Building or revamping a website can be one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of your marketing effort, but getting your site online is really only half the battle. What if you build it, and nobody comes?
You need search engines to drive traffic to your site, and for that to happen, you need good SEO (Search Engine Optimization). SEO involves specific things you can do to your site to increase your chances of landing near the top of searches for certain terms. Good SEO makes you more visible to your target customers when they search for products and services like yours. Bad SEO not only doesn’t accomplish that, but it can actually get you punished by Google (still the reigning king of search engines).
SEO can be tricky, because the algorithms used by the search engines are constantly evolving. Tactics used five years ago are simply not effective now. According to Kathy Hokunson, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Site-Seeker, Inc., good website content is now the key to search performance. “Fresh and relevant content is really important, not only to SEO, but also to keep your clients and prospects fully engaged,” she said.
Site content now trumps structural tactics like meta tags in terms of increasing the likelihood of top search placement. “Meta tags used to be very important for SEO,” said Brigitte DiBenedetto, web designer and principal of iGrafix Creative Solutions. “Site owners or webmasters would stuff more keywords into the meta tags than a competitor, and simply outrank them. The big search engines caught on to that pretty quickly and changed their algorithm.”
That’s not to say that correct coding of the site isn’t important. “Proper semantic HTML gives structure to a website,” continued DiBenedetto. “The site visitor obviously doesn’t see the markup, but search engines do. They assign value to the content based on the markup. Semantic HTML is also better understood by a variety of devices, making a site more accessible.”
So is it possible to “over-optimize” your site? According to an announcement from Google, it is — and they’re not letting sites get away with it. At the recent SXSW interactive technology conference, Google’s Matt Cutts said that the search engine will begin to penalize sites that use performance-enhancing tactics that are not backed up with quality site content. These tactics might include overuse of keywords, keyword stuffing, irrelevant content, and over-exchanging of links, although any specifics on exactly what will be penalized (and how it will be penalized) remains unclear.
Your goal should be to create site content that is of interest to your target audience, and to use keywords within that content that those people are likely to search for. If you want better search engine performance but aren’t sure how to start, here are five tips from the experts that can get things moving in the right direction.
- Figure out what your target audience is searching for. “Keywords are critical, and the right keywords are super critical,” said Hokunson. “The Google external keyword tool is a great place to start your keyword research. Look for longer search phrases, because the more modifiers in a search term, the further along in the buy cycle the user is. For example, if you sell widgets, someone searching just for the term widgets doesn’t really know exactly what they want. It will be highly competitive for you to position there. However, a person who searches for ‘blue widgets with pink trim next day delivery’ is a buyer. There will be fewer searches for that phrase, but if you are optimized for it your conversion rate will be extremely high compared to the traffic for widget.”
- Find ways to keep your site stocked with fresh, updated content. “It’s a simple formula: update your site regularly with unique and relevant content, add the appropriate keywords, and you’ll beat your competition in the search results,” said DiBenedetto. “Creating blog posts at least once a month is a great way to accomplish that.”
- Get social! According to Hokunson, social sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ can create a double benefit for your website. The content you post to social media can spur interest and drive traffic to your site, and search engines also index that content so that it turns up in searches, often very high. “Social media has had a huge impact on SEO,” she said.
- Understand your website’s current visitors. “Google Analytics shows which search terms were used by visitors that brought them to your site, and it also tracks visits to your site,” said DiBenedetto. Make sure Google Analytics is installed on your site, and check it often. You might be surprised (in a good way or a bad way) at which keywords and search terms are driving people to you.
- Be one of the good guys. Years ago, the web development industry coined terms “black hat” and “white hat” to refer to people who broke the rules (black hat) versus those who didn’t (white hat). As search engines have become more and more capable of punishing the bad guys, it has become increasingly important to do the right thing and avoid shady SEO tactics. “Buying links is a big no-no, as are duplicate content and black hat efforts like hiding white keywords on a white background,” said Hokunson. “Basically, if you are trying to get around the rules, you run the risk of being penalized or bounced. And Google sets the rules.”