle Joe’s bunny suit, well you never can tell. This situation calls for a little SEO.
Is your business is entirely online? Say you sell remanufactured camera parts that you refurbish in your garage nights and weekends. Then pull out all the stops. You need lots of SEO.
Put Yourself in Google’s Shoes
Look at SEO from the perspective of the search engines. What’s their objective? The same as yours: lots of visitors. How do they attract all these visitors? They put the most useful sites at the top of the search results list. How do they decide which sites are most useful? They look for the most popular ones.
That’s right. SEO is not rocket science. It’s a popularity contest.
So then, how do you make your site more popular? First let’s define popularity in search terms – links from other sites to your site. Think high school. Popularity equals friends. So you want lots of friends, and not just any friends, you want popular friends. But well, when push comes to shove, not so popular friends are better than no friends at all. Translation – friends equals links and you want lots of links, but not just any links. You want links from sites that have lots of other sites linking to them. And those sites should have lots of sites linking to them and so on and so on and so on. A link from CNN.com is going to get you a lot more popularity points than a link from your local newspaper website. But then a hundred links from so-so sites might be better than one link from CNN. It’s hard to tell.
And that’s where the mystery/science SEO legend takes hold. The search engines are not going to tell you exactly how they rank pages. If they gave away all their secrets the cheaters would fake everything necessary to get to the top of the list.
There is a subculture of SEO gurus who spend their entire lives trying to unravel the precise algorithms the major search engines use to rank pages. And then they figure out how to use that information to their advantage. It’s a trial and error process. Eventually they get sites to rank high. Then the major search engines catch on and tweak things a bit so the SEO gurus have to start over again. It’s a never ending game of tug of war.
Not all these gurus are bad guys. Most are honest business people working to get the edge on the competition. But how much careful tweaking does your site really need? And how much money do you want to spend? It’s one of those diminishing returns things. Up to a point spending more time and money will yield a greater and greater ranking, and then, boom, a huge amount more will yield almost nothing.
Is there anything to SEO besides links?
Yes. KEYWORDS. These are the words and phrases that are typed into the search bar. In order for the search engines to find your site these keywords must be coded into almost every page on your site.
The nitty gritty
I am going to show you:
How to pick keywords and
Where to find sites willing to link to yours.
That’s it. That’s the gist of the whole SEO thing. No big mystery.
These are the words (and/or phrases) that people type in the search bar when they are looking for sites like yours. They also tell the search engines that your site exists and what it is all about.
You need to pick words that people will use to find your site, but that will yield few enough results that you are more likely to appear near the top of the list.
Let’s use the example of Kalamazoo KIA. You don’t want to use “car” for a keyword. I tried that and Google gave me 4.9 billion results. What’s the likelihood that Kalamazoo Kia is going to be anywhere near the top of that list? Zero. Kia” would be better, but still too broad. “Kalamazoo cars”, “kalamazoo kia”, “michigan kia”, “kalamazoo new cars”, these would all yield a smaller pool of results. So how many keywords do you need? 10 or 15 is good. Too many gets us to that diminishing returns thing again. So I’ve thought up four words on my own and now my imagination has run out. What other words might potential Kalamazoo Kia customers type in? I can’t read minds, but I can find out. There is this cool tool, Google AdWords, and it is free. Once you register you can type in various keywords, “Kalamazoo Kia” for instance, and find out what related searches people have used and how popular those search terms are. Da! Da! – more useful key words. I found “kalamazoo kia dealerships”. After doing a Google search for “kalamazoo kia” I found out why it was necessary to add the “dealerships”. Kalamazoo has “kia’s” that are not even cars. Who’d a thunk?
So you’ve got your key words. What do you do with them? Use them in your url (site name – http://www.mykeywords.com ), have your web designer add them to the title and description tags on your web pages, and use them liberally, but not too liberally throughout your site copy.
Now that you have your keywords entered on your site pages, the search engines can categorize you by these keywords. Next you want to make sure that people searching for your category find you and not your competition.
You want to be popular. You have got to get links. It’s time to pound the cyber pavement. SEO professionals can do this work for you but if you’re on a budget you can do most of the work yourself.
Get listed in industry directories. If you are selling necklaces you could search for “jewelry directory”.
Pursue reciprocal links. Look for sites that may be willing to link to your site, so long as you link to theirs. Continuing with the necklace example you would search for “jewelry add url”.
If you have a physical location, get your site listed on local directory/yellow page type sites.
Participate in industry forums, and if the forum allows, work a link to your site into your advice.
If there are any events associated with your site, list them on online community calendars.
Get an article, listing or mention about your site on the sites of any industry associations you belong to.
Write a press release and submit it to free press release sites like freepressrelease.com.
Try to get the sites that link to yours to use your keywords in their link.
BAD – Click here to find out about refurbished camera parts.
GOOD – Click here to find out about refurbished camera parts.
Don’t hide from the search engines
DO have your web designer generate sitemap.xml and robots.txt files add them to your site. The search engines look for these files when they are trolling the internet for sites.
Don’t make the search engines mad
Playing dirty tricks, in an attempt to make your site appear popular, can get you blacklisted. Yep, the Search engines will turn their heads and pretend you don’t exist. You will not appear anywhere in the listings. If this happens you can appeal but your chances are not good. Your best hope if you are blacklisted is to start over with a brand new site.
So what are these dirty tricks? Some are simple, and some are complicated, but make sure your SEO firm doesn’t do any of them. They include repeating your keywords multiple times, keyword stuffing (hiding keywords by making the text the same color as the background), using keywords that don’t relate to your site’s content, automated programs that generate fake links just to make you look popular, robots that create zillions of pages for your site that are really just copies of your existing pages with a few changes here and there, to make you look important and popular. There are many others, but generally speaking, anything that attempts to make you look more popular than you really are is bad.
Putting SEO to work
Let’s go back to our 3 examples from the beginning of this article. How do we apply SEO to each one?
Peoria Middle School – a few keywords – “peoria school” “peoria middle school” and for those who can’t seem to get it right “peoria intermediate school” should do it. That way people who look you up on Google rather than by typing in your url http://www.peoriamiddleschool.com will be able to find you.
Kalamazoo Kia- most of your potential customers already know who you are. They’re “either looking for a new car or a new KIA car. They’re looking for deals, pictures of the latest models, or they want your phone number or customer service hours. There aren’t too many car dealers in town so you are popular among car dealers by default – not too much need to worry about links. You’ll need your keywords. Then you can list with the “local directory” sites and the car dealer and KIA directories. Are you participating in this year’s food drive? Make an announcement on your local online community calendars. A couple of popularity points won’t kill you but you don’t have to work too hard.
Cal’s Re-engineered camera parts – you are a needle in a haystack. You need all the help you can get. You’ll need keywords of course. And a comprehensive linking campaign. You might not have much money to spend on an SEO firm so you must work like the tortoise: slow and steady. Do a few press releases, check out all the industry sites and camera buff sites and organizations. Respond on forums – become an expert. Find some reciprocal links. Get listed in directories. Do a little bit everyday. Eventually you will become known to those who are looking for refurbished camera parts.
Who can help me get the job done?
Help! You said SEO wasn’t rocket science. This is getting complicated. I can’t do this all on my own – who will help?
Well it’s not rocket science and it’s not magic; neither is styling hair, but you won’t find me anywhere near anyone’s head with a pair of scissors. SEO does require specialized knowledge. If you have that knowledge, great, you can do this on your own if you choose, but for those who don’t the purpose of this article to get you to understand the basics, show you which parts you can do on your own (I can’t cut my own hair, but I do wash and brush it every day), and to help you find an honest vendor for the rest.
SEO firm – as long as they have access to the back end of your site they can do it all for you. Refer to this article and ask questions. Make sure the firm is above board.
Web designer – Your web designer should be able to put your keywords into your pages and create and upload your sitemap.xml and robots.txt files. Beyond that their ability and willingness to help with SEO will vary greatly. You may prefer a web designer who specializes or one that does it all.
What you can do on your own if you choose – you know your business/project better than your web designer or SEO firm. You are in a better position than they are to figure out your keywords and to determine which sites you want to link back to yours. You can also do a lot of the leg work if you choose – contacting sites and asking for links, writing press releases, making announcements on community calendars, participating in forum discussions, etc.
If you do all of the above, tailored to your specific situation of course, you will be ahead of the SEO game. Use common sense. Spend the time and money you need, but don’t go overboard and reach the point of diminishing returns. And remember, SEO takes time to yield results.