Even companies that do big business online struggle to be noticed by Google users. The Web, after all, is home to some 120 million Internet domains and tens of billions of indexed pages. But every company, big or small, can draw more Google traffic by using search-engine optimization -- SEO, for short.
Traffic is directly related to your site's rank among Google's search results -- the higher the rank, the more you get. The specific algorithms, or formulas, that Google and other search engines use to rank websites are closely guarded secrets, but the basic components are widely known. SEO involves tailoring your website to satisfy as many of the ranking criteria as possible.
SEO isn't magic. It probably won't land your site among the Top 10 websites for highly popular search terms. Nor will it drive traffic to a site that doesn't offer anything of value. Still, says Stephen Woessner, author of The Small Business Owner's Handbook to Search Engine Optimization, "you should be able to increase your rankings significantly, and even score some Top 10 rankings on keywords that matter."
Do you need a consultant to do SEO? Only if you don't have time. (Expect to spend about an hour per page.) What follows will help you improve performance on two of the most important ranking factors: the strength of keywords associated with a page and the organization and functionality of the website.
1. Choosing Keywords
The basic premise of keyword optimization is simple: Discover the search words that potential customers are using to find products or services like yours, and then build your Web content around those words. What complicates matters is that countless other websites are trying to do the same thing.
Understand the competitive ratio. Generally speaking, the more popular (or potentially lucrative) the search term, the more websites compete to rank high for that search term. Yes, you want to rank high on popular terms -- but if you don't have limitless resources, it is wise to target search terms for which you have a realistic shot at a high ranking. The best keywords, says Jill Whalen, a longtime SEO practitioner and head of the consultancy High Rankings, are "words and phrases that are being searched but that may have been overlooked by other websites."
An effective way to find such terms is to calculate the ratio of the number of pages a search returns to the popularity of the search term. "You have to look at the competitiveness of every keyword phrase that's relevant to what you offer," Whalen says.
Do the math. First, draw up a list of the keywords -- or, better yet, keyword phrases -- a potential customer might plausibly search if he or she were looking for your product. (A bike retailer, for example, might start with variations on bike, bicycle, and cycling; a specialty shop might also try bike frames and bike components.)
Then, see how often users search for these terms by plugging each into keyword-tracking tools such as Wordtracker (wordtracker.com), Keyword Discovery (keyworddiscovery.com), or Google AdWords's Keyword Tool (adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal). The Google AdWords tool is free, and the website SEOBook.com offers a free, though less robust, version of Wordtracker. Besides showing how many times these phrases are searched on average in a day or month, these tools will suggest other relevant terms. You may learn, for instance, that bicycle parts is a much more popular search term than bicycle components.
Next, run each phrase through Google. The more websites returned, the more competition you will have with that phrase. (In general, Woessner recommends devising terms that generate fewer than one million page hits.)
Finally, divide the number of indexed pages by the number of daily searches. The lower the result, the more promising the term. Ideally, says Woessner, the ratio should be 500 to 1 or less.
Narrow your keywords. If your ratio is higher than 500 to 1, you will probably want to choose narrower or more specific keywords. For example, if you do most of your business locally, you would be smart to add a geographic term to each keyword used on top-level pages. (Bicycle shop becomes bicycle shop Poughkeepsie.) Such a search is less popular, but the competition to win it is much less fierce, so it is likely to generate a better ratio.
There's no need to generate an exhaustive list of phrases. However, because each page of a website has a different focus or objective, each should have its own keywords. The homepage should have the most general terms, and keywords should become more tailored and specific as you burrow deeper into the site.
2. Placing Keywords Strategically
Once you have determined the best keywords to use, you need to employ them strategically, in two places.
In the code. It is the search engine that ultimately associates a keyword with a webpage, and the first place it looks to decipher a page is at the top of the page's coding -- within the so-called head tag that defines the page's overall characteristics. (A webpage's code, of course, isn't normally visible in a browser window; to see it, use the browser's "source" or "page source" command.) Incorporate the keywords you have chosen in the title, description, and keywords tags. These are often called meta tags, and the code often begins with that word.
The title will appear at the top of the user's browser window, and the description is often quoted by search engines, so these should be coherent and concise -- the title should be six to 12 words, according to Bruce Clay, a leading SEO consultant, and the description 12 to 24 words. Your title and description should reinforce each other and the page's visible content. If you have a lot of keywords, choose judiciously, because search engines prize natural-sounding language. You can load all your keywords, even misspelled variants, into the keywords tag field.
In the visible content. Your keywords should appear frequently in the text, as well as in the other elements of a page, including the descriptive "alt" tags that underlie images and in the headlines and subheads atop a section of text. Though there is no agreement among optimizers about how much text a page should include or how frequently keywords should be mentioned, they do agree on this: If people find your copy thoughtful and worth reading, a search engine will, too. Never stuff a page so full of keywords that it doesn't read naturally.
3. Building a Better Website
How your site is organized, designed, and built will affect its search-engine ranking, according to Andy Robson, managing director of the optimizing firm dzine it. Organize content into themed categories, what Clay calls silos. "By lining up your content by the way people search, you define to the search engine what you're about," Clay says. You can either group similar pages together into separate directories of folders and subfolders, or you can create "virtual silos" by using links that guide a user from one page to the next.
Other strategies are more technical, so you may need to rely on a Web developer for assistance. The site must be hosted on a fast server. The page code should be free of bugs and fully comply with the standards for website structure set by the World Wide Web Consortium. (You can test this at validator.w3.org.) Include in the site's code a special protocol known as Sitemap, which makes it easier for visiting search engines to scan the site. Sitemaps can be submitted directly to the search engines.
Once you have optimized your website, you want to attract links from other sites. SEO consultants offer a fairly prosaic strategy: Build a good site with useful content to which other sites will want to send their readers. Here are a few strategies to grease that wheel.
Lend your expertise. Forge partnerships under which other sites can publish your repurposed or original content on the condition that they link back to your site. "Sharing your expertise about the product or the service can differentiate your brand," says Stephen Woessner. "The brand story is what gets somebody to purchase one product over another."
Find out who's linking to your competition. Many of them probably should be linking to you as well. The "links" tool at faganfinder.com/urlinfo reports the inbound links to a website detected by the major search engines. Many of those links will come from directories that are important to your industry or community. There's no sin in requesting a link -- or in trading content for one.
Be choosy about linkers. "You want the best sites, not the most, to link to you," says Bruce Clay. "If an expert links to you, by association you're an expert" (provided the expert is in your subject area). By the same token, avoid link farms, or websites that exist solely to provide outbound links, and services that sell links outright. Search engines, says Clay, will penalize you for the chicanery.
The techniques we have talked about here are often described as ethical, organic, or natural SEO. By contrast, black hat SEO embraces manipulative or deceptive techniques to game the search-engine system. Search engines work hard to keep these techniques from working, so they are seldom effective for long and could even get you blacklisted. Here are several strategies that you are best off avoiding.
Cloaking: Presenting two different versions of the same page, one to search engines and one to users.
Keyword stuffing, or spamming: Loading up the meta tags with popular search terms that have no substantive connection with the page.
Hidden links and keywords: Concealing them in the background color, outside the visible margins, or in other code.
Nobody knows what Google wants better than Google -- visit its pages for webmasters at google.com/support/webmasters.
Consultant Bruce Clay's site, at bruceclay.com, wins a high ranking for its free and helpful information.
SEOmoz.org sells SEO tools but offers stripped-down versions and tutorials for free.