The Web offers an awesome marketing advantage for small and medium-sized businesses -- providing you don’t bungle the art of getting your website to show up under the right search engine keywords and categories.

Google alone handles 91 million queries per month, according to the trade publication Search Engine Watch. That gives a business millions of opportunities to get your products and services in front of potential customers.

However, opportunities don’t matter if the company website isn’t organized properly. “Without careful planning, I have personally seen businesses spend thousands or millions of dollars in unnecessary advertising expenses,” says Shari Thurow, head of Web design firm Grantastic Designs, of Carpentersville, Ill. and author of the upcoming book Search Engine Visibility.

Microsoft Online claims 42 to 86 percent of Internet users rely each day on search engines and directories to find websites. And if you happen to be making the following mistakes, potential customers won’t be finding your business online anytime soon.

Screw up #1: I’ll think about Web search optimization later

The more frequent mistake that companies make when opening for business online is not planning ahead of time for search engine optimization, the art of having your website show up under certain keyword and category searches, experts say.

Thurow says poor site planning means:

  • The content management system isn’t search-engine friendly.
  • The content itself contains few or no accessible keyword phrases.
  • The content is mostly image or video-based, meaning no text for search engines.

“Search engine optimization, as an online marketing strategy, has existed for over 10 years, yet businesses still have the attitude, ‘Build my site first, then optimize it for the commercial Web search engines,’” Thurow says. With a poorly planned site, she says,  “Search engine advertising will then be necessary for any type of search engine visibility.” That means paying for something that should be for free.

Screw up #2: Trusting miracle workers and not doing your homework

Some companies claiming to be search engine experts offer pie-in-the-sky results for a nominal fee. Their advertising pitches go like this -- “Move up in Google rankings” and “Get thousands of links.” Their services come with a fee, of course, but some of their tactics could lead your company to be bounced off search engines if you’re not careful.

On one hand, Web optimization is something that everyone is doing. There are all sorts of programming tricks and techniques that can fool the search engines into moving a webpage up in the rankings. On the other hand, some of the tricks -- such as creating off-topic links to get more traffic, keyword spamming, hidden text, interlinking -- are considered “black hat” tactics that can get a site expelled from certain search engines.

“Any search marketing firm that gives these sales pitches are called ‘black-hat’ search engine marketers, and this group does not follow all of the terms and conditions set forth by the search engines,” Thurow says. “By not following search engine guidelines, websites get penalized or completely removed from a search engine index. I see it happen all of the time. Believe me, it is no easy process to get a site unbanned.”

Screw up #3: If you want to do it yourself, do the research

In the world of entrepreneurs, many times marketing becomes a do-it-yourself thing. It may be tempting to put together a website on your own with an off-the-shelf Web publishing program. While it may work as a starting point, consider hiring (or better yet, bartering) with someone who knows the ins-and-outs of making a website search-engine friendly. Or plan on doing some research.

A variety of resources exist now that can give you the low-down on certain techniques to try to improve your rankings. Many categories are broken down by the different search engines. Recommended resources include: the book Google Power by Chris Sherman and the websites Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Guide.

Screw  up #4: Not knowing where your customer is coming from

Some entrepreneurs just type in their product category into Google or their favorite search engine to better know their market. Then they use that information to target keywords or categories for search engine optimization. Jennifer Laycock, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Guide, says, “The problem with this is that it doesn’t really cover the full scope of possibilities.”

Laycock recommends going a step further and doing keyword research, a process that allows you to tap into the databases of searches consumers are conducting on the major search engines. You can then find out what unusual searches actually lead to your site  -- and which natural searches are leading to your competitors.

Some keyword research services are Word Tracker and Trillian’s Keyword Discovery.

Screw up #5: Assuming everyone just uses Google

Google may seem like the end-all, but experts say optimizing your website for other search engines, such as MSN Search and, is just as important. In fact, some argue that Yahoo! gets better search results and follow-through from consumers.

Determine what search engine consumers are using to get to your website and plan accordingly. Even the most basic site tracking software can tell you how customers are linking to your page. “Without analytics software,” Thurow says, “website owners are just guessing.”